Monday, 2 December 2019

Live Baby Live: INXS on the big screen!

Last week, Alison & I were lucky enough to revisit the excellent INXS concert film Live Baby Live at the cinema, when it showed ‘for one night only’.
Live Baby Live is the film of the iconic 1991 Wembley Concert (the gig itself was called Summer XS and I wrote extensively about it here).  As Tim Peacock on udiscovermusic put it, “Six years to the day after Live Aid, London’s famous Wembley Stadium played host to a second concert [that] would go down in history. On 13 July 1991, Aussie superstars INXS delivered the show of their lives at Wembley, with their career-defining gig captured in all its widescreen glory by a spin-off concert film and live album – both of which were titled Live Baby Live.”
Having thoroughly enjoyed the concert - I became a firm fan of the band before we were halfway through the gig - I snapped up the album when it was released in November 1991.  David Mallet’s film version, shot with sixteen 35mm cameras (including one in a helicopter), was released the same day and I duly picked up the VHS, watching it over and over again.  When a special edition DVD was released in 2003, I bought that and Alison & I have watched it at least once a year since (it includes an excellent behind-the-scenes documentary, if you’re interested).  Both the VHS and DVD editions were cropped to 1.33:1 aspect ratio to fit the then TV standard 4:3 size (because, of course, back then TV screens were almost square) and I never thought anything about it.
For the cinema release, Chris Murphy - the band’s long-time manager - spent a decade looking for the original 35mm elements, according to Andrew Trendell of the nme and managed to find most of it in Australia.

When you’re working on a project for so long, there’s the fear ‘What’s everyone going to think?’ That turns into astonishment,” said Murphy. “Watching it back, Michael is better than even I thought he was - how he managed the stage. His voice became more powerful as the gig went along. It was extraordinary to watch - the crowd and band were as one.

The concert has been fully restored from the original print with a new widescreen 4K Ultra HD version created in 1.78:1 ratio (which’ll fit nicely on 16:9 televisions!).  It also includes the full version of Lately - a previously unseen ‘lost’ track, included as an audio-only extra on the DVD - marking the first time the concert has been released with the full original setlist.

A brand new Dolby Atmos audio mix was prepared by Giles Martin and Sam Okell at Abbey Road Studios and released as a triple vinyl album (which sounds fantastic, I bought it the day it came out) and double CD.

The UK showing was set for Wednesday 27th November.  We saw it at the Northampton Filmhouse and Alison & I turned up in our INXS t-shirts (I wore the one I got from Wembley back in 1991), having listened to the CD on the drive there.  From the opening, as the band rushes the stage to Jon Farriss’ drum beat to Michael Hutchence doing his victory salute at the end, the experience was incredible.  The film quality is superb, the image pin sharp for the stage scenes (not so clear for the helicopter shots), to the extent you can read the guitar plectrums easily and the widescreen presentation adds in a lot of detail.  The sound, also, was thunderous and that was just what it needed.
left - in 1991 with my then girlfriend Liz, who I attended the gig with and - right - at home in 2019
The whole band was on fire that night”, writes Garry Gary Beers in the liner notes.  “Michael was so good, he sang his heart out and gave every person in the crowd a night to remember for all time. He truly had that amazing ability to make the biggest shows as intimate as the pubs we grew up in musically.

We were just six blokes from Australia that treated Wembley Stadium like just another pub gig,” Tim Farriss wrote in the liner notes.  “We went in with a PA and a few lights and played our asses off. No ego ramps, no back-up singers, no props, no grand pianos, just the six of us – and the audience went nuts! That’s all we needed!

Music producer Giles Martin said of the gig that the crowd had just witnessed “one of the biggest global sensations at the height of their powers” and on the strength of this and my memories, he’s absolutely spot on.

This is a definite Blu ray purchase.  Thanks for the memory, INXS!

Monday, 25 November 2019

Mr Stix returns...

I'm pleased to announce that my short story, Mr Stix, has now been published in standalone ebook form by PenMan Press.
When Sam Murphy's seven-year-old daughter Janey starts to suffer night terrors, he does his best to assure her that Mr Stix - a voice from the shadows who says "mean things" to her - can't hurt her.

Sam later finds the grotesque Mr Stix in the family bathroom and then his terrified wife tells him the story of her own childhood night-time fears.

I wrote Mr Stix in January 2013 at the request of Ross Warren, who asked me to contribute to his anthology For The Night Is Dark.  The brief, basically, involved being scared of the dark and I spent ages trying to come up with something, getting slightly panicked as the deadline approached.  Then, one night, I woke up to find Dude standing beside our bed and that was it - a kid, waking up and getting into the parents bed and the dad hearing/seeing something.

Whenever I wrote horror stories about fathers and children, it was usually me and Dude but since I didn’t have a firm idea of who was going to walk away from this, I made it father-daughter.  I used our house layout for the story (except the bathroom is, in reality, our study/spare room) and didn't quite know who or what Mr Stix would be until I wrote him/it.

