March 1982

'Oh dear, it's all getting rather silly, isn't it?'

‘I’m just a mouth on legs’

The problem with Earthshock is that it should have been just a one-off. Unfortunately, it became the repetitive template for more of the same and swung Doctor Who off in a direction that I think did a lot of harm to the series post 1983. From now until the end of the classic series we’ll see various seasons littered with the dead and nearly dead bodies of continuity obsessed, plot holed ‘blockbuster’ high adventures that are often ill-fitting and uncomfortable within the Doctor Who format (Warriors Of The Deep, Resurrection Of The Daleks, Attack Of The Cybermen and Silver Nemesis are the big casualties whilst Caves Of Androzani and Revelation Of The Daleks are more or less saved by good scripts, excellent casts and by a brilliant director on both).

To me it was obvious that Saward took a big gamble with Earthshock, it really paid off and then he spent most of Season 20 very slowly turning the ship of state that was Who onto a course that would allow him to zerox the Earthshock template for the following year. His vision for the series slowly evolves into one that is populated by violent gun-runners, mercenaries, traitors, big bads and their victims. Not many of his protagonists are that fully developed (Lytton comes close but then he’s just a riff on Philip Martin’s John Kline character from Gangsters and he also tries to emulate the Bob Holmes doubleact motif in later stories with some success in, for example, Stotz and Krelper, Orcini and Bostock) and the victims (Kyle, Styles, Stein, Stratton, Bates etc) are often ciphers.

Earthshock as a one-off shows that the series can do anything within the spread of a season and the fact that it sits in a season of think pieces and historical stories and is waywardly different in tone is to the series credit. However, as a pattern cutter for much of what Saward would do from now on it’s formulaic and padded and is not a template on which to sustain the fortunes of the world’s longest running SF series. Conversely just as the Fifth Doctor gets a much talked about and admired watershed space adventure with returning enemies Saward also plants the seeds for the mixed fortunes of future seasons.

So what did we get back in 1982?

Director Peter Grimwade pulling the stops out, chucking them on the floor and stamping on them in order to inject the whole thing with such drive. The editing might seem a tad slow to us now but back then it was fast – lots of short scenes all intercut rapidly MTV style made everyone sit up and take notice. That first episode is beautifully moody as the Doctor and companions explore the caves whilst Scott and his troopers home in on the malevolent androids. Just sit back and watch Grimwade deal with all the elements, marvel at the atmospheric lighting, and the superb score from Malcolm Clarke which seems more like a truly 1960s Radiophonic experience that insists on using weird noises and effects.

It’s a pity that the first episode is hamstrung by the now typical ‘argument in the TARDIS’ scenes between Tegan, the Doctor and Adric, leaving poor ol’ Nyssa playing devil’s advocate again. There’s a weird frisson between the Doctor and Adric. A bit of daddy/son bonding that goes beyond the paternalistic, suggests an Adric slightly uncomfortable with a youthful Doctor and a TARDIS full of equally youthful women and is miles away from the Adric relationship with the Baker Doctor in Season 18. Much of this is rather crudely handled foreshadowing, really.

A little tiff that underlines the love the characters do have for each other is just to ensure that the death of Adric hits home emotionally both with the characters and the audience. Pity, the audience had already disinvested from the character by now, finding him annoying and unappealing, and it’s just too late to start re-investing characters with qualities they never really had time to explore in the first place. Matthew Waterhouse at least got a memorable exit from a series that really didn't love Adric very much. The denouement of Earthshock was a shocking twist that worked then but looking at it now it just has a slight whiff of crude exploitation about it.

Davison is again utterly marvelous here. He’s got a handle on the Doctor and is starting to push against the envelope to see how far he can take it. The vulnerability is certainly tested in Earthshock on many counts and then he adds in a sense of desperation, tenacity and that charming reluctance to get involved that was Davison’s hallmark of a Doctor who wanted to do nice things like play cricket, have tea and cake but inevitably ended up shouting at Adric and facing up to Cybermen. And rarely had we seen a Doctor so out of his depth by the climax of Part Four.

The sheer thrill of that first episode’s cliffhanger is what stays in the mind. The camera pulls back and the Cybermen are revealed. I’m sure many fans leaped into the air at that point. A brilliantly handled 25 mins brought to a show-stopping conclusion. By episode two we’re back in Nathan-Turner land. He’s revisited the use of flashbacks – the Cyberscope images of the previous Doctors – and the casting certainly raised an eyebrow at the time. Beryl Reid as the Captain was an odd choice. She does rather come across as your aged Aunt Margaret wearing a leather jacket. It doesn’t really work apart from the ‘camp’ spectacle it invokes and perhaps that was JNT’s motivation.

She does her best but she’s too mumsy to really be able to stand up to Cybermen. If Earthshock is itself a foreshadowing of James Cameron’s Aliens then where does casting Reid come from in such a tough as nails blockbuster as this? She can talk the talk but she can’t walk the walk. It's a classic example of Nathan-Turner using his light entertainment clout to secure recognisable names for the series in order to shoehorn them into atypical roles. She's there as celebrity value only.

At the time this was lauded as a real return to form after the bold experimentation of Season 18 but if you examine it closely you'll find there's barely a plot and lots of plot holes and oddities. Cybermen gossiping amongst themselves rather too much; a Cyberleader, well played by David Banks, displaying a nasty streak of cruelty and revenge; a Cyberbomb planted in some caves on Earth apparently in secret and yet the Cybermen hijack a freighter and fly it into the Earth and then cause power drains that actually threaten to prevent it reaching its destination. Some strange non sequiturs and a lot of padding.

Scott and his troopers are Saward’s ‘cannon fodder’ and James Warwick is rather too earnest to be believable. His delivery of some lines is often hilarious because he’s trying too hard to be tough ('it...could be rough') and is just ending up looking like an estate agent packing guns in space. The script doesn’t give him much room to do anything else and it’s a relief that Davison and to an extent Fielding, Sutton and Waterhouse keep the thing on track with the same ensemble playing that was such a standout in Black Orchid. Tegan is so ineptly brave in this and Fielding makes her bumbling quite empathetic. Sutton doesn’t get much to do again, her best moments are in episode one and after that she’s confined, in a typical move that clearly shows up that there were too many companions to write for in the series, to the TARDIS with Kyle? Why is Kyle there? She does not have any function beyond the first episode and with it being hard to write for a Doctor and three companions it just seems ludicrous that she’s still around cramping Nyssa's style.

