Monday 15 December 2014

Unknown Island [1948]

UNKNOWN ISLAND is an American fantasy-adventure film that was directed by Jack Bernhard and originally released in October 1948.  It stars Virginia Grey, Richard Denning, Phillip Reed and Barton MacLane.  An unscrupulous businessman, with finance-providing fiancee in tow, hires an equally unscrupulous sea captain to take them to an uncharted island where dinosaurs are reputed to have survived.  They take along a washed-up adventurer who had been shipwrecked there some years before and only escaped at the cost of his nerves.

These days the modern cinemagoer is expected to pay through the nose for a film and some advertising, and encouraged to also purchase a megadrink and enormopopcorn at similarly inflated prices.  In the good old days when you got proper value for your cinema ticket, you'd get the main film, a supporting (or B) picture, possibly a serial episode and no doubt some newsreels. UNKNOWN ISLAND is such a B picture.

The reason I bring all this up is to draw a distinction between a good example of the B picture and that which might be considered to be their modern equivalent.  Following the letter of the law there isn't a modern equivalent; as I said above, you simply don't get a supporting feature any more so the concept of A and B pictures is redundant.

"But", I hear you cry, "not all modern films are glossy big budget productions with proper movie stars!"  You're quite right too: in actual fact there are probably fewer A pictures in production these days than has ever been the case.  The modern movie business prefers there to be fewer films and for them all to be putative blockbusters.  Why go to the trouble of making and marketing hundreds of very expensive films when you can make a few dozen?  All you have to do is ensure that all cinemas show the same films and then Joe Public has no choice but to see what you want them to see.

A consequence of this trend is that there is a massive gap in the market for film-makers who for one reason or another can't or won't make blockbusters.  A good chunk of that gap is filled by inane comedies and derivative horror movies, a few of which are well enough produced that they elbow their way into the multiplexes.  What you have left could be described as the modern B pictures: straight-to-DVD features, semi-pro horror movies, films made for niche cable channels - in short, films that were never intended to be seen at the cinema. And therein lies the difference between ancient and modern: however cheap and ostensibly insignificant the old school B picture might have been, it was still made using standard film industry methods and to be consumed at the cinema.

The point I'm trying to make is that the quality gap was much narrower then than it is today.  If you poke around in the credits of some of these B pictures you'll often find technicians who worked on A pictures as well.  UNKNOWN ISLAND is a case in point: it was edited by Harry W. Gerstad, who was a two-time Oscar winner - including for the stone cold classic HIGH NOON [1952]; the DP was Fred Jackman Jr who did uncredited special effects on MR SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON [1939]; the set dresser was Robert Priestley who worked on many prestige productions including GILDA [1946] and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF [1958].  These guys were industry veterans and even if the budget of the film they were working on was lower than they were used to you still got the benefit of their experience and artistry.  That kind of cross-pollination simply doesn't happen these days; it's inconceivable, for example, to think that the DP on Danny Dyer's latest picture is also moonlighting as the DP on James Cameron's next AVATAR iteration.

This is Ted Osborne's photograph taken while flying over the Unknown Island
Speaking of moonlighting, 18 months or so ago I wrote film reviews for a horror movie website and was appalled at the low quality of the stuff I was sent.  These are the semi-pro efforts I mentioned earlier: they're shot on digital video so they look ugly, the performances are terrible and the special effects dreadful.  They're not even straight-to-video standard, much less B picture standard.  So while cheap technology has put film-making in the hands of a greater number than ever before, in so doing it has opened a vast, almost unbreachable gulf between the two ends of the film-making spectrum.

The intrepid explorers make landfall
There's loads to enjoy in UNKNOWN ISLAND.  It opens in a seedy Singapore bar, complete with fist fights, before setting sail with a brief boat sequence (boat-bound scenes are among my favourites in movies), complete with mutiny, before landing on the titular isle at a gloriously fake shoreline set which looks more like the edge of a boating lake.  Okay, yes so the seams are beginning to show a bit here but what I like about the sets is the craft behind them; the idea of having a great pool of water in the middle of a sound stage surrounded by what must be miles of electric cable is terrifying but if that's what the script calls for then that's what the tech boys will deliver.

