Friday, 23 December 2011

THE HAMMER VAULT - Treasures From The Archive Of Hammer Films

In the course of compiling the marvellous store of diverse materials that adorn the pages of this lavish, nostalgic, hardback souvenir-tribute to what must surely be one of the richest of British film legacies in existence, official Hammer historian Marcus Hearn has assiduously combed the vaults of the British Film Institute’s national archive and the rarely glimpsed collections held in trust by Canal + Image UK Limited, in order to supply sources for a host of irresistible treats that his readers will be thrilled to unearth once they delve beyond the attractive, attention-grabbing covers of his latest book, The Hammer Vault. These archival treasures include amongst them a wealth of personal items from many private collections, to which the author has been given privileged access by the myriad numbers of people who have been involved with or employed by the company down the years. The assembled new material includes then-contemporary press clippings, personal scrapbooks, handbills, letters, props, and fascinating internal company memos; then there is pre-publicity material for films that were never actually made, or very early poster designs for projects which were later given quite a different (and usually nowhere near as lurid) slant by the time they actually got to go before the cameras. The result is an object that can justifiably be considered a thing of extreme beauty in of itself: a vibrant treasure trove containing page-after-page-after-page of evocative images culled from a variety of often very rare sources, juxtaposed with countless reproductions of period documents and bundles of rarely seen film stills. All of which will certainly be of major interest to many -- providing the hopeless Hammer junkie with as strong a fix of undiluted Hammer goodness this Christmas as he is liable to be able to mainline in one sitting.  Furthermore, the material has been artfully arranged, with the judicious help and good taste of designer Peri Godbold, to complement the author’s lightly sprinkled text accompaniment and the book’s many informative explanatory captions.

This, though, is not just another bog standard Hammer history documenting the familiar behind-the-scenes tale of a showman's management strategies, engineered by managing director Sir James ‘The Colonel’ Carreras from his base of operations at Hammer House in Wardour Street; or which evokes, yet one more time, the friendly family atmosphere that so informed the making of what is now a world famous roster of films -- the bulk of them produced during the fifties, sixties and seventies, first of all at the converted Thames-side country pile that was known as Down House (but later christened Bray Studios), and, in its latter, more commercially strained years, at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire.

Although the book takes a film-by-film chronological approach, all the same this is really more of a history in pictures of the work and promotional activity which informed the company’s hugely talented backroom publicity department: an image-based chronicle of the concerted group of organised marketing methods it regularly put into practice in the cause of promoting its wares, as an increasingly recognisable brand, to the company's lifeblood of distributors, international production partners, exhibitors and most importantly, of course, the public at large.

"Dracula" opened at the Gaumont, Haymarket to huge
crowds. This cover from a 23 May, 1958 issue of What's
On provides suitably lurid promotion for the event.
We’re plunged, from the book’s earliest pages, straight into this seething, energetic promotional jungle at a time during the mid-‘50s when it was in one of its most fertile flowerings. For the book starts not with the very earliest genesis of the name Hammer in relation to the world of British film -- when an alliance in the mid-1930s between former failed London comedian Will Hammer and his Spanish-born émigré partner Enrique Carreras came about as a result of their mutual involvement in pre-war film distribution -- but from the company’s very first ‘X’ certificate horror/sci-fi outing in 1955: an adaptation of Nigel Kneal’s BBC television drama, cunningly re-named The Quatermass ‘X’periment to emphasis the story’s predominantly ‘adult’ horror-based nature. By this time, Enrique’s son James had taken over control of the company and the previously discarded Hammer moniker was revived again and registered in 1949 as the name of the production arm of Will and Enrique’s distribution company Exclusive Films.

Most of the standard promotional practices, at which the publicity machine at Hammer later came to excel, were by this stage already firmly in place. At Down House, alongside the converted rooms and halls now being regularly used as the company’s numerous production offices, construction manager’s offices, the camera department and prop rooms, as well as the canteen and several big production sound stages etc., Hammer also found space for a publicity department and a stills office, in the vital cause of helping to sell their films at home and abroad. Stills man John Jay had worked from a disused toilet when the company had been based at Oakley Court, but at Bray he got to build his own developing laboratory and stills department by converting two old garages in the grounds.
Although Jay left the company in 1955, he frequently returned in a freelance capacity (he worked on the first colour Gothic, The Curse of Frankenstein) while his protégée Tom Edwards took over full-time to produce many of the iconic stills images which have since become almost as instrumental in establishing the  iconic status of Hammer Productions down the years as the content of the films themselves; shots such as that which displays the now famous image of Christopher Lee, as Count Dracula, bending menacingly across actress Melissa Stribling in her flouncy nightgown as she stretches out across a bed --  came from a pose set up and photographed by Edwards during the making of the 1958 Terrence Fisher film, and is nowadays as important for most of us in our memories as our knowledge of the film in itself.  
Starting with The Quatermass Xperiment, and then continuing onward for the whole of the rest of the company’s existence in its original form as an independent producer of feature films (and therefore displaying itself throughout the rest of this book), Hammer indulged fully in the usual array of promotional literature, advertising features, posters and a multitude of stills and creation of manuals intended for worldwide marketing purposes. In those days exhibitors could expect to be furnished with detailed campaign books, frequently including a plot synopsis, character biogs, photographs and background information on all the actors and actresses who appeared in the film; there were press books, hand bills, and sheets with ideas for attracting publicity from local newspapers; in the UK, front of house stills were provided for display in cinema lobbies while for the US, sets of now highly collectable lobby cards were printed up in abundance. This is the pattern which runs throughout this book’s representation of Hammer’s ferocious marketing of its filmography: the pages are crammed with images of lobby card stills, extracts from articles in trade magazines such as Film Industry and Kine Weekly, and magazine advertisements; often detailed campaign books were produced full of fascinating fluff and eye candy such as photo stories and comic strips, snippets of which we can also see here; novelty publicity items were common – everything from paper napkins (a particularly off the wall gimmick used in the  promotion of The Gorgon) to cardboard cut-out fangs issued by Fox as part of its promotional campaign for Dracula: Prince of Darkness in the states. Promotional tie-in paperbacks were another common marketing gimmick from the period. The Hammer scholar Wayne Kinsey, in his excellent book “Hammer Films: the Unsung Heroes”, writes that by looking at the progress reports sheets still in existence from the period, it can be gleaned that at least 79 rolls of black & white film and 77 rolls of colour film were used on shooting stills during the making of Blood From The Mummy’s Tomb. He estimates that at least 2000 colour images must have existed from these sessions, yet only a small fraction of this material is known still to exist. The story must be the same for the vast majority of the department’s output, which only now occasionally crops up as scraps surviving from contact sheets.
This books features a number of such rarely seen curios reprinted, though they must constitute only the merest slither of what would have once existed. As the economic fortunes of the company grew more difficult after the break from its central base of production at Bray, glamour photography, centred on exploiting the looks of the film’s young female starlets became more and more common. A surviving contact sheet from a 1970 photo shoot by Mary and Madeline Collinson conducted for Playboy (in which the girls appear throughout in skimpy white undies) and which was instrumental in seeing them cast in the film Twins of Evil is included, along with less revealing glamour images of actress Lynne Frederick from Vampire Circus, photographed by Ricky Smith on the Pinewood studio set.
QUATERMASS AND THE PIT (restored) by Tom Chantrell - print
The famous quad poster for "Quatermass and the Pit".
Hammer artist Tom Chanrell's first-draft of this painting is
included in The Hammer Vault. It was painted before
Andrew Keir was cast in the role of Bernard Quatermass, so
Chantrell used actor John Neville as his model instead. 
Providing the painterly sumptuousness and bold dashes of colour that frequently enliven the pages of Hearn’s book, we have the gorgeous work of the group of artists responsible for producing Hammer’s distinctive poster designs, which includes names such as Bill Wiggins, Mike Vaughn and Tom Chantrell among their like. The latter Manchester-born artist figures as instrumental in what became James Carreras’ main strategy for securing American backing during Hammer’s heyday. Carreras would travel to New York for meetings with top distributors, taking with him a bunch of ideas, sometimes just titles, for which he would have  already commission lurid posters to be produced with a flourish during his meetings with these top officials from Fox, Columbia or MGM, etc. Only after securing their backing for the concept would actual scripts be commissioned and a schedule for production actually worked out. Thus it is that we find within these pages not just early drafts of later well-known posters, but early poster ideas dating from the pre-production period, when story ideas often existed as nothing more concrete than a vague concept developed with the intention of wooing distributors. Hammer became adept at forging any number of package deals with the American majors using these kinds of promotional methods and Tom Chantrell seems to have been the principle go-to man for providing the pre-production artwork chiefly responsible for developing their interest -- even after his stint as a regular poster artist for the company had come to an end.

