Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Rock'n'Roll Frankenstein

Director: Brian O’Hara
Writer: Brian O’Hara
Producer: Sean O’Hara
Cast: Jayson Spence, Graig Guggenheim, Barry Feterman, Hiram J Segarra
Year of release: 1999
Country: USA
Reviewed from: VHS screener

There have been some damn strange takes on Mary Shelley’s tale over the years, variants that would make even her liberal eyes pop out of their sockets, which just goes to show how universal and adaptable the Frankenstein story is. But few have been as far from the original - or as entertaining - as Brian O’Hara’s Rock’n’Roll Frankenstein.

Cigar-toting music mogul Bernie Stein (Feterman) falls out once again with his latest signing and decides that what he really needs is a pop star that he can control completely. He needs to build one for himself. Fortunately, he has his nephew Frankie (Spence) on hand, replete with well-equipped Mad Scientist Lab, necrophiliac tendencies and stoned, oddball assistant named (great touch!) Iggy (Segarra).

Iggy and accomplices are sent out to raid the cemeteries of the world for parts of deceased rock giants which Frankie can then patch together into what will surely be the ultimate rocker. They get Jimi Hendrix’s hands, Buddy Holly’s feet, Elvis’ head - finally all that’s missing is, well, a schlong. Who else’s could they use but Jim Morrison’s legendary trouser snake, apparently preserved in a jar in a bizarre collection of such things? But, in the grand tradition of useless assistants, Iggy drops the jar and grabs another one instead, belonging to someone called Ace. Unfortunately, that’s ‘Liber’ Ace!

The resultant creation, known as simply ‘The King’ (Guggenheim), is a triumph of the unholy arts and is trained to be a rock star. Gradually his fame takes off, but he does seem to prefer the piano to the guitar. Worse than that, he prefers men to women! Confused and scared, the King tries to make it with chicks but instead starts hearing voices - voices from down there.

Of course, Uncle Bernie is only interested in making money from The King, while Frankie is distracted by his, um, tendencies - and Iggy is still zonked out of his skull. This would be a touching, sad story of loneliness and confusion - if it wasn’t so funny. In an era when even mainstream films are attempting to gross-out their audiences, many film-makers have forgotten that grossness alone isn’t enough. Grossness has to be presented with intelligence, even wit, to actually be funny, and that’s where Rock’n’Roll Frankenstein scores.

This is not a film for the easily offended, but nor is it just mindless stupidity. Written, directed and produced with care and skill, R’n’R Frankie is laugh-out-loud funny while retaining the core element that makes the Frankenstein myth such an enduring tale. A largely neophyte cast are excellent, playing the comedy straight and thereby making it all the funnier; special mention to Segarra who makes Iggy, potentially a one-note stoner, into a fully realised, sympathetic character. Hugely enjoyable, deeply politically incorrect (good!) and highly recommended, this is a film that everyone should see at least once.

Rock’n’Roll Frankenstein was released as a Collector’s Edition DVD from EI Independent Cinema, including a ‘making of’ featurette and commentary from O’Hara and friends.

MJS rating: A
Review originally posted 7th December 2004.

interview: Hiram J Segarra

Hiram Jacob Segarra is known as ‘Hy’ or ‘Iggy’ to his friends, the latter because of his terrific performance as the stoned grave-robber/lab assistant of that name in Brian O’Hara’s hilarious Rock’n’Roll Frankenstein. Hy/Iggy answered an e-mail interview for me in January 2003.

How did you land the role of Iggy in Rock'n'Roll Frankenstein?
“It's strange how that happened. It was a Friday night in early July of 1997, and I just got out of where I was working at the time, and I was in a hurry, because I was going to a concert at this great club a few blocks away called ‘Tramps’ (which doesn't exist any more) to see British guitar great Robin Trower. I ran into a girl I know who worked for casting agent Stanley Kaplan here in New York City as I was crossing the street. She told me that there was an audition for a lead role in a movie that was right up my alley, and that I should call Stanley for the details. I told her that I was in a hurry, but thanks for the information. All I had in my mind was that I didn't want to be late for the concert, which was great, by the way!

“Anyway, the whole weekend went by, and I didn't give the audition another thought until Monday, when I remembered what happened and gave Stanley a call. I got director Brian O'Hara's phone number, called him, and he made an appointment with me for that coming Wednesday. I went up to his office, and he gave me a page of the script to look at for a minute or two, as he set up the camera in another room. I went inside, did the reading the way I thought it should be done, with Brian standing behind the camera, reading another actor's dialogue. We finished, he thanked me for coming up, I thanked him for the opportunity, and went home. I didn't give it another thought, as I've done these kinds of auditions many times.

“Anyway, so a few days pass, and Saturday comes up, and I decided to give Brian a follow-up call to see how I did. He told me that I had the job! He was planning to call me soon, he said, possibly after the weekend. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and couldn't wait to get the whole script, so that we could get to work. A few days later, Brian showed up at my job with the 98 page script for Rock’n'Roll Frankenstein. I was riding home on the subway that night with a couple of friends of mine, and we were cracking up at the script. It was brilliant! I was so psyched! I told them, ‘I AM IGGY’!”

What are your best and worst memories of making the movie?
“The whole event was the best acting experience I've ever had, being a lead actor, even if it was in a low budget independent film. Getting ready every day to go meet the van to take us to the day's location was so amazing. I never wanted it to end! It was a very eye-opening experience for me. I learned a lot about the process of movie making from this one role. In fact, I don't look at movies the same way any more; I'm always analysing how things were done. I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, I know what they did here,’ and explaining to people how movies are made because of it!!

”The best part was, I was treated like a king from the very first day! In fact, after a couple of hours of filming, I stepped out of the recording studio we were shooting in to get some fresh air. Right away, someone from the crew came outside to ask me if I was alright, and if there was something that I wanted, or needed. Man, I wasn't used to treatment like that! But I'll tell you something - I sure got used to it pretty fast!

“To tell you the truth, I'd have to think very hard to come up with a bad memory when it comes to the making of Rock’n'Roll Frankenstein. The closest I can come is when we started filming in September of 1997, and we were going pretty good, really getting into it, and then, after so many days, out of the blue, Brian told us that we had to stop because of lack of funds. We (the four principal characters) were pretty upset about it. I couldn't believe it - I get a lead role in a really great movie, and we have to stop! And we didn't know if we would ever start up again. However, things did get straightened out eventually, and we resumed filming for good in January of 1998. That would have to be the low point. But that's it!”

How does a principal role on a low-budget movie like RnR Frankie compare with the small roles you've had on big movies like Vanilla Sky and A Beautiful Mind?
“Well, on one hand, while it's exciting to be in a big, Hollywood Oscar winning production like A Beautiful Mind, working closely as I was, with world famous actors like Russell Crowe, and top-notch directors like Ron Howard (who both, by the way, complimented me on my work), the scene was cut considerably from the original footage that was shot. I did a lot more in the scene than was shown, and had a lot of (improvised) lines that the public never got a chance to hear.

”Whereas, on RnR Frankie, although the footage was edited, of course, I was still a big part of the movie, and I'm the only surviving cast member at the end of the film! (Sequel, anyone?) I had the chance to take the role of Iggy that was in the script, and develop him into a real character. That's what a serious actor just loves to do. I would rather have major roles in independent films than tiny roles in Hollywood productions (although my goal is to have more and more principal roles and make it big in this business).”

What did you do in Godzilla?
“I was in a bar scene, when it was announced that Godzilla was making his way to the city. At first, I was given a female partner in the scene, and we were reacting to the news as it was coming in on the TV, but then the director took away my partner and had me sit on a stool on the inside of the bar, with the camera right in front of my face. I was sure it would be fantastic exposure. Then, in another scene, I was part of a group of about five or six people who were running down the street in the rain, with Godzilla in hot pursuit. But don't look for it in the movie - they cut it all out! Oh well. I got over it - it didn't turn out to be the blockbuster that they thought it would be anyway.”

How come you've played two different members of Kiss on Saturday Night Live? (Are you going to play the other two sometime, go for the full set?)
“That's funny, right? What happened is, in September of 1999, I got a call from Brian Siedlecki, the casting director at the time from SNL, and he asked me if I would like to play Gene Simmons in a skit that was called ‘Millennium Moments’ - it was supposed to be about things that never really happened. He said that he thought that I would look very much like the real Gene if I shaved off my beard. And he was right - I shaved it off, and I kinda do look like the real Gene Simmons (who's Jewish like me, too - maybe that had something to do with it?).

”Anyway, they asked me for all my information: shoe size, shirt size, etc. They went out to these S&M shops in Manhattan, shopping for my exact measurements! I liked the costume so much, I told them that I didn't care if they paid me or not - I just wanted that outfit! Unfortunately, they said it had to go back into wardrobe, although it was bought specifically for my use. They said that I shouldn't worry - it would still be here for me for the next time I came on the show!

”Anyway, it turned out to be a photo shoot, and I was standing there as Gene, and to my left there was a guy in a robot costume, much like the robot in Lost in Space. To my right, there was a woman and two gentlemen dressed like people from the 1890s. So they started taking the photographs, and I was posing like Gene, sticking my tongue out (I do have a long tongue like he does), and being generally mischievous. I started terrorising the woman standing next to me! The photographer was laughing and saying, ‘Yes, yes! Keep going!’ - It was a lot of fun.

”Then in April of 2001 I was called again, this time by Josh Payne from SNL. They were doing a parody of this cable show called The Wedding Story, where they have couples who are about to be married, and they tell everyone how they met, and all about the preparations for their upcoming marriage, etc., etc. The guest host on Saturday Night Live that week was Renee Zellweger (I worked with her before on the film A Price Above Rubies, where I played a Rabbi). In this skit, she was marrying Will Ferrell's character, who happened to be in a Kiss copy band.

"He was playing Gene Simmons this time, so I was chosen to play lead guitarist Ace Frehley. It was very funny, and very memorable. By the way, I was the only one in the band who actually looked like the person I was supposed to be representing! As far as what you mentioned - yes, I would love to play the two remaining band members (I'm a drummer and guitarist, anyway). I'm waiting for them to call me back, so that I can do it! That would be great!”

Where is your acting career (hopefully) taking you?
“Hopefully to bigger and better parts. I'm a very versatile character actor, not only changing the way I look with different costumes and hairstyles (sometimes with a full beard, or only a moustache, or even clean shaven; hair up, down, etc.), but I also do several ethnic character accents. It's impossible to live here in New York City and not pick up on all the different languages you hear, especially if you already have a talent for mimicry, like I have.

”For instance, there's a cable show I do here in the city called Apt. 17JJ, which is a comedy improv show, where I created many different characters, such as: Achiram Yaakov, the biker Rabbi; Lingam Tandoori, the Hindu deli owner; Aquinando Parranda (or ‘Chelito’), the Guatemalan salad bar chef; Toh Ching Gao (or ‘Mr Lee’), the Chinese restaurant owner; ‘El Nino’ - and many other characters! In fact, we're shooting two new shows this coming weekend. Apt. 17JJ airs every other Saturday night at 11pm in Manhattan on (Time Warner) Cable Channel 67.

”I just want some agent representation, and the chance to be sent out for more principal parts in major motion pictures. A good regular role in a TV series would be nice, also. I don't care, as long as I have steady work that's substantial and creative. I know that I have a lot to offer in this business, and I just want the chance to show what I can do. Hopefully, with a little luck and some more hard work, that will happen.”

website: www.stairwaytohiram.com
Interview originally posted 7th December 2004

interview: Nathan Shumate

Nathan Shumate’s terrific website Cold Fusion Video Reviews has been going about as long as mine has. In 2010, Nathan collected some of his always astute and entertaining reviews into a book, The Golden Age of Crap. Which seemed like a good time to interview him.

How did you select the 77 films reviewed in your book (and why that number)?
“The number doesn't have any particular significance. I had decided on the theme for the book (movies which gained their audiences on VHS through the '80s and '90s), and went through the movies I had reviewed to find a good cross-section of interesting reviews from the time period. I put the number of reviews in the subtitle so that people would know this isn't supposed to be a comprehensive guides to the B-movies of the period; it's a smattering of the high and low points.”

