Monday, 31 August 2015

Craven something deeper from horror

Horror directors are often mischaracterised as schlock merchants; exploitative hacks, happy to pander to the basest instincts of a lowest-common-denominator audience. In a genre that regularly suffers from an absence of wit, characters become little more than ciphers, kept alive long enough to lose their shirt, and their virginity shortly thereafter, before being hacked to pieces in gory detail. And the films themselves? Many struggle to pad out ninety minutes, with little in the way of story, dialogue or a compelling motivation for the killer or their victims. 

And so it was, in 1996, that Wes Craven decided to bite the hand that had been feeding him for over twenty years, with Scream; a film that managed to assassinate and resurrect this most maligned of genres with one slash of a serrated hunting knife. Unusually for Craven, his role here was as a director for hire - the screenplay was all the work of Kevin Williamson, a young screenwriter who'd grown up on the films of Craven, Carpenter and Cunningham. 

An auteur in the truest sense, Craven usually scripted his own movies, but something in Scream (at the time, called Scary Movie) spoke to his frustration with the genre he'd made his own. And although much of the arch dialogue and knowing references bit their thumb at well-established cliches, Craven knew that he was exempt from much of this criticism. Because Craven never played by the rules. He wanted us to believe that the hills had eyes, and that his horror films had a brain. 

Wes Craven was never supposed to be a film-maker. His strictly religious upbringing meant he had no access to TV or movies, and only began his love affair with film when he went off to college. Academia seemed more suited to his quietly introspective and intellectual demeanour, which is why he started out a Professor of Humanities. After some behind-the-scenes work with his friend Sean Cunningham, who was later to create the Friday 13th franchise, the pair concocted a low-budget concept for a horror film. 

Depicting the graphic rape and murder of two teenage girls at the hands of a gang of drug addicts, and the violent revenge exacted by one of the girls' parents, Last House On The Left was a gruelling and unpleasant experience. But even in those early, lo-fi days, where Craven's ambition greatly outweighed his technical proficiency, critics were aware that there was a thoughtful intelligence behind the graphic cruelty. After all, few low budget horrors crowding the bill at the local drive-in could lay claim to being a contemporary re-telling of an Ingmar Bergman classic.

Last House On The Left was followed in 1978 by The Hills Have Eyes, which depicted a family fighting for their lives against an inbred posse of mutants in the desert. The story was inspired by the Scottish legend of Sawney Bean and his cannibalistic clan, and once again featured graphic violence, dark humour, and a subtle commentary on the nature of 'civilisation.' As in his debut, Craven was keen to explore the tipping point between civility and retribution, since he was fascinated with our own dark reflection. When pushed to the limit, he argued, we all have the potential to become as feral and bloodthirsty as our tormentors. 

The early eighties were initially a fallow period, as Craven tried his hand at comic book movies (the forgettable Swamp Thing adaptation) and religious cults (Deadly Blessing), before creating the most iconic horror character of the last thirty years. A Nightmare On Elm Street was dismissed by every studio in Hollywood as a late entry in the already out-of-favour slasher cycle. A relentless barrage of derivative and tedious films had worn out their welcome with an undiscriminating audience with a seemingly inexhaustible hunger for seeing nubile young teens being chopped to pieces by an anonymous psycho in a mask. 

Thankfully, Robert Shaye of New Line Cinema, saw something different in Craven's script. There was a teasing surrealism to the dream sequences, strongly written lead characters, and an enigmatic villain with a truly unique weapon - inspired by mankind's primordial fear of animal claws. In Freddy Krueger, Craven had created a genuinely iconic villain who was to Fangoria magazine what Princess Diana was to the Daily Express. The parade of sequels (most of which, with the exception of Part 3, had no input from Craven) may have turned him into the Bob Hope of horror, but Craven's unrelenting original made him terrifying, unpredictable and unforgettable.   

