Mutant Popcorn #3

Nick Lowe

The Quiet Earth

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 serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – Shadey, Underworld, The Quiet Earth, Bliss, A Zed and Two Noughts, & roundup – appeared first in Interzone #15 (Spring 1986).

… but first, a roundup of the season’s morals. Old people are entirely acceptable so long as they’re kept in an expensive institution and don’t actually behave like old people (Cocoon). Young chaps should get themselves a nice steady girl who’ll appreciate them for ‘what they are’, and should definitely not try to build their own (Weird ScienceThe Bride) – unless they’re specially into inexplicable accents, excess lip gloss, or Jennifer Beals’ ghastly interpretation of a sophomore Janey Morris. Children only seem insufferable when they’re not allowed to follow their dream, which in The Goonies seems to entail acting out thinly-scripted fantasy gaming scenarios in pursuit of pirate gold. (Do eight-year-olds actually want to be pirates? As a normal, well-adjusted eight-year-old my fantasies ran more to being 1. a turtle, 2. a woman, or 3. stabbed to death, all of which seemed infinitely more exciting than sicky old pirates.) All parents should be thrusting and dynamic (Back to the Future), and if you just stand up to someone and punch them in the guts you can change your destiny from a pathetic squithead to a successful science fiction author, resulting in a tidy house, model children, and a golf handicap women will admire.

In short, the ideology of the family has settled into Hollywood like a soft, inoperable brain tumour. You can map its growth by monitoring the dialogue, as a new contender crawls up the ratings to threaten ‘Let’s get (the hell) out of here’ as the most overused line in movies. ‘I love you’ used just to be the sort of thing fellows said to ladies and back again, and that was okay, though you still put your head down and blew obscene bubbles in your Kia-Ora. But now you get kids, parents, siblings noisomely emoting this time-honoured erotic signifier at one another with no decent regard for public sensibility. It’s worse on television, where the malignancy originated – the soapier the matter, the more ‘I love you’s clocked up per passing minute. Fathers and sons are especially bad. I don’t think the perpetrators can appreciate its effect on the British, who have built a national pastime out of expressing intense emotion in the most oblique possible guise. ‘I think I’m getting a wart.’ ‘Can I finish up the cottage cheese?’ ‘I don’t remember the radiator making that noise before.’ On such ears, a bare, crass ‘I love you’ falls like a brick into trifle.

Of course no real human talks like this, even an American. I suspect it’s all down to a thin man in a grey suit who strolls round the sets with a clipboard. ‘I see we haven’t affirmed the family in the past eight minutes, Mr Spielberg.’ ‘Uh, ah … right away, sir … if we maybe insert an ‘I love you, dad’ just after ‘Holy shit, my brain’s exploding’ …’ ‘Very good. You won’t forget again, will you?’ ‘No sir. Thank you sir. Heh, this heat, wow…’

A few with strong overseas connections escape: Mad Max beyond Thunderdome showed an agreeable absence of any kind of redeeming moral, while the only people likely to get anything out of Lifeforce and Legend are the archaeologists of late capitalism who will write theses on how such transparently hopeless scripts could ever have made it for the screen. But the outlook isn’t pretty. Despite a refreshing trend towards ironic comedy, snappy editing, and superior visual style, films like The Goonies and Back to the Future leave an unsettled feeling in the belly as expectations of subversion are biliously thwarted in the final reel.

Both of the last-named were on show at November’s London Film Festival, alongside some rather more adventurous sf items of international origin. Of particular interest were two British films marking screenwriting debuts by two highly-regarded playwrights-turned-novelist on the margins of the genre. In a sense, neither is exactly representative of its author’s recent fiction work: Snoo Wilson’s Shadey was actually written before either of his joke sf novels (which haven’t found a lot of favour with the science fiction community), while Clive Barker’s Underworld was scripted under panic conditions after shooting had already begun. Neither film is a thundering success, but at least they’re films that dare. The most daring thing about Back to the Future is the attempt to make us enjoy Huey Lewis.

Shadey has Anthony Sher, oddly cast, as a kind of transexual Ted Serios, gifted with the talent to project telepathic images of distant scenes on to film. Apparently unwilling to trust his working parts to the enlightened British NHS, the bumbling Shadey tries to raise money for a private op (there being no more felicitous term) by hawking his talent to industry. But hard-headed Sir Patrick Macnee bargains the unwitting and peaceloving Shadey off to the military, and soon a bewildering posse of enemy powers is jostling in pursuit. Meanwhile Shadey becomes knottily involved with Sir Patrick’s intensely nubile daughter and increasingly ga-ga wife, until a breathless string of unlikelihoods brings all parties their just deserts and Shadey his release from the toils of masculinity

Amazingly, this piffle took eight years and a million pounds to put on screen, little of which Channel Four, the main backer, seems likely to see again. The one bankable commodity is Sher, much favoured on the boards just now, though this first starring role in film is the kind of performance that might benevolently be tagged unusual: a wide-eyed straining after imbecility that only begins to convince in the character’s last-reel transformation. There are good lines, and the storyline is pleasurably tangly – though the present 110 minutes, hewn down from a much longer rough cut, leaves some of the intrigue subplots in a rather mystifying state. But Philip Saville’s direction is stodgily televisual, and the script labours jokes and strains whimsy in a rather unpleasant way. There’s a nearly perfect moment when Sir Patrick has just had his ear severed by kidnappers, and we see looney wife Katherine Helmond receiving a jiffy bag in the mail, then walking off camera… followed, with breathtaking ineptitude, by a wholly unnecessary scream, reaction shot, and view of the offending organ exposed. And look out for the zany satire on pop videos featuring Leslie Ash chased along a beach by a pack of weirdos with Down’s syndrome. Hurk hurk, this must be that black humour I hear so much about.

