Monday, 5 December 2016

Nostalgic for my childhood - Christmas and catalogues

"Christmas is coming!"
Me, Christmas 1976 - Action Man helicopter, Batman, Six Million Dollar Man, Planet Of The Apes annual and a gun that shot darts with rubber tips!  Seriously, how much more excited could a 7-year-old kid look?
Well, it's still a little while away but you get my drift.  Growing up in the 70s and 80s, one of our pre-Christmas treats was going through the toy pages in various catalogues (the Kays one Mum always seemed to have, Argos, toy manufacturers) and deciding which items we wanted to add to our list.  When Dude was younger, my Mum used to get an Argos catalogue just so he and his little cousins could go through it with a marker pen to highlight what they wanted, thus continuing the tradition that me and my sister Tracy enjoyed.

So here's a nostalgic look back to catalogues of days past - did you want any of these?  I know I did...

Argos - Autumn 1976
I had the Six Million Dollar Man action figure (though not the repair station) and Ricochet Racers (which I loved, though it never shot as well in real life as it did on the advert)
Argos - Autumn 1977
Fairly slim pickings for my sister TJ, though she loved Sindy.
Argos - Autumn 1977
The 'Eagle Eye' Action Man from Palitoy was a must-have (and I was lucky enough to get one).  The equipment for him was very expensive though, but luckily the Cherilea Toys vehicles fitted him perfectly.  I had a Palitoy helicopter and the Cherilea motorbike-and-sidecar, both of which I loved and played with all the time.  Unfortunately, they - and my Action Men - have long since been lost to the sands of time...
Corgi - 1977
Top image - I was a big Batman fan and had the Batmobile, the Batcopter and really wanted the Batboat.  I was also a Bond fan and thought the Lotus was the coolest car ever (I think I still do...)
Bottom image - I still have the fire engine 1143 (and Dude loved it when I introduced him to it), though I don't think I've ever seen that design in real life
Matchbox 1978
I really liked this line, which was a tie-in with 2000AD comic at the time (another of my favourites), though I only ever had K-2002 (which reminded me of the Joe 90 car) and K-2003.  I still have them both (in 'played with' condition) but mint-in-box versions are going for silly prices nowadays.
Argos - Autumn 1978
Star Wars doesn't feature in the catalogue at all, even though Palitoy had started to produce the toys during 1978.  It's good to see the Six Million Dollar Man still flying high, along with Batman and Star Trek (which had last been made as TV series in the 60s), whilst Superman would be released in the UK in December.
Action Man (Palitoy) 1978
Taken from the 1978 Action Man "Official Equipment Manual", this shows the helicopter (which, as mentioned above, I had) plus the fantastic Turbocopter (which I also had).  You'd strap it onto Action Man's back (with thin lengths of elastic) and then, holding him, press the orange button on the left side (which you can see here) and that would make the rotor go around.  Fantastic fun - I wish I still had it...
Corgi - 1979
Top - I so wanted that set of "The Spy Who Loved Me" vehicles - over the years since I've picked up the helicopter and Jaws van to go with my Lotus but haven't been able to put my hands on the Cortina and boat.
Bottom - The Muppets were new in town!  I was lucky enough to have the Saint's Jaguar and Bodie's Capri (plus the figures!)
Palitoy 1979
Ah, Star Wars.  From this line-up, I got Han Solo, the Death Star Commander (both of whom still stand on my book shelf today) and Luke.  Since then, I've picked up the droids, Chewbacca, Darth Vader, Princess Leia and a LOT of Stormtroopers...
Argos - Autumn 1979
Ah, the joy of board games.  Give or take a few exceptions (the Jaws game is still around, it just goes under a different title now), re-designs and upgrades, these aren't too dissimilar to what you'd find in an Argos catalogue today, 37 years later.
Argos - Autumn 1980
The girls section - TJ loved Sindy and had a Girls World but never really got into Barbie, as I recall.
Argos - Autumn 1980
"Wait, you mean there's a thing we can plug into the telly and we can play games on it?  Really?  How is that possible?
(slight pause as 11-year-old me absorbs the information).  Dad?  Dad!  Dad, can we get one?"
To my Mum & Dad's credit, we got the Binatone system (top left, on the right hand page) - I loved the 'tennis' and target practise games
Argos - Spring/Summer 1985
"Wait a minute, you can buy this thing called a Walkman and play your own tapes and listen as you walk around and do stuff?  Really?  Wow, the future is here."  I was 15 going on 16 when this was published, can you imagine how I'd have reacted to a modern mobile phone, which performs the task of items on several pages of the Argos book.
On the Walkman front, Back To The Future (which came out at the end of the year) made them seem even cooler... 
Argos - Autumn 1985
By now I was sixteen, so I'd moved on from checking out the toys in the Christmas catalogues.  But I've included this because for my birthday in 1985 I got the Kodak Disc camera (item 1) here and the pouch (item 5) to protect it.  As an upgrade from my old camera (which used 127 film!), I thought it was terrific - though the images, it turned out, were much grainier.  But the freedom the camera gave me was amazing and I began taking A LOT of photographs...
Argos - Autumn 1986
Now 17, I'd  started work (at Hunters Foods) so I suddenly had my own funds to buy the things I wanted - and one of those was a Swatch watch.  To me, at the time, Swatch was one of the coolest brands around and I was the proud owner of item 12 (which, at £24, was pretty expensive back then).  But just look at this page and those colours, it couldn't be anything other than the mid-80s, could it?  Glorious! 


