Friday, 19 December 2014

My Three Investigators All Time Top 10

Over the course of this year, to mark the 50th Anniversary of The Three Investigators, I've been re-reading (and blogging about) my favourites to compile this "All Time Top 10" (which, of course, will always be subject to change).  In case you're interested in those titles that don't appear here, I read all 30 of the original series between 2008 to 2010 and reviewed them on this dedicated blog.

So this is it, as at the end of 2014, 50 years after the boys first appeared in print, here is my Top 10 (with links back to my original post and the full review).

by M. V. Carey
Another strong entry from M. V. Carey (her fifth in the series), this has long been my favourite, for a whole variety of reasons.  Although the boys are hired to investigate a "shadow" that might be a ghost, the real mystery kicks in once they’re on the scene at Paseo Place and the burglary of the late Edward Neidland’s house takes place.  He has created a unique crystal sculpture for Fenton Prentice, The Carpathian Hound, “a heavily muscled dog with a square  massive head. The wide round eyes were rimmed with gold, and gold froth flecked the crystal jowls” and now it’s being held for ransom.  At the same time, a lot of apparently separate incidents are happening around the apartment complex - the church next door is broken into, one neighbour is poisoned and hospitalised, another is in his apartment when there’s a fire that hospitalises him and the building supervisor has her car blow up when she’s on the way to the market (after the bombing, a policeman remarks “Things have been really weird on this block the last couple of days.”).  Great fun, from start to finish, this is a superb read with well-developed characters, a vividly created location, a nicely realised atmosphere and a strong pace.  I highly recommend it.
Read my full review (from December 2014) here


by Robert Arthur
Well told and structured, this is superbly written and drops clues for further in the timeline (“Two and two don’t always make four,” Jupe said, his manner mysterious. “And fifteen and fifteen don’t always make thirty” after Worthington mentions that it opens on the fifteenth day of their thirty days use of the Rolls Royce) though it does niggle me there’s a chapter not told from an Investigator-led POV (which probably troubled me more as an adult than it did as a kid).  That aside, this is a great book with a good sense of location and atmosphere and further proof - should it be needed - that it’s a shame Robert Arthur didn’t write or plot more of the adventures.
Read my full review (from March 2014) here


by Robert Arthur
This is a rollercoaster of an adventure that doesn’t let up and covers a lot of ground from the initial robbery (a cleverly staged set-piece), to the details of the gnomes (when they’re first seen, it’s quite a spooky sequence) and beyond (including a terrific chase in an abandoned cinema), this is full of assured writing and helped by a great sense of location and atmosphere.  It also has a sense of melancholic nostalgia (which I probably missed as a kid but now realise is a signature of Robert Arthur), where the differences between past and present are not generally good.  In this case, it’s Ms Agawam reflecting on the lack of children in the area as those she once read to - and wrote for - have now moved away to start families of their own and it’s also about how old LA is being demolished (the old Moor theatre next door) to make way for the new.  I really appreciated that on re-reading it.
Read my full review (from March 2014) here 


by M. V. Carey
There are some great set pieces - breaking and entering the butlers flat (the first time I think Jupe deliberately breaks the law) and the bombing of the deli - but the key one is when the foursome infiltrate the cult’s mansion on Torrente Canyon. Gripping and tense, with a real sense of location and some great descriptions, this works brilliantly.  Helping the overall tone of the book is that a lot of the action takes place at twilight or after dark and there’s a real sense of adventure to it.  There are also some nice observations about why people join cults and the power of belief that are sharply written and in keeping with future Carey stories, where she touches upon real phenomenon and deals with it effectively.
Read my full review (from March 2014) here


by M. V. Carey
Another strong entry in the series from M. V. Carey and it’s been one of my favourites since I first read it in 1983 (I have the 1982 Armada paperback).  Back then - as now - I got the impression from their working at Amigos Press (as Bob says “the private detective business is slow this summer, we thought we’d get some experience with office work”), that Carey was writing them as slightly older and I think it works really well.  The book also has a nice attitude - shared by Jupe - towards old-time Hollywood that really grounds this in reality.  Starting with a bang, this has a good pace, a concise plot that unravels well, a nicely nostalgic atmosphere and the boys interplay is brilliant.
Read my full review (from September 2014) here


by M. V. Carey
With Rocky Beach only seen very briefly, this takes place in Twin Lakes, an old mining town in New Mexico that has shrunk since the Death Trap mine played out its silver (only the town’s logging operation is keeping it going).  There are some nice reflections on this - and a great use of Hambone, a ghost town that suffered a worse mine closure - and the locations are well used and realised.  Tightly written and paying out its clever central mystery strand-by-strand - their tracking down of information on Gilbert Morgan (the corpse found in the mine) is well played - this is full of suspense, casting suspicion on Wesley Thurgood and Uncle Harry’s other neighbour Mrs Macomber alike, before fresh suspects enter the fray.
Read my full review (from June 2014) here


