All posts by IanW

NETFLIX UK FILM REVIEW: ‘EXTINCTION’

Everything is not what it seems in Netflix’s surprising, though-provoking sci-fi actioner.

On the back of the woeful Cloverfield Paradox and the disappointing How It Ends, Netflix latest sci-fi commission at least has the distinction of being watchable. It’s no masterpiece, though. The plot is smart, in a sort of sub-Philip K Dick short story sort of way: in an unspecified near(ish) future family man Peter (Michael Peña, excellent) is beset by nightmares of an imminent alien invasion that – when a murderous attack fleet descends from the sky – he comes to believe are, in fact, prophetic visions. The truth is more complex (and pleasingly clever) with a series of great reveals at and after the midpoint.

Before that, this is more of a straight-forward action flick, as enemy foot-soldiers go door-to-door in Peter’s apartment block, gunning down everyone they see. It’s brilliantly done and the tension is palpable as Peter, his wife (Lizzy Caplan) and two adorable kids (Amelia Crouch, Erica Tremblay) battle their way from the block down into the city’s tunnels and, they hope, to sanctuary with Peter’s boss David (Mike Colter). But on their tail is an apparently vengeful soldier, intent on recovering the gun Peter stole from him during an early altercation.

To fully discuss Extinction would require a mahoosive spoiler, but suffice to say everything is not quite what it seems on the surface. Anyone thinking this is just another War of the Worlds re-run will be surprised at the destination the movie takes us to. It’s deftly plotted and all the jigsaw pieces slot into place come the closing few minutes, with an ending that’s morally complex and thought-provoking. It’s all done and dusted in 95 minutes, which would normally be a big plus point. Here, though, you’re left feeling they could have given us a little more breathing space to digest the twists and turns; instead, in hurrying to its conclusion, it snaps the audience away from the story just as they’re getting their heads around it.

This is a far cry from truly masterful sci-fi chamber pieces such as Ex Machina or Moon, but there’s lots to recommend, not least the cast and the visual effects.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

VOD FILM REVIEW: ‘DEAD NIGHT’

For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

A favourite of the horror festival circuit this last year, Dead Night is an entry into the much-crowded sub-genre of splatter-gore. Very 80s in tone, it delivers its palpably nasty sequences with glee, providing chuckles along with some very effective jump scares.

The plot is corny, of course: a wholesome family unit – Dad recovering from cancer – head out to a remote cabin in the woods, built on a spot renowned for healing. Suffice to say, not a lot of healing takes place. The set up for the ‘bad stuff’ is unnecessarily complicated, beginning with a prologue taking place in 1961, which, with a gruesome murder and a horrific scene of demonic childbirth, sets the pleasingly nasty tone – it’s hard to achieve an R-certificate these days, but Dead Night gets there in its opening minute. From 1961, we fast-forward to 2015 and meet mom Casey Pollack (Brea Grant, best known as Daphne in TV’s Heroes; excellent) as she drives her husband James (AJ Bowen), two teen kids Jessica (Sophie Dalah) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman). Accompanying them is Jessica’s buddy, shy Becky (Elise Luthman).

From this very standard set-up, Dead Night does try something different structurally. We’re suddenly shown a TV, flickering out in a clearing in the woods, that’s playing TV show Inside Crime – a documentary detailing the butchering “three years ago” of the Pollacks by notorious “axe mom” Casey. While it apparently lets us know early on that nobody makes it out alive, nothing is quite as straightforward as that – especially when a woman named Leslie Bison turns up at the cabin.

Played with trademark élan and menacing camp by horror legend Barbara Crampton (Re-Animator, Chopping Mall, You’re Next amongst many others), Bison first appears as a prospective candidate for senate in 2018 during an ad after Inside Crime, but we then see how she infiltrates the Pollacks’ cabin and unleashes hell. It’s all very silly, and becomes increasingly ridiculous – and less frightening – as it progresses. It does deliver some fantastic scares and lashings of gore and 80s-style body-horror, all achieved with impressive old school, in-camera effects – heads crack apart, zombie-things shuffle along with broken limbs and weird blobby-spiky things bury into people’s necks. In short: it’s nuts. For those in need of scares and splattery gore, Dead Night fits the blood-soaked bill.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

VOD FILM REVIEW: ‘THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD’

Using restored and colourised footage, this soldiers’ eye view of The Great War is astonishing and moving.

Dedicated to his grandfather, who served in the British Army 1910-1919, Peter Jackson’s documentary is both an astounding piece of filmmaking and a moving tribute to the millions of men who fought on all sides during World War I.

The film begins in straightforward manner, with the voices of veterans overlaid on familiar grainy, black-and-white footage of the period. We hear of the outbreak of hostilities, the clamour to join up, and the comradely holiday-camp feel of basic training. It’s absorbing and fascinating, and, at first, one doesn’t quite notice the tone change: panic creeps into the veterans’ narration and, suddenly, as the fear hits – this is “deadly warfare” – the image on screen enlarges and the scene of troops marching through muddy fields becomes saturated with colour.

This double-whammy – the breathtaking images coupled with the emotional impact of hearing real men recount their experiences – continues throughout. It makes They Shall Not Grow Old one of the most important and effective wartime documentaries ever made.

