Monday, 27 June 2016

For Your Eyes Only, at 35

For Your Eyes Only, the twelfth James Bond film in the official EON series (and the fifth to feature Roger Moore in the lead role), opened in the UK on 26th June 1981.  It was directed by John Glen (the first in his eventual five-film run), produced by Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli and written by Richard Maibaum & Michael G. Wilson.  Peter Lamont was the production designer, Derek Meddings supervised the visual effects and Bill Conti wrote the score.  The film was originally planned for release in 1979 to follow The Spy Who Loved Me (it’s announced at the end of that film) but was put back to allow Moonraker to go into production.
UK quad poster
Following the outer space excess of Moonraker (which remained the series highest grossing entry until Goldeneye in 1995), producer Cubby Broccoli wanted a conscious return to the style of the earlier Bond films and, indeed, the novels of Ian Fleming.  For Your Eyes Only, he decided, would be stripped back of gadgets and humour, allowing for a grittier, more realistic approach - a reboot before they were in fashion, as it were.  Broccoli’s stepson, Michael G. Wilson, had been made an executive producer for Moonraker and was given more creative input in the series.  He agreed with the need to get back to basics and collaborated on the screenplay with Bond veteran Richard Maibaum.  The script took key elements from two of Fleming’s short stories - Risico (Kristatos and Columbo) and For Your Eyes Only (the murder of the Havelocks) - and included unused sequences from Live And Let Die (the keelhauling), Goldfinger (the Indentigraph, called the Identicast in the novel) and On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (the winter sports).  The macguffin of the film - the ATAC - and the villain Locque were both added by the pair.
As the script was being written, Broccoli had a major problem in that Roger Moore was undecided as to whether or not he wanted to continue.  His original three-film contract took him up to The Spy Who Loved Me and following that, he negotiated contracts on a film-by-film basis.  This uncertainty led to other actors being considered for the role, including Lewis Collins (then well-known as Bodie in The Professionals), Michael Billington (who played Anya’s lover in The Spy Who Loved Me) and Michael Jayston.  Broccoli worked hard to persuade his friend and star to make at least one more film and Moore, helped by a substantial increase in his salary, eventually signed on, though he remained uneasy about the tougher character he was being asked to play.  For my part, I think this is probably his best performance as Bond - he still has some quips but they’re toned down from the 70s excesses and his character shows a harder, more vengeful streak.  His age also seems to be acknowledged, especially with the young ice skater Bibi - he rebuffs her advances by saying “You get your clothes on and I’ll buy you an ice cream.”
At work in Cortina - front left - Tony Waye (Assistant director), Bob Simmons (Action co-ordinator), Roger Moore, Cubby Broccoli, John Glen, Michael G Wilson
Further to the back-to-basics philosophy, there were several changes in the key crew.  John Glen, who’d worked as editor and second unit director on a number of previous Bond films, was promoted to director.  Ken Adam, the production designer, was working on Pennies From Heaven in America and when his assistant Peter Lamont was asked who he thought should replace him said “why not me?”  Both Glen and Lamont decided to pull back from Adam’s trademark grand sets in favour of a more realistic design.

Of the old guard, both Desmond Llewelyn (Q) and Lois Maxwell (Miss Moneypenny) returned but Bernard Lee, who’d played M since Dr No (1962) was hospitalised with stomach cancer and died on 16th January 1981 before he could film his scenes.  As a mark of respect, the part wasn’t recast and his dialogue was split between Q, the Minister Of Defence (Geoffrey Keen) and Bill Tanner (James Villiers).
from left - Carole Bouquet, Lynn-Holly Johnson, Cassandra Harris
Carole Bouquet, who had previously auditioned for the part of Holly Goodhead in Moonraker, was chosen to play the vengeful Melina Havelock and in an interesting twist became the first Bond girl who doesn’t share a love scene with our hero until the closing credits.  She is also only a year older than Lynn-Holly Johnson.  Julian Glover, who’d once been shortlisted as a potential Bond prior to Live And Let Die was cast as Kristatos, whilst Chaim Topol was suggested by Broccoli’s wife Dana for Bond’s ally Columbo (and it was he who came up with the pistachios quirk).  Cassandra Harris, cast as Countess Lisl, took her fiance to lunch with Broccoli and his team, the first time any of them were to meet Pierce Brosnan.  Lynn-Holly Johnson, who played Bibi Dahl, was a professional ice skater Broccoli had seen and liked in the film Ice Castles (1978).  Michael Gothard played Kristatos’ henchman, the hired assasin Emile Locque, who doesn’t say a single word throughout the film (though he screams as he dies).  Unfortunately, the film ends with a cringeworthy sequence featuring then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played for laughs by Janet Brown) which doesn’t sit with the tone of the film at all, dates it badly and feels like a terrible joke that should have been cut in the scripting stage.  Roger Moore reportedly hated it too.
from left - Julian Glover, Topol
Since John Barry was unable to work in the UK at the time, American composer Bill Conti - best known for his work on the Rocky films - was chosen.  His score, very much of its time, doesn’t really suit the film (though it’s an decent enough listen) and has dated quite badly (though I maintain that the discordant piano during the ski sequence fits the visuals perfectly).  Conti also wrote the music to go with Michael Leeson’s lyrics for the title song, sung by Sheena Easton who maintains the honour of being the only singer to feature in the opening titles.  The song reached number 8 in the UK charts, number 4 in the US and was nominated for the Best Song Oscar.  Blondie were asked to submit a song but it was rejected - it’s available on their album The Hunter and, I think, would have worked just as well.

On a budget of $28m ($6m less than Moonraker), Bond was ready to head into the 1980s.