by William Arden
There’s a lot of bright characterisation - especially Billy Towne, Dingo’s eight-year-old grandson who knows all about the Three Investigators and ends up a fourth partner (and wears a cape and deerstalker), Turk & Mr Savo and Dingo’s niece and nephew, the awful Winifred & Cecil Percival, two nasty piece of work English villains - along with some nice interplay between the boys.  The book also has a good sense of humour about it, typified by Pete’s eating habits and it runs at a cracking pace (I read the first half in one sitting and the time just flew by).  After opening on Bob writing up their last case (the search for Mrs Hester’s ring), we see the boys at school (and find out that Jupiter is president of the Science Club) and old favourite the Ghost-to-Ghost hook-up makes another appearance - and is used again by Billy, at a critical point of the story, where he makes his headquarters a phonebooth.
Read my full review (from April 2014) here


by William Arden
This is another terrific entry, combining a deceptively simple plot with some really good set pieces, logical detection and plenty of intrigue along the way.  After setting things up in the first chapter, the story takes off and whips along, featuring bad luck, a reverse-disguise, carny-life, a human fly, a bank robbery and remnants of the past along the way.  There’s great use of the abandoned amusement park and it’s desolation and spookiness is remarkably well conveyed (especially during a tense and suspenseful moonlit pursuit).  The book also has an element of Robert Arthur style pathos to it, about the waning carnival life and people wanting someting for nothing, which is a nice touch.


by William Arden
Taking place solely in Rocky Beach - as did Arden’s last book, “The Mystery Of The Dead Man’s Riddle” - and giving us a whole new set of locations to imagine, this makes good use of the town and adds the story a nice flavour.  Opening on Pete’s street and staying close by for several chapters, it brings a touch of realism to a tale that, it has to be said, needs to be sometimes taken with a pinch of salt.  Now I like pulpy action, I like twinges of horror in my mysteries and so I loved the whole Dancing Devil (the spirit/demon/man, rather than the statue) concept (especially how people accept its existence) but I can see that others might have problems with it though who could deny that “The Dancing Devil of Batu Khan, dated 1241AD and inscribed ‘To the Exalted Khan of the Golden Horde’” isn’t a touch of brilliance.
Read my full review (from July 2014) here


by M. V. Carey
This has some great characterisation (including a prize quote from Worthington - “Master Pete prefers to avoid unnecessary vexation”), a nice cameo from Dr Barrister, who appeared in ‘The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent’, some nicely spooky scenes and Jupe using Sherlock-Holmes-level detecting skills to wrap the case up at the harbour.  Top notch writing, a smart mystery and a cracking pace make this a fun read.
Read my full review (from April 2014) here


For all of my Three Investigator related posts, click this link

Thanks to Ian Regan for the artwork (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Mystery Of The Invisible Dog, by M. V. Carey

Since 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published, I thought it’d be enjoyable to re-read and compile my Top 10 (which might be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here), but this time I will concentrate on my favourite books and try to whittle the best ten from that.

So here we go.
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1976), cover art by Roger Hall

The legend of a ghostly hound...

"It was a huge half-starved brute with glowing eyes," the art collector told Jupiter Jones.  "On dark nights it roamed the streets, howling.  Some say it was the evil spirit of a nobleman."  His voice shook.  "I've had a statue of it for years - but last week it disappeared.  Its ghost has come back to haunt me!"

When Jupiter Jones and his friends investigate the mystery, they find themselves tackling not only a demon dog, but some other far more fearful apparitions...


Armada format b paperback
(published in 1981, reprinted in 1982),
cover art by Peter Archer
“It was twilight - the abrupt, chill twilight of late December - when Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews first came to Paseo Place”.

In the week between Christmas and New Year, the boys are hired by eldery patron of the arts Fenton Prentice, who believes he is being haunted by a shadow that appears in his apartment.  When Jupiter sees the same shadow, having mistaken it initially for Pete, it appears that Mr Prentice does indeed have a problem, made worse when it’s discovered his statue of The Carpathian Hound has been stolen.  Before long, the boys are drawn into the hunt for a burglar and need to find out what’s behind a poisoning, a fire-bombing, an explosion and the appearance of a ghostly apparition in the local church whilst the pressure is on to find the invisible dog.

This is the fifth M. V. Carey entry in the series and has long been one of my favourites, for a whole variety of reasons.  Although they’re hired to investigate the shadow, the real mystery kicks in once they’re on the scene at Paseo Place and the burglary of the late Edward Neidland’s house takes place.  He has created a unique crystal sculpture for Prentice, The Carpathian Hound, “a heavily muscled dog with a square  massive head. The wide round eyes were rimmed with gold, and gold froth flecked the crystal jowls” and now it’s being held for ransom.  At the same time, a lot of apparently separate incidents are happening around the apartment complex - the church next door is broken into, one neighbour is poisoned and hospitalised, another is in his apartment when there’s a fire that hospitalises him and the building supervisor has her car blow up when she’s on the way to the market (after the bombing, a policeman remarks “Things have been really weird on this block the last couple of days.”)