The story was published in the anthology and seemed to go down very well, so much so that I included it in the line-up for my second collection, Things We Leave Behind.

"Went straight to Mark West's MR STIX to see what all the fuss was about. The fuss is warranted, it's a very good, creepy story. Maybe his best yet."
- Johnny Mains, author, editor and horror aficionado

I hope, if you decide to take a chance on it, that Mr Stix scares you too...

Sam Murphy opened his eyes.  The figure in white was standing in front of him, arms outstretched and he was so surprised he yelled out.  Emily, his wife, murmured sleepily.
Sam rubbed his eyes and looked at his seven-year-old daughter, wearing her white Disney Princess nightie, with Apple the brown bear clutched tight in her hand.  “Janey?  What’s wrong?”
“Mr Stix is saying horrible things, Daddy, I want you to make him stop.”
“Mr Stix?”  Sam sat up, blinking away the sleep.  “Who’s…  I don’t know who Mr Stix is, love.”
“He’s the man that came to live with us today, he’s in my bedroom and he’s been talking all night and now he’s saying mean things.”
“Today?  Are you alright?”
“Yes, can you come?”
Sam got out of bed and followed his daughter along the landing.  His and Emily’s bedroom covered the width of the house at the front and the landing led to the back, where the bathroom stood at the top of the stairs.  Janey’s room ran parallel to the landing, with her door at the end.  The bathroom light was on, as it always was, since both Janey and Emily were afraid of the dark.
At the doorway to her room, Janey waited and Sam stood next to her.  “Close your eyes,” he said, “I’ll turn on the light.”
He squinted against the glare and looked around the room.  Nothing seemed to be out of place.  A desk, covered with papers, a drawer unit, a wardrobe and a bookcase filled to overflowing with books and comics and the cuddly toys that didn’t fit in the treasure chest under the window.  Her bed, with its pink princess duvet cover, was against the far wall away from the door and the pillow still showed the slightest indentation from her head.
“Looks okay,” said Sam.  “So where’s Mr Stix?”
“On the drawers,” Janey said.
Sam looked at them.  A few things were on the top of the unit - a clock, a calendar, a tub of Lego, some toys that had been positioned to watch over her during the night and various treasures that only she understood the importance of - but nothing out of the ordinary.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for, love, can you show me?”
Janey walked over but didn’t stand in front of her drawers, preferring to stop slightly behind Sam as if he was her shield.  She looked at the top of the drawers and frowned.  “He’s not there.”
Sam stroked the back of her head.  “Problem solved then, kitten, come on, back to bed with you.”
“Can I sleep with you and Mummy tonight?”
Sam glanced at her clock, it was a little after four.  “No, you stay here, Apple and the rest of the gang will look after you.”
“But what if Mr Stix comes back?”
“He won’t.”
“How do you know?”
“I just do, I’m a dad, it’s what I do, you know.”
“You’re silly.”
“And you’re a munchkin, now get back to sleep.”
She snuggled down and smiled as Sam adjusted the duvet under her chin.  He kissed her forehead gently.  “Sleep tight love,” he said.
“You too.”
Sam walked out of her room, switching the light off as he went.  He could hear Emily’s heavy breathing from the bedroom and the faintest of drips from the bathroom but nothing else.  He got into bed and laid on his side, staring at the clock.  The glowing red numbers glared at him and he watched it mark off five minutes.
He rolled onto his back.  Emily turned, made a snuffling noise and cuddled into him.  Her added body heat made him feel drowsy.  He looked at the ceiling and heard the lightest of clicks, as if someone was tapping a ruler on the edge of a desk and then he was asleep.

If you're not in the UK, you can use this link -

Monday, 18 November 2019

An Evening With Sue Moorcroft

Last week, I got to interview my fine friend Sue Moorcroft at Rothwell Library, on the eve of the paperback publication of her 15th novel, Let It Snow.
The event was organised by the Friends Of Rothwell Library, a group I’ve been involved with for some time.  Angry and frustrated by the decision of Northamptonshire County Council that libraries in small towns weren’t necessary, I joined the team to save Rothwell Library and we’ve pretty much succeeded - NCC have washed their hands of it but it’s still open (run by volunteers) and still providing a much needed service for all aspects of the community.  When the team were coming up with ideas, my team colleague Vickie (also an old school friend) remembered I knew Sue and suggested the evening and thankfully Sue was very receptive to the idea (but then, she’s a real star!).
On the night, I got to the library early with my Dad (who thoroughly enjoys Sue’s books) and we helped the volunteers, led by Maureen Hill, set everything up.  When Sue arrived, closely followed by my friend (and co-conspirator on the thriller novels) David Roberts, we set up the book table and the audience began arriving then - including friends Darren Paterson, Jane Isaac and Louise Jensen, the latter two excellent novelists in their own rights.  Louise and Dad know and like each other, so they sat together on the front row.
Once our audience had gathered, we set off.  Sue & I have known one another for twenty years (this year) and have an easy rapport, so although I had a list of questions (that I mostly stuck to) there were lots of opportunities to go off at a tangent and tell some amusing anecdotes (if you get the chance, ask Sue to tell you her helicopter story).  After an hour or so, she did a brief reading from Let It Snow and then we broke for the interval.  While the Friends valiantly served tea, sweets and savouries, Sue sold and personalised books.
Probably smiling along with the helicopter anecdote - picture by Jane Isaac
The second half of the evening was the Q&A and, to get the ball rolling, I called on my ever-game Dad to lead the charge.  The alloted thirty minutes quickly came and went, with plenty of questions and some involved answers.
The audience, with Louise Jensen and my Dad far left on the front row
The evening finished up at a little after nine and, judging by people’s compliments as they left and, later, on social media, it was a success.  I’m so pleased we had such a good turn-out (and that people enjoyed it so much), not just for me and Sue, obviously, but because it means this kind of event is viable for the future.