Thanks to Retrosmash for the Argos scans.  Action Man and Corgi catalogue scans from my own collection.

Monday, 28 November 2016

Sledge-Lit 2, Derby, 26th November 2016

This year saw the second Sledge-Lit event in Derby, held at the Quad and as I had such a good time at the first (which I wrote about here), I bought my ticket as soon as it was announced.  Organised and programmed by Alex Davis, also responsible for the on-going Edge-Lit’s (I wrote about this years here), it’s not only great fun but also helps bridge the gap between FantasyCon (which I wrote about here) and events in the new year.
In the bar with (from left) - Paul Melhuish, Peter Mark May, Ross Warren, Lisa Childs
This time, following a chance conversation at our writing group, Paul Melhuish & I travelled up together.  He picked me up, we talked books and writing all the way up the M1 and, thanks to a diversion at the normal junction, we came off one stop earlier and found the venue much quicker (with only one slight wrong turn!).  As we walked across the square from the Assembly Rooms car park, I spotted Ross Warren & Lisa Childs through the Quad window and waved.  Then Peter Mark May spotted me and began flicking his V’s, so I did the same to him.  After signing in, we went for our goody-bags and I got my wonderful hug from Pixie Peigh.  As I moved along the table to buy raffle tickets, I saw Gary McMahon and got my man-hug from him.  What a great start!

In the bar, we sat with Peter, Ross & Lisa and caught up with them, then James Everington arrived and it was good to see him (with Steve Harris and Phil Sloman not coming, we made up The Crusty contingent between us).  After checking the programme, Peter, Paul & I decided to go to the 11.30 panel - “Trapped!  Does Horror Need To Broaden Its Horizons?” - and as I queued at the bar to get us drinks, Stephen Volk strolled by.  We shook hands and had a quick chat then Mark Morris appeared, so we chatted with him before heading upstairs to the Digital Suite (the normal theatres Edge-Lit uses weren’t available), chatting with Jenny Barber as we waited to go in.  I also managed to say hello to Kathy Boulton, though we still never got that picture!  The panel, moderated by Niki Valentine (who I interviewed here), was interesting and entertaining, approaching “trapped” in terms of sub-genre (the panel agreed with me that horror is a broad church) rather than commerciality.  It was very well attended, with a good range of questions though Gary McMahon, who didn’t put his hand up, asked the question that I was going to (and I did have my hand up!).  Grrr, that man and his magnificent mane of hair!
Alison Littlewood & me being silly
Back in the bar, I saw Ewen Davis (who has shaved his extraordinary beard off) and said hello to him and K T Davis, who both looked really well - it feels like ages since I’ve seen them.  Alison Littlewood & Fergus had arrived and, as always, it was great to see them.  Before I left home, Alison had posted on Facebook that it was our 7-year Friendiversary, saying that “We need a daft friendiversary pic (I know I'm going to regret saying that)” to complement the wonderful one taken at the Hauntings launch (see here).  Fergus took the picture for us and then we chatted and caught up, before Priya Sharma and Gary Couzens came over, with more hellos and hugs and catching up (and it was nice to congratulate Priya on news of her collection in person too).
Niki Valentine & me
Stephen Volk and Mark Morris in conversation
Paul & I chatted with Niki Valentine about the panel and writing, which was interesting as always, said quick hellos to Penny Jones, Graeme Reynolds and Adam Millard, chatted with Terry Grimwood and said hello to Dion Winton-Polak.  Stephen Bacon arrived, as did John Travis and Sharon Ring and we sat with Ross, Peter & Lisa to have lunch before it was time for the Guest Of Honour Q&A in The Box - with Mark Morris interviewing Stephen Volk.  The event got an appreciative audience, both Stephen & Mark are really nice blokes and the style was good, with Mark asking questions based around the stories in Steve’s latest PS Publishing collection (and I particularly liked his comments about The Arse-Licker, which he wrote for Anatomy Of Death).
The Eagle Books party (from left) - Stephen Bacon, Ross Warren, Gary Couzens, John Travis, me, Priya Sharma, Paul Melhuish
I then led a contingent to the Eagle Books stall in the market, with Priya, Ross, Gary Couzens, Paul, Steve & John in the party.  We all picked up something (I got another 'format a' edition of The Mystery Of The Dead Man’s Riddle - because you can never have too many - and Hitchcock’s Sinister Spies anthology), had some good conversations (in ever-changing little chat groups) and it was all very enjoyable.
With Stephen Bacon and Peter Mark May
Back at The Quad, we hit the dealer room and chatted with Andrew Hook & Sophie Essex and bought some books too.  Steve, Peter, Paul & I then went up to the Digital Suite for Terry’s panel, “Size Matters?  Is Shorter Fiction Making A Comeback?”, which was entertaining.  I managed to ask two questions (the first of which I actually answered myself as I was asking it, ho hum) and then chatted with Terry and CC Adams outside for a while.  Back at the bar, there were plenty of conversations about writing, books and life in general with an evolving group of people and that, to me, is what these kind of things are all about - chatting with folk who get what you’re saying without you having to explain everything.  Steve & I chatted with Gary McMahon for a while - his son is in second year at senior school, Dude has just gone into the first and we were comparing how things were going (it seems that a few of my concerns were shared by Gary and we both groaned over the bloody ‘bottle flipping’ thing).  Peter & I went into the foyer to have a chat and were joined by Jay Eales, James Worrad and Phil Irving, who were making a fleeting pit stop (I’d seen Phil briefly on the stairs but it was the first I’d seen of the others).  After a quick chat with them and a hello with Steve Shaw, we trooped upstairs for the raffle, this time presided over by Santa (Stephen Volk) and Pixie (who should have won an award with her deadpan delivery and grumpy expressions).  Probably because they’d spent a small fortune on tickets, Ross & Lisa cleaned up, though I managed to snare a copy of Steve Shaw’s Great British Horror 1 anthology.  I also saw Hayley Orgill & Kevin Redfearn in there but, as always seems to happen, didn’t get enough time to chat.
With Gary McMahon and Stephen Bacon
The Con officially ended at 6pm (which took almost everyone by surprise when they read the programme) and it was time to say our goodbyes in the bar, with hugs and handshakes all round.  Our little group - Steve, John, Sharon, Paul, James and a Norwegian reviewer called Ole - went over to Ask Italian, later joined by Yvonne Davis and her daughter.  Once again, good company, great conversation and nice food - though it took a while - along with plenty of laughs (I promised John I wouldn’t say anything about toilet coincidences so I won’t).  Even better, Wayne Parkin joined us for the last half hour so we got a chance to catch up (I last saw him at Sue’s book launch).
At Ask Italian with (from left) - me, Paul Melhuish, James Everington, Ole Imsen, Sharon Ring, John Travis, Stephen Bacon
All too soon we’d chatted and eaten our fill and it was time to go.  We loitered outside, ignoring the cold as if we really didn’t want to say goodbye, but then it was hugs all round and we broke up and headed home.

