Saturday, 30 August 2014

X the Unknown

That esteemed home of dry facts and vile commenting IMDB tags X the Unknown with the rather marvellous one sentence synopsis, 'Radioactive mud-like creature terrorises a Scottish village during the 1950's.'  It's not entirely accurate but in essence pretty much sums up this little gem.

X the Unknown was made in 1956 by Hammer initially intended as a follow up to The Quatermass Xperiment (can you spot the similarity) but were denied use of the title character by Nigel Kneale.  Continuing regardless with both the movie and also with the practise of casting an American in the title role, Dean Jagger here and Brian Donlevy in the first two Quatermass movies, in order to hopefully widen the appeal of the film to US audiences regardless of whether the presence of an American working in a Scottish nuclear research testing station or even running the British Experimental Rocket Group was at all incongruous.

The Unknown X of the title is a large blob creature from the dawn of time that feeds on radiation.  It is drawn to the surface by soldiers conducting Geiger Counter field tests and soon begins to hone in on rather more sumptuous feasts including the experiments and workplace of our Bernard Quatermass substitute, Dean Jagger's  Dr. Adam Royston.

Jagger has far too little charisma to hold his own at the centre of the film but is ably assisted by a strong supporting cast that includes Edward Chapman (more famous for his role as Mr. Grimsdale opposite Norman Wisdom), Leo (Rumpole of the Bailey) McKern and Anthony Newley in a short but sweet role as Lance Corporal "Spider" Webb whose delivery of the word 'Tea' (and his short scene that follows) is just perfect.

There's a reason X the Unknown isn't as fondly remembered or celebrated as the Quatermass movies, it just isn't as good but few things are.  It does however maintain a fairly breathless pace throughout, has some nice set pieces and isn't afraid to let things get a little gory and intense (the lustful radiographers melting face being the main thing that springs to mind here).  It has it's charm and it has it's fans (including me) and at only 75 minutes is a great way to while away part of a rainy afternoon.

buy it here - X The Unknown [DVD] - or watch it below.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

'The Changes' Trilogy

Welcome to the Britain of The Changes. A Britain returned to a level of medieval peasantry by a sudden and inexplicable hatred of all machines that consumes most of the inhabitants.

Written by English writer Peter Dickinson and originally published between 1968 & 1970 tells three separate stories - originally in reverse chronological order - about life in this harsh new world.

In 1975 the series was adapted by the BBC into a 10 episode TV series which I'll talk about some other time.


The Weathermonger

"This is the time of The Changes -- a time when people, especially adults, have grown to hate machines and returned to a more primitive lifestyle. It is a time of hardship and fear! When 16-year-old Geoffrey, a "weathermonger" starts to repair his uncle's motorboat, he and his sister Sally are condemned as witches. Fleeing for their lives, they travel to France -- where they discover that everything is normal. Returning to England, they set out to discover why the country is under this mysterious spell. Only discovering the origin of the deadly magic will allow them to set the people free of its destructive influence."

This is the first of the trilogy that formed the basis for the 1970s TV series 'The Changes' although this one barely featured in the TV show at all except for a vague similarity in terms of the ending.

It's the sorry of two kids - Geoffrey and his little sister Sally - who are travelling through a Britain that is hostile, barbaric, superstitious and which has somehow regressed back to the middle ages in order to find the source of the problem. With the assistance of an ancient Rolls Royce and Geoff's (titular) weather magic the two plough their way across the country being attacked by wild boars, angry superstitious peasants and lightning whilst being pursued by a feudal lord and his pack of dogs.

It's a little romp of a book and I'm really surprised it isn't better remembered although I wonder if the drugs at the end had a part in that. Personally though I thoroughly enjoyed and I am very pleased to have the other two instalments here ready for reading.


Heartsease

At a future time in England when anyone knowledgeable about machines is severely punished as a witch, four children dare to aid in the escape of a "witch" left for dead.

The second in Dickinson's trilogy of The Changes is set an undisclosed amount of time before the first and features an entirely new set of characters.

What is almost immediately apparent here is that Dickinson has pulled back from the overtly magical nature of the first - no more weathermongery - and all that remains is the vague sense for 'wickedness' expressed by the repugnant Davey Gordon and of course the mortal terror and hatred of machines. The book is all the stronger for it too with the reigning in of the magic allowing a far more interesting and real story to unfold.

The story tells of the rescuing of a 'witch' - in actual fact an American sent to Britain to investigate The Changes - from a crude grave following his stoning by the villagers by 4 young people and their subsequent flight along the canals in the boat named in the title. It unfolds slowly and carefully marshaling it's energy until the children are ready to make their move at which point the pace is relentless and rollicking good fun.

I must admit to having been a little confused by the presence of the American though as in the first book it is established that those trying to reach Britain from outside were repelled by some force or went through The Change themselves. This does make him slightly incongruous but I wonder if Dickinson was feeling a little constrained by the 'rules' laid out in the previous book.

All told it's a lovely little read that takes it's time in the telling and does so to tell a more honest and human tale than the first.


The Devil's Children

After the mysterious Changes begin, twelve-year-old Nicola finds herself abandoned and wandering in an England where everyone has suddenly developed a horror and hatred of machines.