There is some marvellous stuff included here, much of it painted in a style that was about ten times as garish and lurid as would have been allowed for the finished poster designs, and often essaying radically different ideas to that which eventually came to represent these films. There are plenty of fine examples from films we now know extremely well, such as a gorgeously ripe image portraying Doctor Jekyll & Sister Hyde (commissioned two days after Brian Clemens first suggested the title) blooming with the oily saturated yellows of a classic Victorian "pea-souper", flowering magentas and deep ocean blues. The imagery Chantrell came up with for his pre-production work on Hands of the Ripper bears such a close resemblance to the look of Jess Franco’s The Female Vampire -- depicting a nubile, bare breasted female in a long black cape slashing the throat of an equally buxom and bare breasted victim -- that one has to wonder if the great Spanish maverick had somehow seen it and been inspired by it. 

Chantrell's two early paintings for Countess Dracula – with their bilious greens splashed with sickly droplets of deepest crimson --are floridly redolent of European 'horrotica' such as the type at which Franco came to specialise; yet the films themselves of course were never quite able to match this 'artistic' level of exploitation promise: what eventually became Jimmy Sangster’s comparatively tame suspense thriller Fear in the Night for instance, started out life as something wholly more disreputable-looking called The Claw, which features another bare breasted victim on the poster art (who looks uncannily like Ingrid Pitt) being menaced and apparently throttled by an assailant with one black ‘clawed’ glove, wearing a smashed pair of dark shades as rivulets of dripping blood are smeared across the luridly rendered image. Also of particular interest are Chantrell’s radically stylised early designs for Dracula A.D 1972 (which at one stage appears to have been titled Dracula Chelsea 1972) featuring a naked, ‘hippy’, body painted model, spread-eagled, in one instance at least, across a car bonnet! Surely even more tantalising are the proposed poster designs for those Hammer projects that never came to be: the ‘tits and swords’ historical romp The Reluctant Virgin (also known as The Bride of Newgate), Zeppelin vs Pterodactyls and Vampirella all had poster art commissioned which is reproduced here.

Information about a few of the other film projects that never came to be is revealed in some especially important ephemera buried amongst the many scrapbooks of production drawings, annotated script pages, and internal memos and letters that were distributed around the casts and crew over the years, and which now flavour the pages of this book with some of its extra spice. There’s some fascinating stuff here (one particular favourite of mine is a covering letter for a script delivered by Jimmy Sangster which opens dryly: ‘Enclosed please find a script for my latest epic …’) but none so enthralling as the thank you cards, letters and pages of detailed script annotations provided in the scrapbooks of Peter Cushing, which only go to add to the impression of the actor’s consummate professionalism and gentle, good mannered civility. One of the mooted films which never in the end emerged was to have been Hammer’s attempt to create another brutal wartime drama in the style of their controversial 1958 Japanese prisoner of war film The Camp on Blood Island – a French resistance drama from a Don Houghton script entitled The Savage Jackboot, in which Hammer had hoped to cast Peter Cushing in the role of a ruthless Nazi alongside Yul Brynner and Jack Palance. Although the project never got off the ground, Peter Cushing obviously took it seriously enough to produce several inked watercolours depicting characters from the film, two of which are reproduced among these pages and reveal the actor's ever fastidious attention to detail. 

As we come to the final pages of the book, and production sketches for the Hammer/Rank Organisation remake of The Lady Vanishes heralds the end of what had often been an acrimonious family-run business thanks to the difficult working relationship endured by Sir James and his producer son Michael, who took over his father’s role as Managing Director in 1970 and bought out his share of the company in 1973 (by which time the climate in the British film industry had already become too difficult for Hammer to continue for much longer, thanks to the almost total withdrawal of American money) – Hearn’s text moves on to explore the first attempt to revive the Hammer brand name for television, which occurred when former board members Brian Lawrence and Roy Skeggs were appointed nominee directors by the company’s creditors.

Lawrence and Skeggs set up their own production company, Cinema Arts and, alongside Lew Grade’s ITC, created the fondly remembered Hammer House of Horror anthology series, reviving the Hammer family model of working by using former girls’ school Hampden House as a combined production base, shooting location and studio. Unfortunately, their follow-up, Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense failed to build on the Hammer legacy and despite various announcements and attempts to revive the brand name throughout the last decade, it wasn’t until the  Dutch consortium Cyrte Investments, headed by John de Mol -- a media tycoon who was also behind the creation of Big Brother through his production company Endemol -- bought the rights to the Hammer name and movie catalogue, and appointed Simon Oakes as chairman in a bid to revive the Hammer moniker in service of its  own wish to break into feature film production, that attempts to bring about a resurgence in the Hammer brand met with any success.

