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Wednesday, August 5, 2020

FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS


Publicity poster for Florence Foster Jenkins (© Stephen Frears/Pathé/BBC Films/Qwerty Films/20th Century Fox/Pathé Distribution – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)


[Seeing that it is now exactly 2 years to the day since I originally watched this wonderful biopic and then wrote about it on my Facebook timeline, today seems as appropriate a time as any to revive and expand it as a Shuker In MovieLand review. So here it is.]

Call me an old fogey, but today very few movies move me - the vast majority are simply too brash, too crude, too knowing, too gritty, too cynical for my taste. However, the thoroughly charming tragi-comedy that I've just watched tonight [5 August 2018] on television is none of those things. Furthermore, it is made even more extraordinary, often poignant, and extremely touching by virtue of the fact that it is based upon fact, telling the true story of one of the world's most remarkable singers - Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), whose name is also the title of this wonderful, highly-acclaimed biographical film, directed by Stephen Frears and released in 2016.

Played magnificently by Meryl Streep (who received an Oscar nomination for this role), Florence was an elderly NYC heiress and socialite who had long ago inherited colossal wealth (and, tragically, syphilis too) from her callous first husband, but used his money not only to generously fund all manner of classical music functions and festivals in New York but also to pay for singing lessons for herself and to retain talented if hitherto-unknown pianist Cosmé McMoon (played brilliantly by Simon Helberg) to accompany her at her subsequent concerts.

Florence was possessed of great zeal and determination to succeed as an operatic soprano singer, but unfortunately – SPOILER ALERT!! – she was tone deaf, which is the film's bittersweet crux.

I call her life story a tragi-comedy because that is precisely what it is, combining these two diametrically opposite scenarios to spellbinding yet also very tender, enthralling effect. The comedy is derived from the hilarious reality of just how ear-splittingly atrocious a singer Florence was (some of her excruciating recordings can be heard on YouTube, including one that is actually accompanied by rare film footage of her – click here to view and listen to it). The tragedy comes from the soul-wrenching irony that almost until the very end of her life she was blissfully oblivious of this – which was due to the kindness of her many friends and most especially to her very supportive, encouraging second husband, Sinclair Bayfield (played very gallantly throughout by Hugh Grant in a BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated performance), who were happy to turn in every sense a deaf ear to her musical shortcomings on account of her own very genuine and extremely kind-hearted nature, always willing to help them emotionally and financially.

Unfortunately, by always being shielded from ever knowing the truth about her musical failings, Florence finally decided very boldly, at the age of 76, to hire nothing less than New York's peerless Carnegie Hall for a special one-night performance by her, on 25 October 1944, in order to honour the American troops fighting in WW2 and, once again demonstrating her warm, generous spirit, giving away a thousand free tickets to soldiers on leave so that they could attend. Happily, however, once the soldiers were appraised of the truth regarding Florence's singing and were thus 'in' on the joke, they applauded her thunderously just like her friends had always done, and she returned home afterwards in absolute triumph. The next day, moreover, all of the main newspapers contained glowing reviews of her concert; bearing in mind, however, that, unknown yet again to Florence, their music critics were all friends with Sinclair, this was hardly surprising.

All but Earl Wilson, the New York Post's music critic, that is. Never having been won over by Sinclair's charm, or bribes, Wilson became the equivalent of the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale 'The Emperor's New Clothes', not adhering to the fantasy line spun by everyone else but instead telling it just as it was, in an excoriating review that vitriolically denounced Florence as the worst singer in the world. Despite Sinclair's attempts to prevent Florence from knowing about it, she finally discovered and read Wilson's review, and was utterly devastated, collapsing onto the floor. The house of cards collapsed, the mirage was blown away, the castle in the air plummeted to the ground, Florence finally knew the truth - and only a month later, she passed away.

The shock and humiliation, coupled with the stress of performing at Carnegie Hall at her advanced age, plus the underlying, ever-present weakness of her constitution caused by living with syphilis for 50 years after unsuspectingly contracting the debilitating disease from her first husband on her wedding night, when she was an innocent 18-year-old virgin - it had all been too much.