Many thanks to Sue and the Friends and also the team I’m proud to be part of, who saved Rothwell Library.

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Monday, 11 November 2019

Novelisation Review 2: The Professionals 4: Hunter Hunted, by Ken Blake

The second in an occasional thread celebrating old-school paperback novelisations from the 70s and 80s, which are now mostly forgotten.  We're not talking great art but these books have their place - they were a fantastic resource from a time when you couldn't watch your favourite film or TV show whenever you felt like it - and I think they deserve to be remembered.

This time, I'm looking at The Professionals 4: Hunter Hunted, by Ken Blake, adapted from the excellent UK TV series.
front and back cover of the Sphere paperback, 1979 reprint (cover scans of my copy)
Once again written by Kenneth Bulmer under the Ken Blake house name, this volume is based on the shooting scripts for three episodes.

The first is First Night, where an Israeli minister is kidnapped from the Festival Hall on the Southbank and, to avoid an international incident, it’s down to CI5 to find him.  After an action packed opening, we then see some dogged detective work (the kidnappers are tracked by a Polaroid picture they’ve sent), which works slightly better in the episode than it does here.  Great pacing, some humour and some nice observations on contemporary London.

Kathie Mason (Cheryl Kennedy) from "Hunter Hunted"
The second, eponymous episode has CI5 charged with testing the new laser-sighted 180 and Cowley hands it to Bodie & Doyle.  Whilst at headquarters, they encounter Kathie Mason, an ex-colleague of Doyle’s who’s interviewing to become a CI5 agent.  After a night at her place, Doyle discovers the gun is missing and it seems someone is out to get their revenge on him.  Brisk, involved and good fun, this cracks along with some nice dialogue, excellent set pieces (especially the demise of Doyle’s E-type)  and some good interactions between the agents.  I really liked the episode itself (especially Cheryl Kennedy as Kathie) and this does it justice.

The Rack is the final episode.  Following a raid on ex-boxer (now criminal and drug dealer) John Coogan’s mansion, he and his brother are taken to CI5 for interrogation.  The brother has a go at Doyle then punches him, in self defence Doyle retaliates and the brother dies of a ruptured spleen.  A tribunal (the ‘rack’ of the title) is then set up, wherein prosecution lawyer Geraldine Mather decides to take on the Action Squad and cut them down to size.  Briskly told, with good characterisation, this works well to flesh out Doyle and his feelings over perhaps (without giving away spoilers) causing the death of a man while Cowley has a great grandstanding speech on just why CI5 is so important (and, sadly, the words ring as true today as they did forty years ago).

All three are competently written (and Bulmer continues his fascination with Bodie’s ‘famous’ face and mobile lips) and feature some nice bits of poetic prose when describing a London that has mostly long since disappeared.  The action scenes are deftly handled as are the locations (judging by certain aspects - the constant rain in The Rack, for example - it seems they were written from the shooting scripts rather than seeing the episodes) and there are some smart little character pieces that flesh the dynamic duo out well (it’s mentioned again that Doyle paints).  Brisk, violent, occasionally amusing, I’m not sure how these would work if you’d never seen the programme but as an unabashed fan of the series, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Recommended.

The novelisation is "based on the original screenplays by Brian Clemens, Anthony Read and Gerry O'Hara" (taken from the title page)

* * *
from left - Doyle (Martin Shaw), Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and Bodie (Lewis Collins)
The Professionals ran for five series, from 1977 through to 1983, shown on ITV.  Brian Clemens, perhaps best known for The Avengers, created the series (which was originally to have been called The A-Squad) and became executive producer with his business partners Albert Fennell and Laurie Johnson (who also provided the excellent theme music) for London Weekend Television (LWT).  The first series was produced by Sidney Hayers with Raymond Menmuir producing the rest, with 57 episodes made in total.