Director Matt Reeves and stars Chloë Grace Moretz and
Kodi Smit-McPhee on the set of "Let Me In"
Taking a distinctive, retro, red-on-black-background sixties-style font for its attractive yet simple new logo -- similar in fact to that which can be seen on the company memos routinely issued from Hammer House during the company’s mid-sixties glory days -- the ‘new’ Hammer has itself been carefully and consciously marketed as a brand intended to appear both vital, stylish and modern while still suggesting continuity with the original Hammer’s illustrious past. So, as well as documenting the creation and promotion of the Hammer brand’s image down the years, this gorgeous looking hardback can also be seen as being part of the on-going process by which the present incarnation of the company attempts to position itself as the legitimate heir of that much-loved Hammer Horror legacy. The cover sums up the tone of this approach beautifully: the stylish new Hammer logo, embossed in shiny red, appears next to a classic poster image originally created by artist Bill Wiggins in 1958 for the Terrence Fisher film Dracula; the darkened backing for this stark-red new Hammer font meanwhile, reveals upon closer inspection a series of tinted images of classic Hammer movie posters and advertisements, by means of which the company originally founded the image that resonates still so profoundly with us today. Hearn’s text presents the Hammer legacy as one smooth, unbroken story that extends from the past right up to the present day, with the new Hammer now apparently beginning to hit its stride as audience tastes turn away from the nihilism of the torture porn genre to more thoughtful, classically influenced tales such as Let Me In -- Matt Reeves’ adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s novel Låt den rätte komma in, which may have subsequently had much of its thunder stolen by the precedence of the Swedish language original, directed by Tomas Alfredson, but served its purpose well enough in introducing the new Hammer Productions as a dependable, classy originator of a style of filmmaking that was intelligent and contemporary but grounded in the classicism of British horror’s past. That image has continued to be perpetuated with the projects the company has selected to involve itself in promoting over the last few years – the creepy pagan rebirth horror of Wake Wood, the suspense thriller The Resident (which also brought Christopher Lee back into the Hammer fold while at the same time exploiting an international setting) and the forthcoming adaptation of Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black, which promises, with its period Edwardian setting, to fulfil the duel requirements of providing the kind of English Gothic aesthetic that has traditionally always been associated with the Hammer name, while also continuing to position the company as a purveyor of a modern subtle form of horror with its roots in the classic MR James-influenced tradition which Hill’s original story so adroitly imitated with great success.

The Hammer legacy, at this present moment in time, seems set to live on for many more years to come -- and as far more than just an important part of British film history. This wonderful book demonstrates the instinct for imaginative showmanship which has always motivated those charged with carrying the torch at any one time, to continue seeking out new ways of keeping the flame burning -- and in doing so it shows us precisely why that name is likely to remain a vital part of our appreciation and contributes in a small way to that being so. Highly recommended.

Read a review of Hammer Films: The Unsung Heroes at HORRORVIEW.COM

Read a review of Hammer Glamour by Marcus Hearn at HORRORVIEW.COM

Visit the Hammer films website:
Visit the Titan Books website:

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

RARE EXPORTS - A Christmas Tale (2010)

It is one month before Christmas day In the wintery heart of Lapland, and weird doings are afoot: an international mining concern, backed by a dwarfish prospector called Riley (Per Christian Ellefsen), believes it has uncovered a ‘sacred’ burial ground in the mountains: the final resting place of an evil entity who has haunted Norse legend since time immemorial. For a vast ice tomb buried 486 meters inside a snow-capped fell on the Russian border has been uncovered; the workmen on the project have been instructed strictly to abide by some very odd safety regulations, lest they stir the wrath of this legendary being: 'no cursing, no smoking …. and wash behind your ears!' – for this gargantuan frozen block constitutes the mythic ice-laden mausoleum of … Santa Clause?  
This beguiling premise informs Finish writer-director Jalmari Helander’s charming and decidedly idiosyncratic (if not downright weird) take on the art of Christmas fable-making. On one level Rare Exports is a clever, funny, oddly life-affirming satire on the wholesale usurpation and distortion of a country’s cultural history; its myths and folklore sanitised and re-packaged for consumption in the name of trans-global commercial enterprise, then presented gift-wrapped to the world as ‘tradition’. But actually it’s all done with such a delicate lightness of touch and within the framework of a lovely, offbeat coming-of-age fantasy drama, managing to retain inscrutability to the end and certainly never developing into that sort of crass and predictable brand of seasonal exploitation horror (during which, for instance, a killer Santa usually can be counted on to run amok with an axe, etc. at some stage in the game) which makes for the sub-genre’s usual approach in such matters.
Pietari (Onni Tommila) conducts his research
The real Santa Claus?
Closer to the mark perhaps is Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984): both films share a sense of mischievousness and have a wry, macabre streak at their festive core. Rare Exports tends more towards the whimsical side of fantasy though -- a kind of adult, horror-themed Roald Dahl for the arthouse crowd. But despite a small amount of gore and a bit of swearing, Helander in the end crafts a beautiful, understated family drama here -- with a rich, attractive visual palette illuminated in all the most Christmassy, winter-warming emerald and scarlet colours of the season; a film tenderly gilded and enhanced by the solitary imaginings of its ten-year-old protagonists, raised in a tough, unforgiving environment, whose escapist dreams and naive fantasies might just prove to have a patina of truth to them after all. 
Deep into the night
This movie is a Finish language feature-length expansion of two short films previously produced as advertisements for the work of a Scandinavian production company specialising in the making of TV commercials, both also written and directed by Jalmari Helander and originally released on the internet in 2003 and 2005 respectively, where they soon gained something of a cult following. Although even this fleshed out version only has a running time of about 70 minutes, the simple story brings together family drama, classic horror and children’s fantasy, and ends on a somewhat fantastical note of drollery that feels like it could’ve just as easily been the starting point for a whole second chapter rather than the film’s concluding flourish. Indeed, this is the sort of work that never fully reveals its hand or spells out every detail, leaving much to the imagination of the viewer while still evoking intrigue, bafflement and occasionally the threat of horror, as a series of increasingly strange happenings come to upset the hardy, no-nonsense world of a subsistent community of grizzled reindeer hunters on the snowy Lapland plains.
Preparing for battle
It all starts with that curious icy pit on the mountainside, and Riley’s grandiose claims for it being a historically significant discovery. Watching from behind some discarded packing crates as the bewildered foreign excavation team prepare to dissenter their momentous finding with massed dynamite blasts, are local friends Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) and his fantasy-prone companion Pietari Kontio (Onni Tommila). The two kids have illicitly stolen across the fenced-off Russian border to find out what’s really been going on here on the other side of the snow covered mountain that towers above their shanty-like ‘village’ -- and it is little Pietari who interprets Riley’s speechifying to mean that the tomb of Santa Claus has been uncovered, much to the amusement of his rough and slightly bullying ‘friend’, who can’t believe Pietari still hasn’t realised that the rotund fella in red who delivers his gifts each year is really just his dad’s hirsute best friend and fellow co-worker Piiparinen (Rauno Juvonen) dressed up in a baggy Santa suit. 
Father & son
Back home, Pietari throws himself into his researches (he seems to have quite the little library stashed away in his father’s candle-lit, wood beam attic -- despite the pair living in the middle of nowhere) and discovers that the Santa Claus of Nordic myth was somewhat different to the kindly, rosy-cheeked, mince pie munching dispenser of toys and good cheer most people assume him to be: in fact, ancient Nordic Santa isn’t a very nice Santa at all, really: rather than handing out gifts, he hands out brutal punishment to naughty kids instead; and in most of the illustrations in Pietari’s books he resembles a shaggy, horned ogre  that’s often pictured plunging bawling children into his oversized cooking pot. When Pietari discovers the reindeer herds, that his father and the rest of their small community depend upon for their livelihood, have been wiped out by wolves which came down the mountain from across the Russian border and through the hole in the wire-mesh fence he and Juuso cut when they first went to visit the excavation pit (the predators were scattered there by the dynamite blasts), he’s convinced that the punishment he surely now deserves will be meted out to him by the entity that’s currently thawing out, somewhere across that icy fell.
A mysterious find
Helander shoots this opening act in the style of a particularly picturesque but otherwise quite understated coming-of-age drama, in which child actor Onni Tommila is immediately likable as the slightly pudgy faced outsider with a taste for patterned, chunky-knit wool sweaters. The snow-capped mountainous Finish landscape is Christmas card perfect, yet it’s a harsh, lonely environment to grow up in, especially when your mother has recently died and your dad (played by Onni’s real life father Jorma Tommila) struggles to communicate through his grief, retreating instead behind a veil of taciturn remoteness. At this stage the viewer doesn’t quite know whether to accept the wilder speculations and assumptions of Pietari’s imaginings: were the wolves responsible for the plains of fallen reindeer? And who or what was responsible for the footprints in the snow on the ledge outside Pietari’s bedroom window?
The strange dolls
When Pietari’s father, Rauno, and his hunting group decide to march on to the excavation site across the border with the intention of demanding recompense from the mining company for their losses, they find it mysteriously empty. Then other odd stuff starts happening: someone has stolen a warehouse full of potato sacks and left their contents scattered in great heaps across the floor of the building; every radiator and hairdryer in the district has vanished overnight; and all the kids, including Pietari’s friend Juuso, have gone missing with them -- to be replaced with a horrid-looking, life-sized doll figure that’s been left in each of their beds in their stead!