“We had gone as far as we could into space. We needed a change of some sort, back to the grass roots of Bond. We wanted to make the new film more of a thriller than a romp, without losing sight of what made Bond famous - its humour.”
- John Glen

Production began on 2nd September 1980 in the North Sea, filming exterior scenes with the St Georges (interiors were shot at Pinewood later, as was the explosion which was filmed in the tank on the 007 stage).

The production moved to Corfu and, on 15th September, began filming at the Villa Sylva at Kanoni, which doubled as Gonzales’ Spanish villa.  On a location scout, it had been decided to use the local hills and olive groves for the chase scene between Melina’s Citroën 2CV and the Peugeot 504s driven by Gonzales’ men (Bond’s Lotus was blown up early on to show that he would be relying more on his wits than gadgets).  The chase was supervised by Remy Julienne (who would work on every Bond film up to Goldeneye) and filmed over twelve days, using four 2CVs which were modified for the stunts required.  The scene includes Roger Moore’s ad-lib “I love a drive in the country, don’t you?” which clearly takes Carole Bouquet by surprise and he has since stated that of all the cars he ever drove as Bond, the 2CV was his favourite.
The Citroen 2CV jumps the Peugeot in the olive groves
The crew moved to Kalambaka on the Greek mainland to shoot in and around the monastery that sits on top of a virtually sheer column of rock.  Although permits had been signed and agreed, the monks who lived in the neighbouring monastery of Meteora took exception, complaining that Bond’s reputation for sex and violence was an affront and demanding filming be halted.  To prevent filming, they hung laundry out of windows in an attempt to ruin the shots.  Local people and the government intervened and shooting was allowed to continue, though only exteriors were used - St Cyrils monastery itself was built at Pinewood.  On location, Roger Moore - who has a fear of heights - had to resort to some ‘moderate drinking’ to calm his nerves but the fall was performed by Rick Sylvester (who also did the parachute jump at the start of The Spy Who Loved Me).  Derek Meddings developed a system that would dampen the sudden stop and although Sylvester was nervous - he later said “From where we were shooting you could see the local cemetery” - the stunt went without a hitch.
Bond kicks Locque's car off the cliff, the scene that concerned Roger Moore

The raid on Kristatos’ warehouse was also filmed, along with the scene where Bond kicks Locque’s car over the edge of a cliff.  Roger Moore felt the scene was too cold-blooded - he said it “was Bond-like, but not Roger Moore Bond-like” (though I would argue his killing of Sandor in The Spy Who Loved Me is just as nasty) - but agreed to film it as originally written.  The raid sequence also saw Topol injured, when a piece of debris hit him in the face - the scene is included in the movie, with the actor falling toward Moore.

Could that be Locque, or is it a character from Guess Who?
Returning to Pinewood in Novermber, work began on Peter Lamont’s sets at Pinewood, including the Identigraph scene with Q.  On the DVD documentary, Roger Moore (a known practical joker) said he convinced Desmond Llewellyn his dialogue had been changed and handed him new sheets the continuity girl had typed up.  Desmond spent his lunch-hour learning the new lines only to discover, when he got on set, that it was a joke.  His response is not recorded.

The church in the pre-credits sequence was filmed at Stoke Poges, next door to the golf course from Goldfinger (1964).  The sequence of Bond visiting his wife’s grave was written to provide continuity between potentially different actors, when it was still unsure if Moore would be continuing in the role.
Martin Grace hangs on over Beckton Gas Works
The helicopter sequence was filmed at the abandoned Beckton Gas Works in London (later used as a location for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987)).  Featuring some excellent stunt work - Martin Grace was hanging onto the Jet Ranger, whilst Marc Wolff was the pilot - it also included an incredible Derek Meddings foreground miniature, which used forced perspective to allow the helicopter to apparently fly into a warehouse.  For footage inside the building, a full-scale mock-up was mounted on a rail, allowing Roger Moore to be filmed inside it.  The bald man in the wheelchair was clearly meant to be Blofeld but ongoing legal battles with Kevin McClory meant the character couldn’t be named or properly seen.  Unofficially disposing of Bond’s greatest villain down a chimney stack was Cubby Brococli’s perfect way of saying the 007 series could survive without Blofeld, who wouldn’t re-appear until Spectre in 2015.
Not-Blofeld at Beckton Gas Works (Martin Grace on the skid)
Whilst the first unit was in England, the second unit, supervised by Al Giddings, shot the underwater scenes in the Bahamas with stand-ins. Since Carole Bouquet had a sinus condition, she couldn’t film underwater so the close-ups of Bond and Melina were shot on a dry soundstage.  Smoke, wind, lighting effects and dubbed on bubbles gave the illusion of the actors being submerged.  Giddings also co-ordinated the logistically difficult keelhauling sequence with John Glen.  The submarine scenes were filmed at Pinewood on the 007 stage tank, where Peter Lamont created two working props for the Neptune, as well as a mock-up with a fake bottom.
Filming the keelhauling sequence in the Bahamas
On 1st January 1981, the production began work at Cortina D’Ampezzo in Italy, where unusually mild weather meant no snow had fallen.  Instead, they had to ship some in from nearby mountains and dump it on the city streets.  Bond veteran Willy Bogner Jr led the second unit there and designed the chase sequence with Bob Simmons to surpass his work in both On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Spy Who Loved Me.  As well as being pursued by two motorcycles with studded tyres (to film them, Bogner used skis that allowed him to go forwards or backwards), Bond is also chased on the bobsled track in a gripping and visually dynamic sequence.  Unfortunately, on the last day of shooting the run, one of the stuntmen in the sled, 23 year-old Paolo Rigon, was killed after he became trapped under the bob.  Although he was an accomplished cross-country skier, Roger Moore wasn’t insured for downhill skiing so Bogner stood in for him.  Close-ups were filmed with Moore strapped to a sled being pulled downhill, as Bogner skied backwards operating the camera.
Locque and his men wait for Bond at the ski jump - from left, Claus (Charles Dance), Locque (Michael Gothard), Erich Kriegler (John Wyman)
Robbin Young, who played the florist, won Playboy’s “Be A James Bond Girl” where her prize was a small role and a spread in the magazine.  The film also marked the last appearance by Victor Tourjanksy, the ‘Man With Glass’ from The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker.