How much rewriting did you do from the online versions of the reviews?
“In some cases, not a lot. In others, I revised drastically. The overall thrust of my rewriting was to make the reviews make sense in chronological order.”

Isn’t there a danger that you might alienate some of the B-movie makers that you know by featuring their work in your book?
“It's a danger I'm willing to face! Seriously, though, I don't cast personal aspersions on any of the directors in the book (aside from Albert Pyun, and he's probably used to it by now). I have tremendous respect for genre workhorses like Fred Olen Ray and Jim Wynorski; that doesn't mean they don't turn out an unimpressive movie now and then. And they've all got pretty thick skins anyway; after all, for most of their career people have been looking down their noses at them because the area of the movie industry in which they work isn't ‘respectable’ or ‘legitimate’."

How much effect, if any, do you think online film reviewers have on audiences and on the industry?
“I don't think that mainstream movie releases are much affected by movie reviews, online or otherwise. I mean, Transformers 2 got a 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, and it grossed over $400 million domestically. But with movies from the ‘long tail,’ where there isn't a massive TV ad campaign and Happy Meal tie-in, more fringe-oriented reviewers that their audiences have grown to trust can make a relatively big difference.”

What is the absolute worst film you have ever reviewed?
“There are several contenders for that title, unfortunately. I think I'll have to go with Killers in the Woods (2005), an amateur shot-on-video project that was really nothing more than an incompetent faux-snuff fetish film: the main character meets a woman walking through the woods, they ad-lib some dialogue, he strangles her, lather, rinse, repeat. I tried to dissuade the filmmaker who contacted me about taking a screener, but he kept insisting on sending it to me. So I don't feel sorry for him.”

And what is the most notable response you have had to a review?
“A few years ago, I tracked down a cartoon feature I remembered faintly from seeing it on TV in my preschool years. It turned out to be the early anime Jack and the Witch (1967). In my review I included an account of what little I had remembered of the movie and how I tracked it down, and over the next couple of years several dozen people wrote to thank me; they had had similar maddeningly vague memories of the movie from TV viewings in their childhood, and when they googled what little they could remember - often a scene in which one character chants, ‘Into the machine! Into the machine!’ - they found my review. It astounded me how many people retained trace memories of a single viewing of that movie, each half-believing that they had dreamed it all because they had never heard of it since.”

website: www.coldfusionvideo.com
Interview originally posted 17th June 2010

Monday, 30 March 2015

interview: Katherine Shannon

Who was the first actress to play Lara Croft? Angelina Jolie? Some busty model paid to wear a costume at conventions? No, the original Lara Croft was a petite British actress named Kate Shannon who provided the voice for the first Tomb Raider game. Kate is a professional voice artiste (the idea that the character was voiced by a secretary in the games company is an urban myth) and I was able to interview her on 30th September 1998 when she was recording The Gemini Apes. This was a BBC radio sci-fi play - an ‘audio movie’ - directed by Dirk Maggs and starring Christopher Lee, which was broadcast on Christmas Day.

How did you get involved with The Gemini Apes?
"This came through my agent. Dirk had heard of me, obviously because of Lara Croft, but also through a couple of friends who worked with him when he did Superman."

Have you done much radio?
"I’ve done an awful lot of cartoons. I’ve done a fair bit of radio but my speciality is cartoon voices. I’m doing one at the moment called Supermodels, which is for a company called BRB. I’m playing a black vegetarian called Yasmine, as well as her very aristocratic mother. Most series are about 52 episodes and I go all round the world, usually in American accents. The most fun I had was when we did Robin of the Forest and I got to play Maid Marian, a little girly thing, and Will Scarlet, which I did as Keanu Reeves: ‘Yo, dude!’ A really laid back guy."

How long have you been doing cartoon voices?
"Oh golly. About eight years now. I really love it. It’s good fun."

How did you start?
"I started because of a friend of mine, Mark Bradley, who’s a composer. He does all the music. He’d been doing documentaries, then he got involved with cartoons. He’s done a load of stuff for the BBC and all over the world. He got myself and Stuart Milligan, who played Superman, involved. And we recommended people we knew, so it’s like a little family. There’s about eight of us. We hardly see each other any more now, we just hear each other on the headphones. Everybody’s recorded separately because we’re all doing other stuff. We see each other at Christmas and that’s about it."

Give me a few titles that you’ve worked on.
"There’s Robin of the Forest, The Supermodels, Willy Fog. There’s one about The Untouchables, a mouse thing: Elliot Mouse."

Are these American cartoons?
"Some of them were made originally in Japan and now they’re all coming from Spain. They’re sent directly to us, then we dub them all in American accents and they’re sent all over the world. Occasionally they’re sold to the BBC, like Willy Fog and a couple of other things, but often we never get to see them again. They disappear."

What about radio?
"I haven’t done any for a while because I’ve been doing the cartoons and doing a lot of theatre and working a lot in Europe. I’ve done quite a lot of radio, mostly classical stuff. So it’s nice to do something like this, doing an actual motion picture!"

Have you done any films?
"I have. Again, I’ve been concentrating on theatre, but I did a short film for Channel 4 which actually won Best Picture at the London Short Film Festival last year. That was called The Ring. That’s done very well, and my lover in it is now in EastEnders playing Beppe. I did one at the beginning of this year which should be released in November, called Cousteau on the Beach, again for Channel 4."

How did you get the role of Lara Croft?
"I’d actually worked for the company about three times before, and it was just another job, initially. It was called Core Design in Derby. I’d done Machine Head for them in Swagman. I knew all the guys there, all the guys who were designing it. So we talked through ideas, we talked about making her English. They sort of wanted Helena Bonham Carter but not quite that prim. So we worked with that, and every time I went back her figure was more voluptuous! They’d added a little more oomph to it."

Did they expect Tomb Raider to be as big as it is?
"Not really. They knew it was a good game. It was very sophisticated and she was such an interesting character. But the way it kind of mushroomed: everyone was just completely astonished and obviously extremely pleased. I know that DreamWorks are trying to pinch the guy who started the design. He went over for about six months and was paid obviously a lot of money, but he was very unhappy and now he’s back."

How many hours of voice recording do you do for a game like that?
"That one was actually more, because of the discussions involved, but the actual recording didn’t take more probably in total than a day. But I had to go back a few times because they kept changing their mind, changing the script. I’ve still got the original script and at some point I shall auction that for charity. So there’ll be a lot of schoolkids saving up their money, I guess."

They’re talking about a film.
"Yes, they are. Also I heard that a girl’s actually changed her name by deed poll to Lara Croft. Because she’s actually got the body, which I don’t have. And she wants to make a pop record. It’s a phenomenon."

Apparently Lara Croft is now in a car advert in France. Did you know about this?
"Really? No. It has amazed me that it’s continued to be so successful. Every time you pick up Time Out or the Evening Standard, there’ll be some mention of her or a picture. It’s quite amazing."

Are you benefiting from the success, or was it a flat fee?
"It was a straight job, unfortunately for me, or I could be enormously wealthy! But obviously a lot of work’s come from that. A lot of interest and stuff that maybe I wouldn’t have done before, which is great."

Are they planning another game?
"I think so. There was talk of a love interest, but I don’t know if that will work or not. I think the idea is that she is so dynamic and independent."

The next obvious step would be a Tomb Raider cartoon series.
"I’m not too sure. I think it would very much depend of the financial deal and worldwide distribution. I think it would be a great idea. I think it would work extremely well."

Have you heard anything on casting the film, or have you got any ideas?
"I’ve heard rumbles but I don’t know. I can’t think of some who’s actually got those attributes, apart from probably Pamela Anderson. Maybe you could just cut off her head and put somebody else’s head on or something!"

What have you got coming up?
"I’ve just opened a comedy club in Brixton called Top Dog Comedy, which is going very well, so I’m very happy with that."

Do you perform there?
"No, I run it. It’s my idea and it’s great because I can use all the comedians I really admire. At the moment, we’ve got a post-Edinburgh season. We’ve got the guy who’s just won the Perrier, which is great. But I’m also working on theatre projects; I like to balance the two.”

Interview originally posted 11th April 2006

interview: Ann Robinson

I interviewed Ann Robinson - the star of the 1950s movie version of War of the Worlds, not the Weakest Link presenter - at the Sixth Festival of Fantastic Films in Manchester on 23rd September 1995. A short version of this appeared in SFX a couple of months later.

You're best known for War of the Worlds. How much control did producer George Pal have over the film, and how much did director Byron Haskin have?
"George Pal had total control, and he was there on the set every day. You never met a more charming man in your entire lifetime - what a lovely gentleman. I miss him dearly. I miss both of them. Byron Haskin was a wonderful director. I think he was chosen because he had been a cinematographer, and was very experienced in science fiction, and they worked very well together. The two of them had their heads together all the time."

George Pal started off doing animation.
"Puppetoons! I grew up with them."

Did he have a lot of say in the movie’s special effects?
"Oh, he was in control of everything. He was a great artist. He did his own storyboards."

Were you familiar with the HG Wells novel before you made the film?
"I didn't read it until after the film, but it didn't seem anything like the film. Now after I've been to London, it would probably be better if I read the book again. Now I can picture everything a little better. This is my first trip to the United Kingdom, and I'm thrilled to death."

You're enjoying it here?
"Oh, I'm absolutely enthralled. It's so much fun. I don't mind being a tourist at all, and a gawker. I just walk around. They said, 'What's the first thing you want to see when you get to London?' and I said, 'I want to see Whitechapel - Jack the Ripper!'"

I don't think he's still around...
"No, he's not still around, but I saw Ten Bells and I'm going back there on the 30th September for the anniversary of Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes - they were both murdered that night."

So you're a bit of a Jack the Ripper fiend?
"Oh, I love it! Catherine was last seen there, in Ten Bells, before she ventured out into the night and was murdered."

What's the appeal of Jack the Ripper?
"I don't know: the mystery, the darkness, the fact that it was never solved. It's just horrifying. It's very personal, every time you hear something on the news about some poor woman being found. We had a couple of 'Jack the Rippers' in Los Angeles, mutilating women and throwing them naked onto a hillside. It was terrible. Two of them were found very close to my neighbourhood. As I was driving my children to school one day, I looked up on the hill - there was a body of a woman lying there. I couldn't believe my eyes. She was nude; he had killed her and thrown her out of a van. Horrifying, but fascinating."

So what's your personal theory on Jack the Ripper?
"I have that wonderful movie at home with Michael Caine, and I taped it. They seem to have used some process of elimination to work out that it must have been some doctor to the Queen. It was interesting how they eliminated everybody else and just added up all the facts. I don't know if it was her nephew or not, even though he did have some skills in dissecting, because he was a hunter."

Do you go to a lot of conventions?
"Yes I do, and they're so much fun because all the fans have sort of brought you alive again. After I leave here in two weeks, I'll go home and repack, and go to Chicago, and then come home and go back to New York. So I'll be back in Greenwich Village for Halloween!"

The other interesting thing on your CV is Rocky Jones - Space Ranger. That's one of those 1950s US TV series that's not known over here at all. What can you tell us about that?
"Let's see, who was in that? Richard Crane, Bobby Lydon. I played twin sisters. It was just a serial for children. We shot it in three parts so when you put all three episodes together you had a completed movie, if they wished to distribute it. I played Juliandra, Suzerainne of Herculon and her evil twin sister Noviandra, who was kept in a dungeon. She would destroy the galaxy if she were ever turned loose, and she escapes one day, of course. Absolute panic everywhere."

Was it fun to do?
"It was wonderful, wonderful because I had wonderful costumes, and things were glamorous. And when I was Noviandra I used to say I was a cross between Agnes Moorehead and John Barrymore. I did everything but snarl and twist my moustache. It was so hokey, it was wonderful!"

You're a Hollywood child, aren't you? Did you always want to go into acting?
"Yes. All my life. When I was a very small child at the matinee one time, they were having a talent contest. I was three or four years old; I couldn't dance. So I got up on the stage and I tap-danced with my right foot. I just kept tapping my right foot on the stage, and they literally took me off with a hook: ‘Get rid of that little girl!’"