But the strangest discovery of all is to be made by Pietari himself, at the bottom of the illegal ‘wolf pit’ Pietari’s father has dug outside his slaughtering shed: the pig’s head bait dangling above it has gone, and there is something else at the bottom of the snow covered ditch full of sharpened wooden stakes -- but it isn't one of the hungry mountain wolves! Instead Pietari’s dad and his mate Piiparinen discover a skinny old man with a long white beard, completely naked and clutching a potato sack with one of the funny looking dolls inside it! At first the two men think they have accidentally killed one of the displaced workers from the excavation site, and decide to cut up the body and say nothing more of the incident. But their guest is suddenly sparked back into life when he catches a whiff of ‘child’ – for Pietari is sneakily monitoring events through the slaughter-shed window – and at this point Pietari’s dad starts to wonder whether there might actually be something in his son’s wild claims after all.

Meeting a legend?
And if this is the real Santa Claus, then maybe the rich backers of the original excavation might be willing to pay big money to get him back!

In fact, the reality of the situation is a lot more complicated than this confused band of impoverished hunters could have ever imagined. The strange events that have been occurring all around the village, and the undeniable reality of this weird, uncommunicative, naked old man with an apparent taste for human flesh, who appears all-of-a-sudden in their midst, opens up the possibility that beneath its surface the world is something other than Rauno Kontio and his colleagues once believed it to be – it’s something more akin, in fact, to the forbidding fairy tale land of dark, threatening fantasy to which his son has been attuned for some time.
A hero to the rescue
What Rauno, Pietari and the others discover when they turn up at the excavation site in a raging night-time snow blizzard, for a meeting with Riley in order to negotiate their terms for a Santa ‘hand over’, is a long way from being explainable in real world rational terms; but one gets the feeling that Pietari’s ‘frozen Santa’ narrative -- in which the giant horned resident of the ice block is being shepherded by his elfish band of ancient wizened helpers, intent on delivering the village’s children to him (it?) en masse, in sacks, for who knows what purpose, as they busily set about thawing the being to whom they are evidently devoted out of his frozen tomb by using the town’s stolen hairdryers -- provides a framework for understanding events that certainly makes a lot more sense than anything the adults -- Rauno and his bewildered friends -- are capable of concocting.

As the fantastical nature of what they are all confronted with becomes all too apparent to the group, little Pietari – once the overlooked, pushed around or ignored one in the community – suddenly becomes the plucky hero of the hour. Only he is fully prepared for this emergency -- not just in the fact that he has already come dressed like an infant warrior, clad in hockey helmet and abundant body padding, but prepared also in mind for doing battle with the forces of Christmas evil. As cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s dazzling photography -- with the aid of a small army of digital effects artists, who also helped with the distinctive visual presentation of this film -- shrouds itself more and more, come the film's final act, in its lustrous palette of tinselly Christmas wonder, it is as though the visual actualisation of Pietari’s fantasy life comes to denote his being able at last to find a way of belonging in the world, and a way to communicate with his father once again. His plan for how to deal with the apparently impossible scale of the problem confronting them all ends up making use of the very skills the hunters employ every day in the harsh winter landscape that provides them their simple home, yet only this little boy has the ingenuity to come up with that plan and to take charge of the situation, in this new world of dangerous fairy tales, let alone see the connection in the first place.
Bravery in the night

Father & son united
This film comes, then, to be about a father and his son finding each other again after a long winter of grief, while remaining shorn of the syrupy sentimentality that, at its worst, often plagues the Hollywood approach to such subject matter. The whimsical ending, in which the men of the group begin to mould their fantastical discovery into a commercially viable way of making a living, now that their livelihood as reindeer hunters has disappeared, may strike some as a touch recondite and left-field; and certainly, if this were a Hollywood feature, you sense we would have had a much bigger reveal of the giant horned thing nesting inside that ice block at some point near the end, and probably a showy, FX-heavy face-off between it and the protagonists as a conclusion, as well.
Well, thankfully budgetary restraints remove that option from Helander’s grasp, and so we just have to learn to make do with the film’s  small-scale, understated, ironic but emotionally intelligent  form of resolution instead. Oh well …!
Actually, one can almost hear the inevitable, unsubtle, broad-brush-approach English language remake cranking itself into gear, so catch this gem of a Christmas treat now, before its memory is tarnished by future lesser imitations!