Another excellent Convention spent in great company, I had a wonderful time.  Roll on the next!

Monday, 21 November 2016

Craze, by Steve Byrne - (book review with Q&A)

In a new edition of the occasional series, I want to tell you about a book I've read and loved, which I think adds to the horror genre and that I think you'll enjoy if you're a fan.
A wave of terrifying paranormal phenomena has swept the UK. A virulent plague known as the Red Death has decimated the population. Law and order has broken down.
The Crisis Powers Government, operating from the fortified heart of London, is attempting to regain control, whilst a shadowy terrorist organisation is rumoured to be harnessing the power of darkness for its own ends.
To escape a riot-torn inner city, a group of survivors must band together, but their flight will force a harrowing confrontation with the demonic forces at the heart of society’s collapse.

Steve Byrne cannot tell a story badly.  His previous novel, Phoenix (which I reviewed here), was a stunning and immersive tale about supernatural entities in war-torn Vietnam that I thoroughly enjoyed and the same applies to Craze too, even though they are quite different beasts.  Craze is a near-future pulp shocker, following a handful of characters as they try to make sense of a UK decimated by plague and attacked by various supernatural elements and beasts that nobody quite understands and I do love novels that are - by the author’s own admission - a loving homage to 80s pulp horror.

The novel has two main threads which run in parallel (and occasionally cross) throughout the novel, effectively telling the story from different sides.  On the one hand, we have Hartman, a ruthless (and highly religious) US government operative, kept in this country by the Crisis Powers Government and not adverse to doling out eye-for-an-eye style justice.  He’s trouble-shooting an operation to have the Prime Minister crowned King of England (the present Royal family having been wiped out by the plague) but doesn’t realise that there are darker forces afoot around him.  The other story centres around Jon Raven who returns from a job in Newcastle only to find his wife has been kidnapped and killed.  On his way to exact revenge, he saves Penny Foster who is being assaulted by police and they are then joined by Aamir, a soldier who helps them get away.  When they rescue Ria York, a witch (and the girl on the cover), a chase leads them to a sealed-off Birmingham where, in the central library, they meet Professor Fayemi who knows enough about witchcraft to help Ria put together a plan that might help them all.