Jackson’s team of CGI wizards – taking time off from rendering Gollum or King Kong – have performed miracles here. For anyone whose expectations of colourised black-and-white stem from unhappy experiments on Laurel & Hardy and Charlie Chaplin movies, it’s suffice to say that this is several thousand times more sophisticated. The colours here are as lush, varied and detailed as they would be in real life. In addition, the frame-rate has been slowed down, so we’re treated to WW1 soldiers moving as they would have done at the time, not in the jerky, speeded-up fashion seen in news reels.

As well as some 3D effects being used on the images to breathe even more life into them, the coup de grace is Jackson’s decision to add sound too. As with the moving images, the attention to detail employed on the soundtrack is jaw-dropping. Not only have the foley artists excelled themselves – every boot-step, neighing horse, rumbling tank-track or exploding shell sounds as though it was recorded along with the pictures – but we hear the men speak too. Making the audacious but genius decision to use lip-readers, Jackson gives voice through actors to men who have been silent for a century. The result is to bring to life small exchanges that would have previously been unnoticed. There are dozens of contenders but one stand-out sequence sees a smiling Tommy ask a German POW: “Want yer ‘at back?” It’s a tiny moment, but one full of humanity and warmth in the midst of such horror. What’s more, it’s not just a dramatic reconstruction – a hundred years ago this happened, exactly as we see it.

As the film progresses through the war, we’re drawn inevitably to the horrific maelstrom of all-out battle. We’ve seen these sequences before – soldiers gassed, troops stumbling over the top, trenches filled with the dead and the dying, tanks rolling over shell holes – but rendered here with sound and colour is like seeing them anew. Most of all, the sight – and now sound – of shell bursts, so close to whoever is holding the camera, is truly shocking.

As we commemorate a century since the Armistice, this brilliant film is essential viewing. It’s a respectful memorial to the men who served and died, yes, but most of all, it’s a reminder that they lived and breathed and laughed and cried. Just like us.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

SHUDDER UK MOVIE REVIEW: ‘THE WITCH IN THE WINDOW’

Scary, unsettling, eerie and moving, this haunted house chiller is a slow-burning treat.

Indie director Andy Mitton delivers a fresh take on a well-worn genre with this haunted house chiller. Initially, his tautly written screenplay presents us with an emotionally icy world, as middle-aged Simon (Alex Draper) takes his estranged 12-year-old son, Finn (Charlie Tacker), out to his newly acquired fixer-upper – a rambling and downright spooky manse in the middle of rural Vermont. He tells Finn he intends to do it up so he can “flip it” – sell it on at a profit – but in reality, he wants to create a dream home, so he and Finn’s mother (Arija Bareikis) can get back together. Suffice to say, none of this is going to happen.

As they soon discover from a neighbour (Greg Naughton), the house already belongs to someone else – the titular witch, Lydia (Carol Stanzione), who died in her rocking chair some years before, gazing unnervingly out over the desolate landscape. Worse still, as Simon and Finn begin repairing the house, Lydia’s spirit seems to grow stronger. As it dawns on them that the ghost is both real and malevolent, Simon faces the prospect of either giving up his dream and his investment, or repairing a house while under attack.

While the creeping realisation of the truth is brilliantly handled – Simon and Finn’s response is that of real people, not characters in a scary movie – where The Witch in the Window really excels is its emotional core. The scenario is expertly tied to the underlying theme of fatherhood and family, with the relationship between Simon and Finn evolving from frosty exchanges (“I was hoping to get you on the good side of 12,” says Simon, as it becomes apparent Finn is already a moody teen) to a genuine warmth. By the time we reach the shocking midpoint – which will scare the bejeezus out of everyone – Simon and Finn are two characters for whom we’re desperately rooting. It’s this that places The Witch in the Window very much in the same company as recent intelligent chillers such as The Witch, The Blackcoat’s Daughter and The Autopsy of Jane Doe.

The cast are quietly fantastic too, bringing Mitton’s well-drawn characters to three-dimensional life. While Draper is the heart and soul of the piece (the film was apparently written with him in mind), a special mention should go to child actor Tacker who displays a great range here; if there’s any justice, he should have a great career ahead of him.

As should director Mitton. With a number of well-regarded movies already behind him, The Witch in the Window is his best yet. As well as drawing first-rate performances from his small cast, his pacing is masterful. And, as a set piece in chilling suspense, a scene in which our hero is inexorably drawn down an almost endless corridor towards the chair facing the window is one of the most accomplished sequences in the genre for many a year.

This review appeared at VODzilla.co in 2018. Find it here.

INTERVIEW: LENA HEADY on ‘IMAGINE ME & YOU’

“It wasn’t about ‘I’m a big lesbian!’” laughs Lena Heady, of her latest film, Imagine Me & You. “It’s just about love.”

Heady, a resident of Huddersfield, was actually born in Bermuda in 1976.

“That always sounds very exciting,” she says, “but I have a British passport. My family are from Huddersfield. My father was a policeman and he was sent out there to train. I don’t have any memories of Bermuda. I’m quite glad, because I’d probably be very cynical about the British weather.”

