Mutant Popcorn #23

Nick Lowe


Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn series of essays on cinema fantastika has been an integral part of Interzone since 1985.

IZ Digital has managed to coil its many-suckered tentacles around the vast and unexpurgated Mutant Popcorn archive and will be dishing out each and every delicious portion.

The serving below – The Witches, Shocker – appeared first in Interzone #38 (August 1990).

More and more lately, I feel I’ve been feeling closer to God. It hasn’t always been an easy trail to follow, but I’ve spent a lot of time studying His writings, and I really feel like I’m getting to know His ways. It’s not as hard as it sounds, because He doesn’t try to hide particularly from our sight. You just have to learn to look in the right direction, and suddenly you wonder how you could ever have been so blind.

Look, for instance, at what’s been happening in the sf scene in Czechoslovakia, with all these big names turning out to be fronts for banned writers. When you think about it, it’s been staring us in the face. Fancy thinking mild-mannered civil servant Geoff Ryman, or that nice Mr Ballard in Shepperton, really wrote those books. Fancy ever believing that a berk like George Lucas could really have made a film like Star Wars. All around, people we’ve been taking for granted, writers, filmmakers, even actors: all this time, they’ve been fronting for the supreme being.

Of course, He’s clever. Only a few of His regular clients are complete giveaways, though it frankly beats me how anyone could be fooled by Crowley or Greenaway for a moment. More usually, to cover His tracks, He lets His regulars bring out something of their own once in a while: a Vineland, say, or one of those suspiciously thin novels Alasdair Gray does in between the real ones. Sometimes, sneakily, He only collaborates on part – He clearly pulled out of The Urth of the New Sun halfway, for instance, and it’s long been common knowledge in the trade that Alan Moore writes a lot of his own captions.

At the same time, though, there’s also a tragic side to this partnership: the pathetic, discarded husks of those who once got regular business from the divine afflatus, till for one reason or other the partnership broke up. American SF, notoriously, is full of them – all these dead, dead people going obsessively through the half-remembered motions, elderly Ledas still splashing about in the duckpond. There’s always been a fair number in Hollywood, too: for every Hitch an Orson, for every Marty a Francis. But for some reason the British film auteur is a particularly vulnerable case. Either they drift off to Hollywood and fade quietly to black, or they mooch around at home putting on weight and making increasingly embarrassing middle-aged fantasies about young blonde things with their tits out. Every film is hailed forlornly by their old admirers as the beginning of a return to form that never quite appears.

In the seventies, Nic Roeg was so transparently a front for God that his name on the film seemed little more than an in-joke. (The anagram, of course, is a dead giveaway.) I was a bit young for the Jenny Agutter nude bathing scene in Walkabout to carry the hormonal whammy it still does in the memories of males of a certain age, but I well remember ‘Julie Christie’s bare bum is beautiful’ on the gents’ wall of the Glasgow Odeon, to say nothing of ‘The Act Of Love Has Never Been So Graphically Portrayed – Daily Mirror’, or those rumours about shooting the hump scene… Excuse me a moment, I have to change this shirt. But quite aside from all that, those were great, great films – full of darkness and wit, brilliant direction of some of the world’s most hopeless actors, and mind-snapping games with the editing of time and narrative, right up to the career high of Bad Timing and the fateful arrival of Theresa Russell. And then, in the eighties, all this stuffEurekaInsignificanceCastawayTrack 29… What happened? Where did it go?

And now here is The WitchesThe Witches is one of those uneasy crossbreeds, a live-action kids’ film. These don’t get made much, and with a few dramatic exceptions they don’t often do well when they are; while the early-teen market is rather overabundantly served, pictures for preteens with preteen leads are very weakly supported outside of the Spielberg stable. Especially, they don’t often make successful films from much-loved children’s novels – it’s an oddly British practice, and usually seems to end up with something rather worthy but feeble that doesn’t get shown very widely, like The Wolves of Willoughby Chase or the Children’s Film Foundation output. Whatever, the results are often (like Paperhouse or, for that matter, Walkabout) unexpectedly interesting, but generally for reasons not much to do with either the books or their audience. It’s not easy to see where the problem lies. It doesn’t seem to be any dearth of acceptably competent and charismatic kiddie actors, who are probably all over the teatime telly. The narrative material isn’t always very cinematically structured, but then neither is Out of Africa exactly.