There are some terrific set pieces - the encounter in the church, Gwen Chalmers being poisoned, the CCTV, the business with Mrs Bortz’s car, the fire at John Murphy’s, Jupiter in the pool - whilst the first, with the burglar fleeing through Paseo Place being followed by the cops and then the crowd that gathers at the church to see what’s going on, sets the tone perfectly.  The characters are well realised across the board - from those already mentioned, plus Sonny Elmquist (who appears to be the shadow), Alex Hassell and his cats, Father McGovern, Earl the caretaker and Mrs O’Reilly over at the church and there’s a nice cameo from Dr Bannister (who first appeared in “The Mystery Of The Singing Serpent” and cameo-ed in "The Secret Of The Haunted Mirror").  Gripping and well paced, this has a superb sense of location - 402 Paseo Place, off Wilshire Boulevard - with the apartment complex vividly created, from its flagstone courtyard, pool, staircase and back alley, whilst nearby St Jude’s rectory and church is another inspired creation though thankfully (and I’d forgotten this before my re-read), Headquarters does get a mention - Jupe creates some ‘magic’ ointment there.  Helping the tone of the book is the wonderful sense of atmosphere - it’s in the lull of Christmas and it’s cold - with quite a lot of the action taking place after dark and there are some nice touches, such as when Jupe is investigating Prentice’s flat - "Through the open curtains Jupe could see the church next door. The organ no longer boomed and children's voices could be heard in the street; apparently choir practice was over.”  Even better, this features supernatural elements - an out-of-body wanderer (which is what Dr Barrister helps out with) and the cover-star phantom priest - and presents them as “just so”, with no attempt to explain whether they are real or not (and the priest inspires the great last line too).

The boys have some good interplay, the mystery is sound and the plot builds well and there’s a real sense of a crisp December in the air.  Great fun, from start to finish, this is a superb read with well-developed characters, a vividly created location, a nicely realised atmosphere and a strong pace.  I highly recommend it.
Back cover of the format a paperback shows the boys rescuing Mr Murphy, artwork by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Aside from the story itself, part of my love for this book is definitely nostalgic - published in 1979, this and The Mystery Of Death Trap Mine were the first two 'brand new' books I had of the series, in that I bought them as soon as they were published.  This perhaps explains why those two paperbacks have slightly beaten up covers...  The other aspect is the fantastic cover art by Peter Archer, who has created a vivid image, from the misty, moonlit cemetery to the shock on Jupe's face and the priest captured in the glow of the candle (though the ghost appears to have vampire teeth for some reason).
Armada format a paperback (published in 1979, reprinted in 1980), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
There were no internal illustrations in the UK editions which is a shame, as I'd love to see Roger Hall's version of the phantom priest!

Thanks to Ian Regan for the hardcover artwork and details (you can see more at his excellent Cover Art database here)

Monday, 8 December 2014

30 years of Ghostbusters

“Well, there's something you don't see every day.”
Dr. Peter Venkman, on seeing a giant marshmallow man crash through the streets of New York

In the summer of 1984, I was a regular watcher of “Entertainment USA”, a weekly TV show that highlighted what was popular in the States and what was coming soon to these shores.  On one such show, they had a trailer for a new film that had just been released called “Ghostbusters”, which perked my interest both because of the ghosts and because I was already a big fan of Dan Aykroyd (then and now, I believe that “The Blues Brothers” is one of the best comedy films of all time).


My well-loved paperback
In August, the theme song by Ray Parker jnr was released over here and I remember it being played all the time.  I bought the cassette version of the soundtrack and played it almost to destruction (it was also the first time I’d experienced a soundtrack where tracks were included that featured only briefly in the film - Laura Branigan’s “Hot Night”, for example, can be briefly heard as Ecto-1 drives across the Manhattan bridge).

The film wasn’t released in the UK until December 7th 1984 and I could hardly wait.  Remember, this was long before the Internet, so all we knew was what we saw on TV, though I did pick up the Coronet novelisation by Larry Milne, that just filled my head with more imaginery and whetted my appetite further.  The novelisation (which is written in present tense) is packed out with interviews of the main cast and crew, plus an article on the making of.

In case you’ve never seen it (and this will contain spoilers), the film follows three parapsychologists Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Raymond Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), who lose their jobs at Columbia University.  After being called to investigate a series of apparently supernatural activities at the New York Public Library (where they encounter the ghost of a dead librarian), they set up a paranormal extermination/investigation company called “Ghostbusters” which Stantz funds with a mortgage.
(l to r) Dr Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), Dr Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) and Dr Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis)
Stantz: My parents left me that house. I was born there.
Venkman: You're not gonna lose the house, everybody has three mortgages nowadays.

Spengler is the boffin and he develops high-tech equipment to capture the spirits and they set up a base in a disused, run-down firehouse.  Their first call is to the Sedgewick Hotel where they have a run-in with a disgusting green ghost (who is called Slimer everywhere but in the film itself).

Venkman: He slimed me.
Stantz: That's great. Actual physical contact. Can you move?
Venkman: I feel so funky.

During the battle in the ballroom with Slimer and firing their “unlicensed nuclear reactors” with abandon, Spengler has a thought.

Spengler:         There's something very important I forgot to tell you.
Venkman:        What?
Spengler:         Don't cross the streams.
Venkman:        Why?
Spengler:         It would be bad.
Venkman:        I'm fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, "bad"?
Spengler:         Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
Stantz:        Total protonic reversal.
Venkman:        Right. That's bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.

Paranormal activity explodes in New York City and the Ghostbusters, with their ads and media friendly turns, become celebrities by helping to contain it (taking on a fourth member, Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) to help cope with demand).

Venkman: (as they’re leaving) We came, we saw, we kicked its ass!

Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver)
The Ghostbusters are hired by Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver), whose apartment houses the demonic spirit, Zuul, a demigod worshipped as a servant to Gozer the Gozerian, a Sumerian shape-shifting god of destruction.  Venkman falls for her though she’s soon possessed by Zuul and becomes the “Gatekeeper” - her neighbour Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), a geeky Accountant who has a crush on her, is possessed by the “Keymaster”.