Waterhouse puts in a good little performance here, showing how Adric can work as a companion with the Doctor, man to man as it were. The TARDIS is so full that the regulars have struggled to provide the audience identification that’s needed so desperately at this point. It was inevitable that Saward would want to chop someone down and show that all this running around in space and time can have consequences. Adric’s death is tragic. Tragic in that it is pointless and manipulative. The character's demise is slightly hampered by Waterhouse's obvious reluctance to get his hands burnt by the pyrotechnics that blow up the keyboard.

The other characters reactions are handled well apart from the TARDIS scenes where Fielding is ineptly trying to clout Cybermen and Davison is feverishly rubbing Adric’s star for excellence! Like the gold clogging the Cybermen’s chest plates, all the business with the Cybermen firing guns in the TARDIS, blowing up the console, the Doctor shooting the Cyberleader (who is positively savouring the death of a companion) all tend to be a series of dramatic escalations that slightly over-egg Saward's pudding.

Earthshock is a rollickingly good adventure, if rather empty and illogical at times, and Grimwade’s care and attention does show in the way the narrative is propelled so fast that you have’t got time to fall into the plot holes and in his determination to drive the story visually and in his editing. The make-over of the Cybermen is fine, particularly the hint of something organic beneath the mask, and the battle sequences are well handled, some of the best in the series so far, as are the production design and visual effects. The sets for the caves and the hold of the freighter are terrific. The stand out moment – of the Doctor seeing the Cybermen on the monitor screen – is a synthesis of performance and directing that could not be bettered. Even Graeme Harper's own Rise Of The Cybermen climactic reveal of the marching Cybermen owes much of its power to this scene.

It was enormously popular at the time and rightly so. It’s adventure with a big A, a pastiche of the summer blockbusters that had dominated cinema screens since 1977, but it lacks the depth and subtlety of say Castrovalva or even Saward’s own The Visitation. From here, repetition and an over abundant dependency on the programme’s past move into top gear and the innate charm of the series is too often overshadowed by a smug self-awareness.

DVD Special Features:
As usual the Restoration Team work their magic and spruce up the picture and sound and also offer us new CGI effects to replace the 1982 vintage effects. The DVD also offers a number of features.
  • Commentary - cast members Davison, Fielding, Sutton and Waterhouse offer another amusing commentary with the first two slipping back into their amusing piss take of what they are watching whilst Sutton throws in slightly more respectful comments. Waterhouse tends to spend more time repeating lines.
  • Putting The Shock Into Earthshock - Brief documentary that looks at the making of the story, contemporary fan reaction including comments from Saward and the late Peter Grimwade.
  • Did You See? - A nice archive treat as a 1982 edition of BBC2's review programme celebrates the return of the Cybermen to the series.
  • Film sequences - A collection of restored film material from Part One offering alternate cuts that didn't make it into the finished episode. 
  • Isolated Score - Malcolm Clarke's rather splendid score on a separate audio track.
  • Photo Gallery - a good collection of black and white and colour stills.
  • Production Subtitles - another text commentary packed with trivia.
Earthshock (BBCDVD1153 - Region 2 DVD - Cert PG - Released 18th August 2003)

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Roland Emmerich. Bless him.

He makes big, lumbering films packed full of visual effects trickery - usually involving epic and expensive scenes of destruction involving spaceships, giant lizards, global warming or Mother Nature - which are, at best, daft but fun popcorn extravaganzas or, at worst, dull, predictably cliched 'disaster' movies in all the sense of the word. But as we'll see with Stargate it wasn't always such.

The trouble is that with every film he makes we're just given one more iteration of everything he dished up in Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow. The effects get bigger as world landmarks and entire slices of the globe get trashed in increasingly pornographic detail; the characters, usually delivered by well paid and notable thesps, are predictable cookie cutter Irwin Allen derivatives; and the plots are full of Presidents who have moral consciences, scientists and politicians who squabble between themselves over the evidence of impending disaster, conspiracy theorists usually proved correct in their paranoid ranting and broken families where an estranged father, mother and children suffer the 'end of the world' only to be be reconciled in the closing half hour. Did I miss anything?

2012, his latest blockbuster, whilst fetishistically offering brilliantly realised visions of various continents swallowed by volcanic ash and lava or fracturing and tipping into the ocean, spins out its character cliches for a good 40 odd minutes before anything truly exciting happens. If you like your disaster porn quick and dirty with no frills then this is tedium to the power of ten. This time it's those pesky Mayans and their apocalyptic calendar that predicts a solar balls-up every hundred thousand years or so that will trash the planet. So it's a sweaty Jimi Mistry, as an astrophysicist who warns various governments that the Earth is no longer on a low light, that proffers the doom laden scenario, This takes nearly an hour of screen time to develop whilst Emmerich indulges in the not so compelling story of divorcee John Cusack (as science fiction writer Jackson Curtis who has a part time job driving around a Russian oligarch - no, I'm not making this up) wringing his hands over how crap a dad he is as his wife Kate replaces him with another man (wait for it...plastic surgeon and amateur pilot Gordon Silberman) who is, y'know, actually there with quality time for their seriously annoying kids Lilly and Noah. Kids you wish would fall into a gaping chasm and plummet to the molten core of the planet for certain.

In an attempt to bond with his bed wetting daughter and his grumpy, disenchanted son he piles them all in a camper van to Yellowstone National Park and after meeting the very loopy Woody Harelson, as a doom predicting dippy hippy disaster geek, stumbles upon the approaching 'Earth is about to be trashed' crisis. Emmerich tries hard to convince us that that this not so happy family are the real, emotional core of the story and spends way too long in making the effort. The plot, the characters and the supposed emotional content are as full as cracks as the disintegrating tectonics (that's qualified by the vaguely scientific sounding 'earth's crust displacement') in Yellowstone. It eventually becomes a race against time to save the kids, the wife, the new boyfriend (cue lots of macho posturing between Jackson and Gordon) in a rickety plane as various bits of Los Angeles and Las Vegas explode, fall to bits and tip into the sea. Their escape through a riot of visual effects is both thrilling and silly as the CGI wobbles between genuinely awe inspiring visions and risible video game theatrics. There's also a lot of unconvincing simulated amusement park ride type screeching from the cast at this point that seriously undermines any intended realism.

Anyway, the plan is to get to China where the combined forces of the world's governments are building vast arks in which the chosen few, e.g the stinking rich, can survive. On the way, the US President, who is guaranteed a ticket on said arks, nobly snuffs it with his people not only under a layer of volcanic ash but also drowned in a tsunami that at the very least metaphorically puts the lights out in the White House. Emmerich depicts the world crisis by chucking in more of Jimi Mistry before he drowns in India, various tokenistic sheikhs, Tibetans, Russians whilst various world monuments are socked by Emmerich's visual effects team. Pretty much the pattern established in Independence Day, then. Meanwhile the other macho conflict of the film is well underway as chief scientist Adrian Helmsley, valiantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor who tries to inject as much dignity into this as he can, has various cat fights with the horrid Carl Anheuser, the White House Chief Of Staff, deliciously played by Oliver Platt, who would gladly sacrifice all the riff-raff to sail away in the arks before the Himalayas are submerged by a megatsunami. Can't say I blame him when faced with the severely liberal Helmsley and the all American dysfunctional family breaking into the launch bay.