So what was your first acting role?
"I was on the set of A Place in the Sun. I was an extra and George Stevens the director asked, 'Who has a Screen Actors Guild card?' and I said, 'I do!' So he said, 'Well, stand there at the door, and when Elizabeth Taylor walks through say: “Hello Angela.”' So that was my first speaking part."

You were in the 1954 film version of Dragnet, weren't you?
"The TV series came first, and it was so popular that Jack Webb made the film, his first feature-length movie. I played the part of Officer Grace Downey the police woman. The part had already been cast. My reading was a courtesy reading, because he was such a lovely man. He said, 'You've come all the way out here, Ann. It has been cast, but we would like to hear you read.' So I thought, 'What have I got to lose? It's all over with.' So I read my lines exactly like he spoke, just in a deadpan monotone, and he loved it, so he paid the other girl's contract and hired me. Her agent was furious, but she got a commission."

When you were making War of the Worlds, was there ever a sense that it shouldn't have been updated to 1950s America, but kept in Victorian Britain?
"No, because it wouldn't have sold. It just would not have been commercial. You have to have something that's recognisable. People are not recognisable, but places have to be recognisable. Of course they did have clips of Europe - the Eiffel Tower and things - but it was just much more commercial. You didn't have to go on location if you could just shoot down City Hall, LA. That was their main reason. At that time, people wanted to be frightened. The Thing had come out, The Day the Earth Stood Still had come out, and these were all frightening movies. It was just easier to do it in the United States."

Some people see these '50s alien invasion movies as allegories for the Cold War. Was there ever any sense that you were making an allegory?
"For communism? No, I don't recall that. Oddly enough, George Pal always began and ended something with The Bible. All his pictures had a religious undertone. God was always there, protecting us."

How do you feel nowadays when you see the movie?
"It's astounding how well it holds up. The only thing is: I had to laugh, because I had very very short, bright red, poodle-cut hair. That didn't look very much like a library science teacher, whatever a library science teacher is supposed to look like. They thought my hair, because of its style, would date the picture, so they put this hideous wig on me - two or three separate hairpieces. The bangs were separate, the backs were separate. They dyed the sides of my hair. Forty years later, the thing that dates the picture is my hair! And the cars - the automobiles dated the picture. Everybody's got short hair. That's the thing George Pal said to me when we had the twenty-fifth anniversary. He said, 'Ann, I made two mistakes. One, I didn't leave your hair alone. And the other one, I should have done the ending in 3D like I wanted to.’

"You see, when the bomb blast goes off, he wanted everyone in the theatre to reach behind the seats and put on their protective glasses so they'd be protected from the radiation and the glare of the atomic bomb. And suddenly at that moment it would be 3D when the bomb went off. Paramount didn't want to do it, thought it wouldn't be commercial enough."

Thanks a lot.
"Oh, one more thing that you don't know. In every George Pal picture, there's a Woody Woodpecker, and you have to find it. Because he and Walter Lanz were the best of friends. In Destination Moon, you see a big Woody Woodpecker, and in When Worlds Collide, you see it on a ball and you see it on the girl's scarf, but in War of the Worlds it's impossible to find. But I know where it is. It's in the beginning of the movie. It's there, exactly where a woodpecker would be.”

website: www.annrobinson.com
Interview originally posted 28th June 2005

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Day of the Mummy

Director: Johnny Tabor
Writer: Garry Charles
Producers: Jesse Baget, Lisandro Novello
Cast: Danny Glover, William McNamara, Andrea Monier
Country: USA
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: UK DVD

Day of the Mummy is a film that works extra hard at being rubbish. It’s not enough that the direction is amateurish, the script is lousy and the acting would need to improve considerably to reach the level of being merely shoddy. It’s not enough that the film is a dull non-story about one-dimensional characters on an arbitrary quest that goes nowhere, with the promised mummy not even hinted at until nearly an hour into the 77-minute run-time. No, someone said hey, let’s go the extra mile and make this movie actually annoying. Let’s have an irritating, pointless gimmick throughout the film that makes it a genuine chore to sit through, no matter how forgiving/stoned you may be. Yes, that will work.

This, because absolutely no-one demanded it, is a found footage mummy movie. As a mummy movie, it’s crap. But as a found footage film… it’s still crap.

After a camcorder-shot prologue, a second prologue (a, what, ‘logue’ I guess) introduces us to Jack Wells (William McNamara: Montgomery Clift in a Liz Taylor biopic, plus David DeCoteau’s punctuation-heavy My Stepbrother is a Vampire!?! and Argento’s Opera), a Happy Shopper Indiana Jones who is supposedly some sort of ladies’ man despite his very obvious beer gut.

A millionaire named Carl (Danny freaking Glover) appears on Jack’s laptop via some sort of Skype-like system to explain the parcel that Jack has just received. Carl wants Jack to join an expedition to find a particular mummy which is reputed to have been buried with a massive jewel. For no sensible reason, he has sent Jack a pair of spectacles that include a tiny camera which will allow Carl – and the unlucky DVD purchaser – to watch everything that happens. There is also a little earpiece doodad which will allow Carl to talk to Jack. And presumably some sort of microphone so that Carl can hear what’s going on.

And so the entire film, barring an epilogue, is seen from Jack’s point of view.

Except of course, as a conceit this just doesn’t work at all. The idea seems to have been dreamt up by someone who doesn’t wear glasses and doesn’t realise that a spectacles-wearer has a certain amount of peripheral vision (even more so when the specs have plain glass and the person has good eyesight). So for example, while much play is made by Carl of the fact that Jack is looking at the token female member of the expedition, that can only work if Jack is staring unsubtly straight ahead at her breasts rather than sneaking a sidelong glance.

However, it’s not enough to have the whole thing shot POV, because apparently these magic glasses also allow Carl himself to appear in a little box at the bottom left of the image. This serves no purpose: Carl never moves, and Jack can hear him anyway, but I guess they had Danny Glover booked for the whole morning so they figured they’d film him some more. The effect is to make something irritating even more annoying. On the plus side, this stupid, pointless gimmick does at least distract one from the paucity of the story and the production values.

It also means that, despite being second-billed, McNamara disappears from the film after that prologue, except for a couple of shots when Jack removes his glasses. McNamara’s voice is there, but mixed into the audio so badly that Jack sounds no more present in the scene than Carl does.

The whole thing is utterly pointless. Well, pointless from a narrative point of view. The fact that Jack is wearing his glasses has no bearing on the simplistic, linear plot in any way. The fact that Carl can see what is going on and converse with Jack matters not a whit since none of their conversations ever rise beyond the level of bland chat (although without them the running time might drop below the magic 70 minutes). Bizarrely, we are not told whether his travelling companions know he has this little camera, nor do they puzzle over why Jack keeps talking to himself, apart from one arbitrary scene halfway through.

Having established that said token female team member (Andrea Monier, who was in the sequel to Are You Scared) is an independent young woman who wants nothing to do with overweight lothario Jack Wells, she suddenly decides to creep into his tent and jump his bones. On this one occasion, she asks who he’s talking to and he jokingly tells her it’s a voice in his head. The matter is never touched on again.

Anyway, Jack and Token Girl and three male team members, plus an Egyptian guide, travel into the desert to find this tomb where the pharaoh is buried, or something. None of the characters has any actual character; they’re barely one-dimensional. And although we are told their names, I’ve forgotten them already.

After assorted inconsequential, uninteresting run-ins with gun-toting Islamic radicals, they find a cave and head inside. This is where the ridiculous idea of the hi-tech spectacles passes into the realm of utter stupidity since Carl keeps up his contact, meaning that whatever transmitter/receiver is embedded in these glasses works through hundreds of feet of rock.

Well, there’s some sort of cave-in and one of the male team members gets his arm stuck under tons of rock. And the others rescue him by grabbing him and pulling really hard … which would, oh God this is dumb, either shred all the flesh from his arm or dislocate his shoulder. They find the body of the guy from the prologue who conveniently has some sticks of dynamite in his shirt pocket. Gee, I wonder if those might come in handy later. And they find some sort of inner sanctum chamber full of small, lit candles.

And eventually – e-ven-tu-al-ly – a skinny mummy turns up, roaring and running around (“That thing’s too fast to be human,” is among many asinine lines in the script) and attacking people and generally doing all the things that mummies traditionally don’t do. You know, the mummy is the dignified, restrained one in the classic monster pantheon. He has waited millennia to return, he shuffles, he goes for a little walk, hahaha. He doesn’t jump around with a scary face looking to eat people like a post-28DL zombie. So basically, when the mummy does finally show up after nearly an hour of badly made tedium, he doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities that people who like mummy movies are looking for. Damian Leone provided the special make-up effects, which don't look too bad per se - and at least it's not a CGI mummy - but it's just not the mummy that the punters want.

It all wraps up in some way and there’s a pointless epilogue about Carl in which it is obvious that Danny Glover and the actor playing the US Government official interviewing him were never in the same room at the same time.

Day of the Mummy is really poor in almost every respect. I said above that the 'found footage' angle doesn't serve any narrative purpose - but it does serve a budgetary purpose. Things don't have to be lit properly (although the caves are still suspiciously well illuminated) or framed properly. It's cut-price film-making and it shows. Ryan Valdez is credited as cinematographer so presumably that was him, rather than McNamara, holding the camera.

But it does star Danny Glover. And I’m sure you’re thinking: how the hell did they get him to appear in this shit? This is Danny Glover, man. From Lethal Weapon and The Color Purple and Predator 2 and A Rage in Harlem. Although to be fair he was also in 2012 and Battle for Terra and something called Bad Ass 2: Bad Asses and something called 2047: Sights of Death and something called Day of the Mummy, no wait that’s this, and something called The Ninja Immovable Heart and Bad Ass 3: Bad Asses on the Bayou and Jesus Christ the man has been in a lot of shite.

Danny Glover may be a well-known Hollywood name, but he’s also a jobbing actor and that’s why he has amassed more than 160 IMDB credits over the past 35 years. He will work if you pay him. And that’s how this film got him. They offered him SAG rates for, I would guess, half a day – and frankly you or I could afford that. It’s easy money for Glover. He doesn’t have to rehearse or interact with any other actors. He doesn’t have to learn lines. Hell, he doesn’t even have to stand up. All he has to do is slip into a smoking jacket and cravat, sit in front of a green screen (later to show an obviously fake wall of bookshelves), memorise each line of dialogue in turn and say it a few times into the camera. He can stop for a drink or a piss. He can keep his own trousers and shoes on. He could be wearing boxer shorts and novelty slippers below that desk for all we know.

That’s how a lot of Hollywood works, even the people you’ve heard of, that you assume are famous millionaires because they are (or have been) in magazines. If you pay them the going rate, in advance, and treat them professionally, they’ll record your answerphone message for you if you want.

The rest of the cast is people you’ve never heard of, who had to actually travel to Venezuela (where this was shot, because presumably nowhere in the USA has sand and rocks) and interact with other people. None of them have been in anything interesting except for Brandon deSpain, the guy in the mummy costume, who was also wrapped up as the second title character in Frankenstein vs the Mummy.

This is the sophomore feature from director Johnny Tabor, whose debut Eaters was shot in 2012 (as Folklore) but seems to still be awaiting release. However as he was apparently asked to helm this movie, he may not be responsible for the bigger problems inherent in the premise. That suggests the motive force behind production was, I guess, the producers. One of these is Jesse Baget who directed the vastly more enjoyable Wrestlemaniac a few years ago. Baget also produced The Black Water Vampire (which shares several cast with this flick), Werewolf Rising, Frankenstein vs the Mummy, Mischief Night, Paranormal Movie and All Hallow’s Eve. Not a bad selection of cheapo-but-probably fun horror movies. On the other hand he also directed a family comedy called The Three Dogateers which, judging by the poster, could be the absolute worst film ever made. For anyone who thinks the Air Bud movies are too sophisticated and was depressed to learn they didn’t make a third Baby Geniuses picture – here’s what you’ve been looking for.

The other producer on Day of the Mummy (and The Three Dogateers) is Lisandro Novello, who co-produced a couple of Tabor’s previous pictures but mostly earns his crust as a ‘set production assistant’ (a runner) on big budget stuff like The Dark Knight Rises, Earth to Echo and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD.

