Mutant Popcorn #7

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 serving up each and every insightful portion for your enjoyment.

The serving below – Explorers, Labyrinth, Howard, Vamp, and Breaking the Code, and the genius of Tarkovsky – appeared first in Interzone #19 (Spring 1987).

Some gloomy omens as the year turned over. The ever-expanding London Film Festival, usually a tasty hors-d’oeuvre of treats from the year ahead, this year was limited for its sf material to previewing the season’s major US studio releases (LabyrinthThe FlyVamp, qq. v. infra; John Badham’s droid escapade Short Circuit, and a surprise glimpse of Francis Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married, more of which another time). In itself, there’s nothing exceptionable about this: all of the above are interesting films, and one trembles on the verge of greatness, but it’s disappointing that the low-budget, independent, UK and European sectors seem to have so little to offer at the moment. One partial exception: Granada’s TV adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, scripted by the author, was a well-received borderline fantasy opulently designed and directed, and by some way the most successful screen translation of Carter so far (though I’m perversely fond of the 1982 short of The Bloody Chamber, hammed to the hilt by Terence Stamp, Suzanna Hamilton, and then-newcomer Rupert Everett). The main limitation is simply the material: the Toyshop, as its author has been the first to admit, simply isn’t top-grade Carter, even of its period, and it’s high time instead for someone to reanimate long-interred crackers like Several Perceptions and (especially) Love.

Meanwhile, the winter releases were dominated by a trio of costly flops that died with the American public but picked up some unexpected small change this side of the water. Joe Dante’s strange Explorers made straight for the plughole on its US release a year ago, and languished for a while on video before (unusually for a big-budget effects movie) being picked up by an independent distributor for art-house release. Whether by design or serendipity, it transfers rather well to a dedicated adult audience. It’s not hard to see why its intended market treated it like dogdirt. No kiddie matinee could be reasonably expected to put up with Explorers’ narrative warps, zig-zags and longeurs, the mawkish sub-Spielberg goshing, and a rambling, corny and fatally anticlimactic finale. But in a curious way these eccentricities of pace and tone can add to the film’s attractions for the movie-soaked yupster sophisticate who’s likely to bring in most of the earnings on this round. Take the kids and you’ll probably have to shell out for a pizza on the way home to quell their disappointment; but grown-ups susceptible to drily sentimental evocations of the horrors and fantasies of boyhood, and appreciative of the manic surrealist psychobabel that enlivened, for instance, the Dante segment of Twilight Zone, could well find it a slice above.

But the mogul with the biggest mortgage problem this season had to be George Lucas, whose Christmas babies Labyrinth and Howard the Duck came down with rapid cases of cinematic leprosy that aren’t likely to be much alleviated by their unexpectedly good Cisatlantic performance. I can’t but feel Labyrinth frankly deserved its fate; despite the often inventive puppetry and design, death was too good for Terry Jones’s ghastly script, full of those witless shaggy-dog dialogue sketches that seemed so hilarious in 1972, and numbly oblivious to the rampant Freudian dubieties of image and circumstance at every turn of thrustingly virginal Jennifer Connelly’s initiation into the labyrinth. (And what was going on between her and Bowie in that dream sequence, and what did Mr B have jammed down the front of his tights?) I’m not surprised it drew the provincial teenies in their packs. American youth has turned its back on a precocious leap in its education.

Still, it’s nothing to the doom that settled on fallen seventies icon Howard, who by the time of his UK release had the duck references astonishingly deleted from title and publicity, a measure of desperation hard to match except in imagination (‘Sure, Sly, I mean it’s a great script, but we’ll have to lose the boxing angle’). I find all this rather mystifying, because despite all the numskull turkey gibes from the critics, Howard really isn’t that bad a movie. The duck gags are pretty brainless stuff, and much of the script has all the wit and finesse of a drunk let loose in a darkened men’s room, but there are some likeable performances (notably Lea Thompson’s scatty Beverly) and a few moments of genuinely sublime idiocy, as the scene with the Dark Overlord of the Universe in the truckstop diner. (‘You are about to be engulfed by an evil beyond your power to imagine!’ ‘Don’t be silly, Professor, you haven’t even tasted it yet.’) At heart it’s just an old-fashioned soundstage movie of the kind that was fashionable two or three years ago, where the nugatory plotline is all geared towards a lengthy effects showdown in a large and expensive interior setting. As such, it stirs warmly nostalgic echoes of the simple pleasures of stuff like Superman IIISupergirl and Conan the Destroyer; goes on a bit, but not seriously beyond its welcome; strives hard for warmth, and sometimes scores.

Still, for genuine daffiness among the season’s releases you need to look to something like Vamp, latest blow in the ongoing slugitout between Empire and the reinvigorated post-Corman New World for mastery of the low-budget genre spoof youth picture. Vamp is the one where a pair of go-for-it freshmen at a zero provincial campus go in quest of a stripper for the frat party, and wind up in the clutches of a seedy nightclub run by Grace Jones and her vampire kith. Funny, suspenseful, deftly scripted and directed with an artful look of tackiness in the garish bruise-coloured lighting, it’s a happy celebration of the death of genre horror and the necrogenesis of metageneric camp from its remains. Empire strike back in the spring with From Beyond, Stuart Gordon’s new Lovecraft mutant with the glorious Jeffrey Combs again stealing the mad scientist lead and Barbara Crampton targeted for more kinky creature abuse.