The denouement, where Jackson has to free one of the arks because some twit literally dropped a spanner in the works, is truly cheese of the ripest order as is the 'happy ending' more or less comprising of the world having a lovely big hug on a luxury cruise ship whilst the sun rises over a brave new world. It's a typically absurd and naive Emmerich curtain call when pretty much all of the audience would have preferred an alternative where he drowns the whole bloody, sorry lot. It's big, dumb, silly stuff that requires a lobotomy and several stiff drinks to reap the benefits of.

The 1080p picture is excellent. Clean, glossy and vibrant with exceptional detail and clarity. The contrast, colour and texture of the images is very good indeed with only some momentary softness being the only distraction. It's accompanied by a simply stunning DTS 5.1 Master audio soundstage. If you want to hear the cries of Los Angeles citizens amidst the roar and rumble of destruction then this is well defined for you here in the mix along with crisp dialogue and the film's score. Good low frequency stuff - explosions, crashes, earthquakes, waves - that will give your woofer a workout too.

Special features
  • Audio Commentary - Emmerich and co-writer/composer Harald Kloser offer a somewhat monotone, less than stimulating track. Still, it does provide a lot of detail about the production, the science(!) behind the plot and building the characters.
  • Roland's Vision: Picture-in-Picture Commentary - Roland pops up now and again amidst a welter of behind the scenes interviews and footage, concept art, design work. A tad more engaging than the audio commentary.
  • Alternate Ending (HD, 4 min) -The survivors of a cruise ship provide a rather debatable conclusion to the film. Best that they left it alone.
  • Deleted Scenes (HD, 5 min) - There's a reason why these were deleted.
  • Roland Emmerich: The Master of the Modern Epic (HD, 10 min) - Self congratulatory, ego boost for the 'visionary' Mr. Emmerich please.
  • Interactive Mayan Calendar (HD) - Want to know about the Mayan calendar? Want a Mayan personality profile reading or a horoscope? Nope. Fair enough.
  • Designing the End of the World (HD, 26 min) - Probably the best of the features as it looks at the creation of the effects and interviews the designers, showing how much effort and time went into the screen magic.  
  • Countdown to the Future (HD, 22 min) - More background about 2012, the Mayans, climate change and the links to real science.
  • Science Behind the Destruction (HD, 13 min) - A bit more about that science stuff that allegedly informs the film's premise. Another look at that Mayan calendar and various hypotheses.
  • The End of the World: The Actor's Perspective (HD, 8 min) - Cast interviews
  • Making of the Music Video (HD, 3 min) - How they made the music video "Time for Miracles" by Adam Lambert. If you're that interested.
  • movieIQ - Sony's instant up-to-date access to cast and crew biographies, production details, trivia, and more.
  • BD-Live - Sony's standard BD-Live portal including trailers and the option to register the disc.
2012 (Sony Blu Ray - SBR55320 - Region B - Cert 12 - Released March 29th, 2010)


Fast rewind then to 1994 and Stargate, Roland's early collaboration with Dean Devlin after their first hit Universal Soldier and after Devlin appeared in Emmerich's film Moon 44. The whole Stargate concept has now spun off into various television series, incarnated in Stargate SG-1, Stargate Infinity, Universe and Atlantis, and a whole industry of novels, comics, toys, direct-to DVD films and conventions. How to create a franchise without really trying, then?

But this is where it started. And it is clear why the concept made the leap to television because the very idea lends itself appropriately to weekly episodic adventures with a recurring cast of characters. I'll remind you. A mysterious artefact is unearthed in Giza and the military, led by Colonel Jack O’Neill (Kurt Russell), commandeer it and enlist archaeologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) to uncover its secrets and purpose. The object is a Stargate and is a portal to countless other worlds. O'Neill leads a team through the gate to a strange, alien world light years from Earth ruled over by the Egyptian like Ra and his people. Here, everyone is a slave, building pyramid like starship docking ports for the same cruel alien race that traveled to Earth eons before. Ra plots to seize the Stargate and O’Neill and Jackson must therefore overcome him if they are to save Earth and find a way back home.

For an expensive fantasy film financed independently of Hollywood this was a notable success and became something of a sleeper hit in 1994. It had little pre-release publicity and yet word of mouth ensured that it overcame its pulpy origins. It's a fun little adventure film that displays very little of Emmerich's later pretensions and seems to eclipse its rag-bag of science fiction tropes with enthusiasm and an amusingly played conflict between the two main characters, the rather nerdy Daniel Jackson (an excellent Spader) and the gruffly macho Colonel O'Neill (the ever cool Kurt Russell). Its mix of spaceships and pyramids, an unlikely pairing of Star Wars and Indiana Jones meets Lawrence Of Arabia (David Arnold's excellent very Jarre-like score ensures that) with ancient astronauts straight out of Von Daniken, has a Saturday morning adventure serial quality that's enormously attractive.

This collision of ideas and genres, stereotypical characters and adventure is beautifully photographed with a particularly good use of desert vistas by Emmerich to depict the alien world ruled over by Ra, the only notable role for Jaye Davidson post The Crying Game, it would seem. Davidson is suitably evil, controlling the planet through his army of warriors and special powers, but doesn't get an awful lot to do. And it isn't action all the way as the film pauses to offer Jackson a love interest amongst the slave population and O'Neill a back story about a son he recently lost. This does tend to slow the pace of the film down rather and you'll find yourself eager to get back to explosions, spaceships and fighting as this is where the film is most alive. The effects, for their time, were pretty good, including the early CGI combined with some rather good model effects to depict pyramid space ships, the warrior helmets and the dogfights, but they look somewhat dated now and yet there is an epic charm to the film that's infectious.

Overall, Emmerich directs with a sense of purpose and humour, marshaling the various elements well and, whilst it is a collection of recognisable science fiction ideas being re-used yet again, he manages to inject enough energy into the film with a certain lightness of touch that's evidently missing from the bloated works that followed.

