Monday, 29 December 2014

Hell Town

Directors: Steve Balderson, Elizabeth Spear
Writers: Steve Balderson, Elizabeth Spear
Producers: Steve Balderson, Elizabeth Spear
Cast: Krysten Day, Amanda Deibert, Pleasant Gehman
Country: USA
Year of release: 2015
Reviewed from: online screener

For those of us who have been following Steve Balderson’s career, Hell Town is exactly what we have come to expect, in that it is completely unexpected. For starters, it’s a horror film. A black comedy, certainly, but revolving around a serial killer, and some of the deaths are quite unpleasant and gruesome (in a blackly comic sort of way).

Steve’s work has bordered on horror before: Pep Squad was a tale of high school psychopathic murder dark enough to play at genre festivals like Fantasporto (where I saw it, and first met Steve’s producer father Clark). His sophomore work (and magnum opus), the stunning Firecracker certainly contained some disturbingly horrific elements, not least its Browning-ian use of real sideshow freaks. And before Pep Squad Steve even made an amateur, feature-length vampire film. But this is his first full-bodied horror flick.

It’s also a soap opera. Not figuratively or metaphorically but literally. Taking the concept of the three-act structure to its logical conclusion, Steve and co-director Elizabeth Spear have fashioned the story as three consecutive mid-season episodes of a fictitious TV serial, including opening and closing credits (inspired partly by the modern habit of watching TV episodes back to back in a ‘box set’). The acting is deliberately mannered (as is the direction) but not over-the-top or played for laughs. We’re not watching Acorn Antiques here.

The story concerns two families: the Manlys and the Gables. Trish Gable (Krysten Day, a regular at Wamego’s Columbian Theatre) is the perky, peppy blonde prom queen looking to give away her “other virginity” to the right guy. Her bitter, jealous sister Laura is played by BeckiJo Neill in ‘episode 7’ and then recast without explanation from ‘episode 8’ onwards in the person of Jennifer Grace (Marybelle in The Casserole Club), who looks almost nothing at all like her predecessor. Bobby (Blake Cordell) is their slender, effete brother who is not entirely out. Moody emo BJ (Sarah Napier) and their father (Jeff Montague) complete the family. (Montague is missing from the IMDB cast list, possibly because of… well, you can google the guy.)

The Manly boys do their best to live up to their name by wandering around shirtless for much of the film. There’s Blaze Manly (Matt Weight, also co-producer: Ian in Occupying Ed), his brothers Butch (Ben Windholz) and Jesse (Owen Lawless) plus sister Chanel (Amanda Deibert, standing out among a strong cast). Deibert was Tiffany in The Far Flung Star and Lucy in Occupying Ed; she has horror previous including Andrew Muto’s Blood Runs Black and was even in a Creep Creepersin movie! Chanel is Trish Gable’s nemesis and, in a running gag, works in every dining/retail establishment in town. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Steve Balderson joint without a role for Pleasant Gehman and here you get two Plezes for the price of one. She is ‘Mother Manly’, lying comatose on a bed throughout, and also the scheming nurse who cares for her.

Among all the unrequited crushes, backstabbing bitchiness, repressed sexuality, sibling rivalry and general small-town angst, there is the little matter of the ‘Letter Jacket Killer’ who is offing local youngsters in a variety of sadistic ways. Well, I say ‘youngsters’ but in the grand tradition of American movies, all these ‘high school students’ are clearly in their mid-twenties. And within the artificiality of the soap opera conceit, that is exactly as it should be.

The two-headed directorial beast that is Steve and Liz manages proceedings with an acute awareness of both soaps and slashers, never missing a trick for a camera cliché, a hackneyed line of dialogue or an overwrought bit of plotting. It’s a truism that you have to be very good at something in order to effectively lampoon a bad version of that thing without yourself appearing bad, and that’s certainly the case here (the sine qua non of this principle is, in my humble opinion, the Bonzos track ‘Jazz, Delicious Hot, Disgusting Cold' – what do you mean, you’ve never heard it?). Anyway, Steve is of course a hugely talented and experienced film-maker whose career I have been following for the best part of two decades. Elizabeth Spear is a new name to me.

According to the IMDB (and with all the caveats such a phrase implies) she has made seven previous features since 2003, including dramas, comedies, a documentary, a war film; some of them co-directed with other people. It would seem from Hell Town that she meshes well with Steve B. But then a real TV soap would have different directors for different episodes anyway.

I’m no soap-watcher but I do like a nice slice of horror and Hell Town works admirably as a pastiche of the slasher genre, benefitting (I believe) from having been made by somebody who normally works well outside said genre. Far too many ‘slasher comedies’ are lamentably unfunny and self-indulgent: of interest only to obsessive slasher fans, the sort who don’t care about character, only about deaths. By presenting the tale of the Letter Jacket Killer as a slice of soap opera, Steve and Liz foreground the characters. And although some of the minor ones outside of the two main families have little time to register before becoming bloody corpses, we can infer that we would have known them a whole lot better if we had seen Season One and the preceding six episodes of Season Two. (There is an opening caption explaining that the entire first and third seasons on Hell Town have been lost, and I really hope that Steve makes a lot more of this fictitious ‘real story’ behind the series when he starts publicising Hell Town, mainly because there’s so much fun to be had there.)

Jake Jackson supplied the excellent special effects make-up for the various kills. This is his second film gig following a thriller called Erasure; he has also worked on stage productions of Shrek, Young Frankenstein and The Tempest. Nancy Cox provided the regular hair and make-up.

Several of the supporting cast were also in Occupying Ed and The Far Flung Star. Michael Page, Connor Lloyd Crews and Chris Pudlo all receive ‘additional writing’ credits. Cinematographer Daniel G Stephens, who has previously worked with both directors, credited here with ‘special photographic effects’, lights every scene with a TV sensibility that doesn’t detract from the movie experience. And an extra special treat for long-time Balderfans is the return to the fold of the legend that is Betty O, for the first time since Stuck!, here appearing as a TV news reporter. [It has been pointed out to me that, the IMDB notwithstanding, Betty O is in Culture Shock and Occupying Ed. My Betty O Fan Club membership card and badge are hereby shamefully returned... - MJS]

Hell Town is a hoot to watch and gives every impression of having been a hoot to make, which I think is characteristic of Steve’s films in this  part of his career. It’s not quite up there with the wonderful Occupying Ed, partly because the soap opera conceit necessarily robs the film of a layer of sincerity. On the other hand, I much preferred it to Steve’s two lightweight international capers The Far Flung Star and Culture Shock. It’s a real treat to see Steve working within the horror genre and bringing that unique Wamego touch to the tired tropes and corny clichés that we all know and love.

MJS rating: A-

Xtinction: Predator X

Director: Amir Valinia
Writer: Cameron Larsen
Producers: Matt Keith, George M Kostuch, Cameron Larsen
Cast: Elena Lyons, Lochlyn Munro, Mark Sheppard
Country: USA
Year: 2010
Reviewed from: UK DVD

No, it’s not the ninth sequel to Predator. It’s actually a SciFi Channel movie about a giant pliosaur. And it’s not terrible. It’s watchable. And in a world where things like Attack of the Sabretooth get made, that’s quite an achievement.

The inspiration of this film was evidently a palaeological discovery on the Norwegian island of Svalbard in 2009. A handful of pliosaur bones from a previously undescribed species implied that the creature was enormous, about 50m long. Way bigger than any other pliosaur and a contender for the title of most impressive and fierce prehistoric marine reptile of all. Pending full analysis, the animal was dubbed ‘Predator X’.

Oho! (cried the producers of this film) - that sounds like a SciFi Channel monster! And so this feature was quickly bashed out, although for some reason it seems to have initially been broadcast under the title Alligator X(!). The DVD calls it Xtinction: Predator X. I smell studio lawyers, to be honest. Not that the title really matters because what we have here is an off-the-shelf creature feature with some fun performances, crappy but not disgraceful CGI effects, a competent script and occasional moments of directorial flair.

Elena Lyons (Devil’s Prey) stars as Laura, returned from the big city to the Louisiana bayou where her father Pappy runs a swamp tour boat business that’s not doing so great, a situation not helped by the recent disappearance of Pappy himself. Lochlyn Munro (Needful Things, Trancers 4, Scary Movie, Dracula 2000, Freddy vs Jason) is Tim, the local Sheriff who carries a torch for Laura. And British-born Mark Sheppard (Megalodon, Evil Eyes, Supernatural) is Charles, her ex-husband who is some sort of geneticist or palaeontologist or herpetologist or, well, ‘scientist’ of some sort. He was a university professor but was dismissed for unethical practices.