First unit filming wrapped in February.  Back at Pinewood, Derek Meddings and his team created miniatures of the St George (and blew it up), Columbo’s yacht for the approach to Kristatos’ warehouse and elements of St Cyrils (including the basket lift).
top - film still
bottom - Derek Meddings with the foreground miniature exactly duplicating the real building 
A member of Derek Meddings' crew at work on the St Georges miniature, just before the diver explodes (hence the miniatures of Bond and Melina)

For Your Eyes Only premiered at the Odeon, Leicester Square on 24th June 1981 before going on general release on 26th June.  The premiere was attended by the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, for the benefit of the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation.  Topol suggested to Cubby Broccoli that he invite his former Bond co-producer Harry Salzman, which he did, marking the first re-union between the two men since their break up after The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).
left - Concept art for the poster by Brian Bysouth - right - raw photo of Nancy Stafford (the hand and crossbow used in the poster)
The poster, showing a woman standing with her legs spread, was designed by Bill Gold and caused a certain amount of controversy in the US - The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times considered it unsuitable and edited out everything above the knee whilst the Pittsburgh Press painted on shorts.  I thought it was very good and had a copy of it on my bedroom wall for years.  The image is composite from two women Morgan Kane photographed - Joyce Bartle provides the legs (she wore her bikini bottoms the wrong way around) and former Miss Florida Nancy Stafford is the hand holding the crossbow.

Roger Moore presents Cubby Broccoli with his Irving Thalberg Award
Citroen produced a special “007” edition of the 2CV which had decorative bullet holes on the door, Corgi Toys produced die-cast models and a 007 digital watch was also available.  Marvel Comics published a comic book adaption (which I read and quite enjoyed), written by Larry Hama and drawn by Howard Chaykin.

At the Oscars on 29th March 1982, Sheena Easton performed the nominated title song and Roger Moore presented Cubby Broccoli with the Irving Thalberg Honorary Award, in honour of the Bond series.  The script was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay by The Writers Guild of America.

Setting a record for opening-day grosses (£14,998), it went on to made $195.3m ($509.6m adjusted for inflation) worldwide, making it the second highest grossing Bond film after Moonraker.  It was the last Bond film distributed solely by United Artists, as the studio merged with MGM soon after the release.

I like the film a lot though I must admit, at the time, I wasn’t so keen (you have to remember I was 12 when this was released) because after the glorious excess of Moonraker it seemed a bit too pedestrian.  But it’s not - the direction is tight, the set-pieces (especially the car chase and the submarine stuff with the St Georges) are suspenseful and well constructed and the acting is good across the board.  I’m a fan, so happy 35th anniversary For Your Eyes Only.

Monday, 20 June 2016

My friend Pauline

Everyone has ‘golden periods’ in their lives, a passage of time - maybe a minute, maybe a year - that you know will stay with you forever, where you experience or discover something that changes or defines you.  Sometimes you don’t realise until long after the fact - a wistful smile as you recall that wonderful summer, for example - but sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’re aware of them as they’re happening.
Pauline, in 1986, having just dropped me off after work
note - I took a lot of photos, even back then, but at this time I was still using a disc camera, hence the grainy image...
Me, June 1986
(taken on the Sixth Form trip to Great Yarmouth)
1986 was one-such time for me.  I finished school (having thoroughly enjoyed Sixth Form), started work straight away at Hunters Foods and passed my driving test.  I also met Pauline Weston at work (on 27th June, according to my diary of the time) who quickly became a very close friend and - I’m pleased to say - remains so to this day.

If you asked me now to explain how our friendship happened, I don’t think I could - something just clicked and whatever it was, it latched in tight.  My parents went on holiday and as I then couldn't drive,  Pauline offered to give me a lift into work.  You have to remember, I was fresh out of school - as brash and dopey as only a seventeen-year-old can be - and yet she tolerated me.  For my part it was easy - she was pretty, smart and independent, warm, witty and fiesty and I loved her for it, I still do.

I was proud to have a female best friend, partly because a platonic friendship seemed to confuse some people (as happened on our joint holiday to Corfu in 1992) but mostly because she was fun to be with and often gave me a completely different point of view on life.  We had a great time together and continue to do so.
Our friendship has seen us both go through a lot over the years - marriages for each of us, children (her daughter wasn’t quite one when I met her, Dude came along in 2005), heartbreak and heartache, health issues - but we’ve always been there for each other.
Corfu, 1992
When Alison & I started seeing one another, just after that Corfu holiday, I explained my friendship with Pauline straight away, because I was worried my future wife might not like it.  Thankfully, the pair of them got on as soon as they met.
Enjoying a laugh and some wine, 2002
Pauline & I laugh at similar things, our moral compass is on roughly the same bearing and she likes Bond films (though, sadly, doesn’t have a lot of tolerance for the Roger Moore-era ones), so we go to see them at the cinema together.  We get to make jokes at one anothers expense, such as our regular DVD evenings where my choice of film is often poorly received and whilst we share a love for disco and soul, my musical taste is subject to mirth as I’m apparently stuck in my ways (not that I can see it).
At Kettering Odeon, with Daniel Craig, November 2015
Free-spirited, kind and loyal, she can also be charmingly blunt.  Along with my Mum and Alison (I’m blessed to have such strong women in my life), she spent a lot of time trying to make me aware of how dangerous my weight was becoming but, like an idiot, I didn’t listen.  When I decided to make a change she was very supportive, as she was after my heart attack.  We’re now linked up on MapMyWalk and try to get out for a brisk three-or-four miler every fortnight (chatting from the minute we leave the house to the moment we get back).
After a walk, August 2015
I feel lucky to know Pauline, I’m honoured to call her my friend and I'm proud of our rich, shared history.  I’m also thankful that, all that time ago, she didn’t dismiss me as being a silly teenager.
left - 2002, right - 2012
It was her birthday yesterday and so this post is really a double celebration.  Happy birthday, my finest friend and here’s to the next thirty years of friendship!
Just about to set off on another walk - late May 2016