Set far away from Huddersfield, in London’s leafy Primrose Hill, Imagine Me & You is the sort of romantic comedy that, ever since Four Weddings, Americans lap up. While it won’t play as well over here, writer-director Ol Parker does at least have fun with the genre’s clichés. Not least because, for once, the requisite unrequited love is between two women. Heady plays Luce, a lesbian florist, who falls for Rachel, played by the beautiful Piper Perabo.

“We’d just shot The Cave together in Romania,” says Heady, “and then both got to play Luce and Rachel together. That was good for bonding – if you spend any amount of time with anyone in Romania you’ll bond. It’s pretty harsh out there. I was a vegetarian, but I’m not anymore.”

The Romanians broke her?

“The Romanians broke me, yes,” she chuckles, adding in an Eastern European accent, “‘You must have the dog-stew or nothing.’ I’m joking.”

“I just flew out to LA on my last pennies to try and get a job. And thank God I landed a pilot which hopefully will get picked up and go to series and everything will be gorgeous.”

Lena Heady in ‘The Brothers Grimm’ (2005)

This wasn’t the first time Heady’s dietary choices had caused trouble on a film set. While shooting The Brothers Grimm in Prague, Heady had a run-in with the film’s director, Terry Gilliam. He had a rabbit bought from a pet-shop and was going to have it killed so Heady’s character, a huntress, could gut it.

“I rescued it,” Heady reveals, “and took it back to the shop. The owner said she loved him [the rabbit] although she may have put him in a pie for all I know.”

Reading between the lines, it seems as though she and Gilliam didn’t get on at all.

“I don’t think Terry and I will be spending time together anytime soon, let’s put it that way,” is all Heady will say. “For me, Brothers Grimm pretty much lived up to its title. In fact, it was hideous.”

Lena Heady and Ian Hart in ‘Loved Up’ (1995)

Heady first came to mainstream attention following Loved Up, a 1995 TV film about the highs and lows of the rave scene. Critically acclaimed, it was the first screenplay by none other than Ol Parker.

“It was a sort of launch pad for me and Ol and [co-star] Ian Hart,” says Heady. “People remember it which is always a good accolade. I think it was a great piece of work.”

Since Loved Up, Ian Hart has worked with the likes of Ken Loach, Neil Jordan, Tony Scott and Michael Winterbottom and Ol Parker, having set up camp in Los Angeles, married Thandie Newton. Heady, though she’s never been out of work, hasn’t enjoyed the same sort of success.

“I just flew out to LA on my last pennies to try and get a job,” Heady cheerfully admits. “And thank God I landed a pilot which hopefully will get picked up and go to series and everything will be gorgeous.”

Even if the TV series isn’t forthcoming, Heady has no shortage of work. She’s soon to be seen playing Queen Gorgo in 300, Zack ‘Dawn Of The Dead’ Snyder’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s ultra-violent Spartans v. Persians graphic novel. (“I’ve got some funny eye make-up in that one,” confesses Heady).

Above all, she obviously loves her job.

“Oh yeah. I mean, in Imagine Me & You, I get to stand on top of a car, in a full traffic jam, and shout ‘I love you!’ in front of loads of people. There’s something lovely about getting to do something you’d never do in real life.”

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide in 2006.

INTERVIEW: MUSE on ‘BLACK HOLES AND REVELATIONS’

It’s midday on a Friday and I’ve accidentally got drunk. Now, the floaty, vaguely tripped-out feeling may be down to the four pints I’ve just glugged down, but I’m more inclined to blame the fact that I’ve been locked in a bar in London’s Soho Hotel with a dozen journalists for the playback of Muse’s new album. It’s a fantastically weird mix of prog-rock, electro, metal and sci-fi noodlings Hawkwind would have been proud of. And, at the stipulation of the band’s management, we had to listen to it twice, “in case we missed something”.

So, yeah, I’m feeling a little odd when, in a suite upstairs, I get to meet the man behind the madness, Matt Bellamy. In contrast to myself, he turns out to be both sober and sane, not to mention thoroughly pleasant and polite. With his designer casual clothes, prominent cheekbones and scrunchy hair, you’d sooner imagine him folding up jumpers in a swanky clothes shop than fronting one of the UK’s most successful rock bands. Then again, Muse have never been associated with rock ‘n’ roll excess. I put it to him that the band’s clean living is one reason they’re still going strong a decade after their debut album.

“We’ve had some very good times on tour in the past,” he says a tad defensively. “And we were young guys and at one point we were all single, but I don’t think we need to tell everyone about it. We’ve always wanted to get attention for being good musicians and for making good music.”

And good music they most certainly do make, although it’s not to everyone’s taste. For some, it’s silly, pretentious and overblown. To those who’ve drunk from the cup, however, it’s silly, pretentious and overblown. AND THAT’S THE POINT. With Black Holes And Revelations, Bellamy and his fellow bandmates – Chris Wolstenholme (bass) and Dominic Howard (drums) – have really pulled out the stops. In between beers during the playback, I jot down the names of other bands that come to mind, producing a list that includes New Order, The Scissor Sisters, The Pixies, Pet Shop Boys, Ennio Morricone and Spinal Tap.

“Yeah, we’ve got Morricone and flamenco going on,” Bellamy allows. “We recorded some sections in Northern Italy, which is why I think we took on that south European sound. I’ve always loved that stuff but never found a way of getting it into the songs. I tried a bit on the second album with Screenager but it came out a bit crap.”