As with all pulp, the characters are introduced with the briefest of brushstrokes and even though that’s true here (and I would have preferred a bit more depth), you come to genuinely care for them and their interactions are always lifelike, their dialogue ringing true even in the heightened circumstances.  Byrne uses his locations well - desolate and ruined city streets, unspoilt countryside, the over-protected London, the ruins of Birmingham and the rejuvenated castle in Wales where the coronation is due to take place - and the book fairly drips with atmosphere.  Violence is a constant - sometimes what the characters see, sometimes what they experience - and nobody is apparently safe, with some people I really liked meeting brisk, sticky endings that shock all the more in their simple brutality (and it really is brutal - mention of a dog in the dungeon gave me pause).  Byrne handles the supernatural well too - things are half-seen and partly witnessed but we never get to see anything clearly and there’s no explanation, leaving us as much in the dark as the confused survivors, which works a treat.

Written with a brisk pace (the story doesn’t flag at all), I found myself racing through the last third as the plotlines came together with things looking ever bleaker for our heroes and I wasn’t disappointed.  Told with some wit and style, whilst I agree with Byrne that this is a pulp novel I think he sells himself short with that, because it’s as well-written, atmospheric and expertly paced as I’ve come to expect from the writer.  Wearing its heart on its sleeve, Craze is a novel that delivers not just what you want it to, but that little bit extra which tips it towards being a great work.  Very much recommended.

Steve Byrne, photographed on London's Southbank, April 2015
I've known Steve Harris (the man behind Mr Byrne) for years, since we started corresponding back in the late 90s when he produced a newsheet called The Inner Circle.  A great Convention-buddy (we could stand and talk for hours - and often do), he's also a member of The Crusty Exterior (the picture above came from our London meet).  I thought it'd be fun to ask him some questions about the book and he was kind enough to answer them...

MW:   Where did the story come from?
SB:   Where do I start on that? The premise had been brewing for a long time, and in another incarnation was actually the first novel I wrote, many moons ago. A bunch of disparate elements all came together over time.  I’ve always been interested in the supernatural, particularly in those purportedly ‘true’ anecdotes from friends and relatives.  Although I wouldn’t call myself a believer, I’ve always been fascinated by what exactly is going on in these cases—whether they’re psychological phenomena, wishful thinking, or something more sinister. My story ideas always begin with ‘what if?’ and build from there. What if all these stories were actually real? What if science was wrong, and there was some supernatural force beyond our current understanding? What if demons, ghosts and witchcraft were demonstrably real?

That idea stayed with me, but went no further. Some time later, I happened to catch a documentary entitled “The New Middle Ages”, which foresaw a future where money markets collapse, leading to a breakdown in law and order. In this scenario, rogue authorities and criminal factions take control of inner cities and Britain reverts to a feudal system run by these self-imposed lords. Antibiotic resistance and a lack of access to medicine give rise to an epidemic of Black Death proportions. In this uncertain world, there’d be a rise in the belief in superstition.  Linking this idea with the premise the supernatural is real gave me the framework for my fictional world—a vision of society tipping over into a Middle Ages nightmare where demonic forces are both feared and worshipped.
There’s also a reason for the stripped back tone of the book. My previous novel, Phoenix, which is set during the Vietnam War, involved a phenomenal amount of research. When I’d finished it, I didn’t want to plow right in with another ‘heavy’ project on that scale. I needed a change of gear. I’ve always been a fan of the pulp horror of the seventies and eighties, the sort of thing featured over at Trash Fiction. The death of James Herbert left me nostalgic for those fast paced, violent novels.  Wham bam, thank you ma’am, no holds barred.  This was entry level horror for me back in the day, a sort of fucked up YA. Where was this stuff now? I missed it, and wanted to write it.

MW:   How did you choose the locations and what research did you do on them?
SB:   Usually, my projects will be heavy on research, but as I said, I wanted to get away from that for Craze. I live in and grew up in an inner city, and as such, I’m familiar with sink-hole estates and local crime families. I drew on this for inspiration. Many of the characters are based on real people.
When the new library building in Birmingham opened, I visited and loved the place, I thought it would make a great setting, and filed that fact away for future use. Lastly, the castle… Here’s a bit of trivia, one of the ten things you didn’t know about me—I’ve always been fascinated by castles. I was a member of English Heritage/CADW for many years, and I’ve visited most of the castles in England and Wales. When I first saw Ludlow and Conwy castles on school trips, I was really impressed by their scale, and thought how cool it would be to restore and live in one. Fast forward many years later, and what better setting for a novel set in a Britain devolved to Middle Ages values? I had great fun with that.

Although I promised myself I’d bang out a fast paced adventure thriller and back off on research this time, I ended up finding out about the mediaeval witch craze, demonology, Wicca, black magic, the Ebola virus, and the Black Death (Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year was invaluable in learning about life in a plague ridden city). There’s also a great book on the collapse of Western society, called The Coming Anarchy by Robert D. Kaplan—I digested that too. So much for cutting down on the research. Still, it was nothing compared to what went into Phoenix.