Monday, 13 June 2016

"We're All Individuals!" - The Life Of Brian, under the stars with Purple Rain

Regular readers might remember that last year, my friend David & I went to see Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and An American Werewolf In London at Stanwick Lakes, in an open-air programme run by Luna Flix.  We had such a great time at both events that we decided to do it again this year.
Friday evening was the first chance we had to get along to any of the showings but we were determined to see Life Of Brian.  The British weather apparently had other ideas and, right up until the morning, it was touch-and-go whether the screening would be postponed (worse, there was a heavy downpour during the day) but Monty Python won out in the end.

We got to Stanwick Lakes at the same time, parked next to each other, loaded up our supplies (he’d brought the chairs, I had the Haribo) and made our way to the ‘outdoor theatre’.  Somebody had already claimed ‘our spot’ (a favourite from last year) but we quickly found a place, settled ourselves down, put on our waterproofs (it was spitting) and caught up on each others news.  As always, the Luna Flix team had thrown themselves into it - Lucy, on the gate, was wearing a beard, Simon the head honcho was rehearsing some quotes and the refreshments man was dressed up selling “larks' tongues, otters' noses, ocelot spleens” and convincing female members of the audiences they needed beards - brilliantly, most of them complied!

The set up was the same as last year - with a big inflatable screen, a tremendous sound system (you could hear it clear across the lake in the car park) - and this time we had a selection of Python songs blasting us until it was dark enough.  The only downside to this was that it made conversation difficult - we’d be talking away, one of us would hear a song we liked and we’d drift off, coming back to our chat after it finished.

The film began just before ten, as the last orange faded from the sky and the geese flew over the lake and it was great.  Billed as a ‘quote-along’, the team had sent out sheets of dialogue and lyrics and we’d been encouraged to take along our own wooden spoons, shoes and rocks, to be deployed at key moments.  The film looked great - it was the first time either of us had seen it on the big screen and, as David said, there were so many new things he noticed - and the humour was as pitch-perfect as I remembered it.  There was also a wonderful bit, where Simon The Holy Man breaks his 18-year vow of silence - the film paused and someone came racing out of the refreshments stand, shrieking and yelling about his poor foot, before running off as the film restarted - great fun.

The film finished at 11.50 - with the entire audience singing along to Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life - and we made our way back to the car park, agreed that it had been a great choice to see in the open air.

Alison didn’t get to any of the 2015 schedule and, based on me and David raving about it, was determined not to repeat that.  We were originally planning to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but, following the untimely death of Prince, it was rescheduled and Purple Rain was added to the programme.  Alison had already seen it, I hadn’t and so we decided to go.
Saturday was another changeable day, weather-wise - Dude & I spent the afternoon shopping in Leicester, under various hues of sky and a few showers - but apart from the odd spit of rain, it was a dry evening.  There was a big crowd in, a lot of Prince fans and a great atmosphere with plenty of the man’s songs playing until showtime, which was again at 10pm.  Alison was excited - she really liked the film but hadn’t seen it for ages - and I was very much looking forward to it.

So what did I think?  Very much of its time (it was released in 1984), it looked terrific (with a beautifully crisp image) but it was a bit uneven, with iffy acting (though Morris Day was fantastic), an occasionally foggy story and some unexpected violence - but the soundtrack made up for everything.  Once The Kid is on stage - and we’re essentially treated to a Prince concert film - everything else is forgiven and since the film was apparently designed to showcase his talents, it succeeds admirably.  Which is the thing really, it’s all about the music.  Whether you were a big fan of his or not, if you’re about my age - mid-to-late 40s - then it’s a fair bet he soundtracked at least part of your teenage life and who didn’t dance to 1999 at a disco (school or otherwise)?  In fact, to make you feel old, that song was released in 1982 (I didn’t really notice it until the 1985 re-release, to be honest) which means it was as far from 1999 as we are now!

Ending with that freeze-fame (and a bit of a sing-along - what a great way for me to discover the film!), we had a wonderful time and Alison thoroughly enjoyed the experience, with the Luna Flix team again putting on another great presentation.  Roll on the next one!

If you’re local, check out the schedule here and pop along, it’s really good fun.

Monday, 6 June 2016

More Movie Miniatures

As regular readers will know, I'm fascinated by the behind-the-scenes process on films, especially special effects work with miniatures and/or matte paintings.  Back in October 2014 I posted my first miniatures blog (which you can read here) and have subsequently written ones about the James Bond series (featuring John Richardson and Derek Meddings, the latter of whom also got a special 'appreciation' post) and ILM.

Miniatures are scale models which are used to represent things that aren't there, are too expensive or difficult to film in reality, or which can't be damaged (by fire, flood or explosion) in real life.  They've now largely been replaced by (often terrible) CGI but the old ways, the fine art, does seem to be making something of a comeback.

I decided it was time to post about them again and hopefully I can highlight films where it's not immediately obvious that you're looking at a miniature.