Barrett:         You know, you don't act like a scientist.
Venkman:        They're usually pretty stiff.
Barrett:         You're more like a game show host.

The Ghostbusters facility is shut down by Walter Peck (William Atherton), an over-officious EPA representative who believes the team are acting as unlicensed waste handlers.  When the system is shut, it causes an explosion that releases hundreds of captured spirits that wreak havoc over the city.  The Ghostbusters are arrested but taken to see the Mayor, who is holding a meeting with the police, city officials and clergy to try to figure out a plan of action.

Venkman:         This city is headed for a disaster of biblical proportions.
Mayor:         What do you mean, "biblical"?
Stantz:         What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath of God type stuff.
Venkman:         Exactly.
Stantz:         Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies! Rivers and seas boiling!
Spengler:        Forty years of darkness! Earthquakes, volcanoes...
Zeddemore:     The dead rising from the grave!
Venkman:        Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!
Mayor:        All right, all right! I get the point!
Weaver and Rick Moranis, just prior to becoming Terror Dogs.  I had such a crush on her...
After consulting blueprints for Dana’s building on Central Park, Stantz and Spengler realise it was built as a gateway to summon Gozer and bring about the end of the world.  When they reach the roof of the building, they witness Dana and Louis transforming into Terror Dogs, to do the bidding of Gozer.

Venkman:        So, she's a dog...

They are unable to prevent the arrival of Gozer (Slavitza Jovan) though they manage to briefly subdue her.

Gozer:         Are you a God?
Stantz:         No.
Gozer: Then... DIE!
Zeddemore:      Ray, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say "YES"!
Venkman:        All right! This chick is TOAST!

She then tells them to choose the form of their ‘destructor’ and Stantz, trying to play safe, thinks of a beloved memory from his childhood.

Venkman:         I didn't choose anything...
(there’s a long pause.  Venkman, Spengler and Zeddemore all look at Stantz)
Stantz:         I couldn't help it. It just popped in there.
Venkman:        (angry) What? What "just popped in there?"
Stantz:         I... I... I tried to think...
Spengler:          LOOK!
Stantz:        No! It CAN'T be!
Venkman:        What is it?
Stantz:         It CAN'T be!
Venkman:        What did you DO, Ray?
Zeddemore:     Oh, shit!
(they all see a giant white head topped with a sailor hat) 
Stantz:       (soberly) It's the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Crossing the streams - The Ghostbusters, with Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) at far left
Mr Stay Puft, a giant marshmallow man, begins to attack the city and the Ghostbusters fight back, crossing the streams into the portal, which explodes - defeating Gozer and freeing Dana and Louis.  The Ghostbusters are proclaimed heroes.

* * * * *
"Ghostbusters" was created (as “Ghostsmashers”) by Dan Aykroyd, who originally intended the project for himself and his friend John Belushi, with the heroes travelling through time, space and other dimensions to fight huge ghosts (one of which was the Stay Puft Man).  Having pitched it to director Ivan Reitman, who said it would be too expensive (Reitman later said that original concept would have cost $300m to make back in 1984), Aykroyd and Harold Ramis co-wrote the script and included roles for Belushi, Eddie Murphy (who was to have played Winston Zeddemore) and John Candy (the original choice for Louis Tully).  Murphy and Candy couldn’t commit to the project and when Belushi died, it was re-written to accommodate Bill Murray, who ended up semi-improvising his performance.  During the writing process, Reitman said there was a lot of discussion about the vibe between the three men - Spengler was the brains, Stantz the heart and Venkman the mouth.

Although it marked the first film pairing of Aykroyd and Murray, most of the main cast had worked together before, often in various comedy troupes.  Reitman had directed Aykroyd - they are both Canadians - in a TV show called “Greed” and worked with Murray and Ramis on the original “National Lampoon Show” review on Broadway.  The three men would then team up for several films before “Ghostbusters”, including “Meatballs” and “Stripes” (which Reitman directed and Ramis wrote) and “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (which Reitman produced and Ramis co-wrote).

Production began in June 1983, with Reitman assembling a crack team based on their experience with large scale productions.  John DeCuir was recruited as Production Designer, having won Oscars for “The King and I”, “Cleopatra” and “Hello Dolly!” whilst Richard Edlund, fresh from ILM and just setting up Boss Films (though the effects are credited to Entertainment Effects Group), had won for the “Star Wars” trilogy and “Raiders Of The Lost Ark”.  Renowed cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs was brought in as Director Of Photography and Theoni V. Aldredge joined as Costume Designer.

Ivan Reitman (left), Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd in New York
Shooting started in New York in October 1983 and lasted for a month.  The fire station that the Ghostbusters make their headquarters in is real (the Hook and Ladder #8 Firehouse) and based in the Tribeca section (though the interiors were all filmed in another fire station in Los Angeles) and although the New York Public Library was used for exteriors, the interiors were all shot in Los Angeles.  The same with the Sedgewick Hotel (with interiors filmed at the Biltmore Hotel in LA).  Whilst filming on Central Park West (where Dana’s apartment is), the production managed to snarl up traffic halfway across the upper-third of Manhatten at one point.  New York resident Isaac Asimov, who was caught up in it, visited the set and collared Dan Aykroyd, who was a big fan of the sci-fi writer and voiced his opinion.  According to an interview with Harold Ramis, “Danny was crushed.”