Buoyed by his first truly mainstream hit, Craven explored other areas of the genre - rarely recapturing the same level of financial success, but always with the same creative vigour and vision. Many fans argue that 1989's Shocker was probably the low point in his career, as his mandate to create a 'new Freddy' was a little too obvious. As a psychopathic TV repairman with a psychic link to his estranged son, Mitch Pileggi seemed to enjoy his one outing as Horace Pinker, but even Craven's most devoted fans could tell that this was no franchise starter. Even so, Shocker enabled the auteur to pointedly satirise the wasteland of late eighties TV, culminating in an inspired chase and fight sequence that saw hero and villain interrupting multiple broadcasts across a number of channels. 

Craven was back firing on all cylinders in 1991, when he turned his disgust at stories of teenage victims abducted and imprisoned in seemingly ordinary suburban homes, into a coruscating satire of Reaganomics. He even cast Ed and Nadine Hurley (from TV's Twin Peaks) as a hyper-real take on Ron and Nancy, literally devouring the urban underclass, when they weren't applying the old adage of 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' with a brutal literalism. The film failed to find a mainstream audience, but those that recognised the political subtext, could see that here was a master at the height of his craft. 

This winning streak continued in 1994 when Craven boldly decided to revisit his most successful creation; this time adding a meta-commentary about the role of horror films in a world with no shortage of real-life terrors. Craven was always a firm believer that the genre offers a cathartic release for audiences, and chose to explore this through a story which saw the cast of the original Elm Street returning to play themselves. Long before Larry David applied a similar conceit to improvisational comedy in Curb Your Enthusiasm, Craven envisaged a heightened reality that blurred the lines between fact and fiction. In the process, he made informed observations about humanity's need to contain evil through story-telling, and managed to make Freddy Krueger genuinely terrifying again. Scream may have popularised the meta-horror subgenre, but Wes Craven's New Nightmare invented it. 

In reflection, it's easy to see the appeal of the Scream franchise to someone like Craven. Not only did Williamson's script offer some ingeniously structured set-pieces, it gave him ample opportunity to interrogate the clichés and conventions of a genre that often favoured insides over insights. Once again, he also demonstrated a sharp eye for casting, assembling a surprising ensemble that included Drew Barrymore, Courtney Cox and The Fonz. Unfortunately, the law of diminishing returns saw the scares dwindle as the glib dialogue increased, but all were shot with ruthless efficiency and a keen eye for staging. 

Along the way, Craven also tried his hand at Oscar-baiting melodrama, scoring a nomination for Meryl Streep as a music teacher, an ill-advised vampire comedy with a 'difficult' Eddie Murphy, and a fast-moving thriller shot in almost-real-time. But it's only right that he should be remembered as a master of horror.

Wes Craven passed away today at the age of 76, from brain cancer. Part of the reason this news came as such a shock, was that he had shown no signs of slowing down, with novels, TV shows and films still in active development. Still, he leaves us with an incomparable legacy of classic films, that will continue to frighten and inspire future generations. 

But even as we look back at his career, it's worth remembering the now-legendary strap line from his film debut. The posters might have screamed "Keep telling yourself, it's ONLY a movie..." But whenever Wes was involved, it was always something more.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Counting the Costa

In case you missed it, today’s Daily Express front cover is yet another lazy attack on the BBC, screaming indignantly that “This is how the BBC is spending your money,” over the revelation that Songs of Praise is being filmed at the migrant camp in Calais. Now, I’m as annoyed as anyone that Songs of Praise is still on the air, but the fact is, the BBC has never been short of critics for what some see as institutionalised profligacy.

Similar accusations were levelled at the corporation back in the early 1990s, when it was revealed that the BBC was building a huge complex on the Costa Del Sol for its bold new serialised drama. Costing somewhere in the region of £10m, the critics were piling onto Eldorado before a single awkward, barely audible minute had even been filmed.