A poor Malay crewmember about to fall victim to a couple of rear-projected dinos
A giant sloth (this is probably Ray "Crash" Corrigan suited up)
It's the same with the jungle sets, which aren't actually that bad: the Hollywood craftsmen simply get on with doing their job the best they can given the budget.  The less said about the dinosaurs and "giant sloth" the better but here again I admire the chutzpah of the crew: the low budget wasn't seen as a limit on ambition.  Indeed, the challenge of coming up with a desert island, a seashore, several monsters, and a cliff-top fight between a giant sloth and a T-rex wasn't enough to daunt these boys.  Contrast that with a lot of today's horror movies, most of which give up the ghost (if you'll pardon the pun) and cop out of producing special effects by falling back on the tiresome 'found footage' gimmick.

Phillip Reed (C) as Ted Osborne and Virginia Grey as Carole Lane.  N.B. On the left is silent movie star Snub Pollard

Barton MacLane as Captain Tarnowski
Richard Denning as John Fairbanks
The acting is good too.  Another thing today's equivalent of B pictures can't offer is an experienced, charismatic cast: you might get a Brad Dourif or a Malcolm McDowell or a Jeffrey Combs but that's pretty much it and they'll be surrounded by lots of pretty but bland youngsters.  Marooned on UNKNOWN ISLAND are: Richard Denning, monster movie stalwart; Virginia Grey, one time squeeze of Clark Gable and an MGM contracted player in her own right; Barton MacLane, grizzled character actor par excellence, notably from John Huston's THE MALTESE FALCON [1941] and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE [1948].  You even get Dick "Cueball" Wessel and, albeit in a dinosaur suit, Ray "Crash" Corrigan, at whose movie ranch Corriganville the exteriors were shot.  N.B. Corriganville was in Ventura County, California, not the Malay Peninsula.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Amityville II: The Possession [1982]

AMITYVILLE II: THE POSSESSION is an American horror film that was directed by Damiano Damiani and originally released in September 1982.  It stars James Olson, Jack Magner, Diane Franklin, Burt Young, Rutanya Alder, Andrew Prine and Moses Gunn.  It is a prequel to Stuart Rosenberg's THE AMITYVILLE HORROR that had been a big hit in 1979 and as such tells the story of the Montelli family who lived in the house before James Brolin and Margot Kidder got their hands on it.

Whereas the original movie purported to tell a true story which was essentially fiction, this prequel fictionalises a real life story - the mass murder committed by Ronald DeFeo on 13 November 1974 when he shot dead his parents and four siblings.  Both before and after his subsequent conviction DeFeo has offered numerous entirely different accounts of what happened that night none of which, as far as I can tell, is that he was possessed by a demonic spirit emanating from the ancient Native American burial ground over which the Amityville house was built.  Nevertheless that has not stopped this theory becoming the most widely circulated explanation of events, thanks to the series of movies - which has now reached its tenth instalment - which peddles it ad nauseam.

Ronald DeFeo's mugshot
It strikes me as distasteful, to say the very least, that such an horrific crime for which the perpetrator was properly tried and convicted (and to this day remains in jail) is the subject of such frivolous treatment.  Imagine if, for instance, it was suggested that Jeremy Bamber, Ian Huntley or Mark Bridger was actually a wholly innocent individual driven to commit murder via demonic possession. Then imagine that this suggestion was not merely made, for instance, on some deranged internet forum but was the central claim in a series of (at least initially) very successful films.  That's essentially what is happening with this movie.

Face ripper!
A reprehensible foundation for a film then.  I think director Damiani, who was an intelligent and talented film-maker (of which more later), recognised this and so decided to make the sleaziest, tackiest, most ridiculous film he could in order to draw attention away from the revolting premise at its heart.  He really gives it the beans too: taps pour blood, the walls ooze blood, there's wife beating, child beating, incest, blasphemy, flesh ripping and fake beards.  Just about every haunted house / exorcism cliché you could think of is chucked in to the extent that when the 'My God, that house is built on an ancient Indian burial ground' line is trotted out the overall effect is hilarity.  Indeed, when one sees the aforementioned fake beard it's hard not to believe that Damiani quite deliberately trying to drawn your attention to how ludicrous it all is.