Although the first series used a lot of studio-based filming (to the extent Cowley had a secretary), Menmuir did away with standing sets and the remainder of the series was filmed in real buildings and homes.  This lent a grittiness to the programmes and now, forty years later, provides a wonderful snapshot of a London that's mostly been lost to progress.  The series focussed on the exploits of CI5 (Criminal Intelligence 5), led by George Cowley (Gordon Jackson) and centred around his two best agents, Doyle (Martin Shaw) and Bodie (Lewis Collins).  The two actors, whose initial abrasiveness towards each other led to their casting, worked well together and a lot of episodes included dialogue ad-libbed by them.
While earlier episodes (certainly series one through to three) saw a wide range of plots and scripts, with some good directors involved (Martin Campbell was both a main and second unit director), the later ones used more script devices as time wore on.  The final episodes were filmed in May 1981, by which time Collins and Shaw both stated publicly they thought the show had grown stale, though the final broadcast run ended in February 1983.

The series is repeated often on ITV4 in the UK and is well worth a watch, though the Network Releasing Blu ray restorations are your best bet.  These not only have great quality image and sound but thorough production notes (in book form) by Andrew Pixley.
The Corgi collection.  I had the bigger model (with figures) when I was a kid but didn't pick up the smaller version until a couple of years ago

* * *
From 1978 through to 1982, Sphere released 15 paperback novelisations (with seven of them also receiving hardback release), adapting 38 of the series' 57 episodes.  Ken Blake was the house-name covering all of these with Kenneth Bulmer writing the majority of them and Robert Holdstock contributing numbers 10, 13, 14 and 15.

(Henry) Kenneth Bulmer was born on 14th January 1921 in London and worked in the paper industry before serving with the Royal Corps of Signals during the Second World War.  Having been a fan of sf before his service, when demobbed in 1946 he began writing for fan magazines and his first novel, Space Treason, was published in 1952 (and co-written with A Vince Clarke).  Turning freelance in 1954, he wrote dozens of novels and comic strips, a prolific output he maintained throughout his career.  In the 70s, as part of the Piccadilly Cowboys group, he wrote across genres for various series (including The Professionals) under a host of pen and house names, whilst also publishing a substantial amount of work under his own name.  In addition, he edited nine volumes in the New Writings in Science Fiction anthology series during the 70s, succeeding John Carnell.

He suffered a stroke in 1997 which halted a writing career that saw over 160 novels (and countless short stories) published.

Awarded the TAFF in 1955 (a fund to send prominent fans to international conventions), he was the British Guest Of Honour at the World SF Convention in Cleveland, Ohio and made a life member of the British SF Association in 1974.  He married Pamela Buckmaster in March 1953, with whom he had two daughters and a son but they were divorced in 1981.

Kenneth Bulmer died on 16th December 2005.

for further bibliographical details, the SF Encyclopedia has a good entry on him and the Guardian has a thorough obituary
For a few years now, after finding out charity shops sometimes pulp old books because the market for them is so small, I've been collecting 70s and 80s paperbacks through secondhand bookshops, car boot sales and ebay.  I set up a thread for the horror titles (which you can see here) but novelisations were a rich vein in those decades, before the advent of home video, when viewers wanted to revisit the adventures of their favourite TV show or film.  I realise we might not be talking great art here but, on the whole, I think these books deserve to be remembered.

To that end, on an irregular basis, I'm going to review these "old-school" tie-ins with, hopefully, some background material on each one.

Monday, 4 November 2019

The Secret Of Skeleton Island, by Robert Arthur

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).

Following this, I decided to re-visit some of the books I'd missed on that second read-through, without any intention of posting reviews of them but, as if often the way, it didn't quite work out like that.  Happily, this is on-going and so here's an additional review...
Collins Hardback First Edition (printed between 1968 and 1970), cover art by Roger Hall
The Three Investigators are thrilled when they are invited to star as frogmen in an underwater film - especially as it means a trip to lonely Skeleton Island!

But Jupiter, Pete and Bob soon discover that the island's past hides a sinister secret.  Danger awaits them in the mysterious ocean depths, for the sea-bed is rich not only in fish - but in sunken treasure!

illustration from the Collins/Armada editions,
 by Roger Hall
Sally Farrington tries to complete her turn
on the carousel
Alfred Hitchcock enlists the boys help to travel to Atlantic Bay, on the East Coast, where a production company is having problems finishing off the film they’re working on.  Pete’s dad, a special effects technician, is leading a team on Skeleton Island who are trying to rebuild parts of a long abandoned amusement park, where the climax of the film will take place.  The boys hit trouble as soon as they arrive, stranded on a smaller nearby island called The Hand and, once on the mainland, discover that nothing is quite what it seems.  The local community, suffering with the recent loss of their oyster fishing economy, is struggling and the production company is having problems with theft and treasure hunters.  Then, as Jupiter and the boys delve further, the ghost of a local girl is seen riding a derelict carousel.

The sixth book in the series, this is the first to take place away from Rocky Beach and gets a mention in The Mystery Of The Fiery Eye when, discussing the use of the Rolls, Pete says, “the thirty days ran out while we were back East tangling with the mystery of Skeleton Island”.  By extension, of course, this assumes the events of Skeleton Island take place thirty days after the boys investigate Terror Castle, which made for a very exciting month!  With the relocation there’s no mention of Headquarters and it’s some way into the book before Jupiter gets to show someone the card but Arthur works all this in well, making the disorientation a key part of the first set piece, as the boys are stranded on The Hand group of reefs.