MW:   The characters are diverse and believable. Did you do a similar thing to Phoenix, where you imagined actors cast in the roles?
SB:   Not originally, but as I was bringing elements together, and the number of characters grew, I found it helpful—which probably means you’ll want the cast list! Raven: Gerrard Butler, Penny:  Scarlet Johansen,  Aamir: Naveen Andrews, Ria: Fairuza Balk. Hartman I saw as a mix of Clint Eastwood and Daniel Craig.  It’s great fun doing this, and it translates the written word into a movie screened inside your head.

MW:   The book clearly believes in the power of friendship and teamwork, which the brutality of the situation tries its best to destroy - how did you find the process of bumping off characters that had really come alive in the story?
SB:   I find that develops naturally with the plot. Some of the deaths surprised and upset me, but were dictated by the story. I think you described it once better than anyone, Mark—horror is all about what occurs when life turns bad.  Horror can enter our lives at any time without warning. Nasty, brutish things happen. In some ways, reading and writing horror is practise for coping with darkness in our lives. Some of the scenes are pretty brutal. I always work on that premise of ‘what if’, and things for me have to reflect what would really happen in these situations. Violence should sicken us, should make us feel uncomfortable. We need to face reality in order to come to terms with it. Recently, the first episode of The Walking Dead Season 7 tackled this head on (oops, unintended pun there) in spectacular fashion—very difficult to watch, a real gut-punch.

MW:   How much did the end result differ from the original idea?
SB:   Originally, in that first novel (that was consigned to the bottom drawer, and rightly so) it was really gung-ho, proper pulp—sort of like Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series from the nineties, if you’re ever encountered that. People, mayhem and guns. Fast paced fun. I hope I’ve kept that feel, but as the characters developed  (particularly the female characters, who actually began to take over the novel), it evolved into what you’ve picked up on—a look at how friendship, love and loyalty are our only respite in a world of depravity.

MW:   So what’s next from Steve Byrne?
SB:   I’m working on my next book as we speak. It’ll be a return to the more research heavy, in depth format of Phoenix. But expect action, violence, brutality and darkness too. The book is tentatively entitled “Fire Red Moon” from the line in the blues version of Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. “The night I was born, I swear the moon turned afire red”.  It’ll mix conjecture about certain unusual incidents in the life and death of Jimi Hendrix, music industry conspiracy theory, the search for a lost Hendrix recording, and a huge dose of Caribbean Obeah thrown in for good measure. I think I’ve found my niche writing plots twisted around historical facts and events. After Fire red Moon, I’ll be writing a novel set during the Irish Civil War...

Monday, 14 November 2016

An American Werewolf In London, at 35

An American Werewolf In London opened in the UK on 12th November 1981 (after its debut at the London Film Festival on 8th November), following its release in the US on 21st August.  It was written and directed by John Landis, produced by George Folsey Jr and edited by Malcolm Campbell.  Rick Baker (who I wrote an appreciation of here) supervised the special effects make-up, Robert Paynter was the director of photography, Elmer Bernstein provided the music and Deborah Nadoolman (Landis’ wife) was the costume designer.
UK Quad poster

John Landis came up with the idea whilst working as a production assistant on Kelly’s Heroes in Yugoslavia in 1969.  As he and a Yugoslavian crew member were driving to set, they came across a group of gypsies who were performing a ritual, burying the corpse feet first and wrapped in garlic so it couldn’t rise from the grave.  The more he thought about it, the more Landis realised he wouldn’t want to confront the undead in real life and wasn’t sure how someone his age - he was 19 at the time - would handle it.  “I thought it’d make a great idea for a film,” he said.  “I didn't want to do a serial killer or a zombie, I wanted something where you really had to suspend disbelief. I settled on werewolves mainly because, other than ghosts, they're the only really international monsters - every culture has man-beast stories. Even Dracula can turn into a wolf!”

He wrote the first draft in 1969, taking the element of tragedy from the Lon Chaney Jr Wolfman film, “where he himself is the victim” but the script didn’t garner much attention and Landis shelved it.  Two years later, he wrote, directed and starred in his debut film Schlock (1973) which introduced him to make-up artist Rick Baker, who also loved the werewolf script.  In 1972, Landis met with John Whitney,  now regarded as the father of computer animation, to find out if it was “possible for a computer to help the make-up process?”  His idea was that Baker would do three or four stages of make-up and the computer would morph them together.  Whitney told him it was possible but the technology didn't exist at the time.  ILM developed the technique on Willow (1988) and Landis used it extensively in his Black & White music video in 1991.

After hitting it big with The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980), he was able to secure funding (some $10m) for American Werewolf, though financiers at the time were worried it might be too frightening for a comedy and too funny for a horror film.  "The picture was an independent, made as a negative pick-up - a financial arrangement in which a studio/distribution company agrees to purchase an unmade film upon completion - for Polygram in Europe and Universal in the US. We had complete control and it was fun!"

John Landis and Rick Baker
Rick Baker had returned to the project over the years, developing new techniques each time.  In the end, it took so long to get financing, he shared the technology with his assistant Rob Bottin as they were about to start work on The Howling (1981).  When Landis called to say they had the money, he wasn't best pleased when Baker told him about The Howling but Baker left the project in Bottin's hands to work on American Werewolf.