At any rate, we have plenty of cases to chew on at the moment, since for no clear reason this is Film Roald Dahl Year. The Witches sits with Danny, the Champion of the World and the upcoming BFG, and comes from the old man’s 1983 number about his early life as a Norwegian mouse. Parents swear by it, though I’m not sure what it has to offer an over-nine-year-old (I ate up Dahl myself at that age, but that was mainly in the Pan Books of Horror Stories). Still, high production values and loads of local talent have gone in: apart from Roeg at the helm, there’s Henson’s Creature Shop on rodents and effects, and one of those rather ominously talented support casts that plonk Bill Paterson and Rowan Atkinson in minor roles just in case the leads aren’t interesting enough.

At the least, nobody could accuse The Witches of being an under-scrupulous adaptation. If anything, it’s overfaithful to the book, which dismally lacks an ending and lingers dangerously over some of the talkier scenes. This script (from Don’t Look Now’s Allan Scott, Roeg’s regular writer since he parted company with Paul Mayersberg following Eureka), makes a go of patching up both of these thready bits in the book; but the inserted chase scenes and last-minute rescue from a sequel are pretty perfunctory stuff, and the big moments remain the big moments of the novel.

And these, sadly, are rather thinly spread: young orphan and his Norwegian gran discover national coven in session in seaside hotel, and have to thwart plot to turn entire sweet-eating population of England and Wales into meeces despite early setback of hero’s own murification. In both book and film, the setup is rather leisurely, with huge doorstep cuts of exposition and some none-too-economical episodic preliminaries. It’s not till halfway through that our lad gets moused, which makes it rather unfortunate that it’s all over the trailer and ads. The book fills in with some hammy dialogue and chatty asides, but that’s hardly an option on screen, and the only-OK action and effects rather suffer from the overlong buildup.

Presumably, this will be the deathstroke to any serious chance of US business. It’s depressing how British films always seem to misjudge the cultural difference in attention span, try as they will to compromise in other, more awkward, ways for the dollar market. Thus The Witches transplants its twenties setting to the present, hiply christens its unnamed hero ‘Luke’, and gives the role to one of those tykes from Parenthood – leading to halfhearted explanations of what a Norwegian-American brat is doing at an English prep school. But this is just feeble cosmetic surgery, where what’s wanted is the kiss of the chainsaw. It’s really not bad, but it’s just not enough.

And where, in all this, is the voice of God? Viewed, perhaps unjustly, as a Roeg film, the real disappointment of The Witches is that it’s the first to be neither an all-time killer (as WalkaboutDon’t Look Now, and Bad Timing) nor an endearing Russellian folie de grandeur (like PerformanceThe Man Who Fell to Earth, and all the daft but rather winning eighties stuff). It all looks well enough, but there’s little sign of the manic editing and strange observation that marked the old Roeg eye as recently as Track 29, and hardly any of the jagged irony of his usual storylines. The flop Roegs tend to be nailed by script rather than direction, but as he’s always operated a very close writer-director relationship it’s hard to offload all blame. Perhaps it’s just that he can’t find much to rise to in a story entirely devoid of strange sex, politics of violence, and naked ladies’ hindquarters. God, after all, is clearly fascinated by all three.