Picture quality here is superb and probably the best format I've ever seen the film presented in. Vivid colour, great contrast, deep blacks and fine detail, where the landscapes and the close ups on faces really show off the 2.35:1 1080p HD transfer. The film is available here as the Theatrical Version and the longer Director's Cut (about 9 minutes longer) via branching. The sound is also given a 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix and is all the more impressive for it. It's  a very immersive soundscape with the explosions and gunfire giving it a good low frequency highlight and with the score sounding very rich indeed.

Special features:
  • Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Roland Emmerich and Writer/Producer Dean Devlin: Good track with plenty of insights into the production. Devlin prompts Emmerich, who can be a bit monotone, and adds a liveliness to the proceedings and is full of trivia and facts about the production.
  • Stargate: History Made: This is a 22 minute documentary split into three featurettes - 'Deciphering the Gate: Concepts and Casting' which provides an interesting look at the development of the film with Emmerich and Devlin and a look at how they cast the film with interviews and behind the scenes footage. 'Opening the Gate: The Making of the Movie' looks at the shooting in the hot temperatures of the Yuma desert. There are interviews with designer Patrick Tatopoulos about the vision and style of the film, set building and creature design. 'Passing through the Gate: The Legacy' takes us beyond the film and looks at fan reaction and how the film inspired a whole franchise.  
  • “The Making of STARGATE” Documentary: 52 minute archive documentary that covers the development of the whole project with interviews, behind the scenes material, cast interviews, the design and creation of the effects, costumes and sets. 
  • “Is There a Stargate?” Featurette: 12 minutes on the ancient astronaut theories of a certain Erich von Daniken.
  • Gag Reel
  • BDLive, B-Roll and Original Stargate Previews
  • Bonus View Picture-in-Picture “STARGATE Ultimate Knowledge” Pop up picture in picture commentary running through the film with interviews, behind the scenes footage, design concepts etc.
Stargate: Special Edition (Optimum Releasing Blu Ray - OPTBD1703 - Region B - Cert PG - Released March 29th, 2010)

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KICK-ASS / Review

If Watchmen was the 'art-house' comic book movie adaptation of last year, then Kick-Ass is its polar opposite this year. Where Watchmen raised the form to the level of literature and examined the psychological make up of a group of costumed heroes set against the politics of the Cold War, Kick-Ass looks to the readers of comic books for its inspiration and offers consumers of such fictions a wish-fulfillment odyssey that clearly stems from a recognition of their own failed desires and aspirations.

Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman's adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita Jnr's original comic book takes the conventions of the form, pays homage to the icons of the genre, both old and new, and then blends them with a Tarrantino-esque cinematic irony and penchant for uber-violence. The result is a startlingly perverse film that mocks the stereotypical nerdy comic book geek in a very knowing way but without completely belittling him and yet expresses clearly the reasons why we all love our comic books.

What it ultimately taps into, underlined by Aaron Johnson's opening narration as the central character Dave Lizewski, is that shared memory of tying a bedsheet round your neck and nearly breaking your legs flinging yourself off the garden shed in an attempt to fly like Superman or sling some web like Spiderman. And as it basks in that nostalgia it cannily embellishes its teenage superhero plot line with a witty take on social media and transmedia branding, a spectacular needle dropping of popular music onto the soundtrack and incredibly fierce and balletic Hong Kong style action sequences.

It's a fine balancing act in attempting this satire of a satire on the comic book genre and the teenage consumers that wallow in the form's metatextuality and, fortunately, Vaughan directs this with humour and pace, timing well the need for a push of adrenaline into certain points of the narrative and pauses for reality checks in the world beyond the super hero fantasy. The film opens with Dave Lizewski, in a sweet and charming performance by Aaron Johnson, telling us about his lacklustre daily routine as a teenage student, bemoaning his lack of success with girls and concerned about how long his hormones will demand his continual wanking off to internet porn. As the Kleenex drops into the waste basket and a 'Meanwhile' box out appears on screen, you start to appreciate that this is going to be something quite different from the impressive but somewhat po-faced likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight.

Your hopes are immediately confirmed as we are introduced to Nicolas Cage’s character, Damon Macready, whom we later discover is a costumed super hero called Big Daddy, and his daughter Mindy Macready, her costumed alter-ego being Hit Girl (the astonishingly good Chloe Moretz). Damon has clearly been bringing up his daughter in a, shall we say, rather unorthodox manner. The promise of a hot fudge sundae is the only way he can get her to continue taking close range gun shots in the chest to prepare her for operations in the field. And 11 year old Mindy can swear like a trooper and would make the most voluble docker blush with shame.

In chatting about what she would like as a birthday present her request for a puppy momentarily foxes us and her father into believing she's really a nice little girl after all. 'I'm just fucking with you Daddy... I'd love a bench made model 42 butterfly knife!' Damon chortles in relief at her response, 'Oh child... you always knock me for a loop'. It certainly establishes the film's tone of genre mockery as does the sequence where we see Macready prepping to become Big Daddy by glueing on extra bits of fake hair to his real facial hair as if it makes all the difference in the world! Big Daddy and Hit Girl are, it seems, on the trail of notorious drugs overlord Frank D'Amico who years ago framed ex-cop Macready into doing time. This back story is rather lovingly told via the pages of a comic book that Frank's partner Marcus leafs through in Big Daddy's headquarters when he's concerned about Frank's activities.

Dave Lizewski, 'meanwhile' has decided that it can't be that difficult being a super hero out on the streets and has decided to emulate his comic book favourites by donning a rather appalling green and yellow wetsuit and Timberland boots combo to patrol the streets as Kick-Ass. After being beaten up and stripped of his costume and, with a period of treatment in hospital for all his broken bones (he proudly displays his X-rays of all the metal plates in his body to his father and compares himself to Wolverine), he discovers that as a side-effect his nerve endings are more tolerant of extreme pain.

However, he's also getting some attention from his high-school crush Katie (after it was earlier suggested she was in a lesbian relationship and he doesn't stand a chance) because she believes all the rumours that Dave is gay after his assault (attacked by men and left naked in the street is such a give away it seems). The playfulness of the film encourages us to see Dave's origin story as an inverted version of the scenarios typically framed by the likes of Batman, Spiderman and Superman. This is an origin story that reads similarly to many of the internal monologues that comic books allow but also throws up contra-conventions - Dave's super hero alter-ego Kick-Ass doesn't evolve much beyond his origin's codification of teenage weaknesses and foibles.

In fact, in modern parlance he really is 'gay' beyond the sexual references that the 'accusation' typifies.  Kick-Ass and Dave's journey therefore become parallel - he wants to be an effective super hero and simultaneously mature beyond the raging of his confused teenage hormones. Cue plenty of Superbad style jokes, witticisms (love the piss take of a superhero having to rescue a cat called Mr. Bitey) and a depiction of Kick-Ass as the Subo of the comic book world when a mobile phone video of him attacking a group of thugs posted on You Tube sends the stats into overload.