The one name I did recognise (apart from Glover’s obviously) was the writer – because he’s British. Garry Charles is rather unfairly associated by the IMDB with Summer of the Massacre, arguably the worst modern British horror film not directed by Richard Driscoll. Charles didn’t actually write Bryn Hammond’s classic, he adapted it into a ‘novel’ (which presumably consists of the sentence ‘The crap serial killer ran away through the ferns squealing.’ repeated over and over again for 80 pages). He did write an unreleased, probably unfinished, remake of Summer of the Massacre starring Zara Phythian. Since then he has written some shorts and some self-published novels as well as getting ‘original story’ credit on Dead Cert and a shared screenplay credit (according to the IMDB) on the forthcoming Cute Little Buggers. Fair play to the guy: he’s got more produced credits than me, and quite possibly he was given restrictions on Day of the Mummy that prevented him from giving it a proper story or characters. Or maybe that was his choice.

I don’t know who is responsible for Day of the Mummy being rubbish, nor do I care. It just is.
A final note of props to whoever designed the back of the UK sleeve, which shows a massive army of mummies advancing across the desert, the leading ones being shredded by a machine gun. Instead of, you know, one mummy running around some Venezuelan caves screaming. Awesomely deceitful marketing. Bravo.

MJS rating: C-

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

The Thirsty Dead

Director: Terry Becker
Writer: Charles Dennis
Producer: Wesley E De Pue
Cast: Jennifer Billingsley, Judith McConnell, John Considine
Year of release: 1974
Country: Philippines
Reviewed from: UK rental VHS (AVR)

Never judge a book by its cover, but a sleeve can tell you a lot about a video. Firstly, the title is given as just Thirsty Dead on the front and spine instead of the correct The Thirsty Dead (as on screen and indeed on the back of the sleeve). Both front and back of the sleeve proclaim the film to be “a surgical nightmare” and while you could argue that there are nightmarish elements, there is not a hint of anything surgical. And the main picture of an unshaven bloke swigging blood from a laboratory flask - God alone knows where they got that or what it’s supposed to be!

The Thirsty Dead, like all great horror movies, begins in a seedy Filipino night club where a go-go dancer is gyrating wildly (and frankly, rather amateurishly) in a cage for the amusement of sailors and other patrons. This is sassy Claire (former Miss Pennsylvania and daytime soap star Judith McConnell - or Mc Connell as the credits have it - from The Doll Squad) who hears an announcement on the radio about a rumoured Hong Kong-based white slave operation (“For the second time in 48 hours, a young woman has disappeared from the streets of Manila.”) moments before she is kidnapped.

The police are baffled: “Seven girls in a month. All young, all attractive. No motives, no clues, no ransom notes, no bodies.”

Next we meet Laura (Jennifer Billingsley: The Spy with My Face) who is an “airline stewardess” according to the sleeve though that’s not stated in the film and who has an amazing head of Farrah Fawcet-style hair. She is telling her boyfriend Francisco (Rod Navarro: Armalite Commandos and the 1955 classic - probably - Bim, Bam, Bum) why she won’t marry him and moments after they part she too is grabbed by hooded mysteriosos. Taken through the sewers out of the city then up a river into the jungle, she joins three other young women: blonde teenager Ann (Fredricka Myers), oriental Bonnie (Chiqui de Rosa) and our old friend Claire, who is frankly looking forward to being a white slave in Hong Kong.

But they’re not off to Honkers. Instead the girls' captors drop their robes revealing themselves to be bald, mute, loincloth clad men who shepherd the women through the jungle. There are a great deal of ‘walking through the jungle’ shots in this film...

In a secret network of caves deep inside a mountain live a community of beautiful people who are immortal and who spend their days making jewellery and pottery. They are led by High Priestess Ranu (Tani Guthrie: Daughters of Satan) and High Priest Baru (John Considine: When Time Ran Out, Doomsday Virus, Fat Man and Little Boy and, um, Free Willy 2), the former High Priest having somehow died 500 years ago. He is called Raoul or Ramon or similar (difficult to make it out) and now exists as a disembodied head in a red glass box atop a stone table.

The people are all garbed in simple, pastel-coloured dresses and smocks - though Baru also has a pale blue cloak with a huge stand-up collar - and with the extensive use of hopelessly unrealistic cave sets, the whole film consequently looks alarmingly like a 1960s Star Trek episode.

Claire, Ann and Bonnie are all going to join the group of young women whose blood is used to keep the immortals alive. The girls lie down on stone slabs and a nick is made in their neck from which blood is collected in a cup. A magic leaf heals the nick and the blood is mixed with the essence of the leaf then drunk. Laura is offered the chance to join the immortals because she looks exactly like the one that the prophecies talked about yada yada yada but she turns them down, much to the shock of Baru and Ranu. Laura wants to stay with the other three but Baru shows her what will happen to them; they will rapidly wizen and age and then die.

Laura, Ann, Bonnie and (against her better judgement) Claire escape with the help of a wizened old crone named Eva (Mary Walters) and receive shelter from a jungle village - but Baru finds them and takes them back. However, he is starting to be swayed by Laura’s arguments about how immoral the whole set-up is. Baru says that they worship only beauty but Laura says that their actions make them ugly. So eventually Baru decides to help the girls escape by freeing the locked up old crones. (Eva has died by this time. “She was 28,” says Baru. “Brought here five years ago.”) The sight of unkempt troglodytes attacking beautiful people in pastel outfits is very reminiscent of the Morlocks and Eloi in George Pal’s version of War of the Worlds.

Claire doesn’t want to escape, she wants to become immortal: “I’m pretty. I’ve got a good body. They’ll take me.” Laura chases her through the stone tunnels until Claire falls into a pit and dies. Baru then leads the other three to the outside, but when they pass the ‘ring of age’ (some markings on the rocks) he starts to age rapidly by the miracle of lap dissolves and the girls leave him. They eventually make it to a road and flag down a passing jeep, but a subsequent police helicopter search shows nothing on the mountain which is unclimbable anyway. Or is it?

What a load of tosh this ‘International Amusement Corporation’ production is. The promise of a nasty horror movie is betrayed by the daft sub-Shangri-La plot (Blood Cult of Shangri-La is actually given as an alternative title by some sources, as is Blood Hunt). It’s competently enough made and the acting’s not too bad, but frankly it’s just not very interesting, with the high point being Claire’s ambivalent attitude to her kidnapping. The legendary Vic Diaz (Beast of the Yellow Night, Night of the Cobra Woman, Wonder Women, The Big Bird Cage) turns up at the end as a policeman and was also production co-ordinator, but even that’s not enough to make me recommend this movie.

This seems to be the only feature from director Terry Becker, who also helmed episodes of M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible and short-lived musical-spin-off sitcom Anna and the King. Charles Dennis (Double Negative, a TV movie of Svengali and The Jayne Mansfield Story, also a novelist and actor) wrote the screenplay from a story by Becker and Lou Whitehill (Wonder Women).

Cinematographer Nonong Rasca also shot Superbeast, Night of the Cobra Woman and Daughters of Satan while art director Robert Formosa worked on Black Mama White Mama, Savage Sisters and The Twilight People. Make-up artist Cecile Baun went on to do prosthetics for both Platoon and Hamburger Hill! The most impressive name here is composer Richard LaSalle, whose other credits include The Mermaids of Tiburon, Twice-Told Tales, The Time Travellers and for TV: Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, Planet of the Apes and Wonder Woman!

The Thirsty Dead is utterly typical of mid-1970s Filipino fantasy movies - except that it has a lot less blood than many of them and no nudity whatsoever. It’s okay, nothing more, though it might look better on DVD as this ex-rental tape is a lousy transfer of a lousy print. Incidentally, many sources shoe-horn this into the vampire genre because of the eternal-life-from-blood-drinking theme, but it should be stressed that the characters are not particularly thirsty and they’re certainly not dead.

MJS rating: C
Review originally posted 14th April 2007.


Directors: Kim Jee-Woon; Nonzee Nimibutr; Peter Ho-Sun Chan
Writers: Kim Jee-Woon; Nitas Singhamat; Jojo Hui, Matt Chow
Producers: Oh Jung-Wan; Nonzee Nimibutr, Duangkamol Limcharoen; Jojo Hui
Cast: Jung Bo-Seog, Kim Hye-Soo; Pongsanart Vinsiri, Suwinit Panjamawat; Leon Lai, Eric Tsang
Year of release: 2002
Country: South Korea; Thailand; Hong Kong
Reviewed from: Thai VCD

New to Asian cinema and not sure which country’s films you want to explore? Why not try this convenient sampler movie, a horror anthology comprising three segments of 40 minutes or so from three Pacific countries. Applause Pictures (Hong Kong) and Cinemasia (Thailand) had previously collaborated on the dramas Jan Dara and Montrak Transistor, and for this movie South Korea’s Bom Productions was brought into the fold.

The first story is Memories, written and directed by Korean hotshot Kim Jee-Woon whose directorial debut The Quiet Family was ‘remade’ by Takashi Miike as Happiness of the Katakuris. Jung Bo-Seog (Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors) stars as an un-named man who is starting to go mad since his wife (Kim Hye-Soo: Dr K, Eternal Empire) disappeared and can see her ghostly apparition (a stylistic nod to Ring’s Sadko). At the same time, the wife (neither character is named) wakes up on the street and wanders around, trying to work out where she is and indeed, who she is.

This is a very stylish, slow-paced film - it opens with an agonisingly slow closing-in shot which barely merits the term ‘zoom’. While it’s fairly obvious that there is some sort of Carnival of Souls deal going on with the wife, the resolution is suitably shocking and unexpected and really very nasty.

Nonzee Nimibutr, who directed the Thai segment The Wheel, was an award-winning director of TV commercials and pop videos before scoring a smash hit when his second feature Nang Nak outgrossed Titanic at the Thai box office. Internationally, he has established a reputation as a producer, being the man behind both Bangkok Dangerous and Tears of the Black Tiger. For Three, he co-wrote a story with Nang Nak art director Ek Iemchuen but the finished screenplay was written by Nitas Singhamat.

The Wheel is based around a Thai theatrical troupe, highlighting the intense rivalry between the lowly masked players and the respected puppeteers, and the tradition that puppets must not be used by anyone except the puppetmaster who created them.

Puppetmaster Tao suffers agonising visions after his wife and child are drowned while following his instructions to “drown the puppets”. After Tao also dies, mask actor Master Tong (Pongsanart Visiri) sees his chance to take over the puppetry and move up a caste. He tries to remake the puppets and claim that they are new ones, but the curse holds him in its sway, destroying not only him but also the troupe’s young stars/lovers through the supernaturally orchestrated jealousy of his son/apprentice Gaan (Suwinit Panjamawat: Tears of the Black Tiger).

Puppets are always scary. From the ventriloquist’s doll in Dead of Night through to Chucky in the Child’s Play movies and beyond, those grinning, lifeless mockeries of real people can, when well-handled, scare the life out an audience. The puppets in The Wheel are traditional, scary-faced Thai demons and though they never ‘come to life’ they exert a terrifying influence over those who seek to control them. With some gruesome, ghostly goings-on and a shadowy, night-time setting, The Wheel is easily the scariest of the three segments in Three.

The Hong Kong segment, Going Home, was originally announced as being directed by Teddy Chen (Purple Storm) but in the end he received only a ‘story by’ credit (along with Su Chao-Pin). Detective Chan Kwok-Wai (Eric Tsang: Project S, Gen-X Cops) and his young son Cheung (Li Ting-Fung) move into a semi-derelict apartment block, the only other occupants being the mysterious Yu Fei (Leon Lai: Wicked City) and his wheelchair bound wife Hai’er (Eugenia Yuan). Cheung is perturbed by Yu’s young daughter, a little girl in a red coat (a nod to Don’t Look Now of course) but his father tells him not to be silly.

When Cheung goes missing, Chan naturally makes an enquiry of his only neighbour and finds himself trapped by the deluded Yu whose wife - though he has conversations with her - is not so much paralysed as dead. But there’s a lot more to the story than a simple Psycho knock-off: Yu is suspicious of western medicine and is using traditional Chinese medicine to cure/revive Hai’er. Like all the best ghost stories, Going Home has not just a simple twist at the end but a succession of increasingly horrific/enigmatic revelations.