In an odd way, the juve horror genre is much better embodied in the likes of Wes Craven’s Shocker. There was a pub conversation game briefly in vogue back around New Year, where you scored points for coming up with quintessentially eighties things that everyone else had done but you – got a mortgage or a filo, read The Name of the RoseChaos, or Viz, all that sort. And to my honest shame, I found I’d got through the decade without ever seeing either an Elm Street movie or a Wes Craven film. It’s now too late, and Freddy too naff, to make up the former omission; but Shocker has all the famous trademarks of the latter, and looks for all the world like a blatant, and for the most part pleasantly inspired, attempt to duplicate the whole phenomenon over again.

Despite its UK certificate, Shocker is something of a family picture – thinking, no doubt, of the way the US ratings code allowed Freddy to slide gradually down the age curve of its audience, and eventually into the lucrative secondary markets of network TV and toy merchandising. This seemed terribly scandalous at the time, though it’s hardly different from the commercial CV of Universal’s classic monsters in the fifties and sixties. The trick seems to be, you start by pitching at a late-teen or adult audience, and then as they get bored and drift away you let the school-agers into their seats. It’s funny, for instance, how Shocker lays what seems to be pointless stress on the heroine’s chastity, even before she gets hacked to macnuggets in the bath and reenters the cast as a handy phasma ex machina and purveyor of plot devices on demand. It all reads suspiciously like an early sop to a presexual male audience, hungry for blood but indignantly hostile to the charms of gurls.

In fact, though, it’s not just a family movie (the new sort, where you don’t get to suffer the parents tagging along), but a big value three-in-one multipack. The first half is all about the hunt for mass psycho slasher Horace Pinker, spearheaded by high school football hero Jonathan Parker and his strange prophetic dreams. Can Jonathan catch Horace before Horace slashes him? Why have the hero and villain such confusingly similar surnames? And why the mysterious psychic link between them (apart from the concussion Jonathan suffers in an early scene where he runs, no kidding, into a football post)? Of course all ends happily, and Horace gets the chair. But, disaster! Horace is a deadly combination of TV repairman and black magician, given to weird rites involving candles and old b&w sets; and he does a deal with the dark powers that converts him into a body-hopping electric daemon nobody but Jonathan will believe in, and which is is more than ever after his blood! But at last, in a thrilling elevated showdown in the grand Hitchcock tradition, Jonathan confronts the evil Horace in his own father’s body (gasp you may), and the evil one is beamed out of the picture till the sequel. It seems.

And then comes the bit where the Almighty clearly had a finger on the keys. In the third half, sneakily starting at the 90-minute mark de rigeur for this genre to end at, Shocker abruptly goes into turbo and crunches up about six gears. Horace drops the body-hopping act to crash the nation’s airwaves, causing inventive havoc in newscasts, game shows, old movies, and whatever stock footage was cheap on the day. But, this time Jonathan has a plan; and suddenly we’re off on one of those preposterous cyberspace chases in the tradition of Tron, this time through the wonderful world of junk TV and state-of-art video manipulation.

The technomancy conceits are clever fun, but it’s this last bit that seems calculated to run and run – together (of course) with the lovably hateful Horace, who hams for all the world like a five-sequel contract is hanging on the result. Craven’s characteristically jaunty treatment of child abuse, ritual murder, and screen sadism is as offensive as ever, and we could seriously do without the singalongaMegadeth music breaks. But this is, in the end, a boys’ movie, and the disarming semblance of total cluelessness masks a shrewd enough idea of who and what it’s after. It’s just a pity the far worthier Witches can’t make that claim. – Did you get the anagram, by the way? Don’t write to me, write to God, Heaven c/o D. Cronenberg, Toronto, or any of the other obvious maildrops. Better still, have you thought about prayer?

Nick Lowe has been dispensing Mutant Popcorn for Interzone since 1985. By day he teaches Classics at Royal Holloway, University of London, where his books include The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative (2000) and Comedy (2009).

Nick Lowe’s Mutant Popcorn appears in each issue of Interzone. Subscribe to the print magazine to get it delivered directly to your door, six times a year.

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