What also happens is that the Big Daddy and Hit Girl plot line neatly converges with Dave's desire to help out Katie who is being harassed by one of the addicts in the needle exchange where she works. As Kick-Ass, he thinks his actions will enable him to get closer to Katie and give him the courage to admit that he's been exploiting the 'gay best friend' card just to get closer to her. When he innocently confronts the addicts in their den and it looks like he's signed his own death warrant, Hit Girl bursts into the room with the film's most splendidly outrageous line 'Okay, you cunts... lets see what you can do now!' as she proceeds to tear them all to pieces.

And Hit Girl's leather, purple wig and kilt ensemble will no doubt be the de rigeur fashion for all 11 year old girls this year. Hopefully, the c-word won't be but I bet there are certain 11 year olds out there already wielding butterfly knives at bus stops! That the bloody battle is choreographed and edited so well is one thing but a layer of strange is added by having the theme song from the Banana Splits blasting away on the soundtrack. Like I said, perverse. You'll love Hit Girl.

Cage is clearly up for this too and turns in a tongue in cheek performance. His alter-ego Big Daddy is an hilarious pastiche of Batman, not just in terms of the classic black costume and yellow utility belt but also in Cage's surreal delivery of Big Daddy's lines as a weird sort of homage to Adam West's campy clipped tones from the Batman television series. I love the way he oscillates between this and the Damon Macready father figure gleefully introducing his daughter to all manner of mayhem inducing weaponry as if he was buying her the latest My Little Pony action figures. And there's a wry nod to consumer culture too as they 'add to cart' whilst purchasing weapons of mass destruction over the internet.

Father and daughter's vendetta against Frank D'Amico is carried out with utter precision, gradually sending the crime overlord spinning into psychosis (he shoots a cos play Kick-Ass fan in the street) and there's a very amusing scene where his thugs interrogate an informer with an industrial microwave. Mark Strong is rather good as D'Amico and leads an ensemble of other British actors here including, briefly, Dexter Fletcher (you'll never look at a car crusher in quite the same way) and Jason Flemyng plus familiar television faces such as Corey Johnson and Xander Berkeley.

The film coasts along very effectively and adds a further layer with Frank's son, Chris D'Amico, in which he desperately wants to be part of his father's crime syndicate to such an extent that he becomes the rather pathetic Red Mist (the rivalry between Red Mist and Kick-Ass amusingly punctuated by Sparks This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us on the soundtrack) in order to catch Kick-Ass and then lead his father to Big Daddy and Hit Girl and the inevitable showdown. Red Mist has a snazzy cloak and a cool car but that's about it apart from a serious inferiority complex. His story is perhaps the weakest element in the film, perhaps because his motivation really isn't as clear as it should be, but Christopher Mintz-Plasse is effectively un-cool as Red Mist and the character's journey does imply a route to a potential sequel with its finale Joker quotation.

The later half of the film isn't quite as inventive as the first half because it inevitably has to tick the boxes on the list of conflicts it has set up in the narrative and does this with an obligatory rescue sequence when Big Daddy and Kick-Ass are captured. Nice to see gender conventions reversed here whilst Vaughan shows us Hit Girl's attacks as a first person shooter game visual. It visually summarises the notions of game play and fantasy that lie beneath the comic book narratives and there is an attempt to unpack the negative aspects of violent revenge but it does tend to get swamped by the sheer glee that Vaughan clearly has with the film's descent into a spiral of mind-boggling savagery. Vaughan arrestingly cuts her infra-red view point in with a kaleidoscope of flickering strobes, slow motion abstracts and bursts of gun fire. It certainly doesn't shirk away from an audience's tendency to rubber neck at unsettlingly violent actions with D'Amico's internet broadcast of Kick-Ass and Big Daddy being tortured.

When the showdown comes you will not be disappointed. Hit Girl plays on her schoolgirl charms to access D'Amico's swish apartment whilst Ennio Morricone's music from For A Few Dollars More soars on the soundtrack. A particularly marvellous punchline to a running gag about what Big Daddy and Hit Girl did purchase on the internet appears here in an orgy of Tarrantino violence and destruction and I also suggest you keep an eye on that bazooka. Your reaction here will simply be to jump up and down in your seat cheering on Hit Girl's attempts to wipe out D'Amico's gang without any consideration as to how fucked up this 11 year old girl actually is. But you can't help admire the film's spirit and its tale of a young teenager who aspires to be something greater in the face of utter failure. It might be lip service to the concept in the final reckoning but it still has a soul.

The film is stuffed with geeky touches - listen to the Ilan Eshkeri and Henry Jackman soundtrack for cues from John Williams Superman Danny Elfman's Batman themes, a mention of Scott Pilgrim, discussions about various super hero origin stories, even Vaughan's wife Claudia Schiffer promoting her perfume on a huge billboard in a slightly self-indulgent scene that flip-flops the narrative between fantasy and reality. The comic is somewhat bleaker in tone and apparently Mark Millar rewrote the conclusion of the comic book as more twisted in contrast to the hokey 'responsibilities' ending to the film.

It's a witty, drolly violently rollercoaster ride that thankfully pricks the pomposity of previous comic book film adaptations and offers a revisionist, knowing deconstruction of the super hero stereotypes and story tropes. How well the jokes and action set pieces will hold up after multiple viewings will be a moot point but it's certainly an entertainingly anarchic film.

Kick-Ass (Cert 15. Released 26th March 2010. Directed by Matthew Vaughan)

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My fascination with British horror films began when I was a teenager and, as I've often mentioned, much of that developed from those classic BBC2 Saturday night horror film double bills, screened in the mid-1970s, that would cycle through the classic black and white Universal 'monster' movies and the more lurid Hammer, AIP, Tigon and Amicus back catalogues. Throw in the equal obsession with Pan Books horror omnibuses, House of Hammer magazine, Alan Frank's lovely picture books devoted to the genre, Monster Mag, James Herbert and...well, my DNA didn't know what had hit it.

Whilst those double bills played out, reminding us of the great legacy of British horror cinema, it was already clear that the horror film was moving on from hyper-Gothic fairy tales and finding a new realism. In the US, it culminated with the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Exorcist and here in Britain it was the path from Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man and Death Line that took us to the films of Pete Walker, The Omen and Alien. Odeon Entertainment, already exploiting a vast back catalogue on DVD of British noir and dramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s, have now turned their attention to British horror with great enthusiasm. Three new releases take us on a journey from the 'portmanteau horror' of Amicus, much beloved of League Of Gentlemen, through to the folk-realist exploitation of Tigon and finally to, what could best be described as, the Gothic horror folly that Hammer never made.