Peter Ho-Sun Chan is the director (with, interestingly, an Australian DP, Christopher Doyle: Rabbit-Proof Fence, Psycho remake). Chan helmed He’s A Woman, She’s a Man, was named as one of Ten Directors to Watch by Variety in 1998, and more recently produced the superb HK/Thai horror flick The Eye.

There are rumours that Three, following its success at a couple of film festivals in London, may be heading for a UK theatrical release, but I jumped the gun on this one and picked up a Thai VCD, which has a decent widescreen transfer, though it naturally suffers from typical VCD artefacting and The Wheel in particular is overly dark. But it was only a fiver, though I’m going to spend as much again anyway when/if this comes to my local cinema. Being the ‘International Version’, this disc has good English subs (though there are a couple of spelling mistakes in them) and also includes a trailer for Three (which interestingly shows the films in the order: Memories, Going Home, The Wheel) plus trailers for The Eye (in Thai) and Michelle Yeoh’s action fantasy The Touch (in English).

[Three was followed by a second anthology, Three... Extremes which was released first in the west. Consequently the US release of this film was retitled Three... Extremes II. - MJS]

MJS rating: A-
Review originally posted 19th April 2008.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Sherlock Holmes

Director: Rachel Lee Goldenberg
Writer: Paul Bales
Producer: David Latt
Cast: Gareth David-Lloyd, Dominic Keating, Ben Syder
Country: USA
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: UK disc (Revolver)
Website: www.theasylum.cc

The UK sleeve of the latest Asylum feature is magnificent: dinosaurs! dragons! the Palace of Westminster alight! a giant octopus attacking Westminster Bridge! some sort of robot-thing! Sherlock Holmes himself! and Ianto off Torchwood! Much is promised. Fortunately, most is delivered in a storming steampunk romp which puts to shame many bigger-budgeted, more faithful Holmes pictures.

Which is why it’s a shame that the only quote they could come up with was “in an extraordinary league of its own” (credited to ‘blockbuster.co.uk’) which has the unfortunate effect of suggesting this film is similar in some way to notorious 2003 turkey The League of Extraordinarily Bad Special Effects. Trust me, it’s not. It’s everything that The League of Excruciatingly Poor Acting tried to be and failed.

This is, for one thing, entertaining, which the bigger film certainly wasn’t and, despite its tiny budget, this has better effects and better production values all round than The League of Exceptionally Bad Scripts. It also helps that Caernarfon looks a lot more like 19th century London than Prague could ever manage. And that the Asylum’s film doesn’t star past-his-sell-by-date old twat Sean Connery.

But I’m damning with feint praise here. Almost anything would be better than The League of Explain to Me Again Why I’m Watching This Shit (you can tell I really don’t like it!). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes - to use the eventual full on-screen title - is a belter, easily one of the Asylum’s best.

The title is an oddity worth noting as the production was shot under the working title Sherlock. The trailer calls it Sherlock Holmes but the DVD and titles call it Sir Arthur... (with the possessive credit in much smaller type, of course) although it’s just called Sherlock Holmes again at the end of the credits. The dilemma, of course, was to cruise as much as possible on the back of the near-simultaneous Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes without making people think this was a film they had already seen.

So this is kind of a mockbuster but only in the sense that War of the Worlds was, not in the more literal and obvious sense of Transmorphers or Snakes on a Train.

Though not adapted - even loosely - from any Conan Doyle story, the script by Paul Bales includes a few nods to ‘the canon’. The characterisations of Holmes and Watson are pretty spot-on and while the plot itself is (let’s be honest) bonkers nonsense, the fantastical steampunk setting gives this hugely likeable film a degree of leeway which it might not be able to afford if it had a more conventional story.

For a low-low-budget feature (about $150,000, give or take, from what I can piece together) this looks mightily impressive and does a great job of recreating Victorian London - which is why the one or two anachronisms and Americanisms which do creep in jar annoyingly. For example, the credits play over CG cityscapes of 19th London, one of which is a railway station. But the engine briefly seen in front of the station is very, very obviously an American railroad engine.

This isn’t something that you have to be a bit of a geek to spot (like the CG ‘American’ submarines in Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus which were actually Royal Navy subs). British and American steam engines look absolutely nothing like each other, apart from having wheels, and anyone who has ever been a small boy should know that.

On the one hand, this is nitpicking: it’s on-screen for no more than a few seconds as part of a larger image and has no involvement with the story. But it gave me the thirst for a neologism: 'nometgir'. A Nometgir is something which is wrong but of which it can be said that it would be ‘No more expensive to get it right.’ There are a couple of other shots of a (real) steam engine in action later on which were presumably shot at the Welsh Highland Railway, which has a terminus at Caernarfon.

While I’m nitpicking, the film starts with a prologue of an old Dr Watson (played by David Shackleton: Another Night, Secret Rage) in 1940, specifically 29th December 1940 which was, of course, the height of the Blitz. It’s a cheap-but-effective shot of squadrons of planes flying over London, explosions erupting below. But it is missing four things, all of which were in action throughout every single night of the Blitz: anti-aircraft fire, barrage balloons, searchlights and an ARP warden yelling “Put that bloody light out!” at the aged doctor who sits on the top floor of a building, attended by a young woman and gazing out through a lit window. Rachael Evelyn (John Carter of Mars, Ironclad) is credited as ‘Miss Lucy Hudson’, a nice touch which implies that she is the (great-?) grand-daughter of the original housekeeper.

Watson comments that it is the second time he has watched London burn - and somebody has really done their homework here because 29th December 1940 was not just the biggest raid on London up to that point, it was also the night that the Luftwaffe dropped far more incendiary bombs than ever before because they knew that there was a neap tide that night, meaning the River Thames was unusually low and it would be considerably more difficult for the London Fire Brigade to reach it with their hoses.

Even without showing a light, the top floor of a building is a bleeding dangerous place to be during an air raid. But Dr Watson takes this opportunity to recount to Miss Hudson an undocumented Sherlock Holmes adventure, which she dutifully transcribes. This nice little scene is let down a little in the logic stakes by Miss Hudson’s initial enquiry, after Dr Watson explains the set-up: “Who is ‘he’?”

Well, ‘he’ is the bloke I wrote all those famous stories about who lodged with your Gran for most of his adult life. I’m surprised that neither I nor your Gran ever mentioned him before...

And so we flashback to another very specific date: 19th May 1882. According to various Sherlock Holmes chronologies (which I have just googled) this would make the events of the Asylum’s movie the first case solved by Holmes after his first meeting with Watson in Chapter 1 of A Study in Scarlet, ahead of the first documented case, 'The Speckled Band' (there are two earlier cases in the canon but they are recounted by Holmes to Watson as events which predated their meeting).

This is all well and good, and ties in with the lack here of the celebrity which is often seen to surround Holmes in later stories, as well as nice little touches like a suggestion that Holmes, though a smoker, is not yet a drug addict. But, that said, the plot hinges on Holmes and Lestrade having worked alongside each other on numerous occasions and Lestrade has a quite unsubtle and obvious dislike of Watson (which is never explained, as far as I can tell). Certainly H and W seem like old pals, not newly minted friends.

Ah yes, the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson. On the commentary, writer Bales calls this a “Victorian bromance” and there is a definite - but gloriously subtle - homoerotic subtext here. There are just enough moments where Holmes and Watson hold eye contact that little bit longer than two pals normally would. It’s super!

There is no doubt that the casting of Gareth David-Lloyd adds to the subtext because, despite his Victorian garb and his trim moustache, he still seems like Ianto. Or at least, his relationship with Holmes smacks of Ianto and Captain Jack. Like Captain Jack, Holmes is mercurial, enigmatic, super-confident, dynamic, occasionally flamboyant and roguishly handsome. Like Ianto Jones, Dr Watson is stiffly formal, reserved, responsible and very, very loyal. It is impossible not to map the one relationship onto the other.

So here’s what I’m trying to figure out: am I reading too much subtext into this because of the casting of Gareth David-Lloyd, or did they cast Gareth David-Lloyd (at least in part) in order to add a deliberate subtext?

Anyway, we haven’t met Holmes and (young) Watson yet because first we have a scene on board a ship in the middle of the English Channel. We later learn that this was carrying tax money back from the West Indies which is a little odd because you would expect a ship like that to go to a West Coast port like Liverpool or Bristol. But that’s the least of the crew’s problems. It’s night-time and all seems well until someone screams that there is something in the water heading straight for them. There is much staring and peering but curiously no-one does what you or I would do in such a situation, which is change course.

The whatever-it-is then disappears and all seems well until - tentacles! Yes, it’s a giant octopus. In point of fact, it’s probably the same CGI giant octopus that was in Mega-Shark vs Giant Octopus. It drags sailors off the deck, pulls down masts and generally wrecks the ship.

When we finally meet Watson, he is performing an autopsy. Holmes breezes in and proceeds to identify the cause of death from tiny, almost imperceptible, apparently meaningless clues - as is his wont. It’s a nice establishing scene. Curiously, there’s no precise date on it although it must be a day or two later. In fact, we never get any more date or location captions.

Lestrade (William Huw, who was Tom in Merlin and the War of Dragons) has called in Holmes to investigate the disappearance of the ship, since there was no storm and no obvious cause of its sinking. There is a single survivor, who is in hospital and quite mad, which is why Holmes has called in Watson.

Somewhere around here, the plot starts to unravel, which is a shame as the film has barely started. But hold on for the ride because it’s great fun, if defiantly loopy.

Holmes, Watson and Lestrade go to a cliff top, accompanied by a local rock-climber (played by a local rock-climber) with the intention of abseiling down to examine the shipwreck. Yes, we have already established that the ship sank in mid-Channel, but let’s just roll with it because there is a smashing dialogue exchange here:

Watson: “I can’t let you do this, Holmes. It’s far too dangerous.”
Holmes. “You’re right. You should do this. After all, you have a military background.”
Watson: “I was an army surgeon!”

David-Lloyd’s restrained exasperation makes this a gem of a moment. And there are a few others scattered around the script.

Much to his concern, and entirely devoid of safety equipment except the rope tied around his waste, Watson descends the cliff. Filmed on South Stacks, Anglesey, there is some nice editing here as we repeatedly cut between a stunt double halfway down a real cliff and close-ups of the actor on a much smaller cliff. If the latter is not quite as vertical as the former, no worries.

Halfway down the cliff, Watson reports that there is no sign of the ship. He does however see someone in the water who seems to be struggling but, after Watson shouts down and receives no response, turns out to be merely a wave-tossed corpse. Watson then re-ascends, surviving the predictable last-moment rope-snap, and completely fails to mention the corpse, while neither Holmes nor Lestrade seems at all bothered at the absence of the ship’s remains (an absence which is not surprising as it sank several miles out to sea).

Basically, what we have here is a scene which is great in terms of character development, but adds precisely nothing to the narrative. Watson is prepared to climb down the cliff for his friend, even though it is plainly stupidly dangerous. Holmes presents a studied insouciance, more bothered about his pipe than his rope-suspended pal, but he has presumably made a careful assessment of the situation and deduced that Watson will be safe - then leaps into action when the rope frays. Meanwhile, Lestrade is determinedly indifferent and stand-offish. In character terms, this is cracking stuff.

But the scene drags on and on before eventually going nowhere at all. There’s all this preamble about looking at the ship but the ship’s not there and no-one cares. A dead body is there, which may or may not have some connection with the sinking, but that doesn’t even get mentioned. At the end of the scene, none of the characters know any more than they did at the start, and nor do the audiences. Narrative progression is precisely zero.

On the DVD commentary is the revelation that this scene was not in Paul Bales’ screenplay but was added by director Rachel Lee Goldenberg to replace one in which Holmes and Watson use a Victorian submarine to examine the wreck, while fending off sharks. (There are indeed sharks in the English channel, but not many. Presumably this would have been a smaller version of the CGI shark from Mega-Shark vs...) The sub scene was deemed too difficult and expensive, even for the ambitious Asylum (you’ll see how ambitious later) which is a shame. Not just because a sequence with a submarine and a shark would have been terrific, but because I can’t help feeling that there might have been something in what they found down on the wreck which would inform the whole plot and allow it to make sense.