The locations are well realised, from Skeleton Island (which doesn’t feature as much as you’d expect it to) to Fishingport, the town on the mainland where the boys B&B is located.  The Hand is an inspired creation and features a gripping set piece later in the book, a sequence in the underwater cave that is an exercise in tension and suspense.

The use of Fishingport allows Arthur some flashes of social comment, a sad and depressed fishing village decimated by “some tiny red parasite” that has “got into the oysters in this part of the bay”.  Many townsfolk are desperate to find the treasure Captain One-Ear dumped off the island in 1717 as the British closed in on him and one of them is Chris, a young Greek boy who befriends the lads.  Seeking the treasure to raise enough so his sick father can go home for treatment, he’s badly treated by almost every adult in the story - apart from the police chief - but doesn’t let it deter him and he plays a key part in the plot.

Characterisation, as always with Arthur, is very good indeed with the boys all getting a chance to shine, especially Bob and Pete when Jupe is laid low by a cold.  While some of the supporting cast are merely brushstrokes, the stress of the adults - both in the town and on the film - comes out in the dialogue, with most of them (including Mr Crenshaw at times) being generally dismissive of the boys.  Chris is likeable and well-realised, making us root for him before we properly find out the truth of his situation and what the true secret of the island actually is.  And then, of course, there’s the excellent Sally Farrington, forever trying to finish her ride on the carousel, a spooky image (that terrified my sister & I back in 1978) well used in the story and superbly captured by Roger Hall’s illustration.

The Secret Of Skeleton Island is special to me in that, as I wrote about here, it was the book that introduced me to the series (I still have that now-very-beaten-up hardback edition) and was also the final piece of my search to get the first thirty Armada books in format b (as I wrote about here).  With a good pace, suspenseful set pieces and a terrific use of location, this is a cracking read and I highly recommend it.
Armada format a paperback (printed between 1970 and 1979 ), cover art by Peter Archer
(cover scan of my copy)
Armada format b paperback (printed between 1981 and 1983), cover art by Peter Archer
(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)

Monday, 28 October 2019

Halloween - Top Trumps

It's Halloween, when all the ghosts and ghouls come calling (usually for chocolate), when the evenings are dark and the air smells of woodsmoke and the thoughts of us all turn to the idea of watching or reading something scary and creepy.
For my third Halloween post (previously I wrote about VHS cover art and behind the scenes special effects shots), I've decided to highlight something that makes perfect sense (especially to monster loving kids, as I was) but also makes you wonder how they got away with it.

Top Trumps, launched in 1977 by a company called Dubreq (who also made the Stylophone), was a hugely popular children’s game in the UK particularly with kids who delighted in the statistical nature of it.  There were eleven different packs initially, each featuring 32 playing cards, themed around cars, sports stars, planes and military hardware amongst others, highly collectible and pocket-money-priced at 50p.  Eight at the time, I was an avid fan and one of my favourites was the Horror pack.
In fact, there were two versions, Dracula (the one I had) and Devil Priest (can you imagine a kids toy being sold under that name today?), which appeared in 1978.  Apparently the origins of the sets are shrouded in mystery - no-one seems to know who devised them, or created the bizarre artwork - and while they're put together in a slightly slapdash fashion, I like to think whoever was involved had a great deal of fun with the project.

Some of the stats make little sense (how can Death only have a Killing Power of 95?), some of the drawings even less so (why is The Phantom Of The Opera represented by The Abominable Dr Phibes, when he appears on two other cards) but to me that just adds to the delirious charm.  Some pictures are clearly lifted from films (how on earth did they get away with that?), others are epics of invention (Granite Man, anyone, or how about Circus Of Death), some are puzzling (why is Godzilla wearing a shirt and bow-tie?) while others, like the Zetan Warlord, just make you smile.  The scoring is also highly eccentric - King Kong understandably scores 100 on Physical Strength but his Horror Rating of 70 is beaten by the (much smaller and, to my mind, less horrific) Two-Headed-Monster who rates an 89.
The Hangman and Lord Of Death are clearly taken from The Phantom Of The Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney while the actual Phantom card is illustrated with a masked Vincent Price from The Abominable Dr Phibes (1971)
Full of “gleeful crudity and unashamed gore”, these were the ideal accompaniment to Denis Giffords’ A Pictorial History Of Horror Movies, a seminal rite-of-passage for horror fans of a certain age.  My original set, much loved and played with, is long since lost but I picked up one of the Waddingtons re-issues recently and shared a thoroughly enjoyable hour with Dude playing it (he had as much fun as I did, even if he’s not a monster kid like I was).
More homages, with The Madman from "Doomwatch" (1970-1972), The Freak from "The Reptile" (1966) and the Two Headed Monster some wonderful Rick Baker make-up from "The Thing With Two Heads" (1972)
Just in case Top Trumps passed you by, the rules were very simple.  Each game consisted of several players (2 to however many you wanted) being dealt a hand, one picking a statistic to compare and whoever won (ie, they had Dracula and played the Horror Rating - his was 100), collected the other cards in the round and went again.  The game continued until one player held all the cards.
Taken from "The Incredible Melting Man" (1977)
Another appearance by Lon Chaney, this time from "London After Midnight" (1927)
The card back
Dubreq was taken over by Waddingtons in 1982 and the popularity of Top Trumps continues to the present day.