Something big and nasty is swimming in the swamp and it doesn’t take us long to see that it’s a big CGI pliosaur, just as promised on the DVD sleeve. The creature itself is not too bad – and used sparingly – but what lets it down is the way that when it surfaces, splashing around and chomping on folk, there’s not a ripple on the rest of the water.

Lacey Minchew (Wolfesbayne and a 2009 version of The Dunwich Horror) and Gabe Begneaud (Ghostquake) are Mandy and Matt, a young couple who are Laura’s only customers; he’s a marine about to ship out who wants to propose to his girlfriend as the sun sets over the swamp. Rapper Pall Wall is Froggy, Laura’s less than competent mechanic, while Caleb Michaelson (director and star of Supernatural Swamp Slaughter!) is Tim’s brother Henry, a wet-behind-the-ears deputy. But the main bad guys are the Boudreaux Brothers: weaselly Barry (Ricky Wayne: House of Bones, Monsterwolf, Flying Monkeys, Mosquito Man and a 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown) and hulking, slow Larry (Scott L Schwartz: Shock ‘Em Dead, Centurion Force, The Scorpion King and Hagrid in a very unofficial thing called Harry Potter in the Hood!). They’re the ones feeding the beast on unlucky passers-by, but who are they working for, eh? I wonder which of our main cast could have the scientific knowledge to somehow recreate a huge, prehistoric reptile…

Quite how this scientific miracle has been achieved is glossed over. The crux of the plot is that the bad guy wants to buy the area of swamp owned by Pappy because the brackish water there is sufficiently saline for the marine creature to live. There is some discussion of how osmosis works but it’s all moot of course because the beast is quite clearly happily swimming about all over the place. And it has a nest with eggs, presumably created through parthenogenesis, which will hatch out and destroy everything, except that the nest is swiftly forgotten anyway.

The meat of the movie is Laura and Mandy escaping from, then being pursued by, Barry Boudreaux who is a surprisingly effective and nasty psycho character and certainly more interesting than the real villain. This part of the film has the advantage of featuring relatively little of the dodgy CGI creature and features some real tension as the two women, tied to chairs, attempt to extricate themselves by either physical or psychological means.

Along the way, some characters we really care about get hurt or even killed and there are just enough touches of directorial style, little bits of roving camera-work for example, to show that at least some of the people involved cared about what they were making. The denouement, however, is literally out of nowhere as a previously unseen character suddenly saves the day.

Multiple members of the cast have also been in Journey to Promethea, Terror Trap, Flesh Wounds and a 2012 version of Mysterious Island. Scriptwriter Cameron Larsen shares story credit with producer George M Kostuch, actor Caleb Michaelson and, somewhat delightfully, costume designer Claire Sanchez. More horror films written by costume designers, that’s what the world needs. Larsen also wrote the enjoyable and under-rated Sand Sharks as well as the aforementioned umpteenth version of Mysterious Island.

Director Amir Valinia’s other credits include another X-film, Outbreak X (aka Mutants) plus Dream Home and Carnivorous aka Lockjaw: Rise of the Kulev Serpent. He also directs music videos and hiphop themed pictures like Da Block Party.

The visual effects were handled by Scott Wheeler’s company Rogue State; Wheeler’s other credits include Avalanche Sharks, Sand Sharks, Dragon Wasps, Poseidon Rex, Boa vs Python and a bunch of The Asylum titles including Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus and Mega-Piranha. Cinematographer John Lands must get fed up with being mistaken for John Landis; editor Christian McIntire worked on the likes of Velocity Trap and Darkdrive back in the 1990s; production designer Robert W Savina started out on sex comedy All-American Orgy; and composer Kenneth Hampton has gone on to score such modern-day classics as Vampires: Rise of the Fallen, Moon Creek Cemetery, Diary of a Serial Killer, Blood Redd, The American Werewolf Project, Lazarus Rising and Cannibal Zombie.

We’ve all seen a lot worse than Xtinction: Predator X (which is also aka Jurassic Predator!). It’s a reasonable way to pass 80-odd minutes and won’t make you shout at the screen or bang your head on the wall. Ironically, the real Predator X, or Pliosaurus funkei, turned out to be smaller than expected, although still quite large.

MJS rating: B-

Monday, 22 December 2014

interview: Terry Pratchett

In the very, very early days of SFX, it was obvious that we needed to run a big interview with Terry Pratchett. Partly because he was the biggest-selling, most iconic name in not just genre fiction but British fiction generally; partly because I already knew Terry well through my involvement with the fan group Octarine, and it didn't hurt that he lived just up the road from Bath. Terry came to the SFX offices on 30th October 1995 and we had a long chat about Discworld, the universe and everything, starting with the latest novel which was Maskerade. This interview was published in issue 7, the one with the Pierce Brosnan cover. Nineteen years later, as a Christmas treat (and to celebrate Dirk Maggs' Radio 4 version of Good Omens), here is the full transcript including a bunch of stuff that never appeared in print.

How familiar are you with the other versions of Phantom of the Opera?
“Very, I would say. I read the book, I saw the first movie, I've been to the musical, I've seen some of the other movies, including some of the weird things like Phantom of the Paradise. Actually, there's other Phantom of the Opera books. The thing's effectively become public domain. I was actually quite impressed that Lloyd Webber's musical has some vague relationship to the original book. It was based on the original book rather than the movie, which rather surprised me.”

How familiar are you expecting the readers to be with the original story?
“Oh come on. I thought that by and large, everybody vaguely knows about Phantom of  the Opera. It's sort of public domain brain-fodder. This guy, in a mask, running round in an opera house, killing people. They might know more than that. The Phantom is now a stock horror player. You simply cannot open a book about the history of horror film without seeing that shot from the original film of the Phantom as the skeleton, the Masque of the Red Death. That is one of the classic images. Beyond that, I don't think it matters. I haven't used the Phantom of the Opera plot, I've used a plot which would have been the Phantom of the Opera plot had it gone the other way, had Granny Weatherwax not started to interfere, had the two girls not swapped rooms, and things like that.”

It came across to me as a very theatrical book. Was that because it was a theatrical story, or knowing that it was going to be adapted for the stage?
“Oh no! with no offence to Stephen [Briggs]'s upcoming production, I didn't think: 'Gosh! There's going to be an amateur production of this!' I actually wanted it to be claustrophobic. I wanted to set it as much as possible in the one building. Because I have gone backstage at opera houses, and I talked to people, and the whole thing has a very enclosed, hot-house atmosphere. Everyone's on edge all the time. Opera consists of 150 people almost going mad. Of course, they shouldn't go mad, but in order to get that whole thing done a lot of people have to be very, very on edge, that's what I mean.”

Did you a develop an interest in opera, then think it would make a good book?
“Well, yes I had an interest in opera. I like opera as music, I don't like opera as stage. I know it's not as bad as it used to be,but I think that the acting, which is usually not that good, gets in the way. However, I think there's probably a difference between opera as we think of it now and late Victorian opera, especially as they did it at the Paris Opera House: 'Can we have one with two elephants, fifteen horses, fireworks, a complete volcanic explosion, and the destruction of an entire city?' It got to the point where it was special effects that they were after all the time. And all the men made certain they turned up by the third act because that always started with the ballet, and you could look at the actresses' ankles.”

How much control do you keep over Discworld spin-offs, such as the maps, the Clarecraft figures, and so on?
“I think it's fairly true to say I have absolute control, but you have to give people some leeway. For example, with Clarecraft I get to see the things while they're still in the roughs, as they call them. They send me a photo. And the rule that I go by is: can I prove it wrong, according to the book? So if someone is described as tall and they've done him short, that's wrong. But if someone's not described as any particular height and they decide he is a short person or a tall person, then I say that's fair enough, that's what they've extrapolated from the book. There have been little changes over the years.”

Do you keep a taste- or quality-control over it? What if somebody wanted to do Corporal Carrot boxer shorts?
“Well, let's see what is out now. People think there's a lot of spin-offs, and yet... There's a lot of spin-offs, considering that what we have here is almost entirely a book-based phenomenon. There's the Clarecraft models, and making allowance for the fact that the modellers have got to be allowed to do their own thing, I think I've got a lot of control there. The T-shirt/Unseen University scarf/holy anorak bit is really something that Stephen more or less does out of a kind of grown-up fannishness. I think he makes the odd bob or two out of it, although to be frank I thought if he actually worked out the storage costs, heating and lighting, he wouldn't be making a profit at all. I keep a fair grip on that. Then there's the Discworld game - I had a lot of involvement in the look and feel of that. There's some jigsaw puzzles coming out - one of them's of the map, and some of the Josh Kirby covers.