TITLE: RARE EXPORTS: A Christmas Tale/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 2010/DVD RELEASE DATE: 7 November 2011/GENRE: Fantasy/LABEL: ICON Home Entertainment/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 2.35:1/DIRECTOR: Jalmari Helander/CAST: Onni Tommila, Jorma Tommila, Rauno Juvonen, Ilmari Järvenpää, Peeter Jakobi

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

TAXIDERMIED - The Art of Roman Dirge

Roman Dirge is an American artist and magician who is best known as the man behind the uniquely macabre comic book series Lenore, the cute little dead girl, which features the adventures of his own pale and humorous -- but decidedly deceased -- pre-school creation, who “lives” with some of her oddball friends in the fictional town of Nevermore. This was a character originally inspired by the famous Edgar Allan Poe poem, which appeared first in Xenophobe magazine in 1992; since that time, the cartoon cadaver has gone on to star not only in two of her own comics series, but in a run of flash animated shorts, originally made for Sony’s ScreenBlast website in 2002.
Lenore, as the most popular manifestation of Dirge’s output, best sums up the distinctive, deliciously twisted ethos that can be found interred deep at the core of all of his work, and which has now been showcased in all its morbid glory in TAXIDERMIED: The Art of Roman Dirge -- a beautifully produced art book folio-style overview collection, recently published by Titan Books. The book displays its author’s unusual sensibility across 112 entrancing pages full of bizarre wonders and anxiety-inducing humours, unveiling an oeuvre which, rather like the early sketches of Tim Burton or the nightmare animations of The Brothers Quay, worships at the shrine of misplaced oddity and incongruous found objects. Dirge’s work revivifies the dusty careworn strangeness of faded, velvet-lined gothic Victoriana, and operates in the seldom visited twilight hinterland where an appreciation of shallow ‘cuteness’ becomes entwined with a deep love of all things weird -- with the dark, the exotic and the vaguely disturbing, in a manner that often leaves it difficult to tell where one category ends and another begins.

This lavish hardback collection is split into five broad sections surrounding the main body of work -- which consists of beautiful reproductions obtained from a selection of the artist’s astonishingly detailed full-colour images and portraits -- and including quick jottings, sketches and Lenore-style cartoon work; but all of the material shares the same rich dark sense of humour while embodying Dirge’s on-going obsession with taxidermy and images of listless waxwork-like cadavers fresh from the mortuary slab. This perennial thematic obsession is also joined by frequent representations of freakish nightmare bird creatures, staring out dead-eyed from an ornately painted vision of hell; also ossified remains join up with other oddments and random bric-a-brac, becoming like puppet living things; and then there are the pale, hollow-eyed tattooed Goth girls with jet black hair, Marlene Dietrich’s cheekbones and blood-red rosebud lips (there are a lot of those!).

The lines between the living and the dead; between inanimate objects and the viscera of the fleshily still  living, are frequently being blurred, broken and disposed of in this work, It is  always quite clear that Dirge’s muse emerges from the land of dreams and unconscious motivators: many of the images are accompanied with a commentary that states their initial inspiration as having come from a dream, and Dirge claims in the introduction that he often doesn’t quite know what the plan is when he starts out on a piece. Freud’s ever pertinent list of tropes for what constitutes ‘the Uncanny’ in literature (formed from consideration of a short story, The Sand-Man, by the Prussian writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, who himself started with ambitions of being a graphic artist and painter) should be kept in mind when perusing this assembly of unnatural creations.
The opening selections amount to a flashback to previously unseen works rediscovered in Dirge’s old sketchbooks. These early, mostly black & white pencil sketches tend to separate out the goulishness and the silliness into discrete compartments: we have the misshapen, offbeat, amusing animal pictures, such as the opening image which depicts an upright walking hamster creature (all bloated and evidently finding it difficult to totter on his widely spaced hind legs); while later, there’s a pencil-drawn and shaded portrait of a goofy grinning giraffe with a love-heart necklace around its neck. This section ends with assorted hastily scribbled and coloured-in wide-eyed cat-like cartoon creations; but before them there’s also an elf, and a depressed-looking android, and a boy with a pumpkin head sitting on top of a zombie-like rock monster -- his yawning cave-formed mouth full of stalactite teeth. This opening section also finds room for some slightly more macabre sketches that point the way to the full-on nightmare surrealism of the main body of the book: a golem-inspired ghoul with half his head missing, which has been replaced by a satellite antenna; a ’demon’ that looks more like something assembled from bits of unravelling string and the shattered, dug-up skull of some long extinct still-born atrocity – all held together on a collapsible fold-out metal frame that emerges improbably from a pair of belted baggy trousers.
"Nurse Monster What Gives Candy To A Spider Thing In A Drawer"
The ‘Artwork’ section (the one that takes up most of the book) is where the twisted Dirge sensibility really kicks in. Here we have the full colour portraits, painted from initial pencil drawings, mostly either based on similar looking skinny pale Goth women with tattoos, or a Johnny Depp-like male cartoon figure (possibly an avatar for the artist himself), only with distorted features and a bulbous pumpkin-like head which sits atop a spindly body that’s clad in funeral director’s garb (one of the portraits incarnates him as Jack the Ripper). There are the standard images of zombies here, of course; the most striking of which features a little Girl Guide zombie with a Princess Lea haircut, clutching at a box of cookies while blackbirds flit around a white picket fence, pecking at her flesh as it unravels in veiny string-like strands. An appreciation of the Victorian macabre that surrounds the Jack the Ripper case emerges most strikingly in an image that also begins to illustrate the artist’s warped sense of the absurd and the kitsch: a piece entitled  Dear Boss features a figure in a seated pose that mimics the faded, gloomy looking aesthetic of the Victorian era daguerreotype, except that the figure is, as the commentary explains, intended as a composite of all of Jack the Ripper’s female victims: an absurd scar-stitched mannequin, half rag doll, half death mask of the formerly living. The disturbing image plays on the Victorian vogue for memento mori portraits of loved ones taken in death, but Dirge adds his own incongruously bizarre take on the genre by seating a ridiculous cartoon bear in the taxidermied corpse’s lap!
Odd little creatures tend to turn up in the various nooks and crannies of these paintings, many of which often display an affinity with the offbeat surrealism of David Lynch’s midnight movie favourite Eraserhead. Nurse Monster What Gives Candy To A Spider Thing In A Drawer feels like typical early Lynch weirdness what with its central crab-faced, tentacled figure, seen perched atop a set of drawers from which a hairy tarantula ‘thing’ is attempting to emerge -- but it is also typically Dirge-like in that the picture includes a miniaturised fluffy canine with a feather for a tale, for no apparent reason balanced precariously upon some sort of scientific apparatus of the artist’s own devising on the right of the image. One painting, Mary Toft And The Rabbit Babies, refers to a little-known 1726 curiosity -- also written about by Emma Donoghue in her book of short fictions based on ‘true’ stories, The Woman Who Gave Birth To Rabbits -- in which a Surrey woman managed to fool doctors in early Georgian England into believing that she really had given birth to rabbits! The case was satirised at the time by William Hogarth in his print Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism, but Dirge’s painting adds whimsical zombie nurses to the mix and has them engaged in a desperate struggle to control the flow of squealing little bunnies that arrive attached to multiple frayed, string-like strands of umbilical cord -- while one of the new-borns has chanced to find himself perched on top of his ‘mother’s’ head.