Or maybe not.

This may also explain why the cliff scene is so painfully long: they had to replace a complicated scene with the same number of pages. Holmes and Watson are separated so there’s no opportunity for dialogue and, while David-Lloyd’s acting here is top-notch, there’s only so many times you can look at Watson’s terrified stare or a close-up of his foot knocking pebbles down the cliff.

It may be that the scene seems to drag because nothing happens. But my belief is that it drags and nothing happens.

A somewhat picaresque narrative proceeds from here, with progression between scenes usually determined by Holmes’ ability to identify any fragment of stuff as having only possible originated in one location.

First, we cut to the East End, represented surprisingly well by the streets of Caernarfon. Why this works - and this may be deliberate but I suspect it’s just serendipitous - is because in Victorian times, not everything was Victorian. It’s a common mistake, in the production design of historical films, to set everything in period. But look around you: not everything in 2010 (or whenever you’re reading this) dates from this year. Good Lord, I’m typing this on an antique desk in a 19th century house. Even my filing cabinet dates from the last century (1998 to be precise).

So the fact that this cinematic East End seems to be a mishmash of Victorian architecture and older is actually just right. Not quite as old, however, as the small Tyrannosaurus rex which attacks a young man as he is attempting to negotiate a business deal with a tart. It’s a very small T rex, obviously a juvenile (well, not really, but all will be revealed later).

Again from the ‘Director‘s Commentary’ (which also features associate producer/writer Bales and line producer Stephen Fiske) we learn that this was written as an Iguanodon but was changed to a T rex because The Asylum already own a CG T rex and didn’t have the budget to spring for a different species. This is interesting because of course T rex was unknown to science until the early 20th century while Iguanodon, as one of the first dinosaurs properly studied and described, was well known by the 1880s.

Look, I’m going to stick in a spoiler here, because it’s essential for proper discussion. A dinosaur in Victorian London has to be either the result of some form of time travel or a robot. This one’s a robot. If there was time travel afoot, a T rex would have made sense, even before its scientific discovery. But someone built this dinosaur. Presumably they built it at half-size so that it could get down narrow East End passageways and through doors.

By 1882, it had finally just been established that Iguanodon was bipedal, which left me thinking how brilliant it would be if some mad Victorian inventor had created a robot based on the utterly wrong quadropedal Iguanodon statue at Crystal Palace, the one with the spiky thumb bone placed on its nose like a rhino horn. It had also been well established by then that Iguanodon was a herbivore so quite how or why it would have savaged innocent East End kerb-crawlers is, I fear, moot.

What had certainly not been established - because it was only proven about a century later - is that bipedal dinosaurs carried their bodies horizontally with their tail held out straight for balance. As late as the 1970s, models and drawings of T rex and other bipeds showed them as tripeds: bodies held upright, tail supporting them like a kangaroo at rest as they lumbered across the prehistoric plains. It’s really only since Jurassic Park and Walking with Dinosaurs in the 1990s that the public perception of theropod dinos has changed to something analogous to a kangaroo in motion (only, obviously, without the hopping) so that the tail balances the body as the creature moves at high speed.

But to be fair, the fact that the inventor of this robotic juvenile T rex has correctly predicted its stance 100 years before the palaeontological establishment doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter because it’s less astounding than that the inventor has predicted any kind of T rex twenty years before the first Tyrannosaur skeleton was even chipped out of a rock.

The next morning, Watson reads about this event in the newspaper over breakfast, dismissing the report as pure sensationalism. A description of the creature, presumably supplied by the terrified moxy who witnessed the attack, says it had glowing eyes and sulphurous breath. Yet, despite this understandable exaggeration, Watson subsequently refers to it as a dinosaur - a deductive leap of appropriately Sherlockian proportions (unless he has read ahead in the script).

But at this point, and running the risk of seeming like I’m doing nothing but complain about a film that I really enjoyed enormously, I must mention the worst scene in the film. It’s just a short, establishing shot of Baker Street, the camera following a young boy delivering newspapers (we actually get it twice in the film) and it has three utterly egregious mistakes, each of which is a nometgir: no more expensive to get it right.

Actually it’s four mistakes if we include the fact that young Tomos Jones has had his name unfortunately anglicised to Thomas in the end credits.

First there’s the costume. Underneath his waistcoat, the paper boy is wearing a close-fitting, round-neck, long-sleeved top which is utterly anachronistic in terms of both style and cleanliness. This is a Victorian urchin for God’s sake - smear some crap on him. Worse than that though is the way that he is delivering the papers. He’s doing it in the American manner. That is, each paper is tightly rolled and tied with string and he is nonchalantly flinging them onto doorsteps as he walks down the street.

No no no, a thousand times no! No British paper boy has ever done anything like that. Not in 1882, not in 1982, not now - and if newspapers still exist seven decades hence, they won’t do it in 2082 either. It’s one Americanism which has not seeped into British society despite its ubiquity in US movies and TV. Unlike teenage proms and trick or treating and other ghastly imports, throwing newspapers will never catch on here for the simple reason that, if any British paper boy did this, every customer would complain and he would be out of a part-time job before you could say “Where’s my bloody Daily Mirror?”

In the UK, newspapers are kept flat: either unfolded (tabloids) or folded once (broadsheets). A stack of them is then slid into the paper boy’s bag. No rolling, no string. You couldn’t roll most Saturday or Sunday papers anyway - they’re too stuffed full of supplements. And it would really screw up the free DVDs (although that’s not quite so germane in a Victorian setting obviously). Then - and pay attention, Hollywood - the paper boy walks up to each front door, carefully folds the newspaper and pushes it through the letterbox. So that the householder, coming downstairs, can simply pick up the paper off the doormat.

I’m really puzzled that nobody thought to mention this at the time. There were only about nine or ten Americans on the production: everyone else was Welsh or English. Didn’t anyone say to the director: you know, this isn’t how newspapers are delivered in Britain. And it would have cost no more to get it right, in fact it would have been cheaper because the production budget wouldn’t have had to shell out for bits of string!

But even this is overshadowed by a mistake which will, I suspect, have many Holmes purists frothing at the mouth. They have got the man’s address wrong.

If there is one thing that everyone knows about Sherlock Holmes, it’s his address. He lives at 221B Baker Street. But not this Sherlock, oh no. The number on his front door is 221.

And yet and yet, maybe not all Holmes purists will get apoplectic at this because, astoundingly, the Wikipedia entry on 221B Baker Street (which has presumably been written by obsessive Conan Doyle nerds) makes the same mistake, or at least the mistake which I infer from this as the best explanation for the wrong door number. I can only assume it stems from an American misunderstanding of how British addresses work.

Here is what Wikipedia says: “The number followed by a letter is a separate number in law and indicated an apartment on the 1st floor (US - 2nd floor) of a residential lodging house that was likely to have formed part of a Georgian terrace.” This is simply wrong. For starters, Sherlock Holmes does not live in an ‘apartment’ (what we could call a flat over here). He ‘takes rooms’ in a boarding house belonging to Mrs Hudson. And as such, he does not have a separate address. If you came and stayed in my back bedroom for a while, you wouldn’t have a different address to me. 221B is the number of the whole house, not the bedroom and sitting room on the first floor where Holmes spends his time.

If the building was numbered 221 and divided into discrete flats, Holmes’ address would be ‘Flat B, 221 Baker Street, London’. Note that the subdivision of the building is listed before the building itself, which is the opposite to the American way of forming addresses. In the USA, the address would be ‘221 Baker Street, Apartment B, New York’.

If you will allow me a little divulgence from the actual review (you may recall, I’m supposedly reviewing a film here), this raises the interesting topic of the differences between American and British house numbering. And it’s not unreasonable that Americans should find our system confusing because nobody in Britain understands theirs. A check of Wikipedia reveals that there are umpteen different numbering systems in the States but they are mostly based on geographical location, whereas UK house numbering is purely about relative position.

Most American cities have been built from scratch within the past 150 years or so, usually on a grid system which creates blocks. Sequentially numbered streets run in one direction and sequentially numbered avenues run perpendicular to them. As I understand it, the house number generally indicates how many yards the property is from the junction with the adjacent side-road. So 1234, 56th Street would be 12 yards from the junction with 34th Avenue. Or 34 yards from the junction with 12th Avenue. Or something. I don’t bloody know!

The point is that the numbers are not sequential. They’re in ascending order (I think) but they don’t naturally follow on and consequently, if it becomes necessary to add a new property onto a block, this can be done without worrying about other addresses. Because the address simply denotes a specific point on the ground, irrespective of what properties might be on either side.

British house numbering, on the other hand, is sequential. So when we read that, for example, Michael Jackson was born at 2300 Jackson Street, the reaction in the UK is to think, “Crikey! That’s a long street - it’s got 2,300 houses on it.”

In this country, our towns and cities haven’t been planned. They mostly started as Iron Age settlements, long before anyone had even found America, not even the Vikings. And over the ensuing 1,000+ years, these towns have expanded organically, chaotically, with odd roads built around odd clusters of buildings, then new odd buildings built alongside the odd roads when the old buildings fall/burn down. There’s no grid system and none of our thoroughfares are numbered.

A British street (or avenue or road or way or close or lane or...) starts with house number 1. Next door is house number 3, then house number 5 and so on. On the other side of the street, opposite number 1, is house number 2, then number 4 and so on. Odd numbers up one side, even numbers up the other. If one side has large buildings and the other small, or there’s a major interruption such as a park, then it is possible for the two sides to be completely out of sync with, say, house number 120 opposite house number 75. Where the two sides are roughly in sync despite the presence of a park or other interruption, that usually indicates that houses existed there once but have been pulled down. British streets can be quite long: my old address was number 405 and I think the road went up to about 600. But it would be extremely unusual to have a four-figure house number.

Sometimes, new houses will be added partway along the street, either because previously empty land is being built on or because a large building has been pulled down and replaced with two or more smaller ones. Because the British system is about relative position on the street, not geographical location, new numbers have to be inserted into a sequence which is already complete. And the way we get round this is - we stick letters on the end.

So, in a nutshell, the address ‘221B Baker Street’ indicates that Mrs Hudson’s house is two doors along from 221 Baker Street, but before you get to 223 Baker Street. Her neighbour on one side is number 221A and on the other is 223 (or, conceivably, 221C).

It’s nothing to do with apartments at all. Sherlock Holmes does not live in an apartment. (Of course, the address was fictional when the stories were written as Baker Street only had about a hundred houses at that time.)

And that is why the sight of a Victorian lad in a white, long-sleeved T-shirt, flinging rolled-up newspapers onto the doorstep of a house at 221 Baker Street rankles so much with me. None of those things would have cost any more to get right. Gah!

(By the way, if any wiki-geeks want to correct the entry on 221B Baker Street and use this as a reference, feel free.)

After breakfast, Watson and Holmes go for a ‘morning constitutional’. A cynic might think their chosen area is rather thickly wooded for central London but in fact London is a green city and there are plenty of densely forested parks within easy walking distance of Baker Street, so I’ll happy approve this decision. They observe that a park fountain is rather lacklustre this morning, compared with its usual height, just as a drunk bloke (Dennis Jones, recognisable as an extra in other scenes) runs past them, screaming about a monster.

Before you can say ‘prehistoric anachronism’, the T rex appears and chases the men through the trees. They eventually take shelter in a semi-derelict wooden building which apparently used to house the pump mechanism for the fountain - only it’s not there. The machinery has been stolen - which is why the fountain is only reaching half its normal height. I’m sure, like me, you’re wondering how the fountain is able to operate at any height if there’s no pump. You may also be wondering why a park fountain would require a separate building, some distance away, with a huge machine pump. There’s nothing like that near any of the fountains in any of my local parks...

Around this time we are introduced to our chief villain, played by Dominic Keating from Star Trek: Enterprise, the only actor to fly over from LA although he’s actually British. In fact he was born in Beaumont Leys, just up the road from here. We know he’s the villain because we’ve seen the trailer but we don’t yet know who he is. He’s just a bloke in a wheelchair with a bad cough (and it’s not often you see a wheelchair with a cough - aythangyew!).