"There comes point where, supposing Josh said to me, 'I want to turn the covers into posters'. My view is: he's self-employed just like me - I'm not going to stop him making a dollar. They're nice covers, let him do it. I think the key thing is that the books have made me a load of money, so I don't actually need money from spin-offs. If someone wanted to do Corporal Carrot boxer shorts, it would be up to me to decide whether Corporal Carrot boxer shorts was what I'd like to see the world wearing. But I don't actually have to do it because of the money. Besides, you know what fans are like. So for example, the Unseen University scarf is a genuine university scarf. The colours are right, the coat of arms is right, it's done by people that do university scarves. There's got to be a big quality control feel to the whole thing because in a slightly different world, sometimes it seems that you can sell Trekkies practically anything."

Well, you can.
“Serious Trekkies are not going to buy a particular uniform unless the colour is pretty damn close on the Pantone scale to the original. So the people that will buy merchandising want and deserve more than just a piece of plastic from Hong Kong with the word 'Discworld' hastily painted on it. Have you noticed that they seem to have generic kids' lunchboxes which they probably stamp in their millions: oh, and now we put the Mutant Ninja Turtles sticker on; oh dear, alright, put the Power Rangers sticker on; the Batman sticker. It doesn't matter.That's what people are thinking about when they talk about merchandising.”

What news of the mooted Discworld film?
“There's a number of people out there with a finger-tip grip on some kind of Discworld, which is to say they've got options. Getting an option these days means giving someone threepence and then rushing off into the weeds shouting, 'Can anyone give us some money?' So there are a number of possibilities and lots of people talk to other people, and I just assume that nothing's ever going to happen, which is a pretty reasonable approach to take. Granada for example want to do Guards! Guards! and Men at Arms, and at the moment are looking for a good script. Cosgrove Hall would like to do, as it were, the Death Trilogy - Mort, Reaper Man and Soul Music - and they've actually gone as far as doing some specimen bits which I've seen and liked. But to some extent I hear it and I nod and I smile, and I just don't assume that anything's going to happen.

"The yardstick I use in this is that Hitch-Hiker's went multimedia very, very quickly - a film hasn't been made of that. Periodically a film is 'going to be made' and there's lots of speculation about who's going to do it, and then it sinks back into the pool again. With all that that has going for it, that hasn't made it to a film. Because sooner or later what generally happens, the ones I've been talking about here are all UK-based, where people tend to be rather higher up the food chain than they are in Hollywood. So you know that when you get an American approach, sooner or later it's going to run up against some total bastard who would have difficulty understanding that the sun comes up every day, let alone a slightly tricker concept.”

We're expecting someone to say 'We really like this Mort book. can you take Death out of it?'.
“Oh, that's already happened. They wanted Mort without Death in it. Then it went, 'Okay, we understand Death's got to be in it, but he ought to be a bad guy.' The curious thing is that 'The American public won't accept Death as an amusing, sympathetic character' was said to me about two years before Bill and Ted was made, which just shows that 'in movies no-one knows anything'. William Goldman said that.”

How pleased were you with the radio versions that have been done?
“The BBC has a big problem with fantasy, and the two radio versions that have been done recently are two ways of doing it wrong. One is to say, 'Ah, this is supposed to be funny fantasy so let's do it for laughs all the way through', and the other one is to take it so seriously that they can't loosen up. Wyrd Sisters started out okay, and then I kept shouting at them: 'You have to have a narrator.'

I spoke to the producer and she said she spoke to you occasionally and you told her, 'Make sure you don't have a narrator.'
“I think there's some confusion there. I think the key thing is that both of them suffered because they didn't have enough time. They cut quite intricate plots so that everything was rushed. I don't know. They were valiant attempts. Of course, it's the BBC. Finnish radio did a one-episode version of Reaper Man - they just used the Bill Door plot - and I think they paid me more than the BBC paid for Guards! Guards!!”

Finnish radio also not only translated all twelve episodes of Hitch-Hiker's, but they adapted books three and four too!
“I get the impression that there's only three people in Finnish radio, but they're really great guys. Because, as often is the case in Scandinavian countries, they're desperate to protect their own language against the in-roads of American and English. I suspect there's three of four guys with a shitload of money, and they're having the time of their life doing whatever they want to do.”

Most of the Discworld books stand alone. Are you tempted to put some sort of ongoing story in there?
“Well, they are stand alone. They're a series of linked individual books. For example, Words in the Head is the working title of the next one [Which of course became Feet of Clay - MJS], and that's got the Guards in again. So to some extent it's helpful if you've read the other books about the City Watch, but equally because what we're dealing with here is stereotypes of policemen anyway, it's fairly easy I think to get up to speed. I thought it's the height of bad manners to take a tenner off somebody, only to get to the end and there's some guy hanging off the edge of a cliff, and you have to buy Book Two in The Chronicles of Whoever It Is in order to find out what happens next. The books have to be complete in themselves.

"For example in the one I've just finished: I started off with the Guards as three total degenerates, then they started getting extra staff in Men at Arms, and now there's almost a complete Watch, which is fun because there's different police procedural clichés. You know that every Hollywood police movie always has the crowded scene in the station house. There's people bringing whores in, and there's people complaining, and there's a fight going off. The fantasy version of that has people bringing trolls in, and drug busts and all the rest of it.”

Do you think, 'I haven't done a Guards one for a bit, let's do a Guards one'?
“You're beginning to get into the whole alchemy of how a book actually works. The next one, which I'm going to start in a couple of weeks, is probably going to be Rincewind in Australia [That would be The Last Continent - MJS]. The nice thing about the Rincewind ones is: the other ones - I have to admit this - tend to get a bit literate at times. There's actually some serious writing there. So it was actually quite refreshing with Interesting Times to be back with Rincewind and Cohen the Barbarian. I just had a lot of fun with Interesting Times. I think it's a much better written book than, say, The Colour of Magic or The Light Fantastic. Rincewind's still there, running around, but at least he's grown up a bit.

I must admit I was rather disappointed with Interesting Times.
“If you can get hold of it, get the Isis unabridged talking book, read by Nigel Planer. It's absolutely superb, it really is. He gets all the voices absolutely right, especially Cohen's Silver Hoard. I laughed at it and I wrote it! The nice thing about the Rincewind in Australia one is that there's a whole slew of Australian stuff that I can work in that we all know: Mad Max, Tank Girl...”

“Oh, good heavens, yes! Even stuff that you don't know so well, but might have heard of, like The Man from Snowy River, and all those things you can vaguely remember about Aborigines. And I can get the wizards vaguely involved. I can have a lot of fun with it.”

Every long-running series eventually says, 'Let's do the Australian one.'
“It's a separate creation, it really is. That's why the whole continent fascinates me, and I go there at least once a year. I think since 1990 I've been to Australia more times than I've been to Glasgow! It would be wrong to say I have an idea. It's like the old creation of the planets. Various ideas actually gravitate together, and you think, 'That's a bit of a story there'. Actually, it's just like running a movie studio in the golden days of Hollywood: you've got a lot of stars under contract, a good script comes in, so you think: 'Well, is this one for so-and-so or is it for so-and-so?' Is this a Guards one, or is it a Granny Weatherwax one, or is it a Rincewind one? Or is it one which needs a complete new cast? Once I've decided that, that defines things further. The bits I enjoyed most in Maskerade are Granny Weatherwax playing cards with Death, and the bit where Granny Weatherwax catches the sword, which in a sense have got nothing to do with the plot, but were such good fun to write.”

My favourie moment is the crowd chasing the Phantom onto the roof, which has a very visual gag.
“Yes. I think of them visually, and probably Maskerade more so than with any of the others. I have a suspicion that I may actually be a bit of a thespian, but one keeps quiet about it. You can get medication.”

Going back ten years or so, Discworld seemed to come out of Strata.
“Well, no it didn't. Strata was a science fiction use of the same geography, but that's all it was. there is no link between Discworld and Strata, except at the most superficial level, which after all is a mythological idea. I used it once in a science fiction idea and once in a fantasy idea, and the fantasy idea caught my imagination. There's no other link. The Colour of Magic was first published in Autumn 1983, because we had the Ten Years of Discworld Piss-up the November before last.”