Ted Ross and his amazing fake beard.
It doesn't even join for Pete's sake.
The most obvious source for all these visual and thematic clichés is of course William Friedkin's THE EXORCIST [1973], which for all its excesses is actually a reasonably intelligent exploration of faith.  Perhaps more surprisingly, Damiani also borrows from John Boorman's notoriously terrible EXORCIST II: THE HERETIC [1977], which for all its intellectual pretension is actually a mind-bogglingly tedious and incoherent mess.  I often have a pop at Italian genre cinema for its shameless low-budget recycling of successful films but AMITYVILLE II proves that such tactics aren't beneath American film-makers either.  Yes I know it was produced and directed by Italians but you take my point.

The exorcist is coming

Crucifix abuse

At least the two Exorcist pictures could boast the likes of Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Ellen Burstyn, Richard Burton and Louise Fletcher.  Plenty of Oscars there.  AMITYVILLE II on the other hand can't boast any such class; hell, it doesn't even have a Linda Blair.  For all their efforts on other, better films, James Olson, Burt Young and Rutanya Alda is not a trio that is going to get anyone's pulses racing here.  It's a shame because the two youngsters - Jack Magner and Diane Franklin - are actually rather good; had they been given better support by the grown ups things might have turned out differently.

Jack Magner as Sonny and Diane Franklin as Trish
James Olson is best known for his role as one of the heroic scientists in Robert Wise's classic sci-fi epic THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN [1971].  He was perfectly cast in that because he has a heroic physique but is almost entirely without charisma, less charismatic even than Charlton Heston, a superficially similar type.  Unsurprisingly Olson found himself better suited to TV work, where he spent most of his career.

James Olson as Father Adamsky

The great Burt Young as Mr Montelli
Burt Young is the slob's slob.  Rarely seen clad in anything more than a vest and grease-stained trousers he was Hollywood's 'go to' guy for feckless ethnic losers.  So good at it he was that even got an Oscar nomination for it, for his turn in the first ROCKY [1976].  My favourite Burt Young role though is Curly in Roman Polanski's peerless CHINATOWN [1974], the jealous husband to whom Jake Gittes does a favour and from whom Gittes eventually gets one in return.

Rutanya Alda as Mrs Montelli, finding something nasty in the basement.
Which is probably why it's kept in the basement.
Rutanya Alda is really a supporting actress, adept at playing insipid spinsterish pale young women, which she did rather successfully in some very good films of the 1970s.  Unfortunately she is handicapped somewhat by having one of those faces that it's almost impossible to remember.  When I see her name appear in the title credits of a film I think 'Yes I recognise that name, couldn't tell you what she looks like'.  Conversely when I see her name in the end credits I think 'Blimey, she was in it; who was she?'

Moses Gunn (L) as Detective Turner, telling Father Adamsky where to give it to him.
Moses Gunn was an interesting character actor who moved with seemingly effortless ease between heavyweight drama such as John Frankenheimer's monumental adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's THE ICEMAN COMETH [1973], theatre productions - he made award-winning Shakespearean performances, and blaxploitation flicks, such as the daddy of them all SHAFT [1971].  He was too, shall we say, individual looking to ever get more than character parts but I would urge you to keep an eye out for him because he's always interesting, even in AMITYVILLE II where he memorably asks a Catholic priest to pistol whip him.

A couple of other supporting players are Andrew Prine as James Olson's priestly colleague and Leonard Cimino as the monsignor.  Prine is someone I have written about at least twice; he's a veteran of delirious cinema and would certainly be in the Cinema Delirium Hall of Fame if there was such a thing.  Maybe there should be.  Cimino was a really odd-looking actor who tended to play really odd cameo roles.  He's Baron Harkonnen's doctor in David Lynch's DUNE [1984] who says, "Put the pick in there, Pete... turn it round, real neat."

Andrew Prine (L) as Father Tom

Leonard Cimino (L) as the monsignor

Damiano Damiani, who died last year aged 90, was an Italian writer-director of films that usually fitted neatly into defined genres and then quietly subverted them from within.  Good examples of this are LA STREGA IN AMORE [1966], which is nominally a classic Italian ghost story but which is actually an observation of the nature of power in male-female relationships; and QUIEN SABE? [also 1966] which, as director Alex Cox once pointed out, is a commentary on US intervention in Latin America masquerading as a spaghetti western.  Of course by the time he got to Hollywood the best he could get were dreadful horror film such as this one.