First up is Amicus' Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors. These days it's inexplicably the name of a trade union but back in 1964 it was the moniker of a fledgling production company, under the aegis of Milton Subotsky, producing horror films to rival the better known Hammer output. The difference with Amicus was that they more or less attempted to steer clear of Hammer's Gothic template and struck out with horror anthologies, such as Tales From The Crypt, The House That Dripped Blood, Vault Of Horror and From Beyond The Grave, that established a modernist Gothic situated within a familiar contemporary milieu. This essentially grew out of the writers and the source material they used. Whereas Hammer over-exploited the original Shelley and Stoker classics and other Gothic tropes such as mummies, werewolves and zombies, Amicus employed contemporary writers such as Robert Bloch or based their films on stories from the EC Comics series of the 1940s and 1950s written by Al Feldstein and Bill Gaines, and the horror tales of R. Chetwynd Hayes.

When they did explore the Gothic route, it was with a more experimental approach and resulted in interesting redefinitions of the genre such as The Skull, Madhouse and I, Monster. With Dr. Terror the template is established here for the portmanteau film as it creates a linking narrative with passengers on a train journey, with each of their stories spun out by the tarot card reading Dr.  Schreck ('Terror' in German, we are reliably informed). Schreck is played by the legendary Peter Cushing sporting an outlandish pair of eyebrows and a cod Mittle European accent. He's joined on the train journey by a young Donald Sutherland, Alan 'Fluff' Freeman (for a bit of BBC Pick Of The Pops 1960s cred), Roy Castle (more light entertainment cred), Neil McCallum (British-Canadian character actor who worked on many ITC shows) and Cushing's horror sparring partner, and national treasure, Christopher Lee.

The stories get off to a cracking start with architect Jim Dawson (McCallum), traveling to a remote Scottish island to his former home to make alternations requested by the new owner, widow Mrs. Biddulph (Ursula Howells). She is recovering in solitude from the death of her husband. Dawson uncovers the coffin of Count Cosmo Valdemar behind a false wall in the cellar and thus reignites a centuries old werewolf curse. We then switch to killer vines as Bill Rogers (Freeman) and family (the pet dog has 'victim' written all over it) battle with homicidal greenery with the help of the men from the Ministry (Bernard 'M' Lee and Jeremy Kemp doing a great deal of 'pipe and glasses' acting). You'll never be unkind to a tomato plant again.

The mid-point of the film is taken up with some buffoonery from Castle and the Tubby Hayes Quintet as he swipes a voodoo ceremonial tune from a visit to the West Indies (cue Kenny Lynch and a steel band to create that essential atmosphere in the studio) and uses it in a jazz composition with some rather devastating results. It's quite strange now looking at the scenes of Castle braving the jungles to spy on the ceremony and nicking the tune without seeing it in relation to the creation of the Race Relations Act of 1965 and the influx of immigrants into Britain amidst what was, socially and politically, quite a tense time. A rather flippant story about mucking around with that 'voodoo music made by them blackies' is rather wince inducing it has to be said. Especially with the mangled inference of cultural differences summed up with Castle prat falling all over the place as he runs away from a perfectly innocent black man he meets on the street and then being visited by a black 'demon' who reclaims the stolen music. Ahem.

Probably the best story in the collection is the one with Christopher Lee as art critic Franklyn Marsh. Lee has already spent much of the film in spectacularly vitriolic form deriding Schreck's fortune telling prowess and, by extension, the premise of the film in general. 'I'll tell you what it means! Absolutely nothing!' he bitches as all the other passengers query Schreck's turning of the final tarot card. He is on fabulous form here as the acidic and, it has to be said, rather queeny critic laying into the daubs of artist Eric Landor (genre veteran Michael Gough). 'My dear sir, the only advice I could possibly offer you is, give up!' he snaps whilst gutting the man's work like a 1960s version of Brian Sewell.

He's hoist by his own petard when Landor tricks him into waxing lyrical about a painting made by a chimp, making him look a bit of berk in front of a crowd of pretentious art lovers. Landor winds him up to such a degree that he decides to mow the man down in his car, crushing his hand and any artistic impulse he ever had. Cue concerned looking doctor intoning 'Artist? Not any more' as the camera zooms in on Landor's amputated arm. This is later emphasised by Gough screaming the place down as he wakes up and gazes on his deformity and his subsequent suicide. But Landor has a war of terror planned - yes, folks, it's the one about the vengeful crawling hand!  It's a wonderfully disturbing, blackly humourous tale and Lee is tremendously funny as he's terrorised by the disembodied limb and can't get rid of it no matter what he tries. Good prosthetic and mechanical effects too that still stand up reasonably well today.

The film's collection of urban horror myths concludes with Donald Sutherland as Dr. Bob Carroll. He returns to the States with new French bride Nicolle (Jennifer Jayne). However, I don't like the way she looks so lasciviously at Bob's injured finger and she seems to enjoy sucking the blood from the wound just a little much for comfort. There's a vampire on the loose and it's her (rather obvious actually), as confirmed to Carroll by his colleague Dr. Blake (Max Adrian). Blake convinces Carroll to kill Nicolle but, as you then discover, it's for purely personal reasons on his part. This is a fittingly moody conclusion with solid performances from Sutherland, Adrian and Jayne. Ignore the cliched rubber bats flapping about and just go for a sustained development of atmosphere brought to you by Freddie Francis' keen sense of lighting and the haunting Elisabeth Lutyens music.

Predictably, the train passengers are hurtling towards a destination other than the one printed on their tickets. 'Who are you?' screams Marsh. 'Haff you not guessed?' intones Schreck silkily. Eeek, it's really the end of the line. Very quaint it may seem, but this first Amicus portmanteau horror hokum is still enormous fun and both the 'crawling hand' and 'vampire' stories are excellent, chock full of great performances and bags of mood and atmosphere. Francis directs with great visual aplomb and uses Alan Hume's superb cinematography and the 2.35:1 widescreen frame splendidly.

This DVD release does rectify some of the deficiencies of the previous Anchor Bay version back in 2003. The print used on that disc had rather badly generated German opening titles, wasn't correctly framed and had a distinctly redder hue to the colour palette. The Odeon disc presents the film correctly framed, with the right opening titles, in a reasonably clean transfer and with more naturalistic colour. Alas, both versions still have the end credits cut in from a very inferior, and presumably, video-tape based source.  I would also recommend you hold on to the Anchor Bay version for the audio commentaries with Freddie Francis and Allan Bryce. Both releases contain a photo gallery and the new Odeon disc has a rather nice collection of publicity stills and lobby cards in colour and black and white.