Superman (1978, directed by Richard Donner)
special effects supervised by Derek Meddings
The large-scale miniature of the Golden Gate Bridge, where Superman saves the kids on the school bus
Blade Runner (1982, directed by Ridley Scott)
special effects supervised by Douglas Trumbull
For the magnificent "Hades" opening sequence, Trumball's team (the Entertainment Effects Group) created a skyline with thousands of acid-etched brass plates.  These were lit by fibre-optic lights and set on a forced-perspective layout, with lots of smoke added to the shot to create layers of diffusion that made it all look so much bigger.  Superb work.  The flames were added in later.

Poltergeist (1982, directed by Tobe Hooper)
visual effects supervised by Richard Edlund
ILM's Paul Huston with the 'giant skull' miniature
Ghostbusters (1984, directed by Ivan Reitman)
special effects supervised by Richard Edlund
The Stay Puft Man heads across Central Park to get the Ghostbusters...
Aliens (1986, directed by James Cameron)
special effects supervised by John Richardson
Filming on the miniature Queen Alien set - director James Cameron is directly behind the camera
Bad Taste (1987, directed by Peter Jackson)
special effects by Peter Jackson
Made on a shoestring, this is a brilliant and incredibly inventive film for which Jackson designed and created the effects himself.  The first time I watched this, back in the late 80s - goggle-eyed at the exuberance of it - I didn't realise the house they destroy wasn't real.
Darkman (1990, directed by Sam Raimi)
special effects (miniatures) supervised by Robert Skotak
Robert Skotak on one of his miniature sets
Tremors (1990, directed by Ron Underwood)
special effects supervised by Stephen Brien
Robert Skotak filming a graboid on the miniature set of the Gummers basement
Cape Fear (1991, directed by Martin Scorsese)
special effects supervised by Derek Meddings
Derek Meddings and his crew help the Bowden family (and Max Cady) on the river
Speed (1994, directed by Jan DeBont)
special effects supervised by Boyd Shermis and Grant McCune
Working on the subway car miniatures (built by the Grant McCune shop)
Dante's Peak (1997, directed by Roger Donaldson)
special effects supervised by Richard Stutsman and Dean Miller
The large-scale bridge miniature
Shutter Island (2010, directed by Martin Scorsese)
visual effects supervised by Robert Legato

There will be more miniature posts to come...

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

The Brit Horror Mixtape

Last year I curated the King For A Year Project (which was great fun to do) and a lovely side-note to it is the occasional email from people saying they'd read a review that had prompted them to pick up a book they wouldn't have tried otherwise.

With that in mind here's a similar project that might be smaller in scale but definitely isn't in scope.  Harking back to the 80s glory days of the homemade mixtape (that wonderful teenage rite-of-passage), this is a compilation of short horror stories by British writers - some you might have heard of, some might be new to you - that are all well worth a read.  Who knows, you might discover a new favourite on the list!
Where possible, the title/author link will take you to Amazon where the story is available as an ebook (usually as part of a collection) - why not load up your Kindle for your summer reading?  
The 'chosen by' link will take you to that writers website.

The Tiger's Bride, by Angela Carter 
Aged 17 I was riveted by the Neil Jordan film, The Company of Wolves, so I went back to the source- Angela Carter’s collection of fairy tale subversions, The Bloody Chamber. My favourite is The Tiger’s Bride, her take on Beauty & the Beast. It speaks of objectification, desire and our true natures. It seemed disingenuous to me, even as a child, that Beauty loved the Beast for who he is inside and, loving the Beast also, I was disappointed when he was transformed into a handsome prince. I felt it suggested there was something wrong in him being different that could be “fixed” by love. Carter’s inversion of this ideal seemed very powerful to me. It thrilled me as a reader and it made me want to write.
chosen by Priya Sharma

Later, by Michael Marshall Smith 
I first read Later in a Stephen Jones anthology (the name of which kind of gives the game away) in 1995 (having never read MMS before) and instantly fell in love with the story and the tender romance  it describes between the unnamed narrator and his girlfriend Rachel.  Beautifully written, with a wonderfully melancholic tone, this perfectly captures in telling little details the truth of love, friendship and grief and remains my favourite short story.  Simon Duric’s film adaption is also very good.
chosen by Mark West

August Heat, by William Fryer Harvey 
At 11 years old I found my Dad’s box of Continuing Education-issued books for his pursuit of a high school diploma.  Limited as I was to tidy childhood stories, August Heat - ending one hour before the action finished - was a revelation, driving me to invent endings for days.  I had never engaged with a story like this and the idea that I might be able to share this feeling gave me the idea that I too should start writing.  My Dad eventually received his high school diploma, although he never returned the boxes of books and I'm working on sharing that feeling while writing a novel about an LSD based nature commune set in the depths of the Northern Ontario.
chosen by Kim Talbot Hoelzli

Mackintosh Willy, by Ramsey Campbell 
My first reading of Mackintosh Willy was in the Dark Companions collection, sometime in the late '80s. I wasn't a writer then - I was newly divorced, living in London and mostly drunk. But there was something that crept in that story, something about the urban decay, hopelessness and the way we treat the other that rang a bell with me, and I found myself thinking about it more and more over the next few years.  My personal circumstances improved, I got remarried, escaped London...but Ramsey's story stuck with me, and when I started writing for myself in the early '90s, some of Ramsey came along with me, for which I'll always be grateful.
chosen by Willie Meikle (no relation)

The Lady Of The House Of Love, by Angela Carter 
From The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (Penguin, 1979), which is full of jewels, including The Company of Wolves from which the weird and lovely film was made (I was mad about Lydia Lunch turning into a wild wolf girl and the cursed wedding party with wolves in gowns and powdered wigs!). I must have bought this slim collection while I was in the 6th form as it has a bookmark made from an NME cutting. This particular tale is of a lonely “somnambulist” Countess who sits in a chateau above a deserted village, surrounded by faded decadence as she draws the Tarot, always producing the same three cards: La Papesse, La Mort, La Tour Abolie - until one day she draws Les Amoreux. A handsome soldier on leave cycles into town, and they become each other’s tragic fate. She’s doll-like, with teeth like “spikes of spun sugar”, prettily conjured, so she’s not the cause of fear in this story with her harmless munching of rabbits. That would be the “revenants”, her old victims. The soldier isn’t one of those, for all the good that will do him. Strangely, when the rock group Daisy Chainsaw based their video for Hope All Your Dreams Come True on this story, they didn’t much seem to like the idea of the soldier curing her vampirism and escaping, so they changed the ending. Still pretty cool, though.
chosen by Donna Scott