“Cydonia is the area of Mars where they think there’s that big-faced temple thing. Mars used to be the same distance from the Sun as we are now and so some people think that maybe there was a civilisation there. I find that idea quite appealing.”

In amongst the electro and the flamenco, it’s still the same old Muse: Bellamy’s falsetto vocals, pounding drums and loud ‘n’ fast rock guitar. For me, all the disparate elements of the album come together on the brilliantly titled closer Knights Of Cydonia. It begins with laser-guns and horses galloping.

“We really pushed that song to its limits,” says Bellamy. “We pushed the fantastical elements so far, maybe too far, so it sounds like a sci-fi film. Cydonia is the area of Mars where they think there’s that big-faced temple thing. Mars used to be the same distance from the Sun as we are now and so some people think that maybe there was a civilisation there. I find that idea quite appealing.”

Which brings us to Bellamy’s much publicised love of conspiracy theories and other wacky notions. Interviewed in the Guardian, he admitted that he found a lot of David Icke’s ideas compelling. Maybe he is mad after all. Are the giant lizards of the Babylonian Brotherhood running the planet?

“I think that’s a little far fetched,” he laughs, adding, “It’s a slippery slope. Once you start reading that stuff it takes you over a bit. I quite like alternative thinking. My girlfriend studies psychology and she’s working in a hospital in Milan where there are patients that actually believe the end of the world is nigh and that sort of thing. It’s interesting hearing about people who’ve been completely overtaken by these theories.”

How are they going to reproduce the sound of such a wilfully diverse and bonkers album live?

“With great difficulty!” Bellamy exclaims. “But we’ve actually got a fourth person in to do some of the electronic stuff for the first time. Morgan Nicholls, who’s actually in The Streets, took over on bass when Chris broke his wrist. It turns out he’s a really good keyboard player. We decided that next time we should give him a go.”

As thousands of fans can testify, Muse are awesome live – and, unlike most bands, they’re actually better playing huge gigs. Are they excited to be playing Leeds and Reading?

“Absolutely,” enthuses Bellamy. “Reading and Leeds are the biggest rock festivals you can play.  When I was younger I remember seeing bands playing there – I saw Jeff Buckley, one of my all-time heroes, there in ’94 and I remember thinking if I could get up there it would be amazing. Also, it feels nice to be a band that can do a gig like Glastonbury but also do Reading and Leeds, which is more of a rock audience. It’s nice to be able to move between the two.”

Just look out for those giant lizards.

This article first appeared in The Leeds Guide magazine in 2006.

MUSICWEEK: FOCUS ON YORKSHIRE — 2007

“You’re not from New York City, you’re from Rotherham…” snarled the Arctic Monkeys on the track that first got them noticed, Fake Tales Of San Francisco. Back in the heady days of 2005, a grim Northern town like Rotherham was the very antithesis of The City That Never Sleeps. These days, though, thanks to the success of The Arctic Monkeys, The Kaiser Chiefs and Corinne Bailey Rae, Yorkshire is quite possibly the coolest spot on Earth. Rotherham’s still a dump, mind…

Unlike other celebrated UK scenes such as Madchester or Merseybeat, the Yorkshire explosion is harder to categorise. This is partly due to the sheer size of the county (close to 6,000 square miles) and, annoyingly for lazy, pigeonholing hacks, the fact that the talent refuses to be isolated to one town. But the major difference isn’t where it’s happening, but when.

“The internet has enabled more of a DIY element to surface and prosper,” says David Dunn, music journalist for Sheffield’s Star newspaper. “It fuelled the initial rise of Arctic Monkeys on an underground global scale ahead of the rest of the world getting the picture. Similarly, it’s spread the word for Little Man Tate [also Sheffield based], leading to rapid fanbase growth and overseas interest, including a short US tour and a sold out show in Tokyo.”

Yorkshire’s equivalent to John Peel, BBC Radio’s Alan Raw, agrees:

Alan Raw

“It won’t be like Manchester – that sort of thing will never happen again. The internet has made everything so international. But because of the optimism in the area there are loads more bands popping up. I got 15 demo CDs a week five years ago and I’m now getting a hundred.”

Rivalling Sheffield as Yorkshire’s musical flagship is Leeds, home to both The Kaiser Chiefs and Corinne Bailey-Rae. Simon Rix, the Kaisers’ bassist, is of the opinion that, in his city at least, there’s always been a scene.

“We spent eight years struggling in Leeds before our recent success,” he says. “Early on, it was good for us, because in Leeds we were popular for a long time. For years and years we could have had a gig in Leeds and we’d know a crowd would turn up.”

Rix looks back on Leeds in the 1990s with great fondness.

Corinne Bailey-Rae

“We all met at a club called the Underground. It closed a few years back but it was great for all sorts of music. And,” he adds, “they had Corinne [Bailey-Rae] as a cloakroom attendant.”

The Underground might have shut its doors, but another of the Kaisers’ hangouts, The Cockpit, is still going strong.

Simon Rix

“Every Friday was Brighton Beach [now relocated to Leeds University] and everyone there was in a band. It’s still like that now as far as I can tell. Leeds has always been a great musical city. I can go to any of the venues several times a month and see bands that are good. You can say that about lots of Yorkshire towns. Basically, Northerners like their live music.”