The script is by Tommy Lee Wallace who is arguably most famous for doing inferior follow ups to other people's work.  For instance, he wrote not only this prequel but also the first sequel to John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN [1978] as well as directing HALLOWEEN III [1982] and writing and directing the sequel to Tom Holland's FRIGHT NIGHT [1985].  It's not that he's untalented; it's just that he kind of made a rod for his own back by involving himself so closely in projects that were never going to be as good as their forebears.

Cinematographer Franco Di Giacomo shot, among many others, Bertolucci's labyrinthine THE SPIDER'S STRATEGEM [1970] and Argento's flawed but interesting FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET [1971].  The music is by Lalo Schifrin, who needs no introduction from me.

Thursday 13 November 2014

Horrors of the Black Museum [1959]

HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM is a British horror film that was directed by Arthur Crabtree and originally released in April 1959.  It stars Michael Gough, Graham Curnow and Geoffrey Keen.  In it, a series of gruesome murders - which appear to re-enact historic methods catalogued in Scotland Yard's 'Black Museum' - is terrorising London and baffling police.  It is only crime reporter Edmond Bancroft who seems to have any insight into who might be behind the killings.

There are two things about HORRORS... which I think mark it out as unusual.  Firstly, it is shot in Cinemascope which is uncommon in British films of the period and almost unheard of for British horror films of almost any period.  Second, it is remarkably graphic for its time. It is the extent of this sadism that pushes what might otherwise have been a crime thriller into the realm of horror.

The eyes had it

Cinema writer David Pirie - who penned my all time favourite line of film criticism, about Hammer's THE DEVIL RIDES OUT [1968] - has suggested that HORRORS can be seen as part of what he calls a 'Sadian trilogy', along with PEEPING TOM and CIRCUS OF HORRORS [both 1960]. The basis for the claim is that all three deal with sadism (particularly with a sexual element) and violence and eschew the traditional supernatural backdrop to British horror.  Furthermore, all three films happen to have been released by the same distribution company, Anglo-Amalgamated.

 While all that is undeniably true I'm not sure I buy his theory.  For a start I think the Anglo-Amalgamated link is a red herring.  I really can't countenance the idea that certain films can be regarded as linked based on the distribution company.  Let's face it, Anglo was a very busy and successful company which funded as well as distributed a great number of films, to the extent that it would be possible to make a claim that any number of their films were linked.  As indeed some of them were, notably all those Edgar Wallace B-pictures; they all concern crime and come-uppance but nobody is claiming they should be regarded as all of a piece.  They are what they are: crime-based supporting features.

They give it away free these days

Similarly, the three films under discussion are certainly sadistic but they're not alone in that regard: off the top of my head I would suggests Hammer's STRANGLERS OF BOMBAY [1959] as a film of comparable sadism.  It's also an example of a horror film which eschews the supernatural in favour of a nominally more realistic setting, as is THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS [1959].  The final reason I would argue against this trilogy is that to lump HORRORS... and CIRCUS... in with PEEPING TOM is to rank them alongside a film in whose company they simply do not belong.  For all their excesses, those two films offer little else besides and certainly don't reach or even aspire to the complexities of Michael Powell's justly renowned classic.

The awful 'gimpy dancing' scene

It's also incredibly conservative.  I can't remember a single non-white face and while you may interpret that as merely being a reflection of British society at the time when you also consider that all the women bar the very minor characters are victims - and most of them little more than eye candy - then you can't help but think of it as a very conservative picture.  The heroic characters, such as they are, are the white, middle aged, middle class coppers and a white, middle aged middle class doctor.  It couldn't scream 'status quo' any louder even if Rick Parfitt and Francis Rossi were to hobble on to the screen and start banging away.

Superintendent Graham (Geoffrey Keen, L) and Edmond Bancroft (Michael Gough, R)

The brave Dr Ballan (Gerald Anderson, L) gets himself into hot water

HORRORS is I think best approached on its own terms, that is to say as an entertaining piece of shock horror that goes a little bit further than most of its contemporaries.  Frankly, if you take the added gore out of the equation and you're not left with much.  There is a nice line in gaudy colour and a grandstanding finale but some of the acting is dreadful and the basic premise is wholly unconvincing.