It could have all turned out so differently. In those heady days of pre-Maastricht enthusiasm, there seemed to be a genuine desire to embrace an informal European Union. At that time, the only acknowledgement of a bustling, dynamic Europe on our TV screens was the curious Henry Kelly-fronted quiz Going For Gold. Here, a retired dinner lady from Bolton could effortlessly wipe the floor with a PhD from Luxembourg, simply because all the questions were in English. We were, as a nation, cautiously optimistic about feeling more connected to Europe – intrigued by the possibilities of open boarders, if not exactly cock-a-hoop at the idea of a continental breakfast in Bridlington.

In the seven years since its debut, EastEnders had grown into a ratings juggernaut – regularly besting Coronation Street - despite its oppressively downbeat tone and the kind of styling that made its cast look as if they’d crawled from the wreckage of a burning meth lab. What was needed was a sunny, cheerful, multi-cultural froth – focusing on a diverse group of ex-pats, unfolding sofa beds, regretting the sangria, and suspiciously sniffing the unfamiliar cheese on the Costa.

Created by the ‘can’t-fail’ duo of Tony Holland and Julia Smith, Eldorado attempted to mine its mostly light-hearted drama from the interconnectivity of a community that found friendship and love could overcome any linguistic boundary. Or, at least, that was the idea. The reality, was notably less auspicious.

For a start, the race to begin filming required a number of short-cuts to be taken on the casting front. Filling out the core British cast with native German, French, Spanish and Danish speakers was a noble venture, but the casting directors forgot to check the English capabilities of their European performers.

Within their own homes, the characters would converse in their native tongue, which managed to disguise a multitude of sins. Bizarrely, the powers-that-be had decided that viewers didn’t need subtitles to follow these scenes; ignoring the fact that even Meryl Streep would struggle to convey the complexity and nuance of unpaid spa bills in Danish. Elsewhere, the actors were forced to communicate in English, a task that many of them made seem about as effortless as riding a hostess trolley around Brands Hatch.

Not that the British cast members fared much better – many of them delivered their own dialogue as though they were being prompted off screen in semaphore. Unsurprisingly, only the older performers had any chance of redeeming themselves; when they weren’t struggling with what appeared to be some hastily-fitted dentures.

As if the dialogue and delivery weren’t problematic enough, matters weren’t helped by the appalling acoustics created by the purpose-built set. Unlike regular British soaps, which tend to alternate between outside broadcasts for exterior shots and studio locations for interiors, Eldorado was all shot on location. The sound bounced around the whitewashed walls, creating a kind of echo-chamber, where every line sounded somehow less convincing with every reverberation.

The show itself went through three key phases, during its tragically short life. The first, was its chaotic opening, as a complex tapestry of faces, names and language skills attempted to deliver tons of expository dialogue and background character details that could have been ripped off wholesale from Blind Date – filed under “What’s your name, and where do you come from?”

The show’s creators were clearly struggling as well. They seemed to be aiming for a light screwball tone for much of the first few episodes, but as a consequence, this left half the unprepared cast acting as if they’d suffered a head injury. With no discernible plots to pursue, and a knack for conversation that made Siri seem warm and engaging, many of the secondary characters floundered. So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when the need for a dramatic overhaul was announced.

With new producers on board, briefed to clean house with extreme prejudice, the second phase of Eldorado took a decidedly dark turn. Those performers whose line delivery was about as reliable as second class post, were given their marching orders – and probably still needed help following the directions. As the actors were issued with one-way Ryanair flights back to Luton, their characters were hastily written out of the show. And given how irrelevant most of them were, the writers seemed to revel in their own ruthlessness.

Fizz, initially set up to bring a touch of youthful glamour, went missing overnight, only to die off-screen when her body washed up under Brighton Pier. This revelation came in the form of one of those two-hander episodes so beloved by EastEnders, but lost much of its impact delivered by a hyperactive Nick Moran in a badly-lit apartment. Likewise, the sudden revelation that bumbling middle-aged restaurateur Bunny was actually a predatory, opportunistic paedophile, seemed needlessly dark. 