The Temple Set was built at on Set 16 at The Burbank Studios in LA where it stood over sixty feet tall and cost $1m.  It featured a 360-degree panorama of New York but required so much light to film that Laszlo Kovacs had to use fourteen of the existing sixteen largest spotlights ever built in Hollywood.  The studio could supply 80,000 amps and the Temple Set needed so much that other soundstages had to be shut down when “Ghostbusters” was shooting.  Other Los Angeles shooting took place at MacArthur Park and The Burbank Studios ranch, where a two-storey fa├žade of Dana’s apartment building was re-created.

The special effects (over 200 shots in total) were filmed at the Entertainment Effects Group facility in Marina Del Ray and utilised a lot of tried-and-tested low-budget, practical approaches.  Steve Johnson (who had worked with Rick Baker on “American Werewolf In London” amongst other projects) was just striking out on his own and he headed up the creature shop with Randy Cook.  Whilst Cook would create all the stop-motion animation of the Terror Dogs, Johnson created Slimer and the ghosts.  The suits for the biggest monster of all, the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, cost $20,000 each and three were made and destroyed during filming.  To keep things as simple as possible, a lot of the effects were very ‘old-school’.  On the DVD commentary, Reitman points out that the floating books were simply hung on wires and Ramis says that the index cards were blown out of their drawers by technicians behind the wall, blowing air through copper tubing.

left - Steve Johnson introduces Sigourney Weaver to Slimer
right - behind the scenes, setting up for the shot as Weaver is pulled into the kitchen
Filming on the miniature Central Park set for the Mr Stay Puft attack
One of the most spectacular effects shows Dana levitating and rotating a complete 360, which was created by the illusionist Doug Henning (who contributed to the musical “Merlin” which Reitman had directed on Broadway), with Sigourney Weavers put into a full body cast that was attached to a post hidden in the curtains.

“Ghostbusters” was released in the United States on June 8, 1984 and was a huge critical and commercial success, receiving positive reviews and making $238m in the US alone (it would add a further $291m worldwide).  It was nominated for two Oscars, for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Song, but would lose out to “Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom” (with effects from ILM) and “I Just Called To Say I Love You “ from “The Woman In Red”.  The film also launched a franchise, which includes the 1989 sequel, two animated television series and several video games.

With re-issues, it was the most financially successful comedy of the 80s.

For my part, I think the film holds up really well - the leads are perfect in their roles, the interplay between the Ghostbusters themselves is priceless and the effects work (apart from a couple of shots) is excellent and always believable.

Great fun - now, who ya gonna call?


Factoids:

* Dan Aykroyd referred to “Slimer” as the ghost of John Belushi.
* William Atherton, who played Peck, complained the movie ruined his life as people would talk to him as if he was the character and give him a piece of their mind.
* The singers shouting “Ghostbusters” on the song were the people Ray Parker Jnr could find in the studio - his girlfriend and her friends
* The music video for “Ghostbusters” was directed by Ivan Reitman and featured a cast of celebrities who didn’t appear in the film at all - including Chevy Chase, Irene Cara, John Candy, Jeffrey Tambor, Danny DeVito, Carly Simon and Peter Falk.  The Ghostbusters themselves danced through Times Square behind Parker Jr.
* One of the deleted scenes on the DVD release has Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd play two tramps that witness Louis being chased by the terror dog.
* Sigourney Weaver was apparently desperate to do a comedy and was keen to win her audition, so when the script called for her to transform into a dog, she barked.  She later said she considered herself the straight man in a Marx Brothers movie.
* The Ghostbusters vehicle - Ecto 1 - was originally painted black until it was pointed out that most driving would be at night, meaning it would be difficult to see. It was then repainted white.
* As part of his deal, Bill Murray made Columbia Pictures agree to a remake of The Razor's Edge (1946) with him as the star (it was also released in 1984).


RIP Harold Ramis, who died earlier this year, aged 69.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Good reads (a small & independent press round-up)

I've been publishing in the small press since 1999 and I'm happy to say that it's still as vibrant, exciting and fun as it's ever been.  Most of the presses don't have big budgets (perhaps they could best be described as labours of love) for marketing and such, so it sometimes falls to the readers to shout out about discoveries they've made and I'm more than happy to do that.

So, in no particular order, here are some gems published so far this year that I've really enjoyed from the small/independent press (and yes, whilst they're written or published by friends, you know me well enough by now to appreciate that wouldn't colour my review).