Neglected cuddly toys and strange fluffy proto-animals sit side by side with Dirge’s pet hate from the animal world: birds. ‘I actually hate birds but I find myself compelled to draw them,’ says the artist, and in this section they appear often in the background and in almost naturalistic form (except for the two-headed raven, shown perched on a gnarled tree branch amid its bowery -- which is topped off with a miniaturised skull), but in the section entitled ‘Monsters’ Dirge’s demons come out to play in even more grotesque a form, and birds are here very often the template for the artist’s queasiest nightmares. A lot of his monster portraits exist at the interface between a sort of cartoon whimsy and a Gothic tinged carnival grotesque: his creatures look welded or glued together from bits of disparate old skull or carapace, crumbling toys or other found objects; some of them look to be part skeleton and part stitched on feather and fur.

This is particularly the case with the artist’s ‘devil’ birds, which often seem to be wearing skull masks, as though they were all members of some secret satanic society that worships an inscrutable form of evil. The dust cover image of the book – from a work called Serpentese -- is meant to be Dirge’s vision of a creature that might prey on these avian horrors, but if anything the cure -- with its long, coiling, slithery snake body, attached to a wolfish skull with a slug oozing from one eye socket and a mangy horse’s mane trailing from its crown (which is itself home to some tattered-looking bird prisoners) -- is even more unpleasant than the disease!

Evocative highlights of this section include Chinese Dress: a lushly rendered Daliesque painting of a woman in a red Chinese dress, seated with a disturbingly elaborate and incongruous bird-insect skull where her face should be and several of Dirge’s strange, semi-cartoon fictional animals at her side or across her lap. Also, Giants is a striking image given a double page spread: creatures that look like colossal robot animal toys, apparently fighting for possession of a ripped-out heart in a fairy-tale city in which little pale-skinned Dirge avatars stand and gawp at the raging spectacle above their heads in the clouds. It’s clear that the areas that interest the artist most intersect with the world of fairy tales, so the ‘Scarytales’ section is an inevitable inclusion and is home to a zombie version of Disney’s design for Pinocchio, an equally sallow looking Snow White and, even more inevitably, the Dirge take on Alice in Wonderland. The book then winds down with a collection of jokey and lovingly garish cartoons in the section called ‘Funny Bones’: it’s a vehicle for some bad jokes and generally bad taste humour, including amongst the gags a ‘Missing’ poster rendered for a cute cartoon cat called Miss Puddles -- with an artist rendition of what puddles ‘may’ look like now: a squished roadside mess!

Titan have put together a great cross section of the artist’s work for this edition and it is all presented in a sumptuous hardback volume with high quality paper (dimensions: 310 x 224mm) that fully does justice to the colourful, baroque weirdness that is the art of Roman Dirge.
RATING: 4 /5
Published by Titan Books (2011)
Find out more about Roman Dirge and his work at

Friday, 25 November 2011

February Release Dates From Arrow

Fresh news has emerged from the folks at Cult Labs today relating to three of their slated 2012 releases. The press release details are below. All three are due out in February -- the exact dates for each one are included with the text.

Red Scorpion (Arrow Video) Blu-ray


Dolph Lundgren is Nikolai - a killing machine - a deadly, highly skilled agent for the Russian army whose brutal efficiency and single minded determination to serve the motherland leaves behind a trail of battered bodies and bloodied enemies.

Now Nikolai must infiltrate an African rebel army who seek to defy their new communist rulers and take out their leader, but as he gets to know his enemies and the dignified Bushmen he encounters, he begins to slowly realize that all he has been taught was a lie. This Cold War rebel is ready to turn the tables on his Soviet masters and kick all kinds of ass!

With a body count that leaves jaws firmly on the floor and a healthy disregard for troublesome logic, Red Scorpion is a classic 80s action spectacular that doesn’t let up for a second…


- Reversible sleeve with original and newly commissioned artwork

- Double-sided fold-out artwork poster

- Collector’s booklet featuring brand new writing on the film by author Calum Waddell


- Brand New High Definition Transfer of the film (1080p)


- Introduction to the film from star Dolph Lundgren

- UK exclusive audio commentary with director Joseph Zito, moderated by filmmaker and genre scholar Howard S. Berger

- ALL OUT OF BULLETS: Dolph Lundgren remembers RED SCORPION

- MUSIC WITH MUSCLES: Composer Jay Chattaway on the soundtrack of RED SCORPION

- Original Trailer

Original Art by The Dude Designs

In original 1.78:1 Aspect Ratio

Original Uncompressed LPCM Stereo Audio

Feature and extras 1080/24p Region ABC playable worldwide

RRP £24.99

Released 6th February 2012

Penitentiary (ArrowDrome) DVD

There's only one way out, and 100 fools stand in the way!

Too Sweet likes three things… Candy bars, makin’ love and fighting. Arrested while defending a beautiful hooker in a roadside diner brawl, he finds himself unjustly incarcerated in a violent prison hellhole where life is cheap and punks get owned by predatory lifers. There’s only one way out… Victory in the ring!

Now Too Sweet has to fight for his freedom in series of boxing battles, all the while watching his back in the prison corridors, waiting for the cold sting of the shiv that might end his life.

Experience Jamaa Fanaka’s extraordinary grindhouse classic – Which is arguably the last great Blaxploitation flick – and pray to God you never end up somebody’s bitch in the  PENITENTIARY!



Running Time 99 mins approx

English language

Region 0 NTSC

RRP £9.99

Released 13th February 2012

The Cat O’ Nine Tails (ArrowDrome) DVD


A break in at a genetics lab leads to a spiralling vortex of bloody murder in Cat O’ Nine Tails, Dario Argento’s 70s Giallo classic.

Strange circumstances surrounding the crime pique the interest of a journalist and a blind crossword compiler whose sharp ears have overheard talk of blackmail. However, all the would be investigators leads soon regret the help they gave as scientists die in front of speeding trains and photographers are viciously slain while others fall to their screaming deaths down elevator shafts in this surreal and nightmarish thriller from one of the acknowledged masters of Italian horror.

As the body count increases, will no one escape the sting of The Cat O’ Nine Tails?



Running Time 107 mins approx

English language

Region 0 PAL

RRP £9.99

Released 20th February 2012

Saturday, 19 November 2011


Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence is often misremembered, perhaps even dismissed, as being simply a straightforward, commercially driven vehicle intent on putting its renowned director and co-screenwriter Nagisa Oshima -- the Japanese auteurist and former provocateur extraordinaire -- under the bright spotlight of mainstream Western media recognition for the first time after he'd originally found a degree of prominence internationally in the 1970s, for his radical gesture in yoking a stylised form of cinematic beauty to the less than reputable ‘genre’ of hard-core pornography, with the French produced In the Realm of the Senses. In 1983, this Jeremy Thomas production reached much further beyond the confines of the arthouse ghetto to embrace an audience who knew nothing of its director’s radical past but were impressed by the casting of David Bowie (the tousle-haired, ‘80s-era blonde Bowie of the critically reviled ‘Let’s Dance’ period) and enamoured of Yellow Magic Orchestra frontman Ryuichi Sakamoto’s swooningly catchy chart synth anthem, Forbidden Colours.