Dr. Terror's House Of Horrors  - The Best Of British Collection (Odeon DVD ODNF168 - Region 2 - Released 22nd March 2010 - Cert PG)


1970 - and whilst Hammer, Amicus and AIP continued to carve up the UK horror film industry between them, independent producers were in the ascendancy. One of them was Tony Tenser. Tenser specialised in producing exploitation films and, with his then production partner Michael Klinger at Compton Films, had backed Roman Polanski's first English-language films, Repulsion (1965) and Cul-de-sac (1966). After splitting with Klinger, Tenser formed another company, Tigon, which was a substantial force in British cinema in the 1960s and 1970s, as a producer and a distributor. He supported the career of wunderkind Michael Reeves, producing The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General. It's the latter that brings us back to The Blood On Satan's Claw which I regard as, along with Witchfinder and The Wicker Man, one of the best horror films made in the UK in the 1970s.

Witchfinder had paved the way in the late 1960s for a more overt psychological dimension to horror as well as an emphasis on naturalism in performance (Reeves was adamant that star Vincent Price didn't camp it up in the lead role) and realism as far as violence was concerned. Satan's Claw continued this drive towards naturalism in the way it tells the folk-myth at the heart of the film. The supernatural forces depicted in the film are not dressed up in the chocolate box theatrics of Hammer and are all the more effective because of director Piers Haggard's dictum to get the actors to play it for absolute reality despite it being a period horror piece. In effect, the supernature depicted in the film is merely a symbol of the evil and corruption that can bud from that most innocent of human citizens: children. As a commentary on the decline of the counter-culture into self-destruction at the close of the 1960s it is particularly potent and chilling.

Ralph Gower (Barry Andrews) uncovers a one eyed deformed, fur covered skull whilst plowing a field. This discovery seems to unleash a possessive supernatural force, one that consumes the youngsters in the village. The local judge (Patrick Wymark) is asked to investigate, but the skull disappears and the judge ignores Ralph's supernatural fears. However, the force possesses more people in the village including Rosalind Barton, the young bride to be of Peter Edmonton (a young Simon Williams) who is driven mad and sprouts a claw! As she is carted off to Bedlam, the youngsters in the village begin to practice strange rituals and are led by Angel Blake (Linda Hayden) into acts of murder, rape and blasphemy. Ralph rides to a neighbouring town to find the judge and bring him back to try and eradicate the evil as those that come in contact with it are linked physically and mentally to a deformed beast, the Behemoth, that is seeking corporeal existence.

For its first hour this is an incredibly intense experience. The narrative builds slowly to the evening when Rosalind must spend a night alone in the attic room at Peter's house. Director Piers Haggard pumps the film full of paranoia and psychological fear with Rosalind disturbed by a presence in the attic and her husband to be Peter utterly confused by what has happened. There's also a very strong allusion to the symptoms of the present day widening generation gap where parents and other elders become estranged from their children over their values and moral choices. The judge and house keeper Mistress Banham do not approve of the union and when Rosalind inexplicably goes mad, Mistress Banham merely tells Peter she knew Rosalind wasn't suitable. She is badly scratched by the girl whilst trying to calm her down and she falls ill. She then goes missing and there are a number of fruitless searches for her. One of the faults of the narrative here is that we never find out what happened to her.

The older characters do come across as puritanical and disapproving of the way the younger people around them are changing and behaving. The one older man who should be able to connect to the young villagers is the aptly named Reverend Fallowfield (Anthony Ainley) whose relationship to the science of natural order parallels the farming community's relationship to nature. Nature is ever present in the film and the evil force that is released and then is reconstituted as a horned beast worshipped by a female figurehead is suggestive of the theory that the witches of the early-modern period were actually the remnants of a pagan cult and that the Christian Church had claimed the god of the witches was in fact the Devil.

The horned God is here, as in neopagan belief, associated with nature, wilderness, sexuality, hunting and the life cycle. The film thus becomes partly a depiction of the demonisation of witchcraft by the Medieval church as well as an essay about mankind's relationship with nature and super-nature. Haggard and his cinematographer Dick Bush visually capture this in some superb use of landscapes dotted with tiny human figures. It seems to reflect the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder where large landscapes are populated by peasants, depicting the rituals of village life - agriculture, hunts, games. The film shares a similar unsentimental quality with his paintings in the way they evoke folk culture

In the first hour, there is an extraordinary sequence where Peter, attempting to work out what it was that sent Rosalind mad, spends the night in the attic. The beast tries to break through the floorboards beneath him and believing he has sealed up the route of entry he falls asleep. He wakes up to find the creature's claw around his throat which he attacks in a frenzy with a knife only to discover it's his own hand he is stabbing and which he then cuts off. It's a very disturbing moment. A memorable scene, and probably one that many of us recall as being the first nude scene we ever saw on television as teens, is where Angel attempts to seduce the Reverend, who in rejecting her is later openly accused of interfering with her in her own bid to get him out of the way.

Equally intense is the death of maid Ellen's two children, Mark (Robin Davies) and Cathy (Wendy Padbury). Mark ends up playing blind man's buff (a strange sequence that's beautifully handled by Haggard), is strangled to death and hidden under a woodpile whilst Cathy is attacked, raped and then stabbed to death by Angel and her growing following. It's the latter that's played to the hilt by Hayden and Padbury and it's both unsettling and gruesome. There's a bizarre paganistic ceremony that proceeds the rape, witnessed by both young and old (there's a very Goya-esque old crone in the crowd that adds a bizarre touch) which echoes much of the later similar material in The Wicker Man. The major problem with these developments is that whilst Ellen shows much remorse over Mark's death, she barely registers Cathy's and it doesn't come across as real enough behaviour for the character.

As the tide turns against Angel and her perverse band of followers, one of them, Margaret (Michelle Dotrice) is captured and thrown into the river, using that tried and tested 'drowning' method to see if she is a witch. Ralph rescues her and they discover 'the devil's skin' growing on her thigh and, in one of the film's more squeamish sequences, they order the local quack to cut it out. All of this is backed by a quite extraordinary score from Marc Wilkinson (reviewed here) who builds an intense hysteria into these scenes, giving them a real edge.

The film hits problems in the final half hour. The judge and his men decide to take action and the narrative devolves into the traditional horror film climax of angry villagers bearing burning torches whilst marching to confront evil in its lair. Although there's a nod to Bergman in a lovely shot of the gang marching across the wide expanse of fields, the climax does feel rather rushed too. The judge witnesses a ceremony where Ralph is about to be sacrificed and then saves the day by lancing the horned creature with the biggest ceremonial sword you could possibly clap eyes on. It's done well with Haggard using some great hand held shots, slow motion and some freeze frames that cleverly emphasise this final confrontation between man and beast. The beast itself isn't terribly well realised and Haggard wisely shoots and cuts around it.