Moving further back, your first book was The Carpet People, Why did you start with a children's book?
“Was it a children's book? I think what I'm saying is, for example, was The Wizard of Oz a children's book? Are the Moomintroll books children's books? I think when you're talking about fantasy, you're in an area where definitions which you feel quite confident about in other genres tend to
break down. Fantasy to some extent is uni-age. Truckers was marketed as a children's book. These days you cannot write a book about six-inch high people without it being a children's book by definition. Jonathan Swift eat your heart out. I just did it because  that seemed to be the best treatment for the idea.”

When Carpet People was republished it was fairly heavily re-written. Why Carpet People, and why were you happy enough with Strata and Dark Side of the Sun?
“I think the difference is: the real Carpet People I started when I was 17. I'm not wholly happy with Dark Side and Strata. It was really a fairly arbitrary choice because people were saying to me, 'We'll republish Carpet People.' That's what it is - it's a republished book. So I said no because I didn't think it was of a standard that I would like to be associated with now. The other two, I thought, 'Fair enough, they'd be better if I did them now, but they're okay.' By the same token I could say, 'Well, Colour of Magic is a bit old by now. I could definitely buff that up a bit.' Sooner or later you have to say, 'What the hell'. That was it; it got published. But I could see too many missed opportunities in Carpet People, so I went back and did all the writing. It didn't take an incredible amount of time.”

Are you alarmed at the exorbitant collector's prices charged for your early work?
“I read your article [Published in Book and Magazine Collector - MJS]. I'm sure I read somewhere that a particular version of Light Fantastic would be worth £750 if it ever came on the market. I don't see any of that. I find it all kind of amusing. It's a bit embarrassing when you're in a signing queue sometimes, and you see one which has clearly been liberated from a public library. There was a spate of that a few years back. But it's occasionally nice. In America, somebody gave me a mint condition Carpet People to sign: 'Can you sign it to Cuddly Bunny and Snoopikins?' And I said, 'Just before I do this, have you any idea how much this is worth?' They said, 'No' so I told them and they said, 'In that case, could you just do a signature and a date?'!

"I sometimes wonder if Colin [Smythe, Terry's agent - MJS] hasn't got a secret stash in a big warehouse: two thousand of them, let them out onto the market a few at a time, but no, he hasn't. Both of us have exhausted our supplies. Normally you get six copies of a book, and then every member of the family demands a free copy. I gave away all my copies of The Carpet People; I think I've got one somewhere. I think the same happened with Colin. The real rare ones to get, and I doubt if there's more than eight or nine, are the ones that I hand-coloured. God knows what they'd be worth.”

You were illustrating your early books. There was a certain ATom influence, I thought.
“They had a certain charm. ATom? Arthur Thompson? I suppose so. All I can remember about ATom is his spaceships. He used to do these rather strange, droopy, Concorde-y spaceships.”

The oddest of the books that you've done is The Unadulterated Cat. Where did that come from?
“It's very simple. My publisher said, 'Look, sooner or later every author has to do a funny cat book. You might as well do it now and get it over with.' You're not allowed out until you've done your funny cat book.”

You've only done a handful of short stories. Are you not happy with the medium?
“A 5,000 word short story, compared to an 85,000 word novel, probably takes up about a fifth to a quarter of the intellectual effort. Short stories are hard. Short stories aren't something that you knock off because you can't do anything else. Short stories are an art form in their own right. I can think in very short stories, I can think in 150 words, no problem. Or I can probably think in about 20,000 words. But I find it very hard to think in terms of short stories. You could argue in fact that a lot of the Discworld books have got all kinds of short stories intermingled with the main plot.”

Since Discworld book was created, the only adult fiction you've done is Good Omens. Don't you ever get an urge to do something that isn't Discworld?
“I think in a sense, because Discworld is so flexible - I can do a police procedural if I want, I can do a variant of Phantom of the Opera - there are so many things I can do in this world, that it's like moving to a reasonably large house and I haven't filled up all the cupboards yet. It's still big enough for me to do most of the things I want to do. But I can see where it's getting a bit cramped, and I think before too long I will be doing something different as well as Discworld. That will probably be fantasy.”

Can you ever see Discworld stopping?
“I can't ever see there being something called 'The last Discworld book'. There'd be something dreadfully final about doing a 'last Discworld book'.”

I remember time was when you could just go along to parties; now you have to look on your computer to see if you can squeeze in an interview. Is your time not your own any more?
“It's more my own than most people's time is their own. Most people are nine to five, one way or the other, so that time is not their own. So compared to most people, more of my time belongs to me. Equally, bearing in mind I do a job where you'd think that all my time is my own, there does seem to be a very large amount of it which does get filled up.”

I'm wondering how it's changed over the years.
“That's actually fairly sad, that sooner or later something gives. It's a little unfortunate that free time actually has to become a diary item. like 'on holiday' and you put it down and that's 'on holiday'. Because work is curiously beguiling. You're sitting there at your desk, and you're in your own time, and the next thing you know you're tapping away at the keyboard because 'and why not'? Then you're working. And then there's some mail that needs answering, and what the hell? It's a Sunday morning, and you've got nothing to do - you might as well answer the mail. But I'm enjoying myself and the money's good and the conditions are okay. I think the thing you have to remember is that there's no filter. When you start off as a writer, you're piss-poor, not making much money out of it. And hopefully you make more and do well. There's guys I know that do well out of it and don't have to really.

"But if you become successful you suddenly get the whole lot hit you in the face. Compared to people like Frederick Forsyth or Tom Clancy, I'm still grubbing around on the floor for ha'pennies. But when you get that big, you just buy a small island somewhere and shut yourself off. You do get lots and lots of calls on your time and they tend to be international things. I think what brought it home to me was a few years ago when for the third time in two months I was in a cab going to Manhattan. I was siting there thinking: 'Five years ago, just the thought of cabbing into Manhattan would have really excited me, and I want to go home. I'd really rather not be doing this.' I think the thing is that there are aspects of it which can get a bit tiresome, but at the back of your mind there's the thought that there are a thousand people out there who would rip off their left arm to be in the same position. So for God's sake you don't moan about it. You get on with it and consider yourself to be bloody lucky to be where you are.

"I have the same thing with mail. Everything says that I really ought to have a proper secretarial office to deal with it, because the mail is just getting over the top. But you know they wouldn't do it right. You're kind of defrauding people if you do that. At the moment I still manage to answer the mail. I get all these snooty letters saying, 'Dear Mr Pratchett, I know you won't read this letter...' Yes I did! I read the whole bloody letter, I really did!”

What about the loonies?
“The publishers are under orders not to filter, and curiously enough, as I understand it, my mail - believe it or not - seems to be comparatively sane. I get the occasional one in green ink on mauve paper, spiralling towards the middle. Slightly more frequent are the ones written by people who believe that legibility, grammar and punctuation happen to other people and are a bourgeois plot. But compared to what 'straight authors' get, my mail appears to be Sanity Hall. I don't find myself a recipient of strange requests and mysterious packages.”

You're the best-selling living author that Waterstones have got on their shelves, apparently.
“I have to say, I don't know if that's hype. I hear these things. I actually realise what hype now is. Hype isn't things that book publishers say. Because publishers say that about everybody. Every book they publish: 'this book is absolutely superb'. Hype happens when stuff starts to generate itself spontaneously. So you hear things like: 'a fifth of all the SF and fantasy books Smiths sell are Pratchett books'. I thought, 'That's nice'. Later on I heard: 'a fifth of all the books Smiths sell are Pratchett books'. I said, 'No, that can't be right'. And you hear these things about Waterstones' best-selling living author. All these claims aren't being made by me. I'm just sitting there, writing this stuff out, putting it in the post, and suddenly finding this is happening.”

Even when the critics like your stuff, they seem to start off by apologising.
“Well, yes. I've gone through all kinds of reactions. The classic thing is: 'Have you ever wanted to be a serious writer?' I never say, 'Look, some guy has paid fifteen quid or whatever for a book, and that's as serious as it gets.' They've given you some of their money, and as an old journalist, I think that makes it reasonably serious. There is snobbery about SF and fantasy as a genre. You can tell. When mainstream writers ocasionally dabble with SF, both they and their friends fall over themselves to declare that it's not SF. PD James has done it, and Robert Harris. I didn't like Fatherland very much: Oh dear, the Third Reich now rules the world and it has a  guilty secret. I wonder what that could be?”