After The Ape, by Stephen Volk 
One of my favourite short stories is ‘After the Ape’, by Stephen Volk. I first came across it in Stephen Jones’s Best New Horror 21, so around 2009ish, but I’ve read it a few times more since.  It addresses one of my favourite films, King Kong, but does more than simply retell the familiar. It’s a story about celebrity (and post-celebrity) status. It’s about the exploitative nature of stories but also the personal nature of them. Horror holds hands with sorrow as Ann Darrow laments the fate of her great ape, while further layers of complexity exist in the parallel between her father and the beast she grieves. The story functions as a powerful post-9/11 text as well. To ape is to mimic, and ‘After the Ape’ shows us the animals we can become in the wake of so much horror.
chosen by Ray Cluley

Lost And Found, by Richard Farren Barber 
Back in 2013, I received an ARC of Richard Farren Barber’s novella, The Power of Nothing and I’ve been a fan ever since! I find his writing style has a bit of a 'Twilight Zone' quality to it.  The recently released What Haunts the Heart includes one of my favorites titled, Lost and Found. After decades of marriage Michael and Bess still find ways to keep their love alive. But, memories can be a tricky thing. What sometimes feels so true is nothing but strands of what was. This is a bittersweet story, that will surely tug at the heartstrings.
chosen by Paula Limbaugh

The White People, by Arthur Machen 
I read it first when I was twelve and found it insidiously haunting. Every time I've reread the tale it has grown more powerful. It's the greatest use of the naive voice I've read, and I find its sense of the uncanny profoundly disturbing, not least because it's beyond analysis, at least by me. It's only a fragment of a novel Machen abandoned - what might that have been like? The only other works that convey undefinable terror to me so viscerally are some of the films of David Lynch.
chosen by Ramsey Campbell

The Great God Pan, by M. John Harrison 
First encountered in Douglas Winter's anthology Prime Evil, every reread makes me feel the same way the first read did more than twenty years ago, like the world around me is altered, as askew as it was for those the characters in the story the morning after, walking back through the fields. For more than two decades I've been wondering what happened on that fateful night—and one of the things I love best about the story (which became one of my favorite novels, The Course of the Heart), is that Harrison doesn't tell us; only about the aftermath. A masterful story that meditates on one of my own obsessions: what becomes of a person who touches the ineffable?
chosen by Lynda E. Rucker

Again, by Ramsey Campbell 
I'd read Campbell's work before but this was the one that really made a mark. There's a nervy, queasy tone to the tale that you just can't wash off.  A young hiker spends a day on the Wirral Way and finds a house where an old woman seems to be trapped. He tries to get inside to help her...and that's when the really weird stuff starts.  This is Campbell stripped back, laid bare. There are few of his usual stylistic flourishes. What we get instead is the most hideous, greasy, horrific atmosphere imaginable. The ending haunts me still.
chosen by Gary McMahon

Sredni Vashtar, by Saki  
I first encountered Sredni Vashtar when I heard Tom Baker reading the story (alas not in real life but on YouTube). On the surface, it seems a very ordinary story of a ten-year-old boy living with an overbearing elder cousin, who to escape the mundane of his life imagines a ferret, which he keeps in the garden shed, to be the vengeful god, Sredni Vashtar. It is in fact, a very dark, delightful tale of revenge. The end is a corker.
chosen by Cate Gardner

The Mezzotint, by M. R. James 
Though it possesses no actual feeling of jeopardy where the central characters are concerned, I’ve always considered this one of the creepiest ghost stories ever written.  I think the reasons for this are twofold.
   To begin with, it was the first of his tales I ever encountered. It was back in the early 1970s, when I wasn’t quite a teenager. In those days, we would commence our Halloween celebrations, usually in my friend’s sister’s mouldy old Wendy House at the far end of their autumnal garden, by sitting around a jack o’lantern in our costumes and telling one scary story each.  My dad often kick-started proceedings by reading some classic horror story onto tape, and then we could play it back later (adults not being allowed in the actual party). This one year he taped The Mezzotint, and it had an enormous impact on us, in my case long-term.  The unadulterated evil of its supernatural villain – I mean this damn thing abducted and murdered a child, for God’s sake! – sent shivers through us all as we sat in the chill and the damp and the mildew-scented darkness, an entire night of spooky festivities stretching out ahead of us. It’s the main tale I remember from that time, and it galvanised me into seeking out all the other M.R. James stories, which I duly did over the following years.
   The second reason it had such effect is because it’s so damn frightening. Again, even though the main good guys are in no danger themselves, which some reviewers have deemed to be a weakness in the tale, the growing sense of horror as they continue to check on this engraved image and watch the shocking crime of a century earlier unfold again, with nothing any of them can do to prevent it, is bone-chilling.  And of course, the ghoulish nature of the main antagonist is full-on.  I mean, a skeleton wrapped in malodorous rags is pretty standard, but it’s handled with such skill by the author – we only see it in fleeting glimpses – that our imagination does so much of the work. But look at some of the other neat touches: the fact that it crawls on all fours like an animal as it encroaches on its prey; the fact that it has a cross painted on its back, indicating that in life it suffered a terrible fate of its own – slow strangulation on a crossroads gibbet.
   On top of all that, it’s concise and impeccably written. The pitch, the tone, everything in the story is bang-on, without a word wasted. James’s usual characterisation is all there, even though it’s not a long yarn. We’re told very little about Williams and his academic colleagues, yet we can hear them, see them, we can feel the scholarly world they inhabit.
   Great high concept horror from a master at the top of his craft.
chosen by Paul Finch