Holding all this together are a number of great performances. Patrick Wymark as the judge is terrific, prepared to let evil take its course before taking the necessary action to remove it; the gorgeous Barry Andrews makes Ralph appealing as the unconventional hero of the film and the equally lovely Linda Hayden is pure malevolence as the possessed Angel. It looks wonderful, the score is disturbing and Haggard's directorial flourishes give the film a naturalistic power that elevates the Robert Wynne-Simmons script. Definitely up there with Witchfinder and The Wicker Man for me.

The transfer on Odeon's DVD is really superb. It's in the right ratio and it's anamorphically presented as opposed to Anchor Bay's grainy letterbox version of a number of years ago. This restoration boasts colours that are vibrant and fresh, with good contrast and a clean and blemish free transfer. You also get the original mono and a 5.1 surround mix but alas you'll need to hold onto your Anchor Bay version for the commentary with Haggard, Wynne-Simmons and Hayden, the interview with Hayden and other bits and pieces. They ain't on this disc. You do get a stills gallery with some nice colour shots and video covers.

Blood On Satan's Claw - Digitally Remastered Widescreen Edition (Odeon DVD ODNF158 - Region 2 - Released 22nd March 2010 - Cert 18)


Finally, in 1972 comes The Asphyx. It provides something of a transition between the decorative period Gothic of Hammer and the modernism of British horror such as Scream And Scream Again and Death Line. The film is bookended with contemporary London based sequences before it delves back into period to tell the tale. There is an extraordinary opening shot here too that follows a police car chasing alongside a train to the scene of an accident. It reminds me of the contemporary settings of Theatre Of Blood but as abruptly as we get to the scene of the accident we are transported back 100 years to meet 'mad scientist' Sir Hugo Cunningham and his family.

The Asphyx was the directorial debut of Peter Newbrook who formed Glendale with John Brittany after the collapse of Titan, a previous independent film making effort in partnership with Robert Hartford-Davis. Newbrook was also second unit cameraman on Lean's Lawrence Of Arabia and he obviously pulled some strings here to enlist top cinematographer Freddie Young to shoot this. It may have its faults as a film but it looks absolutely stunning thanks to Young's luscious visuals.

Back to 1875 then and scientist/philanthropist Sir Hugo Cunningham - who seems to have single-handedly invented moving pictures and electricity - has discovered that the dark blur on his photographs of the dead or dying aren't due to his dodgy camera but are physical proof of the spirit leaving the body. However, when a tragic boating accident kills his son and his fiancee, he sees this phenomenon on the film he's made and it is actually moving towards the two victims. He makes a rather strange leap of logic to conclude that what he has seen is an ancient creature called the Asphyx which takes away the life force. After proving his theory during the recording of a public hanging and using a 'light booster', he believes he can trap the Asphyx before it reaches the body and potentially confer immortality on the victim.

Driven by grief over the loss of his son, he quite literally uses a guinea pig to experiment with ('that guinea pig can't die!') and successfully makes it immortal (I'm not making this up). Obsessed, he convinces his adopted son Giles to help him become immortal and in doing so he will confer the same gift on Giles and his fiancee and step-daughter Christina (Jane Lapotaire). They will live forever...

The story is both a mix of intriguing social and personal concerns - capital punishment, free will, family loss and grief, and some rather risable Gothic elements - immortal guinea pigs, mad scientists and strange non-sequiturs about cameras with zooms, miraculous light giving crystals, an immortality casket and death dealing machinery.

Interestingly, its themes regarding the afterlife, immortality and spirituality were all Victorian obsessions. These were formed in the face of shifts in religious thought which liberated people from accepted visions of hell and how science scared them by challenging the possibility of an immortal soul and thus the hope of heaven. These doubts profoundly affected the Victorian culture of grief and mourning and the film is very much an essay in the morbidity of that culture. The themes here also echo much of the early 1970s  transhumanist thought on immortality and life extension, especially the 1972 book Man Into Superman.

Naturally, it all goes hideously wrong for Sir Hugo. The moral of many scientific romances of this sort is usually to warn us against tampering with nature and that's no exception here. They abuse a poor chap dying of tuberculosis to prove their theory that the only way to capture the Asphyx is when death is about to occur. Hugo's obsession extends to an attempt to capture his own Asphyx and achieve immortality and then foisting that upon Giles and Christina in a bizarre collection of near-death experiences via electrocution, the guillotine and asphyxiation by gas. Scared and insecure, his daughter agrees to oblige her father’s wish but with tragic results. Well, if you will leave an immortal guinea pig running around the laboratory! 'My Asphyx! My Asphyx!' cries Sir Hugo as he cuddles the loathsome little rodent and realises it's just him and the pig for company as the film flashes forward to 1972. Hugo, looking rather worse for wear, and the guinea pig, looking completely unchanged (why?) trudge the streets until miraculously, if you hadn't already guessed, he ends up in the car crash sandwich that opens the film. Cue end titles.

Much of the film is rather florrid, from the sumptuous Victoriana-porn of the production design and costumes, accentuated by Freddie Young's gorgeous photography, to the two central performances. Robert Powell is great as the adopted son Giles and gives a committed, steely portrayal, playing it entirely straight. Robert Stephens as Sir Hugo is a force to be reckoned with. His superb Sherlock Holmes from Wilder's The Private Life Of Sherlock Holmes seems to be the template but his performance here is bigger and madder and really worth watching.

The direction is simple, mainly consisting of a set of wide masters and close ups and it is often slightly stilted and desperately needs some of the adrenaline that Hammer would inject into a project like this. The Asphyx itself is an interesting visual effects creation, clearly a puppet of some kind, and it convinces because the sound effects of its howling add a really disturbing dimension to its portrayal. It remains an intriguing curate's egg of a horror film, full of interesting ideas and good performances but also full of unintentionally hilarious plot developments (the guinea pig!).

This DVD set includes the original shortened UK version and the US longer version (12 mins approx) and the film been restored beautifully by BBC Post Production. It's a spotless transfer that looks gorgeous in its 2.35:1 ratio with vibrant colour, immaculate detail with good contrast and flesh tones. Extras include a restoration featurette that does show you how vastly improved this transfer is, the trailer and a stills gallery.

The Asphyx - 2 Disc Special Edition (Odeon DVD ODNF161 - Region 2 - Released 22nd February 2010 - Cert 15)

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