And didn't Philip K Dick do that years ago?
“Yes, lots of people have, and that doesn't actually matter. Because within SF and fantasy it's all incestuous. Everyone is picking up things that other people have done and taking them a step further, doing it a different way, because that's how it goes. No-one has a copyright on galactic empires or Martian colonies. It has seemed to me that those people like JG Ballard or Iain Banks tend to suffer as a result. I suspect that people tend to walk around Iain rather cautiously because he is known to write SF, which is actually good SF, and he's pleased to admit it's SF. And JG Ballard I'll swear didn't get the Booker for Empire of the Sun because he was thought a little bit 'not one of us' because of all that SF. But when it comes down to it I don't think I could ever be a Booker contender because I was a well brought-up boy and my mother told me never to write a sentence with more than two 'fuck's in it.”

Let me put it to you, Mr Pratchett, that you are in fact a complete amateur who hasn't a clue and doesn't even write in chapters. [A reference to an infamous review by Tom Paulin on The Late Show - MJS]
“Correct. Absolutely. I am actually amateur, ie. I actually do it for the sheer enjoyment. I haven't a clue - that's absolutely correct - I don't know how it's done. But I will say the guy who walks the tightrope hasn't a clue how he walks a tightrope. He can't tell you how you do it, because it's the way you move muscles, and he doesn't even know what the damn muscles are called. But if you show him a tightrope, he'll walk across it. I could do a How to Construct a Discworld Book manual. There's a tool-box of approaches that you can use, and most of them are common to any writer. But none of us know how we do it. It's only afterwards when people like you ask us that we have to come out with all the stuff, but at the time, you're just sitting there staring at the screen or the paper, thinking: 'Now what do I do?'“

I noticed that the quote from The Late Show is the first quote in the Interesting Times paperback.
“I absolutely insisted. The guy who said that was a poet for God's sake!”

Does his poetry rhyme?
“No. It doesn't go 'ti-tum, ti-tum, ti-tum' either. I found some of it."

You've just finished this book. You're starting the next one next week. Aren't you going to have a bit of a breather inbetween? How are you going to start a book when you're doing a signing tour?
“I've got a portable computer. The serious writing of another book won't start for another month at least. The first third of a book is great fun, because you've got your basic idea, you've got the basic shape in your mind. You just plough along, having a lot of fun, getting your characters sorted out. The middle third of working it is second draft stuff, when you're getting on with loads of stuff, you're really making the thing operate as a book. It's like making a sculpture out of clay: you can bang the clay together, get the basic shape, then you have to prod around. The last third, while it's enjoyable, is editing: re-write and edit and chop out and edit and add and edit and put in this bit here, where you had said, 'That'll be a dull bit, got to get them from A to B, I can leave that till later.'

"So the last couple of months, as it were, you have spare cranial capacity lying idle because the book actually exists. All you're doing now is sanding it down and finishing it off. And so, at the back of your mind, the basic creative thing is saying: 'Our department's shut down now. We've got the book down the slipway.' And before I know where I am, I'm doodling another one. In fact there are two books I started some time ago and I stopped because I thought, 'Well, I'm just writing this and I haven't got any idea what happens.' Now, in both cases, I know what happens! I've got 17,500 words there - that's a good start!"

Maskerade sort of moves Discworld into the 'classic horror' genre. Do you think fantasy fans who read sword and sorcery novels will get all the references?
"What you're wearing is a Bride of Frankenstein T-shirt. Most people that read SFX have never seen the original Bride of Frankenstein, but they all recognise the whole thing, the hair, because these things have entered the public domain consciousness. And I think the Phantom has gone pretty much the same way.”

I'm waiting for you to do the Discworld Frankenstein.
“Harder to do. I've done the Golem. This is what Words In The Head's about. Curiously enough, a few months ago I was in Prague and I went along to the old synagogue where, according to legend the Golem still lies in the attic. You see the Golem is not a Frankenstein, not precisely. Only in the sense that people meddle with things which they get wrong. The Golem is far more interesting than the Frankenstein legend. Golems are a major feature of the plot of the next book.”

What's your opinion of modern horror movies?
"Well, I remember being told that Lon Chaney's Phantom was really scary, and what is it? It's a chap with a bit of pale make-up on going ...”

Some of his make-up was pretty bloody impressive, to be fair.
“Well, yes, but scary? I don't think so. If you took those people and said, 'In films in the '90s realistic dismemberment will be a commonplace element.'... I saw Under Siege 2; there was a guy having his fingers chopped off by the sliding door of a helicopter. This isn't even designed to be a horror movie. You realise that things have gradually happened and now people accept a whole lot of different things and we are living in a science fiction world. I wonder how Star Wars would go down. Curiously enough the Victorian times would be better for showing a lot of these things than some of the later ones. Star Wars might go down better in 1895 than it would in 1925. Everything was being done by the miracle of the electric fluid. You could get away with the electric fluid in those days."

Reading Interesting Times, there's bit of The Seven Samurai in there.
“One of the things that kicked off Interesting Times was a picture of the Terracotta Army. A long-time science fiction reader just can't see a picture like that without automatically thinking that someone there's a button that you press and they all stand to attention. It just seemed such an obvious thing to do, and everything wound its way backwards from that. At some point during the development I think I'd been playing Lemmings and the two just sort of naturally came together.”

I may be presuming a certain egotism here, but I noticed that the sumo wrestlers in Interesting Times are called 'tsimo' wrestlers. [My nickname in SF fandom is 'Simo', and Terry once attended a convention where I oversaw a sumo wrestling bout - MJS]
“Just purely coincidental, but I think at the Discworld Convention next year they're going to have sumo wrestling, because I said it's a great thing to have at a convention."

[When SFX interviewed authors we always asked them for comments on some of their specific books, so the following was printed as a page headed 'Pratchett on Pratchett'. - MJS]

The Carpet People
"Carpet People first edition, I think I was seriously under the influence of Tolkien, but I can detect the occasional spark of originality."

The Dark Side of the Sun
"I had a lot of fun with Dark Side. I didn't really know when I started out what I was going to do. I remember having a lot of fun writing it."

"Strata is one of the few books of mine that I can re-read quite happily, without thinking, 'Oh, I want to change this and want to do that'. I would do it differently now. Quite deliberately, I wanted to do a pastiche of Ringworld, and David Gerrold complimented me. He said there were some parts of it that read as if Larry Niven had written them. Larry Niven said he actually enjoyed it too. Because Niven heroes tend to be very competent, I wanted to get some people who certainly would act and think they were confident, but basically whose idea of 'How do you communicate with somebody when you don't know their language?' is 'Beat them up until you get them to understand!'. I enjoyed doing it."

The Colour of Magic
"Hard to remember how I felt when I was doing that. At that time, as far as I was concerned, Discworld was just a handy background against which I could poke fun at some of the over-ripe clichés of fantasy, and I didn't have any thought of it as a coherent world in its own right."

"By the time I'd got to Mort, I'd discovered the joy of plot. In many ways, Mort was one of the easiest to write. The story just started itself on page one and went all the way through to the end. I knew exactly how it was going to end. I think if I did it again, it would be better now, but it was very fresh. It was the first time I used Death as a main character. I look back on those books as almost a golden age from a writing point of view because by now there's a lot of Discworld history and geography that I have to take on board, but back in the time of Mort I was still painting with a big brush."

Wyrd Sisters
"I did Wyrd Sisters because I wanted to go in a slightly different direction. I literally started Wyrd Sisters the same night that I finished the previous book, which was Sourcery. I just did the joke - 'When shall we three meet again?' - and that really played on my mind. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with Wyrd Sisters until I was about halfway through the first draft. It was very enjoyable to work with effectively an all-female cast. I realised there was a whole new dimension there that was new to me."

Eric was really almost commissioned by Gollancz as a vehicle for Josh Kirby to illustrate. Could I do a 40,000 word novella, or novelette, or novelino, or whatever they're called? So I thought, 'Well, on that basis we're not talking about a major plot structure here. We're talking about Rincewind.' And I thought that loosely basing it on the Faust myth would give me a lot of opportunities and there'd be lots and lots of interesting things for Josh to draw. It was as simple as that. I always find it embarrassing that it's now a fully fledged Discworld novel and it's only about 40,000 words long. Originally it had all these colour illustrations.”

And what an intelligent and good-looking hero it's got. [The eponymous hero of Eric looks a lot like I did back then, although I never met Josh Kirby - MJS]
“Yes! Then they said they'd like to bring it out without the illustrations and I said, 'You're daft, no-one will buy it.' I think it sold 100,000 very quickly."