As for us, Dude & I will be settling down for a game of this (the perfect Halloween activity) and I’m thoroughly looking forward to it.  I just hope I get Dracula and King Kong in my first hand...

Happy Halloween!

with thanks to Hypnogoria for some of the history

Monday, 21 October 2019

The Crusty Exterior Videotape Of Terror

The Crusty Exterior is a group of friends, united in their love for the horror genre, books and, of course, a good curry.  The core of the group - James Everington, Phil Sloman, Steve Harris and me - met up for the first time at Andromeda Con in 2013 (see my report here), though Steve & I go back much further, first corresponding in the late 90s when he ran a newsletter called The Inner Circle.

Another topic of conversation, of course, is the horror film and I thought (in the same vein as my Mixtape posts) it'd be interesting to see which movie it was that struck us so much, at an early age, to put us firmly on this horror loving path.  This, then, is the result (John plays a bit fast and loose with the rules) and I think it makes for an intriguing mixture.

Do you see an old favourite among the titles?  What set you on the horror path?

Don't Look Now (1973)
Directed by Nicolas Roeg
Written by Allan Scott & Chris Bryant, based on a story by Daphne du Maurier
In the great, defining war of the previous generation, my Dad was on the wrong side. My Dad chose Betamax.

He was wrong about that, although it took him years to admit it. We couldn’t get Betamax from the shop where we lived, they only stocked VHS, so we had to drive out to a petrol-station that had a few tapes in the back. In my memory, Betamax already seemed obsolete, the tapes with their faded, sun-bleached covers already historical curios.

Because they didn’t have much choice, I think my Dad sometimes rented out films I wasn’t yet the right age for. One, in particular, I remembered for years. I didn’t remember the plot, or even the title, but I remembered the tone of it, the visual style, certain key images:

The colour red (I remembered that most of all).
A photo that seems to bleed, to seep colour into the reality around it.
A place I may or may not have recognised at that age as Venice.
A sex scene that, when you’re watching it with your parents, seems to last forever.
And a young girl, drowning. A girl dressed in red, drowning while a photo seems to seep blood into the reality around it…

It would be wrong to say I remembered the film completely, or even accurately, but I certainly remembered it vividly. Maybe not often, but periodically, I would recall that girl drowning, that sex scene, that photo blurring with blood, and a father screaming. Remember as if from a dream, uncertain as I was what the film was even called.

Years later, at university, I read a description of a film that was going to be shown that evening and I realised it must be the same one. Don’t Look Now it was called, and maybe I shouldn’t look, shouldn’t watch, because how could it compare? How could it be as good as the muddled and Chinese-whispered memories of it a decade on?

But I did watch it, and it did compare—it was magnificent. You all know the reasons why; it’s a brilliant piece of film making and after that second time of seeing it I already thought it might be my favourite film ever.

And now that I knew what it was called, I went and bought my own copy.


chosen by James Everington

The Beyond (1981)
Directed by Lucio Fulci
Written by Lucio Fulci, Giorgio Mariuzzo and Dardano Sacchetti
I could always tell when a VHS movie was going to be a good one - tracking lines, caused by constant rewinding and reviewing, would appear at the top and bottom of the screen whenever decent gory or scary scenes were due.

My copy of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond was so thoroughly scanned by previous renters that tracking lines flickered throughout, and the tape was so stretched that the soundtrack warbled.

It was the early eighties, and massive top loader video players were so expensive that people hired them for the night with their movies. A huge machine perched before me on the coffee table, clicking and humming like a piece of equipment from a 1950s Russian power station.

The first VHS movie I ever watched was John Carpenter’s The Thing. To say I was blown away was an understatement. But it didn’t scare me.

The Beyond, however, certainly did.

It was a revelatory experience, and it kindled my enduring love of outrĂ© horror. I’d never seen an Italian horror movie before. The strange dubbing jarred. The actors weren’t all pearly toothed and well groomed like they were in Hollywood. That strained-by-use, warbling soundtrack added to the unease. There was something amateurish about the production, something forbidden, like a cheap porno. The pruriently rendered scenes of gore were almost fetishistic. Narratively, nothing made sense. Odd people were doing odd things in one long, unnerving fever dream - the opening flashback scenes of murder, the grody hand sticking out of the wall in the hotel cellar, the weird blind psychic, killer spiders climbing out of people’s mouths. What in hell’s going on? When will I recover?