Yes, cyberspace is important, but for a scene to truly thrive, it needs a network of decent venues. Once again, Yorkshire scores highly in this department. The likes of The Welly Club in Hull, the Sheffield Leadmill, the newly revamped Faversham in Leeds and Fibbers in York (part of the hugely successful Barfly chain), have all achieved near legendary status. In addition, the hunger for live music in the wake of the Arctic Monkeys’ popularity has seen new venues springing up all over the county, such as the brilliant Plug in Sheffield. In addition to this, the number of live music festivals in the region has grown exponentially.

Similarly, recent years have seen hundreds of independent promoters setting up shop across the county. Leeds-based Ash Kollakowski is typical of this fearlessly entrepreneurial new breed. As well as being a DJ and head of promotions at the Faversham, he’s the co-owner of record label Bad Sneakers, home to hot indie outfit Wild Beasts, whose debut single recently won Steve Lamacq’s Rebel Playlist on BBC 6 Music. Needless to say, Kollakowski is also the Beasts’ manager.

“I think the music scene in the North is more cutting edge because it’s so bleak up here,” he announces, displaying a talent for melodrama. “I know other places are bleak, but up here you’re so fenced in that you’ve got to make it yourself, you’ve got to release a record.”

Kollakowski is also one of several pundits encountered by Music Week who, though fiercely loyal to Yorkshire, dismiss the sudden emergence of a ‘scene’ as a media invention.

The Arctic Monkeys in 2006

“It’s always been there,” he insists. “It’s just lazy journalism because of the Arctic Monkeys and the Kaisers. If they’d bothered to come here 10 years ago they’d have found much the same.”

Alan Raw, like many others, take the opposing view.

“Yes, the ‘scene’ itself has been going for years,” he says, “and now the media have caught onto to it there’s an awful lot for them to get their teeth into.”

The Kaisers’ Rix concurs:

“I don’t think the media have invented it, but I think now they’re onto it, they’re making it even bigger.”

Raw goes further, painting a picture that suggests Yorkshire is being taken more seriously by the industry than any previous music scene.

“I was interviewing Melvin Benn, the managing director of Mean Fiddler on my show and I asked him if the industry was taking a bigger interest in Yorkshire now. He said as far as he knew the UK music industry had moved to Yorkshire. He knew of a lot of companies that were selling up in Soho to come to Leeds and Hull.”

Whether there’s any truth to this apocryphal story, there remains one indisputable fact: Yorkshire is full to bursting with new bands. And the one thing they have in common is that they have nothing in common; every genre of music gets a look in.

“There are a lot of Arctic Monkeys clones,” admits Alan Raw, “which can be a bit boring. But aside from them, there are so many different bands. For instance, there’s a very heavy hip hop outfit called Breaking The Illusion. And they’re from Hull.”

The Pigeon Detectives

Everyone Music Week speaks to has a dozen recommendations, with the same name rarely cropping up. Amongst those universally admired are indie rockers The Pigeon Detectives (soon to be supporting the Kaiser Chiefs), aforementioned Little Man Tate, metallers Bring Me The Horizon (a favourite with Kerrang! magazine) and Four Day Hombre (“Amazing,” according to the NME, “like Elbow with bigger beards and better dreams”). Without a doubt, though, the band most touted are Tiny Dancers.

“They’re likely to break this year,” reckons Plug manager and evangelical fan Mike Forrest. “Very interesting, almost kind of alt.country. They’re signed to Parlophone and supported Bob Dylan and Richard Ashcroft in 2006, as well as producing a really solid album.”

Tiny Dancers

Much of the Dancers’ potential lies at the feet of their awe-inspiring frontman, David Kay. And from where does this future rock ‘n’ roll icon hail? You guessed it. He’s not from New York City. He’s from Rotherham.

This article first appeared in Musicweek in 2007.

INTERVIEW: ROBIN HARDY on ‘THE WICKER MAN’

Something Wicker This Way Comes…

Ahead of a new re-mastered release, Ian Winterton chats paganism, Christopher Lee and Nicolas Cage in a bear-suit with Wicker Man director Robin Hardy.

Though consistently rated as one of the best horror films ever, that epithet doesn’t quite do The Wicker Man justice. It’s horrifying in places, for sure, but there’s barely a splash of fake blood in sight.

Telling the story of a devout Christian police sergeant (played by the inestimable Edward Woodward) investigating a suspected pagan sacrifice on a remote Scottish island, it’s more unsettling than horrifying, but the creeping dread it instils stays with the audience for, well, 40 years.

Its director, Robin Hardy, now an avuncular and infectiously cheerful 83, confesses he can’t quite believe people are still asking him about it.

“I’m immensely proud of it, of course, but I’ve done many other things beside. I’m a novelist and I’ve made and written other films. Day to day, though, it’s not a large factor in my life.”

That may be how it feels to Hardy but to the wider world – especially those who access information via the internet – that little movie he made in 1973 is the definitive work of his life. On the movie website IMDb his credits are 99 per cent Wicker Man related – he’s either appearing ‘as himself’ in making-of documentaries or he’s writing and directing sequels. One, The Wicker Tree, was released in 2011 and based on Cowboys For Christ, a novel by Hardy. It was universally savaged by the critics and even the hardcore fans stayed away. It was, by all accounts, a troubled project.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get a film made,” says Hardy. “Raising finance and so on. But getting The Wicker Tree together took far longer than it should have.”