This invalid is accompanied by an attractively formal woman who introduces herself as Anesidora Ivory (Elizabeth Arends, who was a cruise ship performer, appeared in an episode of Corrie and was in a stage play called Waitress for Godot!). Dressed like a Spanish widow who is secretly glad her husband fell off a boat, Anesidora holds herself upright at all times, neither smiles nor frowns and has pale skin which leads Watson to assume she is the patient, although she is actually seeking medication for the man in the wheelchair whom she calls her uncle. Dr Watson is somewhat smitten by the mysterious beauty and is all for asking her to the opera that very night until he receives a phone call from Holmes asking Watson to meet him in the East End that evening.

A note on the telephones seen here seems in order, especially as the script goes to the trouble of having Holmes comment on what a marvel they are. And in fact they would have been in 1882, a mere six years after the introduction of telephony to the UK. Holmes appears to be using a proper Victorian phone, with a cylindrical doodad held to his ear, except that he is not actually talking into anything! At this early stage, the mouthpiece was part of the main phone device. In 1882 the speaker’s mouth had to be near the wall-mounted mouth-piece. Holmes just seems to be rabbiting into thin air.

At the other end of the line, Watson is talking into a hulking great, 1940s-style bakelite device which is massively - and obviously - anachronistic. Now, here’s the thing. The commentary reveals that what Ben Syder is holding to his ear is actually a candlestick. I say bravo: terrific improvisation by props maker Keelie Shepard. But why stop there. All that was needed was a wooden box with a black-painted yoghurt pot stuck on the front and we would have believed that Holmes had a real Victorian phone with him. And then, since the two ends of the conversation are shot separately, why not reuse the same fake Victorian phone for Watson instead of giving him this thing that’s about 50-60 years too early?

Holmes and Watson’s investigations take them to a rubber factory run by (and apparently entirely staffed by) a suspicious character named Grolton (Dylan Jones, who also supervised the horses used on the shoot). Grolton says he sold a large order of rubber to an anonymous purchaser whom he never saw but when he grudgingly goes inside the building to find the invoice (following Holmes’ suggestion that the rozzers might be interested in certain matters of employment law in his factory...) what should turn up but that pesky T rex.

The beast seems to rip Grolton’s head off - an exterior shot shows blood splatting against the inside of a window - but when Grolton’s body is thrown through the (supposedly heavily barred) window onto the cobbles below, his noggin is intact, albeit his skin is peeling and he is very much dead. Our intrepid duo force their way in and confront the beast, running around the factory (actually an industrial museum) until Holmes injures his leg. Back in Baker Street, there’s a lovely moment where Watson washes the wound with the nearest available alcohol and Holmes’ agony stems not from the pain but from the improper use of a particularly fine brandy.

Finally, the investigation leads to a ‘castle’ (really a Tudor country house) where Holmes and Watson, after falling through a hole in the floor, find a static octopus and T rex - which, it must be said, is remarkably well-balanced as it stands silently. They also find what might at first be taken to be a steampunk automaton but actually turns out to be a powersuit. And this, without a doubt, is one the film’s strongest elements. Designed by Paul Curtis and constructed from leather painted to resemble brass, the suit is a magnificent creation - and wearable too! It has just enough gimcracks and gewgaws to really be a believable steampunk power-assisted exo-skeleton.

The person inside knocks Holmes around a bit before being revealed as... Dominic Keating (we still don’t know his character’s name and indeed won’t until a potentially confusing epilogue to the movie). This makes sense, as we have previously seen him in a wheelchair. What we have here, not to put too fine a point on it, is a 19th century version of Iron Man. This film was released only a few months before Iron Man 2 so this is surely not coincidental, although nothing is made of it, even on the commentary.

Instead, writer Bales says that the power-suit and its wearer were inspired by the legend of Spring-Heeled Jack. Which just leaves me scratching my head. Because there’s no connection or similarity at all. And that, my friends, is a huge disappointment. When I first heard about this movie and checked the cast list on the IMDB, seeing that Keating was credited as ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’ got me terribly excited (that’s not his on-screen credit).

Spring-Heeled Jack is a Victorian urban myth of tremendous potential. From the 1830s through to the turn of the century, stories surfaced sporadically across England of a mysterious figure who could make extravagant, superhuman leaps over walls and onto rooftops. In some reports he was a man, in some he was dressed as a devil, and some witnesses claimed he was the Devil himself (or one of his demonic minions). There were reports that his eyes glowed red, many anecdotes had him breathing fire, everyone agreed he wore a long, dark cloak. Some people reported being physically attacked, others were shocked or terrified, still others considered Jack a naughty trickster.

Only one thing was unanimously agreed by all who saw Spring-Heeled Jack (and most who didn’t): he was a wrong’un.

A lot of stories were published about Spring-Heeled Jack, some recounting ‘genuine’ sightings, others works of melodramatic fiction which enhanced and fed back into the urban legend. It’s difficult to separate fact from fiction when there are no actual substantial facts.

On screen, Jack has only ever really appeared once, in Tod Slaughter’s 1946 Curse of the Wraydons, although the legend also inspired part of the 1924 German expressionist classic Waxworks. According to the IMDB, there was an American three-minute short about him in the late 1990s and I believe that Ashley Thorpe (Scayrecrow, The Screaming Skull) has a Spring-Heeled Jack short in development as part of his ‘Penny Dreadful’ series of digital animations. But a proper, big-budget (well, you know what I mean), feature-length, name-cast, steampunk tale pitting Spring-Heeled Jack against Britain’s greatest detective? That would be awesome!

It would, you know. It would. And it’s the sort of thing The Asylum could do. I’d be happy to write it for them tomorrow.

But this ain’t it.

There is no suggestion that Dominic Keating (as we are forced to keep calling him) has used this power suit to terrorise the population or to wreak mischief among honest, God-fearing folk or even to leap over high walls. He can only just walk in the thing!

So what is he up to? Gradually we now discover his nefarious plans and I must say that they are, without a doubt, the most random, unfocused, nonsensical criminal plans I have ever heard explained from the speakers of my TV set.

But before we get to that, something odd crops up in the dialogue: Holmes calls Keating ‘brother’. He actually addresses him directly as ‘brother’ several times. And Keating, in reply, calls Sherlock Holmes ‘Robert’.


Leaving aside the ‘Robert’ schtick - as indeed the script does - our natural assumption is that Keating is playing Mycroft Holmes. After all, Sherlock only has one brother and we all know that Mycroft is cleverer than Holmes, although the industrious work of Keating’s character would be at odds with Mycroft’s languor. Mycroft has steampunk credentials, having been featured in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (the superb comic, not the shitty film). In fact, there is a Mycroft Holmes/Spring-Heeled Jack connection because of a 1997 comic called Predator: Nemesis in which Mycroft helped to bring said miscreant to justice, discovering in the process that the high-leaping demonic figure is actually one of those extraterrestrial hunters.

But this character, according to the commentary, is not Mycroft. It’s some third Holmes brother never previously mentioned. Which is all well and good but we can’t tell that from the film. If Holmes would at least address his brother by name, we would twig that this is not Mycroft gone rogue, but he doesn’t. In fact, the constant use of ‘brother’ becomes tiresome and unrealistic. It’s the sort of thing that a sibling might do in a formal situation but to continue to use it when the brother in question is addressing you by your first name (or someone’s first name at least!) seems frankly rude.

Again, the commentary provides an explanation. Keating’s character was originally written as Holmes’ uncle. Now, repeatedly addressing an older relative in a formal manner would sound credible. If we mentally replay this scene with the word ‘brother’ replaced with ‘uncle’, that’s slightly better. The casting of Keating in the role (he was 47 when he shot this) made the director rethink the relationship and turn him from uncle into brother.

Which is fine for viewers who know nothing at all about Sherlock Holmes, but awfully confusing and misleading for those of us with a smidgeon of Holmes-ian knowledge. If there was at least a third-person reference to Mycroft, we would understand that this isn’t him. But no.

Meanwhile, names and relationships notwithstanding, what is he up to? Well, for starters he has Inspector Lestrade imprisoned and trussed up. He also has an unhealthy relationship with Anesidora who not only isn’t his niece, she isn’t even human. She’s another robot, like the octopus and the dinosaur, which explains her stiff posture and her unwavering expression. Arends really does play the part very well, and the brief glance of smouldering passion between creator and automaton is a powerful and disturbing image that briefly lifts this otherwise bonkers third act into the realm of impressive science fiction drama.

Oh, and she kills Sherlock Holmes. Shoots him dead. Right, that’s the end of him.

Poor old Watson gets strapped to some sort of torture apparatus as Keating explains the details of his plan, all of which is motivated by a sense of revenge against Lestrade. It seems that Keating is an ex-copper who worked alongside Lestrade but retired through injury. Since then he has noticed how Lestrade has been in the habit of taking the credit for cases solved by Keating’s estranged brother ‘Robert’. And so aggrieved by this is the elder sibling that he plans to attack London with a giant, flying, fire-breathing robotic dragon - and then blame that on Lestrade!

Let’s get this right. Keating constructed a giant, robotic octopus and used it to steal a shipload of tax money which he then spent on making a giant flying dragon, including the purchase of an enormous quantity of Grolton’s patent specialised rubber. He also built a half-size robotic dinosaur which he used to attack Grolton to prevent Holmes seeing an incriminating receipt for all that rubber. And he set the dinosaur loose against the whores of Whitechapel and their clientele and he even set it on his own brother, on whose unwitting behalf this grand vengeance was being orchestrated. Furthermore he built a power-suit and a life-size automaton realistic enough to fool a medical doctor and with which he has some weird, Coppelian relationship.

Somewhere along the line he also stole a pump from a park fountain. Which seems odd because you would think that someone capable of manufacturing amazing machines like these would be able to build a simple bleeding pump.

Now he is going to fly over London, inside his own robotic dragon, with the still bound-and-gagged Lestrade in the cockpit beside him for some reason, destroying iconic buildings and causing a general conflagration the likes of which hasn’t been seen since 1666. Which, for some reason, will be blamed by everyone on Lestrade.

And on top of all this, he has placed a bomb inside Anesidora and despatched her to Buckingham Palace, there to threaten the life of Her Majesty Queen Victoria with a big explosion, presumably also as part of his scheme to frame Lestrade in revenge for the Inspector’s sidelining of Sherlock Holmes in documented accounts of cases on which they have worked together. Got it?

It seems to me that the slight illogicality here - that an explosion at the gates of Buckingham Palace will actually have relatively little impact on a night when a dragon is setting fire to Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral - is somewhat dwarfed by the elephant in the room, which is this:

This whole plan is batshit insane! This redefines new levels of batshit insanity. You know those caves in South America that are home to colonies of millions of bats and are just coated inside with bat guano to a depth of several metres? Even that amount of batshit cannot convey how utterly and completely batshit insane this plan - and hence, let’s face it, the film’s essential plot - actually is.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the dragon. A giant, flying, steampunk, robo-dragon attacking London is exactly what we want. It’s a sort of thematic cross between Reign of Fire and the climax of Doctor Who: ‘The Next Doctor’. For some reason the dragon actually looks robotic unlike the super-realistic giant octopus and Tyrannosaurus rex (and spooky-faced aspiring dominatrix).

I also love the crazy hybrid between a hot-air balloon and a helicopter with which Sherlock Holmes gives chase after he has emerged miraculously (if not unexpectedly) alive and freed the surprised Watson. While Holmes flies up and away in the ‘airship’ which his brother somehow also found the time to build, Watson sets off for central London on horseback. Which is optimistic because Anesidora has not only got a good head-start, she’s travelling by train. Granted it is, apparently, a little branch line, but it’s still trundling along at a good speed and not going to need to stop for some hay.

As the dragon and the heli-balloon do battle above London, Anesidora strides calmly towards Buckingham Palace, although as she seems to be walking along an unlit, unpopulated country road it’s somewhat unclear from which direction she is approaching. She’s certainly not strolling up the Mall.