The Tower, by Marghanita Laski
I first read this in high school (when dinosaurs roamed the earth). It was in the English Reader we had and I can’t remember what else was in there, but The Tower has stayed with me. It’s quite brief and I recall admiring how Laski had done so much with so little: setting, build-up, tension, dread, and a starkly terrifying climax all in a few pages. It’s the tale of a lonely young wife touring Italy while her husband works: one day she visits the Tower of Sacrifice where a long-dead mage Niccolo di Ferramano dabbled in the dark arts.
chosen by Angela Slatter

Eric The Pie, by Graham Masterton
There are 100’s of short stories that I could probably have picked for the Mix Tape, but this was the one that immediately sprung to mind. Graham Masterton’s masterpiece of grossness will always stick with me - a story so extreme it was credited with being the cause for Frighteners Magazine getting shut down. I never saw it in Frighteners - in a pre-Internet day I had to wait until a friend of mine photocopied the story, something he got into a bit of bother about ("never use a facility photocopier for copying nasty stuff like this!"). The tag line of the story was 'you are what you eat' and that may well explain why I am 100% prime horrific ginger.
chosen by Jim Mcleod

The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs
I can’t remember when I first read this famous story, but it made a deep impression on me with its feel of a wonderfully English Victorian fireside tale (though it was actually published a year after Queen Victoria’s death). And it’s essentially about magic, though it’s a dark, twisted kind of magic, designed to show that ‘to interfere with fate only caused deep sadness.’ And it is that sadness, I think, that gives it enduring appeal. It uses the neat fairy tale format of three wishes to turn the natural longing of the parents against them – it robs them of their son and gives them the hope of having him back again, only to raise a terrifying spectre. All their love has turned to horror – what could be more effective than that?
chosen by Alison Littlewood

The Wailing Well, by M. R. James 
The BBC and Robert Powell got me into the eerie tales of M. R. James back in Christmas 1986. On seeing this and other stories told on the television, I bought his collected ghost stories the very next week. This story really caught my attention - with its main character, plain old Stanley Judkins, a well in a clump of trees and hedges in the middle of a field - suddenly going from mundane to terrifying in a few short pages. Creeping figures, and a terrible finale let it live long in my mind years after it was read.
chosen by Peter Mark May

The End Of A Summer’s Day, by Ramsey Campbell 
"Don’t sit there, missus,” the guide shouted, “you’ll get your knickers wet!”
This first line sums up the story: there already we have the theme of sexual repression, the story’s uneasy (and very British) humour, and the character of the guide who is not be as reliable as one might like.  The story is from Campbell’s second collection, Demons By Daylight, but despite the book’s title there’s very little daylight in this.  The main character, Maria, is part of a group of tourists being led into a complex of caves, along with her new husband, Tony. There is sexual tension between them, but not in the way normally meant: Maria is nervous, old-fashioned in her attitudes to sex even by the standards of the 70s when the story was published. And Tony is - well, what is Tony?
   At the climax of the tour, the guide switches off his torch to show the group what total darkness is like, Maria lets go of Tony’s hand, and then… well, that would be telling. Suffice to say when the light returns Campbell gives us one of the most stunning, disquieting scenes in horror fiction: ambiguous, blackly comic, terrifying in its implications.  It’s a story I’ve always found utterly astounding and compulsively re-readable: a masterpiece in a few thousand words.
chosen by James Everington

Dread, by Clive Barker
I discovered Clive Barker later than most, but I think Dread had been coming for me all my life. At a childhood sleepover, we were sharing our worst fears and one girl said she would never speak hers aloud, because something might be listening to make it come true. I never forgot that. So when I finally caught up with the Books of Blood, Dread utterly terrified me, both the predicament of the girl forced into being an experimental subject and that of the the protagonist. And that ending! I had never read anything like it before. Barker is a singular writer and his horror is truly unique. I enjoyed some of the other stories, but nothing ever wormed inside my mind quite like Dread.
chosen by Thana Niveau

A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, by Sir Charles Birkin
While I can appreciate what is commonly called ‘quiet horror’ I’m afraid it will never work as well for me as the in-your-face nastiness of the wives of prisoners of war being forced to lob cannon balls at the heads of trussed-up ‘dummies’ to see which one will (possibly) be freed by their Nazi captors. And that’s what we get in this, possibly the great Sir Charles Birkin’s greatest-ever horror story. I discovered Birkin at the age of nine with his story Special Diet, and his work has been on my shelves ever since.
chosen by John Llewellyn Probert

Do You See? by Sarah Pinborough 
I first encountered this award winning story in the NewCon Press anthology Myth-Understandings (ed. Ian Whates) way back in 2008ish, and more recently rediscovered it in NewCon’s anniversary reprint volume Obsidian: A Decade of Horror Stories by Women.  Rooted in everyday London life, the story has lost none of its impact with age and it's the quiet horror found in the mundane that makes it appealing.  Pinborough weaves a simple yet deliciously creepy tale that slowly peels back its layers to reveal the monster in the shadows, and the subtle handling of the denouement makes the story all the more scary.
chosen by Jenny Barber