The casting of Bowie alongside a mix & match cast of upcoming British thesps like Tom Conti and mainstream Japanese personalities such as “Beat” Takeshi Kitano (then known mainly as a comedian in his native country) inevitably brought this peculiar film to the attention of a much wider audience
than it would otherwise have been expected to command both in Japan and abroad – indeed, it probably found a bigger audience than any other film Oshima had made before; but the seemingly skewed populists casting decisions are completely in line with its ultimate raison d'être -- for its many seeming inconsistencies and clashes in formal style (which range from the varied approaches in acting culture of the mixed British/Japanese cast, to the mismatch between Sakamoto’s state-of-the-art synth score and the film’s 1940s period setting) are a big part of its point -- foreshadowing its core theme of cultural dissonance and examining how in closed quarters it permeates and affects the assumptions behind the thoughts and actions and desires of the story’s four main protagonists in unpredictable, fragmenting and frequently violent ways.

Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) reports for court duty
It’s also completely an extension of Oshima’s previous work, despite a much higher public profile and the unaccustomed mainstream acceptance the film garnered: the opening scenes of Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence couldn’t make this any more clear to the Oshima enthusiast, setting up once more, themes that have been a constant in Oshima’s cinema since early ‘60s radical works such as Death by Hanging (1968) and Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), which take the form of an obsession with society’s outsiders (whether they be its sexual taboo busters or the racially marginalised) and the challenge such individuals pose to political, religious and social orthodoxies. It is also, like many of Oshima’s films, particularly In the Realm of the Senses and Death by Hanging, based on true events, though in this case distorted through the prism of being an joint adaptation by Oshima and The Man Who Fell to Earth screenwriter, Paul Mayersberg, of a novel, “The Seed and the Sower”, which was based on the true life experiences of aristocratic Englishman and former prisoner of war in Indonesia, Laurens van der Post.

Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence takes place in a wartime Japanese prisoner of war camp situated in Java, soon after the Japanese invasion of South East Asia, in early 1942, and sees Tom Conti cast as van der Post’s alter ego, Colonel John Lawrence. A Japanese-speaking British officer with an affinity for Japanese culture, who had once lived in the country before the war, Lawrence finds himself in the uncomfortable position of attempting to liaise, on behalf of the British prisoners, between their austere, frequently violent Japanese captors and the prisoners’ uncomprehending official British spokesman, the blustering Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson). Neither side fully understands the other and routinely misinterpret each other’s behaviour because of their unfamiliarity with their respective cultural backgrounds. The traditional Japanese honour code that informs the attitudes of the alternatingly amiable-then-brutal Sgt Gengo Hara (Battle Royale’s Takeshi Katino, in his first major screen role) has the effect of his seeing the prisoners as merely being cowards for their not being prepared to commit suicide rather than allow themselves to be captured by their foes; meanwhile Hicksley interprets the violent methods of punishment routinely meted out by Hara and his men as evidence of nothing but uncivilised brutality in their Japanese captors. The irony is, of course, that both men, from the perspective of their own respective cultures, are equally hot-headed patriotic conservatives, obsessed with tradition and the right way of doing things.
Jack Celliers (David Bowie) awaits execution
Into this fraught situation comes a new and inspiring face: Major Jack Celliers (David Bowie) -- a man already well known to Lawrence and many of the other prisoners as “Strafer” Jack – because of his reputation for being a soldier’s soldier. Caught trying to organise a guerrilla fighting group in the jungle after the Japanese invasion of Java, Celliers is at first condemned to execution by the Japanese high command. But Commandant, Captain Yonoi (Ryuichi Sakamoto) is clearly struck by the fearless Major, seeing in him an example of the military virtue and perfection he himself aspires to. The aristocratic Yonoi was once sympathetic to the cause of the “Shining Young Officers” a group of lower ranking officers in the Japanese Imperial army who attempted a coup d'état in Japan in the year 1936. Yonoi was unable to take part in the infamous February 26th incident in which the rebels managed briefly to occupy the capital before control was re-established by the Imperial Army, since he had been posted to Manchuria just beforehand. While his comrades were executed, Yonoi found himself placed in charge of the prison camp instead of being awarded a more prestigious command post, because of his suspected sympathies with the rebellion.
Yonoi’s guilt at not sharing the self -sacrifice of his comrades, and his recognition of Celliers’ own sacrifice in staying behind to organise a futile guerrilla campaign while the British forces evacuated the region, leads the Captain to intervene in his sentencing and recommend that Celliers be imprisoned rather than executed, although an idiosyncratic sense of propriety demands that a cruel mock execution be staged in any case -- with Celliers bound before a line of rifle -bearing marksmen, who all point their arms at him but then unexpectedly discharge their weapons to either side of his body at the last second after hearing the command to fire!
John Lawrence (Tom Conti) attempts to reason with Group Captain Hicksley (Jack Thompson)

But Celliers’ arrival at the camp coincides with the discovery of a homosexual liaison between one of the Japanese guards and a Dutch prisoner. Sergeant Hara at first tries to get the ‘disgraced’ guard to commit Seppuku, and even brings Colonel Lawrence along to watch the event. Despite his strange friendship with Hara and his unique respect for and knowledge of Japanese culture, Lawrence is appalled by Hara’s rigid traditionalism and manages to get Captain Yonoi to intervene; but although he punishes Hara for taking matters into his own hands, the Captain then organises an even more traditional, ceremonial form of ritual suicide for the disgraced guard, and forces the camp’s foreign prisoners to become unwilling spectators to the gruesome act. Their equally appalled reaction is interpreted as spiritual impoverishment and cowardice by Yonoi who promptly enforces a fast as an atonement ritual, a further burden on already undernourished men.

Celliers’ arrival at this time results in the refined but (to the other prisoners) heroic Major taking his own stand against the regime by blithely disobeying the fasting rule and all it stands for, feeding the camp with hand-picked fruit and outraging Yonoi and Hara by then defiantly eating the funerary ‘Manju’ flowers he uses to conceal this illicit food in the bottom of his straw basket. Yonoi is torn between an obvious affinity for the Major because of his recognition of the man’s heroic qualities as a soldier (to which he aspires), and fulfilling the omen such an act would seem to court: the Manju flower is associated both with love and with death in Japanese superstition and legends, and Celliers’ intransigence would seem to demand his destruction -- especially after the challenge the interloper has put to the Captain’s unyielding belief in the rigid samurai bushido code.