I find much more to forgive in Underworld, a daft gothic romp luridly designed, lit, and directed with one shrewd eye on the lamented golden age of Hammer and Amicus, and the other casting frantically about in search of Ridley Scott style on the cheap. Retired white knight Larry Lamb, looking entirely unlike a hardboiled hitman and every bit like a documentary cameraman from Earl’s Court, is engaged to chase after his lost true love who’s been kidnapped by (apparently) a gang of former bass players with Nazareth. It takes him a ridiculous length of celluloid to discover that sinister pharmacist Denholm Elliott has developed a miracle hallucinogen that causes your skin to break out in great accretions of latex, and that his addicts have abducted our heroine to their chthonic community in the London sewers. Down into this debatable underworld speeds our reluctant Orpheus, and cue shoot-outs, subterranean chases, confused revelations, midi-budget special effects, and a suitably nasty death for old doc Denholm.

But not as nasty as planned, because the shooting schedule ran out before the ambitious special effects climax was finished, and the miracle is that the finished movie makes what minimal sense it does. Shot in an impossible seven weeks, with no script at the start of shooting and the powerful cast lured in merely by vague descriptions of the envisaged end product, it’s an extraordinary achievement for all its slapdash plotline and loose ends splayed round like leftover pasta. Admirers of Barker’s horror fiction (I’m not one, particularly) may find the invention and dialogue fall short of his best, and it’s certainly not a representative debut. But more projects are in line from the same team, and next time it’s hoped the production constraints will be easier.

Among English-language Festival items with a genre interest, a couple of Antipodean offerings deserve a note. Geoff Murphy’s The Quiet Earth is a worthy addition to the increasingly assured New Zealand cinema, with Sam Pillsbury of Scarecrow producing and co-scripting, and Bruno Lawrence from Smash Palace in the lead. Taken from a Noozie sf novel by Craig Harrison, it shifts three Aucklanders into a parallel world empty of all human and animal life. Scenario and dialogue are sometimes laughably portentous, but there’s a lot of lovely images and some cherishable scenes. (Slowly unhinging in the deserted city, Lawrence goes hunting for God; breaks into a church and holds our Saviour’s image at gunpoint. ‘Come on out,’ he calls to the rafters, ‘or I’ll shoot the kid.’) On the fringe of the genre there’s Ray Lawrence’s film of Bliss, cowritten by Peter Carey from his funny, touching novel of an advertising executive who dies for nine minutes and, on revival, believes himself in a cunningly disguised Hell. The book’s languid, unfilmable voice is warmly compensated for by sharp dialogue, marvellously sharp editing and direction, and some winning characterisations from the three leads. And look out in the spring for Re-Animator, a gory semi-spoof loosely worked up from one of Lovecraft’s earliest and most idiotic shudder fictions.

But for sheer batty bravura there’s been nothing to compare with A Zed and Two Noughts, and a jolly good thing too I think I heard at the back. I’ve no doubt this amazing film will see more of the British public’s fillings than most this year, and that all the friends Greenaway inadvertently won with The Draughtsman’s Contract will file out muttering and rolling their eyes expressively. Nevertheless, any serious whingeing on the subject has to acknowledge the film’s basic seriousness, ambition, and coherence behind the freewheeling doodles of ironic caprice; and as it falls solidly within at least one famous definition of sf it may get a more appreciative viewing from us lot than from the seat-slamming critics of Wardour St.

The weird plot has a pair of twin zoologists lose their wives in an act of God so bizarre as to seem almost farcical and almost meaningful. Both brothers, in their initially different ways, are shocked into questioning their lives against the background of their science, and launch into obsessive studies of evolution and biological decay to try and detect a purpose in the agonising crawl from ooze to zoos and back again. Not surprisingly, they don’t find one. What they find instead is that the differentiation between human and not-human is more questionable than their science accepts, and that the institution of the zoo puts unacceptable bars between humankind and its evolutionary context. And so both brothers set about the systematic subversion of the zoo in pursuit of their private truth, their paths increasingly converging after a lifetime of denying their genetic identity. Along the way they involve with a cluster of typically Greenaway characters: a dubious surgeon who wants to become Vermeer, a seamstress who wants to be ravished by a zebra, and a legless woman who wants to bear 26 children all named after the letters of the alphabet.

Accessibility isn’t helped by the densely artificial Greenaway dialogue, just credible in the mouths of 17th-century aristocrats but hard work in a contemporary setting; or by the ambivalent emotionality that tries, dangerously, to hang suspended between tragedy and farce and leave the feelings to the audience. There’s a great deal of deliberate silliness, of virtuosic flaunting of cinematic technique, and of the old Greenaway habit of flirting mischievously with the audience’s ennui. ( The Draughtsman’s Contract was nearly like this too, but for a quiet word from the producers over the three-and-a-half-hour rough cut.) But at heart it’s a serious, witty, and beautiful essay on the dignity of animals and the handicapped, that confirms Peter Greenaway (as if it needed confirming) as a cinematic maestro on a par with Resnais, Ruiz, and Kluge. I found it headspinning and heartwarming, easily the best film of 85, and the one honestly radical slice of science-fictional imagining to hit our eyes this season. There’s certainly no denying it’s a work of genius. But then, so was Newton’s Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John.

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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