To facilitate the make-up process, Baker needed the actors six months in advance of shooting and, despite pressure from Universal, Landis resisted the studios initial casting suggestion of Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi.  David Naughton got the lead role after an interview, saying “it didn’t hurt that John was an avid Dr Pepper drinker” (the actor appeared in adverts for the drinks brand) and had also cycled across England and studied acting in London.  Griffin Dunne hadn’t acted in a film before and got the role after a ten-minute chat with Landis.  Naughton believes they got the roles because they were largely unknown and worked well together.  “It was the chemistry between myself and Griffin,” he said.  Dunne recalls that Landis repeatedly asked if he was claustrophobic without fully explaining why.  “I didn’t know what that meant,” he said in interview, “until I ended up in those masks.”  British actress Jenny Agutter, who already knew Landis socially, made up the lead trio as nurse Alex Price.  “He’s a terrific director, for an actor and brings a huge amount of energy to a film set.”
The beautiful Jenny Agutter, just before the fantastic Moondance sequence
With money and cast in place, Landis set off for London.  "I always loved those 1960s films and conceived Werewolf with that spirit in mind. London was horror central, of course, home of Jack the Ripper, Jekyll and Hyde, so I wanted all that Victorian Gothic, but I also wanted to show the real London of 1981."  There was also the matter of the Eady Levy, a tax-break agreement that saw a lot of American companies making big films with largely British casts and crews in the 60s and 70s.  “When I was shooting Werewolf, Warren Beatty was shooting Reds here and there was also another little film in progress called Raiders Of The Lost Ark," he said.  “It turns out mine was one of the last Eady pictures made.”
Like lambs to the slaughter - David Naughton (left) and Griffin Dunne
The Black Mountains in Wales stood in for the moors of Northern England and East Proctor was actually a small village called Crickadam, near Builth Wells in Powys.  Working in the cold and wet during the opening scene, Dunne's nose really was running but the laughter between the two actors led Landis to keep the shot in the film
Rik Mayall (left) and Brian Glover (right) in The Slaughtered Lamb
The exterior of The Slaughtered Lamb was a cottage in Crickadam, with the interiors filmed in the Black Swan, in Martyr’s Green, Surrey.  The film pub’s regulars consist of a host of British stage and character actors, including Brian Glover (“Beware the moon, lads!”) and David Schofield as the dart player.  Rik Mayall is playing chess with Brian Glover and got involved after Jim Henson and Frank Oz took Landis to see The Dangerous Brothers (Mayal and Ade Edmondson) at the Comedy Store though only Rik turned up for filming.  Frank Oz (who is in a lot of Landis films) appears twice, as Mr Collins from the American embassy and later as Miss Piggy in a dream sequence.
The first werewolf attack, which sees David get bitten and Jack killed, was filmed at Windsor Great Park near London and was a noisy shoot, with Dunne throwing himself into the part and screaming loudly, even though, he said later, “it was just half a wolf on a wheelbarrow.”  The dream sequence, where Naughton runs through the forest, was filmed in Black Park next to Pinewood Studios.  He later said the shot of him in the hospital bed was the most uncomfortable sequence to film because of the glass contact lenses.
Dunne found the dead Jack make-up depressing - “I looked like I’d been killed just a few minutes earlier, and it was really unsettling” - and worried how his mother, who’d been ill, would take it.  Even so, Landis’ direction for the character - according to Dunne on the DVD commentary - was “no matter what you do, don’t ever sound in anything else but a really good mood.”  He wanted Jack to be encouraging, optimistic and cheerful, despite his ongoing deterioration.  The version of Jack in the porn theatre was a full-size puppet that Dunne helped operate, controlling the mouth to keep it in sync with his dialogue.  That porn theatre was a studio set, a recreation of the Eros Cinema which used to be on the corner of Shaftsbury Avenue and Picadilly Circus.
John Landis and Jenny Agutter shelter from the rain in Trafalger Square
London provided a lot of locations, with filming at Hampstead Heath, Trafalger Square, Well Walk and Haverstock Hill.  The hospital was the Princess Beatrice Maternity Hospital in Earl’s Court, which is now a clinic for the homeless and Alex’s flat is on Colherne Road though many of the exterior shots are in Lupus Street, Pimlico (a little in-joke, since ‘Lupus’ is Latin for wolf).  The sequence where Gerald Bringsley meets the wolf was filmed during the night at Tottenham Court Road station (and the northbound Northern Line platform), rather than the closed Aldwych station, which is normally used.  I remember discovering this on a trip to London in the mid-80s and being thrilled to walk along the same corridors.
London Zoo was used for Naughton’s exit from the wolf cage (captured in one take) and features one of my favourite lines of dialogue - “A naked American man stole my balloons”.  The older woman David startles was told he’d appear but not that he’d be naked.  Filming ran past the allotted time and paying customers can be seen in the background of some shots.
Landis on set
Landis originally set the climax in Piccadilly Circus because, when he was working in London on the script for The Spy Who Loved Me in the mid-70s, he “went to those little cartoon theatres they had, such as the Eros. So in the original script...there was a Road Runner cartoon playing.”  By 1980 all of those cinemas had become porn ones so he changed the script and shot footage for See You Next Wednesday (the first thing to be filmed).
Filming on Piccadilly Circus
Production cars held up non-film road users
Most of the Piccadilly sequence was filmed on location.  At the time, Landis said in interview, if you could persuade the local beat bobby to agree to you filming, that was permission granted and he put on a free screening of “The Blues Brothers” at the Empire, Leicester Square, inviting 300 members of the Metropolitan police.  He followed that up with a meeting at the GLC, taking models and storyboards to show he had the sequence planned and an endorsement from the Chicago Police Department (with whom he shared a cordial relationship after working on The Blues Brothers) sealed it.  The production was given two nights in February to film between 1am and 4am with permission to stop traffic three times (for two minutes on each occasion) and to close a lane.  Sections of the Circus were built at Twickenham Studio and the crash scenes were rehearsed extensively until the stunt crew was drilled like an F1 team.  Vic Armstrong drove the bus, which had an extra wheel underneath to allow it to skid sideways and the crash could be cleared up and set for another take in minutes.  Other crashes on location were filmed with multiple cameras, the resulting destruction cleared up within half an hour.  The Twickenham set was used for inserts, such as the bearded man who gets hit by a car and thrown through a plate glass window - played by ex-stuntman Landis himself.