The answer was I never would. I constantly re-watch. I just can’t get enough of this unsettling, nightmarish and truly great horror movie.

chosen by Steve Harris

The Beastmaster (1982)
Directed by Don Coscarelli
Written by Don Coscarelli and Paul Pepperman
Now at first glance you might be surprised to see The Beastmaster, the sword and sorcery epic, feature in a list of first films to scare the bejesus out of you. But this is a Don Coscarelli film, he of Phantasm and Bubba-Ho Tep horror fame and he litters the film with plenty of horror.

I watched The Beastmaster at some point in the mid-80s which would put me somewhere around 10 years old, maybe a little older or a little younger. My father used to take us to the local video store and we would pick out our Saturday evening viewing accompanied with a portion of fish and chips from the shop round the corner.

As a kid I remember there being a lot more plot to The Beastmaster  than there is when rewatching it as an adult. But that doesn’t matter, it is still a fantastically fun romp with Marc Singer’s oiled torso making up for a lack of acting skills, Tanya Roberts there to play the love interest and Rip Torn camping it up as the villain of the piece with prosthetic hawk-nose.

As far as the plot goes, there is a prophecy that one day Dar (Marc Singer) the as yet unborn son of King Zed will go on to kill the evil High Priest Maax (Rip Torn) who has a thing for killing young children in the name of his God but we’re not quite sure why. Along the way Dar is stolen from his mother’s womb, brought up by peasants and discovers he has the ability to psychically communicate with animals. Various escapades happen along the way, a band of heroes forms and we come to our climax.

So, where’s the horror, Phil? Apart from the child killing (thrown into an open fire) there are berserker style warriors imprisoned in the dungeons of Maax’s temple wearing some off-the-rack S&M gear all in black leather and covered in spikes including gimp style face mask. But that wasn’t what warped my impressionable young mind. No, it was the birdmen.

In one scene, Dar comes across a tree at night surrounded by large glowing orbs the size of a human hanging from the branches. A black altar in the shape of an eagle rests in front of the tree and a huge cooking pot bubbles away on an open fire. Overlooking the pot is a teenage boy suspended in a wooden cage. As Dar inspects the cooking pot, a human head floats to the surface but even this was not the terror for me.

Dar releases the boy only for him to run into the arms (wings?) of the birdmen, 7ft tall if not more, faces with eyes and no mouths, and all leathery and evil. Enveloping the boy within its leathery embrace, the boy struggles. As we watch, the boy hidden from view, we see white liquid spilling around the feet of the birdman only for it to open its grasp and let the defleshed bones of the boy collapse to the ground. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what scared the crap out of me in my dreams that evening long after the credits rolled.

chosen by Phil Sloman

Threads (1984)
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Barry Hines
Broadcast at 9.30pm on Sunday, 23 September 1984, Threads initially tells the story of Ruth and Jimmy as they prepare for their upcoming wedding. There’s tension in the air between the West and Russia, but not enough to stop people going about their daily lives.

Then without warning the Soviets fire two nuclear warheads over the town, unleashing Armageddon. Buildings are destroyed, people are roasted alive in the flames, their burning bodies tossed into the branches of charring trees, the heat so fierce it melts milk bottles on doorsteps. Those that survive struggle to find food, shelter, other survivors as nuclear winter arrives, the populace descending into primitivism, eating anything they can to survive, including each other. Civilisation is at an end, and the lucky ones died at the start. The End.

I sat there for about ten minutes afterwards in a state of shock, sweating, my hands shaking. Eventually ejecting the DVD, I put it back in its box. Then to my surprise I went online and shared this trauma. An hour later I was still shaking; at one point I couldn’t even bear to have the DVD in the room with me, the eyes of the bandaged and bloodied traffic warden on the cover following me around the room.

I don’t know what I was doing that night in 1984 but I certainly wasn’t watching Threads.  I’d have been in bed or getting ready to go. We didn’t watch horror in our house.  I got into all that later. But when I did… how can I put this without sounding like a heretic? I didn’t find it particularly scary. Exciting? Yes. Disturbing, imaginative, often unintentionally hilarious? Absolutely. But rarely scary.

So the scariest thing I saw as a child? Threads, without a doubt. Aged forty-six.

chosen by John Travis

Poltergeist (1982)
Directed by Tobe Hooper
Written by Steven Spielberg, Mark Victor and Michael Grais (from a story by Spielberg who, some suggest, also mostly directed it)
As I hit my teens in the early 80s, video began to take hold in the UK.  Dedicated shops (my local was Five Star Video) sprang up on high streets across our fair nation, while corner shops, Our Price and garages gave up space to metal racks showcasing glossy covers (almost always painted, almost always vivid and almost always not representative of what they were advertising) for films we’d heard of but never been able to see at the cinema.

Tapes were far too costly to buy but renting was easy - you’d get a snazzy card (generally paper but sometimes plastic) and, after perusing the racks, you’d take your title to the shopkeeper and hand over your money.  Most of the time, you’d have your membership number entered in a ledger and told to bring the tape back the next day though if you tried to push your luck (I remember, as a thirteen-year-old, trying to rent Emmanuelle), you’d often get sent back to pick something else.