The gates of the palace are guarded by four soldiers in uniforms which score points for authenticity but lose them again for lack of consistency. Two of the soldiers actually have speaking roles and challenge the approaching woman, albeit not with “Halt! Who goes there? Friend of foe?” which, as every schoolboy knows, is what British soldiers are required to shout when on guard and approached by an unknown person. Perhaps these particular palace guards were confused by some prior disagreement over which regiment was actually supposed to be guarding Buckingham Palace that night, since the officer (who, for some reason, has no chin-strap on his bearskin) is wearing the uniform of the Coldstream Guards while the private alongside him is very obviously in the uniform of the Grenadier Guards.

No, I’m being unfair when I say ‘obviously’. This is not something that most people, even most British people, will notice. And I suspect that whichever Welsh theatrical costumier supplied the uniforms probably didn’t have a particularly extensive range of Royal Guardsmen tunics. We’ll let this one go.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Watson stops Anesidora. There’s actually quite a nice character arc there. Watson is initially attracted to the mysterious femme fatale when she visits his surgery, then saddened to find that her ‘uncle’s’ relationship with her is distinctly unavuncular, then horrified to learn that she is an unthinking automaton capable of the motions of love but not the emotions, and finally forced to destroy her in his duty as an upstanding Englishman.

Meanwhile, in a ludicrously ambitious sky battle which is nevertheless thrilling, exciting and enjoyable, Holmes eventually defeats his brother, parachuting to safety as the heli-balloon crashes, while the impact of the dragon on the ground fatally injures Keating but apparently leaves Lestrade relatively unscathed, even though logic tells us that only the former would have been able to actually hold onto something as the reptilian steampunk aircraft plummeted to Earth.

In the first of three epilogues, Holmes mentions to Watson, over breakfast back in Baker Street, that his first name is actually Robert. What? No it isn’t - it’s Sherlock. Many were the Victorian gentlemen who were known by two names that were actually a double-barrelled, unhyphenated surname: Conan Doyle for one. But England’s greatest detective isn’t called Something Sherlock Holmes. He’s called Something Holmes. Or are we to think that he is one of those people who choose to use their second Christian name instead of their first? Is ‘Sherlock’ a middle name or the first half of a double-barrelled surname? Frankly, who cares? This revelation seems utterly pointless and doesn’t enhance the film one iota. It could be the least exciting revelation of any movie epilogue ever.

Next we leap forward to December 1940 where geriatric Watson finishes recounting his tale to Lucy Hudson and then expires peacefully. And if Miss Hudson had any sense, she would take that as her cue to grab her gas-mask and head down to the nearest shelter.

Finally, we jump forward a short time to a brief churchyard scene. As Miss Hudson visit the grave of Dr John Watson, another figure passes by in the background. A stiffly formal, vaguely Spanish-looking woman. It is Anesidora (or at least, an Anesidora), unchanged since we last saw her some six decades ago. And she is placing flowers on the unintentionally cheap-looking grave of ‘T Holmes’. Which is our first clue, moments before the credits roll, that Keating’s character was not Mycroft. And moments later the credits do indeed confirm that he played ‘Thorpe Holmes.’ Which also explains why, in the eight-and-a-half-minute Making Of, Keating introduces himself with, “I’m Dominic Keating and I play Thorpe.”

And what a Making Of! In less than nine minutes we get comments from (or at least have identified for us) all five main cast members, line producer Steve Fiske, 1st assistant camera Bryan Olinger (subsequently promoted to DP on Mega Piranha), robo-suit designer Paul Curtis, director Rachel Goldenberg, ‘creative consultant’ Roy Gerard Calder, costume designer Nikkie Alsford (Dogging: A Love Story), passing journalist Brian Raftery, production assistant Dilwyn Parry Jones, bit-part actors Dennis Jones and Dylan Jones, sound recordist Ben Forman (Silent Night Zombie Night, Haunting of Winchester House), Steadicam op Luke Rocheleau (Juko’s Time Machine), make-up artist Ruth Pease (Psychosis) and 1st AD Alexander X Hutchinson (temporarily promoted from his regular Asylum gig as 2nd AD) who gets more on-screen comments than anyone - possibly because he was one of three people who shot this Making Of - and just never stops complaining. He doesn’t like the film, he doesn’t like the schedule, he doesn’t like Wales. Miserable bleeder.

Sherlock Holmes was shot on a tight 13-day schedule in and around Caernarfon in September 2009. HMS Pickle, a charity-owned replica of a schooner which served under Nelson at Trafalgar, is the ship that gets attacked by the octopus. Dinorwig Quarry Hospital (miscredited as ‘Dinowig’!) was used for Watson’s surgery and the adjacent National Slate Museum provided a great location for Grolton’s rubber factory. Thorpe’s lair was Gwydir Castle while Glynliffon Mansion and the Faenol Estate also provided scenery. Basically, as an advert for Gwynedd tourism, Sherlock Holmes scores admirably. The area looks lovely and full of fascinating industrial heritage. A trip to Anglesey was required for the cliff top scenes filmed on South Stack cliffs.

Mere hours after wrapping, most of the Transatlantic travellers caught a plane back, leaving the director and cameraman to spend a couple of days in London getting establishing shots and effects plates by pretending to be tourists videoing their holiday. A final day of ‘second unit’ photography in Malibu, including the ultimately pointless body-in-the-sea shots, was line produced by Chris Ray.

Three directors of photography are credited: Bryan Olinger (despite his Making Of credit as 1st AC), Scott Wheeler (of effects house Tiny Juggernaut, who are The Asylum’s regular VFX providers) and Paul Saunders (previously 1st AC on The Terminators and Transmorphers 2). With the ever-cheerful Alexander X Hutchinson as 1st assistant director, the vacant 2nd AD role was taken by Shelley Tyson, fresh from You-Know-Who’s musical-horror-western Eldorado.

Much of the logistical credit for Sherlock Holmes must go to Helen Pritchard, credited as ‘UK production manager’ who supplied supporting cast and background extras through her Clic Agency and also helped with locations etc. She was also a key figure in The Asylum’s previous Welsh-shot feature, Merlin and the War of Dragons.

Of the three leads, two are well-known. Outside of the Hub, Gareth David-Lloyd has done TV work in stuff like Rosemary and Thyme and Casualty and has been attached to a mooted British sci-fi feature, Casimir Effect. Away from the Enterprise, Dominic Keating has had recurring roles in Heroes and The Immortal, appeared in Species IV and Beowulf, and way back when he was in stuff like Inspector Morse and, indeed, Casualty. But Ben Syder is a genuine discovery. Born in Prestatyn, he has been acting since 2006, has done some stage work and some student shorts but this is his feature debut. It takes a while to get used to his mannerisms but once he (or it might be me) settled down, he came across very well indeed.

Catriona McDonald, who appears briefly as Mrs Hudson, was in another intriguing Victorian fantasy, Newgate, about which I have never been able to discover very much. A few of the other speaking cast were also in Merlin and the War of Dragons. ‘Additional FX’ are credited to Latitude Effects (aka Erica Steele and Mark Atkins of Ghost Show Pictures).

Writer Paul Bales is one of the partners in The Asylum, where he “handles the day-to-day operations of the company, administration and finance, and domestic sales.” His other scripts for the company include Legion of the Dead (which he also directed), The Da Vinci Treasure, 100 Million BC and Megafault. Director Rachel Lee Goldenberg wrote and directed one of The Asylum’s more atypical features, Sunday School Musical(!) and was 1st AD on the likes of I am Omega, Alien vs Hunter, Monster, 2012: Supernova, The Seven Adventures of Sinbad and Princess of Mars.

So what works and what doesn’t on The Asylum’s Sherlock Holmes? Well, the performances are all pretty good where the actors are given something to work with. There’s a good chemistry between Holmes and Watson, William Huw makes the most of the often thankless role of Lestrade, Keating doesn’t ham up his loony villain role as much as the part perhaps deserves - and Arends, as noted, makes a clear impression.

The effects are, on the whole, great. I mean, they’re not Industrial Light and Magic. But dollar for dollar they’re pretty damn good and certainly good enough for a film of this ilk. Some big Hollywood piece of crap could do the same and it would be ten, maybe a hundred times better - but that would cost a thousand, maybe ten thousand times more. And take a couple of years. And employ so many people that the producers would need the rights to a whole other song for the additional three minutes of credits while endless lists of computer programmers’ names scrolled past an empty auditorium.

Goldenberg’s direction is all right. I guess, given the ultra-tight schedule and other logistical restraints like shooting in (effectively) the middle of nowhere. There are small moments when the direction shines, but there are bigger aspects where it falls down and Goldenberg must take responsibility for the changes to Paul Bales’ script and how they affect the finished movie.

For example, replacing the submarine sequence with the cliff sequence is reasonable and there are some nice character touches in that scene - but it makes no sense in terms of investigating a ship that sank out of sight of land. The body in the water element of the scene appears from nowhere and goes nowhere and the whole sequence, as previously mentioned, comes to nought.

This is me, pretending to be Holmes, on the
actual Caernarfon location where the film was shot!
Similarly, Goldenberg’s decision to make Keating’s character a brother seems to have consisted of simply crossing out ‘uncle’ in the script and writing ‘brother’ in with a biro. No thought has been given to either how that affects the dialogue - brothers would address each other by first name - or what ramifications it might have in terms of conflicting with the cultural baggage of Sherlock Holmes. Just one additional line of dialogue that alluded to Mycroft and established that this isn’t him would have sufficed. Paul Bales can’t be blamed for this; he was in LA while all this was going on.

And that scene of a paperboy throwing a rolled-up newspaper onto the doorstep of 221 Baker Street still rankles with me. Because it is so wrong in so many ways, not one of which would have required additional expense or time. Just care.

Having said all that, what Paul Bales can be held responsible for is the completely arbitrary and nonsensical plot. Sherlock Holmes stories are lot harder to write than you might think because they have to be incredibly clever. It’s not enough to slip in little references to the canon if the actual plot doesn’t hang together in a way that befits the character. I’m entirely undecided on whether extending the world of Holmes into a steampunk fantasy milieu makes plotting easier or more difficult, possibly both. But I do know that the script’s attempts to justify and explain Thorpe’s actions don’t hold up at all, either in terms of making sense or as a solution to the preceding mystery elements. Embracing the fantastique does not negate the requirements of cause and effect. I wouldn’t want to deny us all the pleasure of a dinosaur, a giant octopus, a brass power-suit, a robot woman and a heli-balloon vs robo-dragon battle above the Thames - but perhaps it might have been better to simply make Thorpe an eccentric madman rather than try to justify his surreally unjustifiable actions.

But let’s be clear about one thing. Despite its faults, I absolutely loved this movie. Having watched it, I was quite happy to watch it again a few days later for the commentary - and there are not many films to which I will extend that courtesy. This is a rip-roaring, action-packed, science-fantasy adventure: hugely enjoyable and daft as a brush. And kudos to The Asylum for filming it in Britain. God knows that Holmes has been badly served over the years by some bloody awful films, many of which shuffled him to America and/or the 20th century to save on collar-studs and gas-lamps. This film shows that even on a tiny budget, some degree of historical verisimilitude can be managed.

As well as the commentary track and Making Of, which I was glad to see Revolver kept for the UK disc, the extras include a trailer and a couple of minutes of bloopers which includes, for once, something genuinely funny. It’s an overhead shot of Holmes in the heli-balloon basket (not actually used in the film) which has to cut when a piece of the camera actually falls off and lands on the hapless Syder’s head. Has to be seen to be believed.

Finally, it’s worth noting that the UK sleeve differs significantly from the US version. Both have the Palace of Westminster in flames and a giant octopus attacking Westminster Bridge, but for the UK a two-shot of Syder and David-Lloyd has replaced the three-shot of those two fellows plus Keating. More to the point, the dragon and the T rex both appear twice. But since the octopus doesn’t attack Westminster Bridge, the image is already an exaggeration so what the heck, chuck a few more reptilian robots in there. And even more to the point, the dark background to the original one-sheet has been abandoned in favour of a sort of blue-grey sheen which makes this look just that little but more like the Guy Ritchie film. (Which I haven’t seen and I’m not really bothered about, whereas I pre-ordered this from Amazon the moment I found out it was getting a UK release.)

MJS rating: B+
Review originally posted 13th May 2010.