In fact, mad genius has been something of a seasonal obsession this winter. Leading the field, of course, is Cronenberg’s astonishing remake of The Fly, with the seriously wonderful Jeff Goldblum subjected to his finest performance in a decade, as the old master of sentient tumours and vampire armpits annihilates his hero’s humanity graphically and painfully from the inside out. Back in December there was Real Genius, a bizarre teenpic set in a secret government school for hi-Q brats, which blitzed the capital for one week only and vanished on to video without a whisper; and of course there was Hugh Whitemore’s West End play Breaking the Code.

I wish there were more commercial theatre to review in these pages, and the only way I can show why there isn’t is to try. Breaking the Code (Theatre Royal, Haymarket, to February) stars Derek Jacobi and his st, his st, his internationally lauded speech impediment in the tale of Alan Turing, mathematician, codebuster, AI pioneer, and roaring son of Sodom who ended his life in 1954 with a bite from a cyanide apple. Why did he do it? What lay behind the extraordinary sexual scandal that forced Turing’s outre personal life so spectacularly into the open? Was there a link between Turing’s unique scientific imagination and his fiercely wayward private morality? How far were his intellectual achievements fired and driven by personal trauma? Is it possible to make sense of genius in the interplay of human and scientific truth? These and other absorbing questions raised by Turing’s life and work are answered rather well in Andrew Hodges’ 1985 biography, and glibly deflected by Whitemore’s play into a web of pat absurdities. Thanks to Godel’s incompleteness theorem, we learn, moral axioms are necessarily indeterminate, so it’s okay to work for the MoD and pick up sloe-eyed local wide boys from the pub for consenting adult mischief. Munching a poison apple is a crafty experiment to resolve the mind-body problem and perpetrate a witty Disney allusion in the process. Nature, human and otherwise, is just a code waiting to be broken; a fourth-form definition of Fibonacci series and you’re basically there. Breaking the Code is the first West End play about science since Howard Brenton’s The Genius three years ago, and I just wish there was a single redeeming feature to repay this modest but significant investment of good intentions, beyond the cheeky charms of our hero’s mouthwatering succession of well-set-up boyfriends. After all, except for the patronising of the audience’s intelligence and the insult to the memory of a great and complex man, there’s nothing wrong with Breaking the Code that isn’t wrong with every other serious West End play: creaky acting, geriatric dialogue, and all the pulse-crackling theatrical excitement of watching paint peel. I suppose it’s just one of those Philistine cultural blind spots we all have to own up to, but I sincerely feel it would be an act of mercy to flush this desperate genre down the U-bend of history after Romantic opera, Chinese cooking, and films not starring Harvey Keitel. There, at least it’s in the open.


On the abused subject of Real Genius, however, a memo of genuine sorrow. This issue was in press when the death was announced of Andrei Tarkovsky, after a long and horrifying struggle with cancer. A lugubrious visionary in the great Russian tradition, Tarkovsky became championed by the west in the seventies as incomparably the greatest postwar Soviet filmmaker, though his reception in his own country was never easy and his final years spent in unhappy self-elected exile as his health declined. His importance as one of the very few figures of permanent stature in the sf cinema is assured by his two novel adaptations Solaris and Stalker: more or less the only art films in the genre to have won worldwide acclaim, quite apart from their uniqueness as the sole works of Soviet sf cinema to be widely seen in the west, and the only major screen versions of East European sf writers. (Significantly, they were also their director’s only feature-length films to be granted wide distribution at home.) But it makes small sense to hive Tarkovsky’s genre films off from his other work when their themes and vision are so characteristic. In many ways, Tarkovsky was something of a renegade in the postwar Soviet cinema: unfashionably auteuristic and introspective, fiercely assertive of the spiritual sanctity of the artist, and steeping his art in religious emotions and themes of dour Russian transcendence. All six full-length films narrate a glum spiritual quest, in the later films increasingly drawn from personal experience, through a largely paceless montage of luminously beautiful images, with surface meanings often of stupendous apparent banality – particularly in Stalker and the early short The Steamroller and the Violin. The animating force, and the visionary heart of Tarkovsky’s work, is his imaginative fascination with the private mythology of the individual: a concern that pervades his whole oeuvre and especially the intensely autobiographical films of exile Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. Even his adaptations of Lem and Strugatsky are more in the way of idiosyncratic personal meditations on the novels, focussing particularly on the way a contrasting group of characters are drawn into a spiritual quest requiring the agonising publication of their private, haunted universes of symbols. It’s too soon to guess which of the films will prove the most permanent, though I suspect the sf pieces may lose out to Andrei Roublev and the two made in the west, particularly The Sacrifice. But for me the most satisfying will always be Solaris, with even its ropey special effects charged with a mysterious poetry, and (perhaps a more eccentric choice) the impenetrably baffling Mirror. I did speak to Tarkovsky once, before his exile, if that’s the right way to describe standing up in a lecture hall and getting a question mangled by an interpreter. He came over as an intensely private, rather melancholic and uncomfortable figure, clearly ill at ease with his situation (‘Mr Tarkovsky says, what distribution troubles? He is not aware of any distribution troubles’) and painfully guarded about his own work. I don’t know why I expected anything else. All the same, he was a god, one of the real gods. In the seventies, there used to be a lot of people who would fall asleep three times during Solaris (not in itself a culpable offence) and think it made them wise and interesting to tell you about it afterwards. Well, lads, you won’t have to do it again.

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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