The strange dance of provocation between Sakamoto’s Yonoi and Bowie’s effete, blonde-highlighted soldier Celliers, drives much of the incident of the film and seems deliberately positioned in such a way as to encourage the idea that there may be suppressed homoerotic undertones in Yonoi’s near-worship of the increasingly Christ-like British Major. The casting of two non-professional actors in such demanding and unusual roles can be seen as a daring decision on Oshima’s part, designed to befuddle those who would try to pin the film down as a traditional realist wartime nostalgia piece. Conti and Thompson may give refined, graceful, subtle RADA-toned performances of a type audiences may be familiar with from such films, but Sakamoto and Bowie’s untutored and intuitive approach to their acting often seems to locate them as part of an entirely different kind of work. Certainly Sakamoto’s stilted, accented English delivery and Bowie’s dazzling (and visually signposted) off-world rock star persona both seem to place unbroachable barriers between an audience’s full acceptance and understanding of each of their characters, but Oshima seems little interested in illuminating the inner conflicts of Celliers and Yonoi so much as dramatizing the texture of the incommensurable attraction between them, and to this end his indulgence of Bowie’s mime skills and of Sakamoto’s inherent awkwardness before the camera help him achieve his aim. Both characters are caught in a self-sacrificial web of magnetic attraction like moths bent on extinguishing themselves in each other’s flame.
The brothers set off for boarding school
Toichiro Narushima’s cinematography reproduces the steamy muted palettes of Rarotonga and echoes many a familiar wartime jungle movie in doing so, but also explodes into a riot of colour for a key sequence which occurs once Celliers and Lawrence are imprisoned together awaiting execution after they are singled out for punishment when a radio is discovered in camp (Yonoi knows Lawrence isn’t responsible, but as the person who provides the bridge across the cultural gap that exists between prisoner and captor, he must accept the blame and die for Yonoi according to the Captain’s deranged sense of propriety). The scene takes the form of a flashback to Celliers’ childhood and reveals a guilty secret he harbours over the treatment of his younger brother.

This is where Oshima makes the film’s fundamentally offbeat nature most lucidly perceptible: Celliers’ English rural upbringing is transmogrified by the clearly quite incongruous New Zealand shooting locations, into an airily garlanded dreamscape in which the younger blonde brother (James Malcolm) is bullied for his beatific soprano singing voice, and the slightly older twelve-year-old Celliers (Chris Broun) takes it upon himself to be his little brother’s protector. This all changes when the two arrive at a rigidly stratified boarding school, and Celliers’ commitment to blending in with and becoming a part of the ‘establishment’ leads him to sacrifice his brother to the harsh humiliations of the school’s initiation rituals, which results in the boy never singing again.

Oshima turns this whole sequence into something that might've looked more in place as part of a Ken Russell production of Mary Poppins (specifically echoing the heightened, brightly coloured melodrama of the The Lair of the White Worm) and magnifies the surrealism of it by transplanting Bowie’s older Celliers into the scenes which take place in the public school, while Celliers’ younger brother stays the same age as he was in the previous scenes from their childhood, when Bowie’s character was played by child actor Chris Broun. This strange convergence emphasises the grown-up Celliers’ guilt and provides a motivation for his later self-sacrificial action, but it also makes clear the director’s commitment to challenging the viewer’s sense of appropriateness for dealing with the material, as the film feels more dreamlike and mannered that one normally finds in movies set during this period.

Sakamoto’s incidental music continues in this mission, consisting as it does of a series of recurring leitmotifs, each associated with each of the main characters. These heavily synthesised passages stand out a mile in contrast to the wartime 1940s setting, and, if anything, are even more noticeably incongruous now that they’ve acquired the nostalgic connotations associated with 1980s synth electronica.
A final fairwell between unlikely friends
One of the most laudable aspects of the production is its determination to deal with the main characters on both sides -- British prisoners and their Japanese captors alike -- in an even handed way throughout. Takeshi’s mercurial Sergeant Hara arguably goes through the most unexpected transformation, starting the film by portraying the ugliest, nationalistic side of his character -- the side that most aligns with a western audience’s preconceptions about the brutality of the Japanese during the Second World War -- and ending it as a dignified and stoic prisoner himself, awaiting British justice at the end of the war when the roles of prisoner and captive have been reversed. The friendship between Lawrence and Hara is the one constant that endures to the end while the initially likable and honourable Captain Yonoi eventually becomes deranged by his unyielding adherence to tradition and his rigid sense of honour, which have been slowly warped by his personification of them in the unlikely form of Major Celliers, who himse;f ends up demonstrating his own form of Seppuku in the course of attempting to assuage the pain of his guilty past. Left to perish in the scorching sun after having been buried up to his neck in the earth, Celliers’ becomes almost a fetishized god to the repressed Yonoi, who removes a lock of the dying soldier’s blonde hair, as though it were both a relic of a deification or a memento of a lover, or something existing ambiguously in the gap between the two.
Ambiguity in relationships, cultural incommensurability and the hidden wellsprings of psychology that form individual personalities are the main themes of this offbeat, uncategorisable arthouse picture posing as a mainstream hit; Oshima’s penultimate film is awkward and weird but mesmerising nonetheless.

This double play release includes a Blu-ray copy and a DVD copy of the movie, both featuring the same set of extras on each, which consist of a 25 minute making of documentary called Oshima’s Gang, featuring contributions from Tom Conti, David Bowie, producer Jeremy Thomas and the author of the novel on which the film was based, Laurens van der Post. The author comes across as a benign, sweet-natured member of the upper crust who confesses at one point to feeling terribly guilty for never having heard of David Bowie before he saw the film! Bowie meanwhile (interviewed during a press conference for the film attended by Nagisa Oshima himself) comes across as quite humble about his acting abilities and reveals that the director worked incredibly quickly, usually shooting no more than two takes per scene. Conti reveals that he turned down the film at first because of the amount of violence in the script and that the many scenes in which he speaks fluent Japanese were all learned phonetically without his having any idea what he was actually saying.

The disc also includes a 17 minute interview with Jeremy Thomas, filmed more recently, in which he reveals that Oshima’s 2:1 shooting ratio left him with a load of unusable film stock on his hands, since the director never shot any more footage than he needed for his conception of each scene. An 11 minute interview with actor and musician Ryuichi Sakamoto reveals a man who isn’t at all comfortable in front of the camera when it comes to acting, and indeed, has never acted again since seeing himself in this film and being appalled by his performance! Sakamoto also talks about his conception of the music as ‘being from nowhere’ but incorporating elements of exotic, traditional Japanese and contemporary western music, mixed with a nostalgia for an unobtainable past.

This reviewer only had access to the DVD copy that comes with the set, but the transfer looked fine, if a little muddy during the opening sequence. The extras also feature a short trailer (in poor condition) and a three minute excerpt from the documentary biography Scenes by the Sea --- the Life and cinema of ‘Beat’ Takeshi Kitano.

TITLE: Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 1983/DVD RELEASE DATE: 17 October 2011/GENRE: Arthouse/LABEL: Studio Canal UK/REGION: B/2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.85:1/DIRECTOR: Nagisa Oshima/CAST: David Bowie, Tom Conti, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Takeshi Kitano, Jack Thomson.

Read a review of Empire of Passion at
Read a review of In the Realm of the Senses at