Good Omens
"A lot of fun. We did it as a summer job. It took us somewhere like six weeks to do the first draft, six months to do the second draft, because that included explaining the jokes to the American editor. It was the first book that I have been associated with that was ever auctioned. If that hadn't been the case, I may still have been saying, 'Hi, Mr Gollancz, here's a book. Can I have half a crown please?' It was auctioned after we'd written it. It didn't come under the Gollancz contract because it was a joint book. I was still doing a six-book contract, and while the six-book contract had given me financial independence, what looked like an incredibly good deal when I was about to start the first book, wasn't quite such a good deal at the end, when the perceived value of the Discworld name was that much higher.

"So Good Omens went out to auction, and when the bid went over six figures and was still going up merrily, I must confess I was starting to get quite nervous. We both talked about doing a sequel, then we both realised that the other guy didn't want to do a sequel. It was a great relief to find that we quite enjoyed doing it once and we didn't want to do it again. Which was the best decision we ever made because the sequel that we never wrote would of course be a lot better than any sequel we did write. It's actually quite refreshing that sometimes you just do a book and that's it. You don't have to do a sequel. It's not like the film industry."

Reaper Man
"Reaper Man's a bit of a mess. I think quite an enjoyable mess but I ran two plots together. I had the comparatively serious Bill Door subplot, and then the jolly Windle Poons subplot which is full of wizards running around, and the things occasionally met where they touched. There were lots of bits in it that I really enjoyed, but really Reaper Man was two novels compressed into one."

Soul Music
"Soul Music exorcised a lot of rock'n'roll ghosts. You would have to be fairly good and have a sort of crossword puzzle mentality to spot every single rock'n'roll lyric that's disguised in the text. But that was one where the plot shape is almost forced on you. As soon as you come up with the idea, which is not a particularly difficult one, that rock'n'roll is, as it were, a living thing and will try and snare you in a devil's bargain. There's a lovely line in a song by the group Icehouse: 'Let those horses loose again / Come on, let's make a deal / Your name in lights, just like Jimmy Dean / Live and die behind the wheel.' It's funny how James Dean is always this rock'n'roll hero, given the fact that he never made a record, got involved with some rather embarrassing teen movie, and had the good fortune to run smack into someone called Donald Turnupseed. This guy went down in history as the guy that James Dean's car ploughed into. So the plot was forced on it, and I just thought it would be nice to try almost a female version of Death. Make a genuine human being do the Death job and make her female. But that's one where a structure was more or less forced on me by the nature of the plot."

"Difficult because that's one of the newest ones and the most on my mind. I always distrusted the Phantom of the Opera musical, long before I'd ever seen it. I thought, 'Hang on a minute, this guy has just killed two quite innocent people and yet he's a romantic hero. String him up!' They knew what to do with old Lon Chaney - beat him up and throw him into the river. I distrusted it a bit because it seemed to be saying that with enough style you could get away with anything. That's why I dislike the cult of the modern vampire novel. I don't really care if vampires are agonised, romantic heroes. Cut their head off and fill the hole with garlic, that's what you do with vampires! We're talking here of a species that thinks of humanity as sort of walking cattle, as a load of potential empties. I get very angry when I think that style can really take the place of morality. Out of that anger I thought, 'Well, let's try retelling the Phantom tale.'

"I don't know whether you spotted this, but you may have noticed a certain superficial resemblance between Walter Plinge and the character that Michael Crawford used to play. That's a little joke for the buffs, although he's a much more tragic character than Frank Spencer. I didn't make that stuff up about Walter Plinge, that's all true. 'Walter Plinge' is a theatrical version of 'AN Other'. This is one for all the people on that go through all the books looking for every reference. I just wanted to retell the books slightly. It always seemed to me that there are the people with the style that get away with it, and there are the poor pedestrian sods who get the shit. I just like to retell the story to let the poor downtrodden sods occasionally win in the end. The other thing is that quite genuinely the world of opera is such an introverted one. When you get someone like Granny Weatherwax involved who will just have no truck with any of that kind of thing, you just know I'm going to have a lot of fun."

If someone had never read one of your books, where would you recommend that they start?
"It depends. If I met the person, I would be able to make a specific diagnosis, but curiously enough, I wouldn't necessarily say the first book. I think Mort's a good one to start with because it's very easy to get. Mort is close to the film equivalent of a high concept."

What are your views on fandom in general, and Discworld fandom in particular?
"I used to think that you go along to say a Star Trek convention, and you see someone who is definitely a 'Person of Girth', an 'Individual of Gravity', and there they are in their Star Trek uniform. I used to think, 'God, this is sad,' and now I think, 'What the hell, anyway!' Anyone can redesign themselves if they want to, if they think they can carry it off. If they want to change their name or if they want to have artificially implanted incisors, which is now all the rage apparently: great. They're not hurting anyone else, they're not making offensive smells, they're not frightening the horses, to use the old phrase. It's not up to anyone else to say that's a sad thing to do. Actually, curiously enough, the people who say 'sad' are actually sad anyway. All the old 'fhans'. It's their business, good luck to them, let them have fun with it.

"Once upon a time I used to think Star Trek folks were pretty low. But there's nothing actually wrong with it. Although if look at some of The Next Generation and so on, it's all a bit Southern Californian. I liked the days when old Captain Kirk used to kick Klingon arse and no two ways about it. He didn't take advice from no damn barmaid. Compared to an awful lot of activities people get up to in this world, being a Trekkie is a fairly harmless and occasionally a fairly creative thing to do.

"I've recently been to a couple of American conventions and as you know some American fans do tend to be a bit ... they experience their own tidal forces. And yet they'll join in the masquerade and everything. By and large, people accept them, because they're all there having fun. You think, 'Why am I being Mr Smart-Alec, Cynical European? This is actually quite great!' There's no downside to it. So the lady's Star Trek uniform is 15 acres of spandex? She's having fun, everyone else is having fun, there's actually no down side.”

Presumably you'll have all these overweight Rincewinds and Granny Weatherwaxes wandering around at the Discworld Convention.
“It was interesting. You know Clarecraft had an open day? They had a thousand people go along to that. And at the masquerade, there were entries in that masquerade that would not have disgraced a Worldcon stage. There was a Granny Weatherwax: you see her chatting to him at the beginning and think, 'It's just a lady that you stand behind in the post office queue.' She went on the stage, turned her back on us, turned round, and she just acted the part. She was just sort of frowning at the hall. And there was Mrs Cake with the huge hair-do, and a superb Detritus whose knuckles actually dragged on the ground. Gaspode the Wonder Dog was a dog - called Gaspode! He looked exactly right and he won the special prize: we went and got him a burger off the van outside! It was actually a real fun
occasion and I signed books for six hours solid. It was a really great time. We're not going to do it on an annual basis, because it was a lot of effort to organise. People could buy the whites, as they call them, the resin casts, and they worked out why Discworld models cost such a lot. Because you have to be good to actually get the paint on right. There was some great stuff there. Granny Weatherwax was actually old enough to be Granny Weatherwax.”

The Terry Pratchett Granny Weatherwax or the Josh Kirby Granny Weatherwax?
“She was absolutely the Terry Pratchett Granny Weatherwax. Clarefract have done the three witches as plaques. She was exactly how I would imagine Granny Weatherwax to be. there was absolutely no doubt about it. We wouldn't dare not give her the prize. I just got a lot more tolerant about things. I will add this, because I think this has been a drawback of UK SF fandom, and I suppose I'm as much a guilty party as anybody else, although I've never organised a convention. I go to lots of cons overseas, and by and large overseas cons are Cons. It doesn't really matter what particular part of the broad church of science fiction and fantasy you follow. You go along for the con, and there's something there for you, and you all just muck in. There was a con over in Florida the other week. In the masquerade there were all vampire types and there was a Star Wars tableau - which got a really big cheer, too - and there was a Star Trek character, there was a Red Dwarf character. It really did seem the thing was about a thousand fans of the genre.

"Whereas the UK scene now seems a lot more cynical because I think what happened is book-based fandom - you know; 'I've got Eric Frank Russell's cap', the people who consider themselves 'SF' as opposed to 'sci-fi' - have always disliked the in-roads of the Star Trek, Blake's 7, Babylon 5, Red Dwarf, Prisoner thing. And so here, by and large, it seems to me, you go to a 'general convention' or you go to a 'Trek convention', although of course they have Trek conventions in the States. But basically you decide what it is you want, and you go to that type of con. I've been to conventions in New Zealand, Canada, Australia and America, so let's stick to the English-speaking countries. They always seem to be generic 'SF and fantasy conventions'. Someone who particularly enjoys, say Greg Bear for example, doesn't feel particularly ashamed of reading a Star Trek novel.