The final nail in the coffin, many would say, was when Christopher Lee was forced to drop out due to injury.

“It was a real blow,” admits Hardy. “Christopher was filming in New Mexico, on a movie called The Resident. He tripped over cables, I understand, and has had to walk with a cane since. Back injuries don’t go away easily. And also they’re very difficult to operate on because if something goes wrong your spine, well…so you put up with the pain. He only has a cameo in The Wicker Tree but he was going to play the main adversary.”

Hardy’s disappointment at losing Lee – whose charismatic but, frankly, bonkers Lord Summerisle is the perfect counterpoint to Woodward’s dour copper – remains palpable. It’s fair to say Lee has a reputation for being a bit of a diva. This reporter was once told, by Robert ‘Freddy Kruger’ Englund no less, that Lee “feels most genre films” – i.e. all The Hammer horrors that made his name – “are beneath an actor of his talents”.

“I can’t comment on that,” says Hardy. “All I can say is Christopher was a joy to work with. Apart from everything else he brought to the part, he understood The Wicker Man and what it was about, and it’s about a great many things and he understood them all. He knew a lot about the associated mythology before he came on board.”

It probably helped the part was written with Lee in mind.

“Perhaps, yes,” chuckles Hardy.

The Wicker ManThe original film came about as a collaboration between Hardy and screenwriter and playwright Anthony Shaffer, best known for penning the play Sleuth and its 1972 Michael Caine/Laurence Olivier outing on the silver screen. Because Hardy did the lion’s share of the research into the pagan beliefs featured in the film, he has occasionally come under attack from modern pagans who feel the film helps perpetuate negative connotations towards their beliefs. Hardy finds this bemusing.

“I don’t think The Wicker Man has a negative attitude to their religions at all and I know Shaffer didn’t. I mean, pagans on this island and throughout Europe did practice human sacrifice. But I’m by no means anti-pagan. Lots of things in our culture date back to before Christianity. A lot of my research came from The Golden Bough by Sir James George Frazer and we did rely heavily on that. Ironically, when that book was published [in 1890] it offended Christians because it dared to approach and catalogue Christianity equally and on a par with other religions.

“I think,” he continues, “our film showed paganism as it really was [rather than] all those rather hokey things which are about witchcraft and all the rest that are supposedly based on paganism in the Hammer Films. I would have thought they’d have been much more angry about that.”

“Nicholas Cage is a good actor but in this he just looks ridiculous, especially when he’s disguised as a bear… Oh good grief. A bear!”

Mention of anger brings me neatly to the Hollywood remake of The Wicker Man. Directed by Neil LaBute and starring Nicolas Cage, it’s execrable in the extreme. Hardy is quick to agree.

“I have a theory about it which I think will amuse you,” he says, mock-conspiratorially. “You see, Shaffer died a few years ago and I think he put a proper old-fashioned curse on any projects based on his scripts he doesn’t approve of. I mean, I don’t know if you saw Sleuth, the [2007] remake. It’s directed by Kenneth Brannagh and the screenplay’s by Harold Pinter, for goodness’ sake. All these very talented people and it’s awful. A complete disaster. I think there’s some supernatural force that makes all these talented people make fools of themselves.

“It’s the same with Neil LaBute’s Wicker Man. He’s very interested in transgender issues but putting them into the Wicker Man doesn’t really make any sense, although we had Christopher Lee kitted out in a dress at one point. Nicholas Cage is a good actor but in this he just looks ridiculous, especially when he’s disguised as a bear.” Hardy breaks into a warm giggle. “Oh good grief. A bear!”

I’m too polite, and too charmed by this lovely octogenarian, to suggest that Shaffer’s curse perhaps put the kibosh on The Wicker Tree, too. Because, whatever Shaffer’s ghost felt about that project, he evidently approves of Hardy’s restoration of The Wicker Man.

“It was amazing when the news came in that they’d found a 35mm print at the Harvard Film Archive,” says Hardy. “We’ve basically scanned it in digitally from that. It’s been laborious but painless. We’ve also inserted a sequence that got left out of the original cut. I can’t wait for people to see it.”

It might have been 40 years, he might have done a lot of other things, but there’s no doubting that, when it comes to The Wicker Man, Robin Hardy is still one of the faithful.

This article first appeared on the Northern Soul website in 2013. Link here.

ANNE HATHAWAY on ‘BECOMING JANE’

“It was never my intention to become the Princess of Genovia. It was my intention to become an actress.”

So says 24-year old Brooklyn-born Anne Hathaway, referring to the fictional kingdom that made her famous in The Princess Diaries, the 2001 film that, together with its 2003 sequel, made her a hit with 12-year old girls. Having already starred in US teen drama Get Real and going on to play another soppy princess in dire kids’ fantasy Ella Enchanted, she looked to set to remain as the human equivalent of a McFlurry. And then Brokeback Mountain got her good.