The players were also expensive and it would be years before the West household was graced with one (in fact, I bought my own and later gifted it to my parents when I upgraded my model) but luckily my friend Matt had a toploader Betamax.  Even better, he was as keen on horror as me.

He rang one sunny Saturday morning - somehow (according to my diary, we saw the film in 1983 when I was thirteen so it might have been a pirate copy) he’d got hold of Poltergeist and wondered if I wanted to watch it with him.  I jumped at the chance and went straight round to his house.

So there we sat, in the front room with the curtains shut against the sun, Matt, me and his brother.  We got glasses of orange juice, shared a pack of custard creams and he hit play on the remote control that was attached to the player by a wire.  Nervous excitement filled the air as the film started and after the set-up of the family, things took a turn - we were stunned at the man finding ‘something on his face’ in the mirror, the tension ramping up with the clown, the specters on the stairs, that bloody tree and the swimming pool with poor JoBeth Williams and her fellow swimmers.

Although we would go on to see much scarier films - a few summers later, we rented Dead & Buried and Evilspeak on the same afternoon and, one evening, someone got hold of The Exorcist - but Poltergeist was the first film to give me that proper frisson of terror, where I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching and where it was going to go.  It would be a feeling I’d constantly try to re-capture and that’s as true now as I write this (a more worldy fifty-year-old) as it was back in the 80s.

chosen by Mark West

This advert from Starburst magazine in 1984 shows the high prices (that Spider-Man film was two episodes of the Nicholas Hammond series from the 70s, cut together), while Octopussy is resolutely "rental only".

Wellington Street Video Library in Kettering, another of my 'haunts'.  This is from the late 80s (picture by Glyn Dobs) with the shop renting "VHS on one side, Betamax on the other"

The Crusty Exterior in May 2017, having celebrated Steve's 50th with an afternoon at Astley Book Farm, followed by a nice curry.
from left - James Everington, John Travis, Steve 'birthday boy' Harris, me, Phil Sloman and Steve Bacon

You can read about other Crusty Exterior adventures on this link

Monday, 14 October 2019

Ten Favourite Covers: More Childhood Terrors

Following on from last years collection of books that caused some gleeful childhood terror, here's another selection.  I hope you find an old favourite here too...
Originally published in 1968 (this is the fifth edition, from 1974), the Fontana series began in 1966 and ran through seventeen volumes until 1984 (1976 was skipped for some reason).  Christine Barnard edited the first four, Mary Danby took over for the rest.
The third in the series, edited by the wonderful Mary Danby (who I was lucky enough to meet in 2012 at FantasyCon in Brighton, when Johnny Mains introduced us), this features cover art by Peter Archer and twelve stories, including work by M. R. James, Christine Campbell Thomson,  R. Chetwynd-Hayes and Danby herself.
Features eight stories (including a Sherlock Holmes adventure,  The Red-Headed League, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), with the Master Of Suspense lending his name (though there's no note on the editor since, sadly, Hitchcock's regular collaborator Robert Arthur had already passed away).
A selection of true-life ghost stories
With cover art by Tom Chantrell, who created my favourite Star Wars poster, this excellent volume by Denis Gifford is beloved by fans of a certain age...
Originally published by Gollancz in 1975 (this is the 1978 Puffin edition) and ably edited by the excellent Peter Haining (who also edited the fantastic The Restless Bones, which I wrote about here), this features a veritable who's-who of horror fiction, including M. R. James, O. Henry, Algernon Blackwood, Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Machen, Daphne du Maurier, Fritz Leiber, Joan Aiken, Ray Bradbury and others.
Edited by the prolific Richard Davis (though Pertwee contributed the introduction and epilogue), this contains nine original short stories.
Hardback edition from Hamlyn, originally published in 1977 as a Beaver paperback (see the last Childhood Terrors) as the Beaver Book Of Horror.
Another selection of true-life mysteries.
I was a huge fan of the TV show as a kid (some of it was scary and it was always fascinating) and I have the BCA edition of this, which is the first place I ever read of the Devil's footprints, a story I still find very creepy.

Puffin Books is the long-standing childrens imprint of Penguin Books and was formed in 1940.

Piccolo Books is the children's imprint of Pan Macmillan.

Armada Books was set up by Gordon Landsborough in 1962 as a paperback imprint of Mayfair Books Ltd, focussing exclusively on books for children to buy with the pocket money.  Collins bought it in 1966 as an imprint to publish books for 10-15 year olds under their Fontana Books paperback arm.  Armada ceased in 1995 but I will always love it because it published The Three Investigators.

Beaver was the children's imprint of Hamlyn which is now part of the Octopus Publishing Group, owned by Hachette Livre.

Fontana was the paperback imprint of William Collins & Sons and is now part of Harper Collins.

Magnet Books was the children's imprint of Methuen