The Tunnel of Love Death

Even though I'm a dedicated fan of widescreen films and Cinemascope in particular I'm not sure it works on this picture, or at least isn't used to its full effectiveness.  Somehow the quotidian details of British life in the 1950s seem unsuited to the widescreen format.  Maybe it's just that I'm conditioned to think of British horror in a more standard aspect ratio but I simply thought it didn't look right.  I've long wondered why so few British horror films were shot in 2.35:1; perhaps this is the answer.

I struggled to find a still which shows the film's best use of Cinemascope and this is all I could come up with

This one's not bad though: the gimpy dancer about to get it.

Michael Gough, who plays Bancroft, was a grand old man of British horror who never quite achieved the same eminence as Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing, probably because he never had the one defining role that they found.  Nevertheless he made loads of delirious movies, of varying quality admittedly, but they're always worth catching.  Late in life he became something of a calling card for Hollywood's foremost purveyor of whimsy Tim Burton.  Whether you regard that as a just reward for years of effort or a final ignominy is a matter of opinion.

Michael Gough
Geoffrey Keen, who must have been born a middle-aged middle-class gent, played authority figures - coppers, civil servants, etc - in literally dozens of films.  He does it very well which is no doubt why he did it so often but he's one of the least charismatic actors I think I've ever seen, certainly of the ones who made as many films as he did.  The only other person of real note in the cast is Shirley Anne Field, who plays the young girlfriend of Bancroft's assistant.  She was, and no doubt still is, an elegantly beautiful woman but she has never been a great actress.  She definitely improved as her career went on but she's absolutely dire in this: stiff and awkward in both movement and delivery.

Rick (Graham Curnow) and Angela (Shirley Anne Field) caught in flagrante delicto

Arthur Crabtree, who sounds as if he should have been dispensing fishing advice to eager schoolboys rather than directing horror films, started out as a cinematographer in the early days of British talkies and eventually made the step up to directing.  Without making any great impact it must be said.  I don't know whether he didn't have the taste for the gritty direction that British cinema started taking around the end of the 50s but HORRORS... was his final film.  Crabtree's DP on this picture was Desmond Dickinson who was a career cinematographer of the same vintage as Crabtree but who continued making films into his 70s, mainly in horror features.  Muir Mathieson, who conducted Gerard Schurmann's score, worked on literally hundreds of films over the course of his career and seems to be credited on pretty much any British film you see.  Considering imdb lists him with a frankly ridiculous 525 credits that's hardly surprising.

Tuesday 11 November 2014

The Ghost [1963]

THE GHOST is an Italian gothic horror film that was directed and co-written by Riccardo Freda and originally released in March 1963 under the name Lo spettro.  It stars Delirium-approved Barbara Steele, Peter Baldwin, Elio Jotta and Harriet Medin.  Set in an Italian's conception of Victorian era Scotland it tells the story of two lovers who murder the woman's husband so they can a) be together, and b) inherit his considerable wealth.  However, once the deed is done they find not only that his wealth seems to have vanished but also that the man himself has come back from the grave to terrorise them.

One of the very first films to appear on these pages (here) was Freda's I VAMPIRI which is considered by many to mark Italian cinema's first foray into horror cinema in the talkie era.  A very good film it is too, one that has ambitions beyond fangs and bats: it has serious points to make about the inequalities of contemporary society.  By way of contrast, THE GHOST is a traditional gothic horror piece and therefore is more akin to Freda's remarkable necrophile story THE TERROR OF DR HICHCOCK made the year before (and also written about on this blog here).  Indeed, the titular ghost is the spirit of one Dr John Hichcock.  I don't think there is meant to be any link between the two films other than in the mind of the producer and, as I imagine he fervently hoped, the punters.

Digging for treasure #1
Although I VAMPIRI got there first it tends to be overlooked in favour of Mario Bava's THE MASK OF SATAN [1962] which unlike Freda's film was a box office success not just in Italy but abroad. As such, Bava's gothic setting became the model to follow, even for Freda.  Whether Freda should have stuck to his guns is probably a moot point because the Italian genre film business being what it was then producers would have gone for the proven money maker every time.

Two examples of classic horror imagery: the man of science and the man of God...
...and the funeral
So having adopted the gothic setting for his previous horror film, Freda ran with it again on THE GHOST.  In a typically Italian attempt to recreate previous successes (I'm actually doing the Italians a disservice there - everyone did it, e.g. Redford / Newman) the film not only reuses the character's name but also recast Barbara Steele and Harriet Medin in more or less the same parts.  Steele is again the tormented wife (albeit not quite so innocent this time) and Medin is again the Mrs Danvers figure.