“I’d got my fill of those early roles,” she tells The Big Issue from a room at London’s Dorchester Hotel. “It was really Brokeback when I first played a character that was so different to who I was. I loved the way it fired up my imagination and how terrified I was of failure. It kinda becomes addictive.”

As Luveen, the brassy Texan gal who finds herself married to Jake Gyllenhaal’s gay cowboy, Hathaway was a revelation; those critics who’d dismissed her as fit only for soporific live-action Disney movies were forced to eat their words. Hollywood, though, had long been aware of her potential, with Princess Diaries director Garry Marshall describing Hathaway in Variety magazine as, “multi-talented… a combination Julia Roberts, Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland.”

“I’ve been obsessed with Austen since I was 14 and I didn’t want to take the part at first because I felt there was a very good chance, as there is with every role, that you’re just going to mess up and be horrible and unwatchable.”

It wasn’t long before Hathaway was trusted with a lead role and last year’s The Devil Wears Prada proved to be the ideal choice. The frothy story of a wholesome, unpretentious young woman dropped suddenly into the snake-pit of a fashion magazine, it appealed both to Hathaway’s teen fans and adults (especially, it has to be said, gay men, making Marshall’s Hepburn and Garland comments seem particularly prescient). Most importantly, it proved Hathaway could hold her own against the mighty Meryl Streep, who delivered an Oscar nominated and Golden Globe-winning performance as bitch-queen editor-in-chief, Miranda Priestly.

All of which brings us to the reason Hathaway is in London: Becoming Jane in which she stars as no less a literary giant as Jane Austen. Based on the biography by Jon Spence of the same name, it focuses on Austen’s early years, postulating that Austen, far from being a bookish spinster, met and fell in love with charming Irishman Thomas Langlois Lefroy, here played brilliantly by James McAvoy.

Unlike the similarly themed Shakespeare In Love, much of Becoming Jane’s hypothesis can be supported. It is documented that Austen and Lefroy met at a ball in Hampshire shortly before Christmas 1795, when he was visiting his Aunt and Uncle Lefroy, the Austens’ neighbours. He was a recent graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and was bound for London where he was to study law. Austen had just completed Elinor and Marianne, the first version of Sense and Sensibility. Both 20 years old, there’s strong evidence that the two were mutually attracted and, against the prescriptive morés of the time, did little to hide it. Indeed, faced by disapproval from her sister, Cassandra,, Austen teasingly described her relationship with Lefroy as “every thing most profligate and shocking in the way of dancing and sitting down together.” The sauce-pot.

For Hathaway, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, but one she was reluctant to take.

“I’ve been obsessed with Austen since I was 14,” she admits, “and I didn’t want to take the part at first because I felt there was a very good chance, as there is with every role, that you’re just going to mess up and be horrible and unwatchable.”

It was Ang Lee, who’d just directed Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain and was responsible for arguably the finest movie adaptation of Austen’s work, Sense And Sensibility, who persuaded her to take the part. However initially reticent, once Hathaway had made the decision, she threw herself into task.

“I thought, even if I do a really crap job, at least they won’t be able to get me on the research,” she says. “I moved to England for a month before we started filming and worked on the accent and I started research about the period, about what it would have been like to live in the countryside at that time and we read her letters, learned sign language [Austen had a deaf mute brother], learned to play the piano…” She laughs, adding: “The skills portion of my resumé greatly improved after this role.”

Another essential component of becoming Jane was learning to dance.

“These days you just shake your butt and you’re a good dancer,” Hathaway says. “Back then there was actual choreography. I’d had dance training before; I think like a dancer so that was one aspect of the role I wasn’t worried about.”

Hathaway’s heightened fear of failure proved to be almost crippling.

“It became paralysing, the fear that I’d mess up portraying someone who I admire, who I respect. I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I forgot about it while we were filming and then, inexplicably, about a month after we wrapped I started having panic attacks and nightmares about being stabbed to death by Jane Austen’s ghost. I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating and breathing really heavily. That stopped once I got to watch the film and really liked it.”

This, despite the film’s lowly budget and the fact that it was shot almost entirely on location in the Irish countryside, fantastic for the overabundance of intact Georgian architecture but not so great in terms of weather.

“It was really changeable,” recalls Hathaway. “We didn’t know if it was the Gods or Jane being upset that I was playing her but every single time I had to do a close-up, it would rain. And it was cold! The accent took a lot of work but when you’ve been in a field for five hours waiting for the rain to stop and just standing there freezing… I just sound drunk in a lot of scenes.”

Hathaway is too hard on herself. Her English accent is the best to come from an American since Gwyneth seduced the Bard. Her performance, too, is immensely likeable, cementing her reputation as a leading lady who can carry a movie. With that in mind, does she feel her turn as Austen precludes her from taking on any of the novelist’s celebrated heroines. Hathaway hopes not.

“I’m a hack,” she jokes. “I love to work so I’d love to play any of them. I’d love to play Anne Elliot. I think they’re remaking that [Persuasion]. There was the wonderful BBC version with Amanda Root ten years back. She kind of did the perfect job. There have been some very definitive performances with Austen’s heroines, Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in Sense And Sensibility for instance. I’d love to join them.”

This article first appeared in The Big Issue in 2007.