The End, by Gary McMahon
published by NewCon Press

This is an astonishing book, short and lean, that doesn’t pull any punches as it follows our heroes up country - it’s brutal, gory, poignant, unpleasant, bleak, uncomfortable, hopeful and above all else, never less than believable.  I read this in draft, to deliver a critique and it’s the first time I’ve ever done that and had to struggle to find anything seriously wrong with the ms.
(my full review at Goodreads)

The Weight Of The Ocean, by Paul M. Feeney
published by Phrenic Press

When it comes, when everything starts to fall, Feeney pulls back from any histrionics and his approach - low-key and subtle - makes the ending all the more powerful and poignant. A melancholic romance (my favourite kind), this is a great addition to the genre of unease, an impressive debut that marks Feeney as being a writer to watch in the future and I highly recommend it.
(my full review at Goodreads)

Cold Turkey, by Carole Johnstone
published by TTA Press

Johnstone doesn’t shy away from the dark side of things though, with some unpleasant sequences and an occasion of brutally shocking violence, as reality and fantasy intertwine until Raym (and the reader) are never quite sure what is actually happening and what’s imagination. As an ex-smoker (and someone who loved King’s “Quitters, Inc”), Raym’s reactions and thought processes really rang a bell with me and I would suggest that this is written by someone who fully understands the pain of quitting smoking, even when you want to. Top Hat is a superb creation, a ghoul who looks as if he’s stepped complete from a nightmare and it’s a testament to Carole Johnstone’s skill that she can make excellent use of something fundamental to your childhood - the ice cream van and the nursery rhyme Hickory Dickory Dock - and corrupt them both completely, making each one frightening and unpleasant. Superbly written, with a great feel for character, dialogue and location, this is a great read and I highly recommend it.
(my full review at Goodreads)

The Derelict, by Neil Williams
published by Pendragon Press

I’m not generally a big fan of historical fiction but this works very well indeed - the characters are well rounded and react as you imagine they should, the boats are clearly described (as is the eternal loneliness of the ocean), suspense is expertly ratcheted up and it moves along at a brisk pace. The “something” is a superb creation, frightening and vile and eliciting no sympathy at all, as it works its way through the Albin Grau crew. Well written, wonderfully scary and highly recommended.
(my full review at Goodreads)

Beside Me, by Carolyn Henderson
published by Forelock Books

There are supernatural elements (though it’s not a supernatural story at all) and the set pieces are well set up (especially in the abandoned stables) but this isn’t really about that, it’s about being a teenager, finding yourself and the realisation that loss is an everyday part of life (there’s a wonderful sequence in a pet cemetery, with Corinne and Celia, that is beautifully melancholic). It probably helps if you like horses (Carolyn has written several non-fiction books about them and it shows, the sequences in the riding school are expertly put together), but if you’re looking for a well written YA mystery-drama, this could be just right. Highly recommended.
(my full review at Goodreads)

The Wedding Proposal, by Sue Moorcroft
published by Choc-Lit
(which isn't a small press at all - though it is independent - but I wanted to let people know about this great novel)

The central romance is well played and raunchy, with both characters never less than believable, even as the secrets begin to unfurl themselves and family connections become strained. Elle is independent and spirited and Lucas, a hero in the Moorcroft mould, grows in stature as the book progresses and his backstory comes out in snippets. Well written and paced, making great use of fresh locations, this is a fantastic read and one I would highly recommend.
(my full review at Goodreads)


Go on, give them a go, there's something for everyone!

Monday, 24 November 2014

Videodrome at 31

In 1981, I was 12 years old and already a film buff.  Having fallen in love with “Star Wars” in early 1978, I loved the cinema and behind-the-scenes material and one of my regular reads was a British magazine called Starburst.  Through its pages, I read news - and looked at pictures - of films that I wouldn’t end up watching for years to come (this was before the advent of home video), but which I stored away for future reference.  The reason I mention this is that 1981 is the point where each item that drew me to “Videodrome” (1983) began to mesh into one thread.  “An American Werewolf In London” was released and Starburst covered it faithfully (check out the gory cover!) and I was astounded by the Rick Baker make-up effects (I’d been a big fan of make-up for a while, having discovered a book in the library about Lon Chaney).  It became a film I had to see, though I don’t think I actually managed that feat until 1983.  Blondie released “The Best Of Blondie”, a greatest hits compilation that I had on cassette tape and played so often I wore it out.  And David Cronenberg, Canada’s “Baron Of Blood”, released “Scanners”, which also made the cover of Starburst featuring Michael Ironside in full, vein-popping glory.
left - Starburst no.40 and, on the right, Starburst no. 33.  Pretty cool for 1981, eh?
In 1983, reports began to surface of a new David Cronenberg film called “Videodrome”, which had make-up effects by Rick Baker and co-starred Debbie Harry.  My stars were in alignment and the more I read about the film, the more I wanted to see it.  Just like in the film itself, imagery settled into my brain and painted a picture that drove me ever closer to the source - Debbie Harry in the red dress, James Woods with ‘something’ on his hand, the stomach vagina, the TV set.
UK poster, massively playing up the part Debbie Harry plays in the film
I finally got to watch “Videodrome” in early 1985 when I convinced my friend Steve (he had the only video player of our gang) that it would be a good choice.  As I recall, he didn’t like the film at all (his comments were probably similar to those of the Barry Convex character - “Why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome?”) but I loved it, though I wouldn’t say I understood it all (that didn’t come until a couple of years later, when I picked up the novelisation written by Dennis Etchison under his Jack Martin pseudonym).

Fresh from the (rather unexpected) box office success of “Scanners” in 1981, David Cronenberg’s growing reputation gave him access to studios, actors and resources he hadn’t experienced before - “Videodrome” had a $6m budget, double that of his previous film.  As it turned out, Universal Pictures were perhaps expecting something more along the lines of the relatively straightforward sci-fi thrills of “Scanners” rather than the surreal, disturbing and harsh sensibilities of “Videodrome”.