"What I'm really getting at here; I think it's vitally important at the masquerade you have a chance of seeing a young woman in leather underwear. Masquerades seem to be far less a feature of classic British conventions. I haven't been to as many UK cons recently because I tend to be elsewhere. The classic, book-based, BSFA crowd appears to be just getting older. The other thing is, it's hermetic. You actually get conventions that almost boast that they don't advertise. Now it's fairly easy to find out about a Red Dwarf convention and incredibly easy to find out about a Trek convention because it'll be in the local paper: 'Star Trek loonies beam into town'. In a sense the mainstream SF fandom is seeing its natural recruits all joining up other groups.

"I did a thing for Channel Four at Worldcon, and you know that you're trying to do positive stuff, but you can look down at the floor and see that the cameraman's going to take a picture of that very fat girl, or that guy dressed up as a woman or something. In a sense that stuff's easier in the States, but it's certainly not easier in Canada, Australia or New Zealand, all of whom have smaller populations. The conventions for what might loosely be called the broad church of SF seem to be more fun because the people who have come in via media fandom are actually encouraged to read. They're taught the shapes of the letters. And the people who are basically book-based SF fans do get a chance to see young ladies in leather underwear, which is a very important thing. Never miss a chance to see young ladies in leather underwear because one day you'll be on your deathbed and you might realise that there were opportunities to see young ladies in leather underwear which you missed. It's too late, there's no going back!"

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Tripper

Director: David Arquette
Writer: David Arquette, Joe Harris
Producer: David Arquette, Courteney Cox, Evan Astrowsky, Neil Machlis, Navin Narang
Cast: Thomas Jane, Paul Reubens, David Arquette
Country: US
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: UK preview screening

This is the film where a psycho in a Ronald Reagan mask hacks up hippies in the woods - and to be honest, there’s not much more you need to know. It’s well-made, just the right length (which is rare these days) and enormous fun, a reminder that horror movies can be entertaining in an age when so many seem to dwell solely on sadism. This is a film about what someone does and why, not one that dwells on the clinical details of how he does it.

A prologue set in 1967 shows us a young boy whose mother is sick and whose father has the job of interceding between loggers and a group of literally tree-hugging hippies. When things get rough and the cops arrest his father, the boy - whom we first saw watching California Governor Reagan on TV - takes things into his own hands. It’s very good of the film to let us know right from the start who our masked maniac is, long before he even enters the film.

In the present day, a van with three hippie couples inside is heading for a free music festival in the middle of a forest. This sextet are utterly anachronistic and it’s only the presence of a mobile phone that clues us in to the fact that we’ve jumped forward four decades. Only Samantha (Jaime King: Sin City, The Spirit) isn’t stoned; she has stayed clean ever since she took acid and got beaten up for it by her boyfriend, a straight-laced jock named Jimmy (Balthazar Getty: Judge Dredd). Her current beau is Ivan (Lukas Haas: Long Time Dead) and the others in the van are Joey (Kevin Smith regular Jason ‘Jay’ Mewes, whose non-Smith genre credits include Scream 3, Feast and a vampire comedy called Netherbeast Incorporated), Jade (Paz de la Huerte), Jack (Stephen Heath) and Linda (Manchester-born Marsha Thomason who was also in Long Time Dead as well as The Haunted Mansion, Black Knight and Prime Suspect 5!). They are all given some degree of character but it probably says something that I had to plough through no fewer than 18 on-line reviews before I found one which actually identified all six hippies by name and the actors who played them.

Director/writer/producer David Arquette plays one of three rednecks who lob a bottle at Ivan’s head when the hippies stop to take a leak and who then take a beating from Samantha when the two groups meet up again at a gas station. But the real star of the film is Thomas Jane (who also gets an executive producer credit as the film was partially produced by his company Raw) as the local Sheriff, Buzz Hall. As well as his signature role in The Punisher, sci-fi fan Jane’s other genre work includes Simon Hunter’s Mutant Chronicles, Albert Pyun’s Nemesis, Deep Blue Sea, The Crow: City of Angels and a brace of Stephen King adaptation’s: Dreamcatcher and The Mist. Arquette’s brother Richmond plays a Deputy, as he subsequently did in the remake of Halloween.

Hall’s big problem is policing the ‘Peace and Love Music Festival’, being organised in the middle of the woods by slimeball promoter Frank Baker (Paul Reubens hamming it up deliciously; he was in the original film of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - as was Jane - and also provided the voice of Lock, one of the three evil kids in The Nightmare Before Christmas). The local Mayor (Rick Overton: Eight Legged Freaks, The High Crusade, Groundhog Day) doesn’t approve of all the nudity, drugs and loud music but he does approve of the income and temporary jobs which the festival brings to his small town.

Disappearing hippies is not something that bothers Sheriff Hall - they wander off stoned and they’ll turn up when their heads clear - but real trouble arises when they start turning up dead. Initial suspicion points to a local crazy guy who lays animal traps in the woods but we all find out fairly soon that it’s a psycho with a Ronald Reagan mask and a double-headed axe. Considering that this is the central premise of the film and the focus of its poster/sleeve, there seems little point in hiding the actual killer from us for so long. The first few kills are shot in such a way as to give us no clear view of the guy, but we know he’s a loon in a suit and tie with a Reagan mask on his face. We also know who is behind the mask, unless we’ve come in late or we’re as out of it as the hippies on screen.

As the deaths mount, Hall tries to close down the festival, meeting the disapproval of not just hundreds of stoners but also Baker and the Mayor. Meanwhile Samantha - the only non-stoned attendee at the festival - has some idea of what is going on but is also worried that her violent ex-boyfriend Jimmy is around somewhere. And the three rednecks are togged up in camo gear, hunting hippies with paintball guns for fun.

In among all this, the actual deaths are good, old-fashioned, gory violence, not lingering and not brutally sadistic. Well, innocent people do get chopped up with an axe, but not in a way that gives pleasure to the person doing the chopper and certainly not in a way that satisfies the prurient members of the audience. You know, it’s very hard justifying a gory film as ‘fun’ while maintaining the moral high ground over unnecessarily sadistic gory films.

What makes this movie different from your bog-standard slasher is, of course, the political subtext. But what is bizarre is: there isn’t one. You can ‘read’ this from a right-wing perspective as the ersatz Reagan metes out well-deserved punishment to the pot-smoking, lazy peace-and-love-niks, cheering every axe-stroke. Or you can ‘read’ this from a left-wing perspective (what the inhabitants of the former colony call ‘liberal’) as the evil Reagan-figure strikes out with mindless violence against kids who just want to dance and make love, not war. In actual fact the film is equally critical of both viewpoints and Arquette has repeatedly emphasised that his intention was to make a fun horror movie of the sort that he likes to watch and that there is no political statement to be made here.

And yet it’s wrapped up in what seems to be a whole bunch of conflicting political statements. Arquette’s wife Courtney Cox (Friends, Scream 1-3) has a hilarious cameo near the end which is definitely a savage satirical attack on the peace and love crowd (the Inaccurate Movie Database credits Cox as ‘Cynthia’ but her unnamed character is listed as ‘dog hippie girl’ on screen). On the other hand, the end credits play under an unidentified diatribe of some radio or TV commentator haranguing Reagan, the Republicans and the entire US military-industrial complex. Maybe Arquette decided that if he threw enough differing political viewpoints into the fire they would cancel each other out. And it must be said that, from a commercial point of view, this is a canny move because it means that both right-wingers and liberals can watch the film: the one’s box office dollars are as good as the other’s.

The only truly sympathetic character, ironically, is Sheriff Buzz Hall, trying to keep order and stop the murders in the midst of all this. Thomas Jane gives a great performance and is definitely the film’s central character, if not its actual hero (there isn’t really one).

Hugely enjoyable as it is, there are two curious things about The Tripper that spoil the film slightly (well, three if you include the complete non-mystery about who is doing the killing and why). Although the central premise is a killer in a Reagan mask and we see a full-head Reagan mask hanging on a wall at one point and when the killer is finally stopped a full-head Reagan mask is removed from him (a scene which has no visual impact because we have never seen this character before, at least not as an adult) - nevertheless the killer is very clearly not wearing a Reagan mask. When we get to see him with any degree of clarity, it is very obvious that the actor is wearing prosthetic make-up. (The actor in question is actually make-up artist Chris Nelson although I’m not sure whether he had a hand in designing/creating the prosthetics or just wore them.) This is even more obvious when he speaks: this is make-up, not a rubber mask. It just destroys the illusion and seems completely pointless, especially as (and here comes my second point)...