The Incalling, by M John Harrison
This is one of those beautiful horror stories that gnaws at you and discomfits long after you’ve finished it. It’s about Austin, an editor who at the behest of one of his authors, Clerk, goes to witness a ritual taking place at a secondhand clothes shop owned by the Sprake family ‘somewhere in the warren of defeated streets which lies between Camden Road and St Pancras’. A pentagram of some sorts is involved, along with an inverted Gethsemane on the wall and a curious boy talented in the ancient arts of invocation. And there is his sister Alice, a child on the cusp of adolescence who dances within this pentagram, thereby performing this ‘incalling’, an event that has not been done for ‘fifteen hundreds of years’.
   The descriptions of the house in which this ceremony takes place are rich and claustrophobic. You breathe a sigh of relief when you escape outside with Austin as the ritual becomes more and more unseemly. He’s not there at the crucial moment, you suspect. But Austin has been tainted somewhat by events and, when he catches sight of Clerk by chance on the Victoria Embankment some weeks later, having lost contact with his author, he follows him and discovers that he has diminished physically and mentally from his pursuit of and obsession with Alice.
   The story captures the rushed arbitrariness of London life, and of things going on in its lesser known back streets that you don’t really want to know about. This is a city gripped by foul weather and a creeping tide of litter and areas described as being little better than ’brick wastes’. An oppressive zone of ’railway sidings, dull canal water and decaying squares’. It’s about people who are there but not there. At one point Austin registers Clerk’s face as ‘a white smear’; Alice Sprake, wearing a vintage outfit from her mother’s shop, looks like ‘the ghost of a Victorian afternoon’. Colours are at a premium in this story; everything is dimly shaded: dove grey or vinegar or pewter.
   You are left feeling dismayed at the lack of a clear resolution. There is no explanation as to what was achieved, if anything, by the Incalling. But Harrison’s cloying descriptions and ambiguities are imbued with possibility and suggestion. Reality does not neatly tie off all the strands and close a lid on proceedings. According to Clerk, the Sprakes were his last hope, and on the face of it you feel his hope was misplaced, but then you realise that was only in terms of Clerk’s physical condition.
  Harrison does much of the work in this brilliant story, but the answers you take away are all your own.

The Rising Tide, by Priya Sharma
A short story doesn’t have to be ambiguous or opaque just because it’s short. It can have a beginning, middle, and end just as complex and satisfying as a novel - as long as it’s done well. I have hundreds of favourite short stories, but last year I was on the BFS jury for best anthology, and I read a huge number of them in a very short time. One of those that lingered in my mind a long time afterwards, partly because it was that beginning, middle, and end done brilliantly well, was this, which originally appeared in Terror Tales of Wales, edited by Paul Finch. It’s an intriguing mystery, its characters are whole and engaging, and it’s an incredibly moving story about the weight of love and responsibility and guilt. It’s also beautifully written, but that’s just a bonus.
chosen by Carole Johnstone

Just Behind You, by Ramsey Campbell 
It’s not possible for me to be objective about this story. I commissioned it for an anthology I edited called POE’S PROGENY. The idea was for modern writers to draw upon the techniques of past masters as a way of illustrating their influence. I chose not to ask Ramsey to do the same, realising that his work was sufficiently influential on the current generation. This darkly comic tale takes it time to yield its delights. With its gathering of obsequious social climbers, it contrasts the playground behaviour of children with the bullying games of adults attending a youth’s birthday party. There’s an unforgettable passage of prose as the protagonist enters a school building, searching for a boy playing Hide and Seek. Some of the imagery here has lived with me for over a decade. There’s even a car chase towards the end – a brilliant passage of suspense – and then the whole ends with wry irony. I love this tale and was delighted that Ramsey named a whole collection after it and even referred to me in his afterword. I guess that makes me a footnote in literary history. Unlike the ghostly menace in ‘Just Behind You’, I can live with that.
chosen by Gary Fry

The Birds, by Daphne Du Maurier 
First published in 1952 in her collection of short stories, The Apple Tree, this remains a powerful example of ecological horror. Made famous by the loose film adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963, du Maurier's story is a tour-de-force of effective suspense and rising dread. The story is centred around Nat Hocken, a war veteran with a small family, who works part-time doing farm work. His home, positioned close to the Cornish seacoast, is one of the first to suffer a bird attack, which adds to his preparedness when the birds launch their merciless country-wide assault.  Written in the post-World War II period, the story exemplifies the English mindset of the time: making do and keeping up spirits despite aerial bombardment against which there is little defence other than to hunker down.
   I first encountered the story as a teenager in an anthology (probably Alfred Hitchcock: My Favourites in Suspense). At that point I'd already seen the film, which is now almost imprinted as a cultural memory. The story impressed me - despite being markedly different from the film - because of how du Maurier establishes the birds as a potential doomsday weapon. The story doesn't offer any explanation or solutions. Nature - the birds - has suddenly, inexplicably, turned against us and there is little we can do in the face of its indifferent massacre. The violent attacks, and their terrible aftermath, are superbly positioned in the story to provoke maximum fear.
   When re-reading the story recently I was struck by du Maurier's accomplished prose and how she begins with a typical English bucolic scene but quickly introduces the ominous presence of the birds. Later, they are downright frightening:

     'He looked out to sea and watched the crested breakers, combing green. They rose stiffly, curled, and broke again, and because it was ebb tide the roar was distant, more remote, lacking the sound and thunder of the flood.
     Then he saw them. The gulls. Out there, riding the seas.
    What he had thought at first to be the white caps of the waves were gulls. Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands... They rose and fell in the trough of the seas, heads to the wind, like a mighty fleet at anchor, waiting on the tide. To eastward and to the west, the gulls were there. They stretched as far as his eye could reach, in close formation, line upon line.'

   There is a timeless quality to the story, despite the elements that date it, because this is one of the collective nightmares of human experience. And for those among us who live in war zones, or face the rising tides of ecological change, it intrinsically preys upon our knowledge that as a species we remain remarkably vulnerable to extinction.
chosen by Maura McHugh

My thanks to all the contributors!