For David’s flashback/nightmare, Rick Baker contributed masks for the Nazi demons though he wanted to do more.  “They’re soft rubber and don’t move,” he said later, “but John said that was all he wanted since they were going to be seen in really quick cuts”.  Personally, although it’s clear they’re masks, there’s something scary about them because of it and the coda of the sequence, as Nurse Alex opens the curtain in the hospital room, is a real “jump” moment!

Sequences featuring the wolf were shot during production.  Landis initially planned to keep its screen time to a minimum, showing it only enough to give an impression of something huge and ferocious (such the long shot where it corners Gerald Bringsley on the escalator) but he liked Baker’s design so much he used it more.

The full transformation sequence was scheduled after principal photography ended (and began the day after the wrap party).  David Naughton remembers the first thing Baker said to him when they met in California was “I feel sorry for you” because of the time it would take to make the casts and moulds, let alone the full make-up process.  Griffin Dunne (who sounds wonderfully pessimistic) later said “Having that thing dry around your face with those two tubes, it did occur to me that if Rick was a psychotic all he had to do was take out those little straws and watch you suffocate.”
Rick Baker attends to Griffin Dunne's first stage make-up
Bakers key innovation, the Change-O-Heads, were designed for a specific movement that could be repeated (two of them are in the final stages of the transformation, as the snout extends).  In interview, he said “we used a fake head.  I figured that if we did a piece with the hair punched in and reverse-printed it, it would look like the hair was growing out.  And I could push a fake head in weird dimensions, which meant we could shoot parts of the process without any camera trickery.  So we made a head, a back, various bits. And we put the guy's body in the set and created a fake body to let the transformation take place on camera.”
Top - how the hand extending was achieved
Bottom - the full body puppet (with Naughton supplying the head and arms)
The transformation took six ten-hour days to shoot.  Naughton would spend up to ten hours having his make-up applied, be on set for up to five hours, then go through another three hour stint having the make-up removed.  Because of the complications (for the full body reveal, only Naughton’s head and arms are seen, the rest is a puppet) there was only time to film one set-up a day and Baker estimates only half an hour of footage was shot during the entire week.
Rick Baker with one of the Change-O-Heads
Each Change-O-Head would take months to make but would be filmed quickly.  “We laughed that the head parts took so little time on camera,” said Baker.  “It would be, 'Action!' and the thing does its job.  “Cut!  We got it”, seconds later.  I’d be like, “What, is that it?  Don’t we need another take?”  And John would ask “Does it do anything else?”  “Nope.”  And that would be it.  All that work and it was over in a blink.”  He was very pleased later when he took his crew to see the film with a paying audience and when the transformation came on screen, “people stood up, clapped and cheered…”

Aside from Elmer Bernstein’s seven minutes of original score, Landis chose to have an ironically upbeat soundtrack featuring songs that all referenced the moon.  Blue Moon by Bobby Vinton runs over the opening credits, Van Morrison accompanies David & Alex making love with Moondance, Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival plays as David spends the day alone, Sam Cooke sings Blue Moon during the transformation and the same song is covered by The Marcel’s over the end credits.  Landis also wanted Bob Dylan’s version of Blue Moon and Moonshadow by Cat Stevens but the requests were denied (Yusef Islam, as Stevens was then known, objected to the subject matter even though Landis pointed out his song is about killing and dismemberment).  I have no idea why Warren Zevon’s Werewolves Of London wasn’t included, that would have been great.
Michael Jackson was so taken with the film - especially the make-up effects - that he insisted on hiring the key team for his Thriller (1983) video.  When John Landis agreed to direct (it was his first music video), he brought Robert Paynter, Elmer Bernstein, Rick Baker and Deborah Nadoolman with him.