Warning - there are spoilers ahead

James Woods as Max Renn
Max Renn (James Woods) is president of the sleazy cable Civic TV Channel 83.  Always on the look-out for new cheap and erotic content, his techie employee Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) shows him a clip he’s downloaded, a pirate-video broadcast full of torture, murder and mutilation called Videodrome.  After watching it, Renn becomes obsessed with getting it for his channel and asks his regular supplier Masha (Lynne Gorman), a pornographer of long-standing, to try and track it down but she refuses to get involved, saying that Videodrome is a set of real snuff movies.

Woods with Debbie Harry, as Nikki Brand
Renn appears on a talk show, defending his channel against fellow guests Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry), a sadomasochistic radio-psychiatrist, and Professor Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a pop-culture philosopher who only ever appears as a video-link, here delivering a speech prophesying a future where television overcomes real life.  Beginning a relationship with Nikki, Renn shows her an episode of Videodrome that arouses her and she asks him to hurt her sexually.  When Harlan discovers the feed is actually coming from Pittsburgh, Nikki goes to audition.

Nikki: I was made for that show.
Renn: Nobody on earth was made for that show.

When Nikki doesn’t come back, Masha informs him Videodrome is the public face of a political ideology movement, with links to Professor Brian O’Blivion.  Renn visits his office at The Cathode Ray Mission - where homeless people are given food and shelter and encouraged to watch television - which is run by O'Blivion's daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), who is dedicated to helping bring about her father’s vision where television replaces every aspect of everyday life.

By videotape, O'Blivion tells Renn that “the Videdrome” is a socio-political battleground in a war being fought for control of the minds of the people of North America. After this, Renn begins to hallucinate which is a side-effect of watching Videodrome, as it’s the carrier of a signal that causes the viewer to develop a malignant brain tumour - the same tumour that killed O’Blivion (though he spent the last year of his life recording tens of thousands of videotapes).  As Renn watches these, scared and holding a gun, he scratches his stomach with the barrel and it disappears into a vaginal slit.

Professor Brian O’Blivion:   There is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?

the Teleranger
Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) runs the Spectacular Optical Corporation, a glasses company that acts as a front for a weapons manufacturer. In league with Harlan, he’s been trying to get Renn to broadcast Videodrome as part of a government conspiracy to give fatal tumors to “lowlifes” who fixate on extreme sex and violence.  At Harlan’s lab, Convex pushes a pulsating videotape into Renn’s stomach, to program him to further the cause and Max pulls out his gun, which fuses with his hand.  He goes to kill Bianca O’Blivion but is instead shot himself by a TV set, de-programming him and she sends him to kill those who created Videodrome.

Bianca O’Blivion:  You are the video word made flesh. Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.

At a Spectacular Optical trade show, Renn shoots Convex with his handgun then takes refuge on a derelict boat in an abandoned harbour.  Nikki appears to him on a TV set, saying that he has weakened Videodrome, but in order to completely defeat it, he must “leave the old flesh.”  The TV shows an image of Renn shooting himself in the head, causing the TV to explode in a spray of bloody human intestines.  Renn puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger after saying his final words: “Long live the New Flesh”.

“Videodrome” began life as a rough draft screenplay called “Network Of Blood”, partly inspired by childhood memories of picking up unexpected broadcasts on television and also the content of CityTV, a Toronto cable television station which, in the 1970s, was notorious for showing soft-core pornography.  Cronenberg’s first draft, which producer Claude Heroux told him “would get the film a triple X for sure”, was strong enough to draw in the major talents of James Woods, Debbie Harry and Rick Baker, though production began work on the second draft.  As it was, Cronenberg was writing and re-writing up to the last day of principal photography.

Woods was chosen, according to Cronenberg, because he “really embodied that kind of intensity and articulate[ness]…that I had written”, adding he also had “a lovely comic flair”.  Woods, by all accounts, loved the script, saying “I thought it was pretty terrific”.

Of Debbie Harry, Cronenberg said “Blondie was huge at the time, not just as a band, but as a kind of essential part of the cultural zeitgeist of New York City. And she knew William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg and was connected with…a kind of above-ground/underground movement.  She was very responsive and very willing to learn and to understand that the kind of self-parody and satirical stuff that she did onstage simply did not work when she was trying to play a real character, a human being on screen.”

David Cronenberg and James Woods
Principal photography began on October 19th, 1981 with the first week of shooting devoted to video inserts - the O’Blivion monologues, some of the Videodrome torture sequences plus “Samurai Dreams” and “Apollo & Dionysus”, the two porn films that are pitched to Max.  “Samurai Dreams” was shot in a rented TV studio on one-inch tape over half a day and director of photography Mark Irwin said “that’s where I came into the business - shooting porn - so I felt right at home.”

The Videodrome parts, shot on Carol Spier’s stark set, were - according to Director Of Photography Mark Irwin - “more funny than sick.  If you listen [to the original tapes], you can hear David shouting, ‘Okay, now put her up against the wall! Okay, now shake around—you’re being electrocuted! Okay, now hang him up on that hook there! Let’s see some more energy in that whipping!’”  Cronenberg agreed, saying; “Most of the people we worked with enjoyed the experience, because it was cathartic. Of course, they weren't really being hurt and…we found - in one case - there was a woman who kept coming back.  She would dress up and put on a lot of makeup and dress herself really well and just kind of hang around. She couldn't let go…and it was quite strange, but very much in keeping with the strangeness of the film as a whole.”