INTERVIEW: JAY ROACH and BORAT on ‘BORAT’

A room full of jaded hacks from all corners of the globe isn’t exactly a comedian’s dream audience. Add to this the fact that the press conference is actually scripted, all questions having been submitted in advance, making the assembled journos little more than unpaid background artistes for the filming of a DVD extra. Worse still, they’ve been kept waiting in a hot room in London’s Dorchester Hotel for over an hour with no food except for biscuits and no booze; there are only so many cups of coffee one can drink. And yet, when finally Borat – AKA actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen –deigns to appear, he has people falling off their chairs laughing.

“You are Scottish, like Braveheart?
Like anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibson.”

Preceded on stage by Azamat Bagatov (played by Californian-born character actor Ken Davitian), Borat’s overweight producer whose eyebrows are, alarmingly, even bigger today than in the film, Borat bounds into the room, glad-handing those sitting on the aisle and, in the case of one lucky man, giving out an enthusiastic kiss.

“Jagshemash!” he booms from behind a podium, in front of which stand auto-cue screens; so much for Baron Cohen the master improviser. Much of his resolutely un-PC material has been heard before at other press conferences available online, as have some of his put-downs to members of the press asking questions.

“Hello, little boy,” he addresses a diminutive woman with short hair, or, on hearing a Scottish accent, he remarks, “You are Scottish, like Braveheart? Like anti-Jew warrior Melvin Gibson.”

To a room full of people for whom this is a job of work, it does feel slightly pointless, especially when he keeps to Borat’s persona by refusing to answer questions from a woman. The journo in question, wearily and reluctantly, plays along with the pantomime of getting a male colleague to pass on the message. Even so, there’s no doubting that, recycled though his material is, it’s hilarious.

“Very popular in Kazakhstan is singing transvestite Madonna. He really looks like a womans! Only thing that give him away is his huge hands.”

Or, when asked if he’d consider going out with a British girl, he answers that he’s particular keen to make the acquaintance of “Welsh prostitute, Charlotte Church”.

It’s a surreal day, that’s for sure, but not one that does justice to Borat’s movie – a semi-improvised road-trip that sees Borat’s racism, anti-Semiticism, ignorance and misogyny used as a tool to hold a mirror up to modern America’s prejudices. In a hotel room in London, it’s amusing and risqué, but that’s not the whole Borat story.

Borat started out life as a minor character on Channel 4’s Da Ali G Show, Baron Cohen’s chatshow format for his wannabe gangsta persona, Ali G. When the show was picked up by HBO in the US, Baron Cohen suddenly started swimming with the big fish in Hollywood’s comedy pond. It was director/producer Jay Roach (Meet The Parents, the Austin Powers movies) who first saw the potential of giving Borat his own film.

“We saw an opportunity to do a film that was bold, subversive and fresh,” he tells The Big Issue. “We wanted to transplant the reality TV show, which has Sacha in character, interacting with real people. Then, we created a story that supports a feature film.”

Writers Peter Baynham (I’m Alan Partridge), Anthony Hines (Dennis Pennis, Da Ali G Show) and Dan Mazer (also executive producer) were recruited to provide a basic storyline. But there was no script – the movie was an audacious experiment to bring a fictional character crashing into our world. Real events with real people push the film’s fictional story, and when scenes played out in unexpected ways, the team had to rewrite the outline. As director, Roach brought in Larry Charles, a man best known for Seinfeld and its wholly improvised spin-off, Curb Your Enthusiasm. The result is possibly the funniest, darkest, most compellingly subversive film ever made.

“I think what Sacha does in this film is revolutionary,” agrees Roach. “He’s created a totally believable, hilarious, fish-out-of-water character. Then Sacha takes Borat into often dangerous predicaments with real people who have to believe that Borat is authentic the entire time – or else Sacha could face serious consequences.”

As it was, the production’s guerrilla-style filmmaking involved the cops on numerous occasions. A warrant was issued for Baron Cohen’s arrest in New York, after he – as Borat – ran naked through a hotel waving a rubber fist-shaped dildo. While he narrowly avoided incarceration, producer Monica Levinson and production manager Dale Stern didn’t fare so well, thrown in a cell by the NYPD for ‘borrowing’ a phone, alarm clock and comforter from a local hotel to use as props. Even though the filmmakers had a location agreement and a $5 million insurance policy, the police went ahead with the arrests. To protect his colleagues, Stern ate a sheet listing the names and phone numbers of the film’s crew.

“Monica and Dale’s night in jail raised the bar for a filmmaker sacrificing for his or her art,” says Roach admiringly.

Baron Cohen no doubt has similar stories, especially as he reportedly r#main#d as Borat even when being beaten to the ground by security guards. But his insistence on staying in character and refusal to appear before the press as himself, while no doubt th# k#y to his fantastic performance, is intensely frustrating. Back in the Dorchester, the final question comes from a man who tells Borat that he’s from Israel.

“What?!” rails Borat, horrified. “Do not attack! I see your claws!”

Even though everyone in the room is in on the joke and knows that Baron Cohen is himself Jewish, a palpable sense of unease still comes to the room. And then it hits: we’re in a room watching a man who, unapologetically, is coming out with anti-Semitic bile that Hitler or Bin Laden might baulk at. And – this is Baron Cohen’s genius – we’re all laughing our asses off.

This article first appeared in The Big Issue in 2006.