Dr and Mrs Hichcock
Thematically there are links too.  In DR HICHCOCK the central theme was love: necrophilia admittedly but love nonetheless.  Such a trangressive love in fact that it destroyed the good doctor's marriage and finally the man himself.  There is a transgressive love at the heart of THE GHOST too: adulterous love, for one thing, and the love of worldly goods for another.  Which of those came first is never quite made clear and is instead left for the viewer to judge.

Mrs Hichcock and her lover Dr Livingstone
It's a remarkably cynical and jaundiced view of humanity is this film.  Unlike DR HICHCOCK there aren't any likeable characters and they're all guilty of something or another.  Even the murdered spouse is a manipulative, jealous heathen who, as the film opens, is conducting a seance to further his obsession of establishing the point at which the soul enters the spirit world.  Moreover, the local vicar is an ineffectual man, registering his puritannical distaste for what they get up to at the big house but doing nothing to prevent it.

The hauntings begin
When the hauntings begin and the lovers begin to crack they turn on each other with a disturbing savagery.  It's not the hauntings per se that cause it, although they do act as a catalyst.  No, what provokes the emotional and physical violence is the thought that one or other of them is trying to make off with the loot and leave the other behind.  One sequence, in a nod to William Castle's MR SARDONICUS [1961], the lovers go digging in Dr Hichcock's coffin to find the key to his safe. More than anything, Freda's examination of how love can go wrong when money is at stake reminded me of the classic film noirs, like THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE [1946] and particularly DOUBLE INDEMNITY [1944].

Digging for treasure #2
Barbara Steele as Margaret Hichcock
As the young lovers, Barbara Steele and Peter Baldwin constitute a hit and a miss.  Steele is great, as she always is - she has a passion so intense that she can hardly keep it in and indeed doesn't.  It's always a pleasure to see one of her films that I've not caught before and even though she tends to be dismissive of them these days she's invariably the best thing about them.  Baldwin on the other hand is less impressive, although as others have found - such as John Richardson and Ian Ogilvy - playing next to Barbara Steele is very much playing second fiddle; let's face it, next to that ball of fire anyone is going to look bland.

Peter Baldwin as Dr Charles Livingstone
Elio Jotta who plays Dr Hichcock is an actor I'm not familiar with.  All I can do is parrot what imdb tells me, which is to say virtually nothing.  It does tell me that this was only his second feature so considering he was already in middle age I would hazard a guess that he was mainly a stage actor, or at least came from a stage background.

A rare smile from Harriet Medin as Catherine
Harriet Medin was an American actress who like so many of her contemporaries found work in the Italian film business when Hollywood proved a tough nut to crack.  Besides her two films for Freda, she made three for Mario Bava before returning to the US in the early 70s.  She wasn't done with genre features though, appearing in a film I am very fond of called SCHLOCK [1973], directed by John Landis, as well as two mega B-movies in DEATH RACE 2000 [1975] and THE TERMINATOR [1987] no less.  She died in 2005, aged 91.

The soundtrack by Franco Mannino didn't make much of an impression, I must confess, but he was an experienced composer who worked a lot on genre pictures but also in the mainstream: he scored the great Luchino Visconti's last two films.  The DP was Raffaele Masciocchi who worked a lot with Freda including both of the Dr Hichcock pictures.

Friday 7 November 2014

Radio Free Albemuth [2014]

RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH is an American sci-fi drama that was written and directed by John Alan Simon and officially released in June 2014.  It stars Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigham, Katheryn Winnick, Alanis Morissette and Hanna Hall.  Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, the film concerns Nick Brady, a Californian record store employee who comes to believe that the voices he hears in his dreams are actually broadcasts from an alien satellite.

The first thing to mention about this movie is its production history.  As I understand, shooting began in 2010 and a ‘work in progress’ cut was shown at a few festivals the following year.  Then, as is the case with more films than you might imagine, it ended up in post-production hell.  Whether funds ran out, creative people moved on or they just couldn’t produce a workable cut I haven’t yet been able to determine; whatever the reason, nothing happened.  The film was saved thanks to the rise of the crowd funding phenomenon; in this particular case Kickstarter.