The killer looks nothing like Ronald Reagan. Sorry, but it’s true. If we didn’t know in advance from the publicity that the guy is supposed to ‘be’ Ronnie Reagan, there would be no way to tell. The prosthetics and the hair dye just make him look like a red-faced old guy with dyed hair, not the 40th President of the United States. The face is not just wrong, it’s completely the wrong shape and frankly it looks no more like Reagan than your face or mine. Nor does it help that the actor - and hence the character - is muscular, unlike Reagan’s tall, skinny physique.

There’s the occasional shout of “Nancy!” (which we later discover is the name of a dog) but other than that, there is nothing Reagan-esque about this killer. All the possibilities to play with the concept, the potential one-liners and sight gags, have been ignored in favour of a single visual image - which, as stated above, only works because we’re told in advance who it is.

This is a shame although it doesn’t stop The Tripper from being a tremendously enjoyable, light-hearted horror movie with smart direction, a competent script and some super performances, especially from Jane and Reubens. It also contains, almost incidentally, a very unusual scene. After the festival is closed down, the out-of-their-gourds hippies head off into the woods to continue dancing anyway and the masked maniac wades into them, laying about him wildly with his axe. Most slasher films involve attacks on single people or sometimes couples. I’m no expert on the subgenre but it strikes me as very unusual to have a scene where the killer simply wades into a large group of victims, chopping away at them. Normally, any such group would either flee en masse, quickly reducing the potential victims to individuals, or even fight back. But the dancing hippies are so complete zonked that neither fight nor flight is an option. This is only a brief scene but, to be honest, it is more original and more interesting than giving the killer a Presidential mask.

Other cast members include Redmond Gleeson (Starflight One!), Richard Gross (Children of the Corn IV), Josh Hammond (sci-fi shark thriller Blue Demon, Timecop 2 - no, I didn’t know either... - Jeepers Creepers II and three David DeCoteau movies: The Brotherhood, Alien Arsenal and Ring of Darkness), Brad Hunt (Damned, The Plague), Waylon Payne (who played Jerry Lee Lewis in Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line) and Richard Reicheg (Leprechaun 3). Members of one of my favourite bands, Fishbone, perform on stage although curiously the song credits at the end of the film identify them as individual performers, not as ‘Fishbone’ - although Fishbone are credited with ‘additional music’. Something contractual going on there, methinks.

Evan Astrowsky (Cabin Fever, Minotaur) and Neil Machlis (The Ring Two, Bedazzled, Wolf) produced alongside Arquette and Cox; thirty years ago Machlis was production manager on The Stepford Wives and Empire of the Ants! Arquette’s co-writer Joe Harris worked on Darkness Falls (and the short that inspired it, Tooth Fairy). He also wrote and directed a short called Witchwise that looks intriguing and three episodes of an animated series about Vlad Tepes as a young man, called Bad Vlad!

Bobby Bukowski (Boogeyman) handled cinematography while editor Glenn Garland (Dracula Rising, Bats, Retroactive, The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween remake and the Roger Corman Fantastic Four) stoked up the Avid. KNB handled the effects, which are largely limited to some gory axe wounds.

All credit to David Arquette for putting together a film that tries to do little but entertain and manages it admirably. But I’m still trying to work out whether wrapping it in apparently political ideas which aren’t actually there was a lucky mistake or a stroke of marketing genius.

(Incidentally the title not only refers to the tripping hippies but also riffs on Reagan’s nickname ‘the Gipper’. Not that I have ever heard anyone call him ‘the Gipper’ but this is what it says. All I ever heard people call him was ‘that crap old actor’ or ‘that dangerous, dribbling idiot who will probably kill us all’.)

MJS rating: B+

Review originally posted 15th February 2008

Twisted Sisters

Director: Wolfgang Büld
Writer: Wolfgang Büld
Producers: Wolfgang Büld, Nick P Coe
Cast: Fiona Horsey, Paul Conway, Eden Ford
Country: UK/Germany
Year of release: 2006
Reviewed from: screener DVD
Official website:

Wolfgang Büld has done it again. The director of Penetration Angst and Lovesick: Sick Love (and, of course, Punk in London and all that other stuff) returns with another deliciously black comedy-horror filled with everything we expect from him: perversion, violence, sleaze, emasculation and a bloke shagging the wrong twin.

Paul Conway and Fiona Horsey - by now a sort of Büld repertory company - return once more along with other cast and crew members, including cinematographer Uwe Bohrer (Nekromantik). Paul is okay as a sleazy cop but never seems to quite get his teeth into the role; only right at the very end does ‘DI Caffrey’ come to life with typical Büld-ian perversity. Until then, he seems just slightly out of synch, which I think is more a casting problem than an acting one and is not helped by a moustache which suits neither the actor nor the character. More than making up for this, however, is an absolutely stunning performance by Fiona, or rather two performances as she plays twins: Norah and Jennifer.

Jennifer is a happy, successful young woman, working in a big PR agency and happily settled with Alan (Andrew Southern), a junior doctor whose father is a leading lawyer. The problem is: someone who looks exactly like Jennifer is seducing men and savagely killing them. DI Caffrey is assigned to the case along with his partner, the cheerfully non-PC DS Woodgate (a role written specially for Eden Ford, who was the Russian gangster in Lovesick: Sick Love and has an uncredited cameo in Evil Aliens). Is Jennifer the killer - after all, she has no alibi to rescue her - or does she have a double?

Well, of course the film is called Twisted Sisters so it comes as no great surprise that her parents reveal the existence of a previously unknown twin, Norah, whose twisted background is uncovered by Caffrey. (Jennifer’s mother is Joan Blackham, who was in Bridget Jones’s Diary and Chocky’s Challenge but will always be remembered by some of us as the hilariously staid Miss Erith in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.) Büld skilfully keeps us uncertain about what is or isn’t true throughout the first act, despite the movie’s title. He then sets up a cat and mouse situation as Norah stays one jump ahead of the cops, and in the final act he unleashes real terror as the sisters finally meet.

The idea of two people looking the same is simple enough but Twisted Sisters uses it brilliantly and the extensive use of mirrors in many shots and scenes reinforces the duality of the lead roles. Most of the time, we know which sister we’re looking at but we always have to think about which sister the other characters think is with them.

Having said that real terror is unleashed in the final act, I should qualify that by pointing out that two extremely grisly murders top and tail the film’s first third. We start with a castration that will have every man in the audience crossing his legs and covering his eyes. Then, at around the 36-minute mark, comes one of the most jaw-dropping on-screen deaths that I have ever seen (and I’ve seen a few). I don’t want to give away any details: I will just report that my attempts to scream “No-o-o-o!” at the TV screen were hampered by the way that my lower jaw seemed to have stuck to my chest. The scene is as outlandish in its conception as it is masterful in its execution and is absolutely guaranteed to get audiences talking.

The prosthetic effects on display after each death are excellent but what impresses most on this film is the editing. Once the sisters meet, it is almost impossible to believe that we are watching only one actress. Scenes between the two are superbly achieved using nothing except a body double, precise storyboarding and an editor who should win some sort of award.

If there is a downside to the film it’s the locations. Apparently set in Northern Europe, the movie was filmed in Hamburg and what appears to be Denmark although the cast speak English and some forensic experts examining a body have 'Police' written on their overalls. Most of the time incriminating clues to the location, such as car number plates, are concealed but that makes those German/Danish notices and signs which do slip through all the more obvious. None of this bothers me, but it might puzzle - and hence irritate - other, less perspicacious reviewers. Many of the cast are Danish or German and a couple of the speaking roles are dubbed. Büld himself appears briefly as a doctor.

But this is Horsey’s film through and through, a double-barrelled tour de force which marks her as one of the best ‘unknown’ film actresses in the UK. That her work in Wolfgang’s films has not led to her being snapped up for bigger-budgeted projects is one of the great mysteries of modern cinema. It’s certainly not because of any shyness about doing nude scenes!

Twisted Sisters, which had the working title Final Cut, carries a 2005 copyright date and has already been released in Germany. Whether it will make it past the UK censor intact remains to be seen, not least because there is a violent ‘blood on breasts’ scene about five minutes in. For anyone who enjoyed Penetration Angst and Lovesick: Sick Love, this is another disturbingly entertaining slice of Anglo-German darkness.

MJS rating: A

Review originally posted 3rd April 2006