At around the same time, Gavin and Alan Hindle who, in another life, could have sustained a whole series of Magaluf Weekender, were dispatched back to Nottingham when one of them contracted schizophrenia in the time it takes to brush the sand off a deckchair.

And then there was the double-whammy of Javier. First, he was revealed to be Paco, the not-so-imaginary secret lover of Freddie, the only gay in the villa, on the eve of his wedding to Ingrid. But before viewers had a chance to process the first decent cliff-hanger in Eldorado’s history, Javier died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the very next episode. Given that most soaps feel the need to reveal their hand slowly – Bobby Beale will probably have an OBE by the time the whole of Albert Square discovers his secret – this rapid-fire approach to revelations rewarded those of us who’d stuck with the show through its so-bad-it’s-good era. We thrilled to the idea that anyone could and would be wiped out at a moment’s notice. Think Game of Thrones, but with a few more crocodile-shaped lilos.

The axing of all that dead wood, did allow certain other characters to shine, albeit not always for the right reasons. In particular, the creators’ desire to celebrate the diversity of Europe often fell into caricature and cliché.

Put-upon housewife Gwen was such a sad-sack that we half expected to see King Edwards stencilled onto her blouse, and her belligerent drunken Scottish husband made Rab C Nesbitt seem subtle by comparison. In contrast to Gwen’s never-ending despair, there was Isabelle Leduc, the French housewife and aspiring novelist who was a constantly simmering volcano of sexual longing. Delivering all her lines as if she was hyperventilating into a brown paper bag, she was forever punching away at a typewriter in a shimmering nightie, or cheating on her mahogany husband whenever he disappeared to give another tennis lesson.

Olive the English busybody was an elderly Mail-reading spinster, and 'Snowy' White was a feckless Irish handyman straight out of the Builders episode of Fawlty Towers. Then there was Marcus Tandy. A slick-haired snake oil salesman who dressed like he'd fallen out of a Bacardi ad, Maaarrrrrkkuusss was forever barking orders into a phone so large that it pushed the very definition of ‘mobile.’ And that's just scratching the surface of this lukewarm gazpacho of multi-culturalism quietly curdling in the midday sun.

And yet some indefinable quality, barely visible to the naked eye, kept viewers coming back. Not many, admittedly. Six months in, and it sometimes felt like there were more people appearing in Eldorado, than actually watching it back home. By this point, the show had evolved (as much by accident as by design) into a pretty compelling soap opera, but unfortunately; it was too little, too late.

The final phase of Eldorado’s short-lived time on BBC One came, ironically, after the axe had already fallen. Alan Yentob decided to cut his losses and called time on Joy’s bar. By this point, the cast members surviving those dark early days had finally grown into their roles, the sound engineers had fixed the audio, and the producers had delivered some genuinely gripping drama.

As it hobbled to its unavoidable conclusion, one year after that inauspicious debut, the fans finally had a show to match its initial promise. Sadly, the rumoured ending, expected to involve the entire cast being driven off a cliff during an excursion, never materialised. Instead, after 159 episodes, the final credits rolled on a brave, foolhardy experiment, with lyrics added to its plink-plonky theme, now entitled “When You Go Away.”  The final shots saw cheeky bad-boy Marcus Tandy and Pilar “You’re gettin’ right up my nose” Moreno ride off into the sunset, after a failed assassination attempt.

A few weeks ago, someone with far too much time on their hands uploaded the entire series to YouTube, so it can be preserved in all its tarnished glory. So treat yourself to a guided tour of Los Barcos. Stop by Joy’s Bar for a happy hour cocktail, be serenaded by the ageless (and largely tuneless) Trish Valentine, or try renting one of the eight films in Spain’s most under-stocked video library. You’ll be sure of a warm welcome, even if Eldorado was never afforded the same privilege.