The second thing to mention is the source novel which, like the film, had an unusual publication history.  Written in 1976 it was in its first incantation a barely-disguised account of Dick’s own experiences with what he believed to be an alien intelligence.  When it was rejected by his publishers he rewrote it, with a greater fictional element, as an intended trilogy of novels.  Unfortunately, Dick’s premature death in 1982 left the trilogy unfinished.  He had completed the first two novels (‘VALIS’ and ‘The Divine Invasion’) but ‘The Owl in Daylight’ did not get much further than initial plans.  An unrelated novel (‘The Transmigration of Timothy Archer’) was posthumously added to complete the trilogy.  In 1985, a different company got hold of the rights to the rights to ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ and published it in its own right.

Phil at work

I ashamed to say I can’t say much more than that about the novel since it is, at time of writing, one of the few remaining books by Philip K. Dick that I haven’t read.  However, I can say that the film contains many of the elements that will be familiar to fans of his, that is to say: intelligent alien life; totalitarianism; undercover police; alternate realities; marital problems; and drugs.  That’s a heady brew of themes by any measure, especially in Hollywood, so it’s perhaps a surprise that there have been a reasonable number of Philip K. Dick adaptations over the years.  What’s less surprising is that most of them have kept the bare bones of the plot and jettisoned what made them interesting in the first place, i.e. all the metaphysical stuff.


The first properly faithful adaptation I’ve seen was Richard Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY [2006] and RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH is the second.  Of course, I say that without having read it but I flatter myself to think that I’m familiar enough with Dick’s work to be able to tell when something is faithful to his spirit.  Indeed, it may be that the determination to reproduce that spirit played a part in the difficulties experienced in getting the film released.  I say that because, frankly, it espouses revolutionary politics and direct action; neither are themes that Hollywood is comfortable with.

President Fremont (Scott Wilson) addresses the nation

One of the vehicles used by the revolutionaries for disseminating their message is music, specifically rock music and, more specifically still, one particular song.  So a problem faced by director Simon was how to depict this convincingly in his film.  He solved one part of it by casting a proper musician (but non-actor), Alanis Morissette, in a central role and by hiring a proper songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock, to pen the song.  It really works too.  Not only is the song sufficiently catchy it is also cleverly crafted (as you would expect from Hitchcock) to convince you that it could serve its subliminal purpose.

Nick and Phil go before the authorities (note President Fremont's image on the wall)

I think there’s a considerable risk inherent in films about people hearing voices and / or being directed by some sort of mystical guidance.  It can result in the film having a drippy new age feel to it or, in the worst case, have overt religious connotations.  RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH avoids that for the most part.  Indeed, at one point, Phil confronts Nick about whether he believes himself to be Jesus.  In fact, the film ends with a proper philosophical discussion about the purpose of faith and how it should be put to work changing things on the material plane rather than merely as some vehicle to get to the afterlife.  Philip K. Dick’s novels are full of stuff like this so if that, or indeed this film, appeals to you then I would urge you to read some.

Shea Whigham as Phil

I found Jonathan Scarfe to be a decent enough but rather bland leading man whereas Shea Whigham was born to play Philip Dick’s characters.  He’s terrific in this: part slob, part genius, part doper, part revolutionary.  Whigham has really only had supporting parts to date (you might recognise him from the disturbing TAKE SHELTER [2011] or the equally disturbing but riveting TRUE DETECTIVE season one) and that may be all he ever gets, but he’s a fine actor.

Alanis Morissette as Sylvia

Alanis Morissette hasn’t done a great deal of acting but I was rather impressed by her turn here and she should definitely consider doing more.  She has a naturalness about her as an actor which comes as a surprise to me because her singing style is somewhat mannered, to say the least.  The veteran actor Scott Wilson, who by my reckoning has had at least three careers, first came to prominence as one of the murderers in Richard Brooks' fine adaptation of IN COLD BLOOD [1967].  He then seemed to get stuck in very run of the mill Hollywood pictures before rising to prominence once more as Virgil in the excellent TV series THE WALKING DEAD

To date, RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH represents the entirety of John Alan Simon’s writing and directing career and given the tortuous circumstances surrounding its production it may be the last.  He has a day job though so not to worry: he’s the man behind the production / distribution company Discovery Films.