And so the story of The Changes ends...or begins. The third part - and the one with the most in common with the TV series - tells of young Nicky Gore and her travels with a group of Sikhs as they attempt to find a safe new home in this strange new world.

It's fabulous stuff with a story that's both tight and well paced. The Sikhs - who remain unaffected by The Changes - are portrayed as both extraordinary and ordinary. Their behaviour and mannerisms relayed and interpreted through Nicky's childish and retarded - thanks to the influence of The Change - viewpoint; her opinions softening as she gets to know, trust and like them and becomes more at home in their company.  Dickinson is unafraid of his characters and boldly displays prejudice and misunderstanding from all sides - overtly from the nearby villagers with whom the Sikhs begin trading, more subtly from the Sikhs, 'We are cleaner than Europeans.' He's also willing to have fun with them - the running gag with the Sikhs riotous discussions that invariably lead to the correct decision being made.

I've seen these books listed lately in reverse order - with this one as part 1 - but I'm very glad I read these in the order they were published as this was easily my favourite of an excellent series and a very nice way to leave this changed world.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Small Shadows Creep

Andre Norton (ed)
Puffin Books
1979

An antiquarian bookseller takes a sinister interest in a schoolboy who visits his shop; a pair of twins hardly old enough to walk, strike deadly terror into anyone who sees them; a young girl who died for love finds being a ghost much too enjoyable to give up. This assortment of ghost stories is eerie, touching or funny, and never quite what you expect.


One of a stack of old Puffin books I've been picking up lately and the one that jumped out at me from the pile. This is a selection of Victorian, and slightly later, ghost stories all of which feature children. It is split into three parts - Ancient Evils, Vengeful Spirits & Quiet Visitors - and features eight stories - split 3, 3, 2.

Opening, proceedings is 'Salooky' by Margery Lawrence, a very fine tale featuring her occult investigator Dr. Miles Pennoyer as he removes the deeply malevolent spirit of an Elizabethan sorcerer that is haunting his sisters new home and having a deeply troubling impact on his nephew. This is followed by what is easily the most vicious, and modern feeling, of the eight, 'Herodes Redivivus' by A.N.L. (here credited as A.B.L.) Munby. In this a young man meets a supremely creepy antiquarian bookseller and after a close call finds himself somewhat in tune with the going ons at the shop. Closing out this section was a cool little piece of rural horror - H.R. Wakefield's 'The First Sheaf' - involving intractable locals, pagan rites, an intrusive Christian and a something.

The second set features spirits of a more purposeful nature and begins with E.F. Benson's 'How Fear Departed From The Long Gallery' which is a humorous little tale whose fairly obvious ending isn't spoilt in the telling. Next is probably the book's weakest tale, Mrs Gaskell's 'The Old Nurse's Story' is a fairly transparent story of spinsters, children and past regrets. Not bad but as I said a bit obvious. The section ends with M.R. James' fabulous 'Lost Hearts' where the ghosts of children murdered in an alchemical procedure take gruesome revenge.

The final two stories are a very different kettle of fish with the ghosts being very much the benevolent heart of each tale. Hugh Walpole's 'A Little Ghost' puts a man mourning the death of his friend into a house filled with exuberant children. Escaping to his room he finds comfort and solace in the presence of a shy spirit of a young girl.

The final tale has an almost Dickensian feel to it with its tale of a crusty, aloof academic taking an orphan child into his home and allowing her free range over his library. The story, 'Playmates' by A.M. Burrage eventually finds the girl befriended by the seven ghosts who inhabit the old schoolhouse where they live. As time and circumstances soften the hearts of he and her (but not of his crotchety assistant) they both come to find a level of affection for each other and grow closer before he finally opens himself up in frankly fabulous finale.

It's a thoroughly enjoyable book. It's varied and intriguing and filled with invention, fear and finally, love.

Friday, 1 August 2014

The Owl Service

Alan Garner
(Armada Lion)

Something is scratching around in the attic above Alison's room. Yet the only thing up there is a stack of grimy old plates. Alison and her stepbrother, Roger, discover that the flowery patterns on the plates, when traced onto paper, can be fitted together to create owls-owls that disappear when no one is watching. With each vanished owl, strange events begin to happen around Alison, Roger, and the caretaker's son, Gwyn. As the kids uncover the mystery of the owl service, they become trapped within a local legend, playing out roles in a tragic love story that has repeated itself for generations... a love story that has always ended in disaster.

I've been wanting to give this one a read for a long time now but was waiting to find a nice old copy. I was finally able to track one down the other day (same edition as the one pictured) and jumped right in.

The story tells of a trio of teens and assorted adults in a house in a valley somewhere in mid Wales. The discovery of some old plates with drawings of owls on them links the three kids into an ancient story from the Mabinogion that has returned again and again to plague those of the valley.

It was an odd sort of read that left much unanswered - Why was Huw so respected in the village if he was simply one of the previous participants? Why had no one else spotted the fairly obvious solution to the problem?

There was little in the way of redemption at the end for the central characters and it made a nice change for it to be the more unpleasant of them to emerge as the hero.

An odd and intriguing book with a dark and uncompromising personality that leaves you feeling more than a little drained at the end.