To me, An American Werewolf In London remains a terrific werewolf film, a cracking movie that expertly blends the supernatural with the modern world, humour with horror and monsters with a tender love story.  Rick Baker’s special effects are as stunning now as they were 35 years ago and even though they’re shown in bright light, the full werewolf itself still manages to leave something to the imagination.  If you’ve never seen it, I envy you the opportunity to do so for the first time and if you have, why not revisit it (as I did last year, on the night of a full moon, at an outdoor showing with my friend David).
Vincent Price and Kim Hunter present Rick Baker with his Oscar
An American Werewolf In London premiered in the UK at the London Film Festival on 8th November 1981 before going on general release on 12th November.  Receiving positive reviews from critics, it ended up grossing $61.9m worldwide on a budget of $10m.  Rick Baker won the inaugural Outstanding Achievement in Make-up Academy Award, presented to him at the 54th Oscar ceremony by Kim Hunter and Vincent Price.  The film was nominated for four Saturn Awards (Best Horror Film, Best Make-up, Best Actress and Best Writing) and won two (Film and Make-up).

The transformation sequence in all its glory (with the key 'Change-o-heads' at 2.01 and 2.09)…


Monday, 7 November 2016

The Mystery Of Monster Mountain, by M. V. Carey

2014 marked the fiftieth anniversary of The Three Investigators being published and, to celebrate, I re-read and compiled my all-time Top 10 (safe in the knowledge that it would be subject to change in years to come, of course).  I posted my list here, having previously read all 30 of the original series from 2008 to 2010 (a reading and reviewing odyssey that I blogged here).

During 2015 I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews but, as is often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  I'm happy to say that's continued into 2016 and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed in 1974, never reprinted), cover art by Roger Hall
The Three Investigators crept stealthily through the undergrowth.

Suddenly, somewhere to Bob's left, a branch snapped.  Then Bob heard something else - something horribly close.  Behind him, almost at his shoulder, there was the sound of breathing.

Bob jumped, twisting in mid-air, to face the being that had come out of the woods.  He had an impression of hugeness and matted hair.  Then he was staggering, slipping on the earth at the edge of the crevice...


Illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
by Roger Hall
Following a sudden decision by Aunt Mathilda and Uncle Titus to shut the salvage yard for two weeks and take a holiday, the boys accept an offer to go and stay with Hans & Konrad at their Cousin Anna’s place in Sky Village, Sierra Nevada.  She runs the Slalom Inn there and is doing very well for herself, though she hasn’t seen the Bavarian brothers for a while.  When they arrive, they discover she’s newly married - to Joe Havemayer - and that she won’t speak German in front of him since he doesn’t understand it.  On their first night, a bear gets into the garden but another guest, nature photographer Mr Jensen gets hit in the back of the neck and suspicion seems to fall on the other guest, naturalist Mr Smathers who believes he can communicate with animals.  Havemeyer enlists Hans & Konrad to help him build a swimming pool with no shallow end and takes daily visits to the high meadow with a tranquiliser gun and very quickly, Jupiter realises there is something very wrong at the Inn.

The third book in the series by M. V. Carey, following the excellent “Mystery Of The Singing Serpent”, this works well in general and has a good pace.  Sky Village is well realised (Rocky Beach doesn’t appear at all) with the high meadow and forests particularly atmospheric  and the story is populated with a colourful cast of characters, especially Gabby Richardson who runs the local petrol station and doesn’t miss a thing.  There’s also a very brief part for Bob’s dad, by phone, who supplies the Investigators with a key bit of information.

The story has two strands and the main mystery - why is Cousin Anna very different from how she used to be - is well handled though it does suffer from a denouement that relies heavily on a big coincidence.  The secondary mystery, the monster of the mountain (which Gabby originally tells them about), is cleverly used, keeping in the wings - though Bob gets a brief glimpse - until his scene in a key set piece that is well put together.

The tone of it, coincidence aside, works smartly and the main mystery is cleverly constructed.  Joe and Anna are well realised characters, who arouse suspicion without really seeming to do anything to warrant it whilst Hans & Konrad get to take centre stage, which doesn’t happen often.

As well written as we’ve come to expect from M. V. Carey’s work, this has some good set pieces - I liked the crevice sequence, the bear incursion and the fire on the meadow - and I particularly liked the way the monster is used (and the fact that it’s left hanging as to what anybody actually saw).  The plot is solid enough, it has a great atmosphere and sense of location and the boys have some nice interplay.  A good and entertaining read, I’d very much recommend this.
Format A paperback, first printed in 1977, last reprinted 1980, cover art by Peter Archer
There was no format B edition
cover scan of my copy

The internal illustrations for the UK edition were drawn by Roger Hall.

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