The production was based in a large building in Toronto.  A former nursery and piano school, the exterior served as the Cathode Ray Mission whilst the interior was used to build sets, with the downstairs serving as both the Videodrome arena and the interior of the derelict ship.  In the former auditorium, the Cathode Ray Mission cubicles were built and it was also the stage for the Spectacular Optical show where Barry Convex expires in a rash of tumours.  On the second floor, during November and December of 1981, was the workshop for Rick Baker’s EFX team (and seen in the film as the O’Blivion archive) but since the building wasn’t soundproofed, the crew couldn’t work when a scene was being shot (and no toilets could be flushed either).

In my opinion (and this is said as a huge fan of Rick Baker), the special effects work of EFX are astonishing and stand up well today, even if a couple of the shots do betray their latex foundation.

For the breathing television, Baker and Cronenberg chose the Teleranger model, since it was large enough to accommodate the workings for everything the script needed it to do.  Various models were built, which could flex and move and the screen was made from dental dam - “a stronger, stretchier kind of rubber,” Baker would say - which was painted with a highly reflective white paint.  This allowed Woods to press his head right into it when Debbie Harry’s lips fill the screen and although the scene overflows with sensuality, the actor said “I felt sort of stupid when I was doing it, to be honest with you.”  The Teleranger also featured in a scene which was never shot (but is used in the novelisation), where it rises out of a bath Max is running and shows him images of Masha being tortured.

For me, the two key special effects images are the handgun and the vaginal split.  For the latter, two different prosthetic chest and belly pieces were built and for the shot of Woods standing up (for me, one of the few occasions where the effect is held too long to work), the actor was on set for twenty hours as they set it up.  When Max is on the couch, watching TV, James Woods was sitting inside the sofa and it was built up around him - he apparently swore after this he’d never work with anything glued to him again.

The handgun itself was a foam latex appliance (which Woods dubbed ‘the pooperoo’) that was worn as a glove by the actor from a mould of his hand whilst the shot of the metallic tendrils burrowing into his flesh was completed using a puppet.  The gun is described in the script as firing cancer growths at its victims (there were originally six, but Cronenberg cut it back to just Convex) and the effect went through several tests before the final concept was decided upon.  Once Cronenberg and Baker decided that the effect should show an internal cancer growing until it burst out of the victim’s body, Baker explained that it was something they could do “fairly simply - put people under a raised set who’d push the cancers up through a hollow dummy.”  This is why Leslie Carlson, as Convex, is laying down when the effect happens.  In the end, Steve Johnson (who also worked on Ghostbusters) created the effect and it’s one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema.

Another planned effect was where characters would, in Cronenberg’s scripted term, “twitch video”.  Special video effects supervisor Michael Lennick described these as a character being “broken down from celluloid film’s 4,000-line resolution to 525-line video resolution. Their body edges would become serrated, their colouring electric and almost neonlike.”  Although tests were carried out, Cronenberg eventually dropped them (after they survived every draft of the script), as he felt they “looked too tricky.”
Special Effects genius Rick Baker sets up a shot with the Teleranger TV set
The film uses Betamax tapes - which are occasionally seen to ‘breathe’ and swell - since they were large enough to accommodate the effects work whilst not being too big to fit into the abdominal slit, as VHS cassettes were.

David Cronenberg
Filming ended in December 1981, though special effects photography and inserts were shot in March 1982.  In post-production, the climax was reworked several times and after a test screening in April 1982, Debbie Harry was brought back for re-shoots since her character originally disappeared.  By showing her again, it appears that Max Renn’s suicide comes from his sense of outrage and being alone, rather than seeming defeatist.  Cronenberg said to Tim Lucas, “It felt so right that it felt inevitable, not so inevitable that I’d thought of it before!”  He originally intended to continue beyond the suicide, with the ‘next phase’ showing Renn hugging and kissing Nikki in the Videodrome arena, which would have been - according to the director - “my version of a happy ending.”

“Videodrome” does not have a happy ending, but it has the perfect one for the film and I love that it ends with the bang.  Although it’s now dated by the technology it shows, it’s actually ahead of its time in the portrayal of media ideas and concepts and stands strong because of that.

“Videodrome” was released on February 4th, 1983 in the US (November 25th in the UK), debuting at number 8 on the box office charts and to generally positive reviews.  Although a commercial failure - it’s made $2.2m to date on a $5.9m budget -  it is a cult favourite, described by Andy Warhol as “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” and listed 89th “Most Essential Film In History” by the Toronto International Film Festival.  In addition, it’s soundtrack - composed by Howard Shore - was ranked 10th in the Top Sample Sources list of 2004.

Despite its poor commercial perfomance, the film tied with “Bloodbath at the House of Death” for Best Science Fiction film at the 1984 Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, where Mark Irwin received a CSC Award for Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature.  The film was also nominated for eight Genie Awards with David Cronenberg and Bob Clark (for his “A Christmas Story”) tying for Best Achievement in Direction.

The trailer for the film is glorious and it comes complete with computer graphics created on a Commodore 64.

I loved the film in 1985 and I love it as much today, a gruesome, surreal and intelligent shocker that is almost a black comedy in the way it plays out perfectly.  Any time is a good time to watch “Videodrome” but, on the occasion of its 31st birthday, why not give it another view?

Long live the New Flesh!