Yet in spite of everything, what had kept Florence alive throughout those five decades of ill-health had been her indomitable determination to make music her life - and make it her life she truly did. Even after finally learning the grim reality of her singing talent's non-existence, she gained comfort from the undeniable fact that although people had stated that she couldn't sing, she had sung, and in so doing had made her dreams come true - a lesson for us all.

I cannot recommend this inspirational movie highly enough – watch it and celebrate as I did a human spirit undiminished and unconquered by the limitations imposed by life – and here is an official trailer to tempt and tantalise you with the joy, the delights, and the destiny encapsulated in the extraordinary story of an exceptional lady, Florence Foster Jenkins.




Tuesday, August 4, 2020

SGT PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND – THE MOVIE


Publicity poster for Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Movie (© Michael Schultz/Apple Corps/RSO Records/Universal Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

As regular readers  of my movie mini-reviews here and originally on my Facebook timeline will know, I have a penchant for viewing movies slated by the critics, if only because more often than not I discover that I actually like them – I'm contrary that way! And so it proved once again on Sunday afternoon [2 August 2020], when I viewed Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Movie (hereafter SPLHCBTM, for purposes of brevity, relatively speaking!).

Directed by Michael Schultz, produced by Robert Stigwood, and originally released in 1978, as its title suggests this fantasy movie musical features many of the songs that first appeared on the Beatles' iconic Sgt Pepper album (as well as some from their Abbey Road album), but the Fab Four do not star in it. Instead, it features a then still extraordinarily youthful-looking Peter Frampton (best known for fronting the rock bands Humble Pie and The Herd) and the Bee Gees brotherly trio of Barry, Maurice, and Robin Gibb.

SPLHCBTM's quite surreal, and sometimes decidedly psychedelic, plot and visuals tell the suspending-of- all-disbelief tale of a legendary brass band quartet named – yes indeed – Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, hailing from the homely little American town of Heartland but whose spirits-lifting music is instrumental (sorry!) in bringing World War I to a close and makes them immensely popular for decades afterwards, continuing to perform until a now-elderly Sgt Pepper's sudden death, whereupon their metaphorical baton is passed on to his young grandson Billy Shears (played by Frampton). When he grows older, Billy forms a new, pop-rock version of his grandfather Sgt Pepper's original band with his three best friends, the Henderson brothers Bob, Dave, and Mark (the Bee Gees).

Their music comes to the attention of a Mr Big-in-Showbiz character named B.D. (a totally unrecognizable Donald Pleasence), who brings them to his palatial home in Los Angeles and swiftly signs them up, within a week of which they become major stars throughout the USA and beyond (as you do), despite being managed by Billy's less than honest, money-mad half-brother Dougie (Paul Nicholas). They also face constant temptation of the carnal kind from another of B.D.'s signings, a foxy foursome performing as Lucy and the Diamonds (Dianne Steinberg and Stargard).

Meanwhile, however, their hitherto wholesome Heartland hometown falls under the dark shadow of the villainous Mr Mustard (played in his own inimitable fourth-wall-demolishing style by famous British comedian Frankie Howerd in his only major American movie role), which sees most of its stores and even its City Hall bought up by Mustard and converted into sleazy clubs and casinos, to the despair of Heartland's honorable mayor Mr Kite (George Burns, who also serves as the movie's narrator). Billy's loyal girlfriend, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina), who had stayed behind in Heartland when Billy and the boys journeyed to L.A. to meet with B.D., now makes her own way there to warn them of what is happening back in Heartland, not knowing that Mustard is actually following orders received within his computerized, android-assisted headquarters concealed inside his grotty van from a mysterious unseen entity named FVB whose aim is to take over the world.

In order to do so, however, FVB needs the magical joy-bringing musical instruments of the original Sgt Pepper's band, now proudly displayed in Heartland's museum inside City Hall, so Mustard duly steals them and distributes three of the four to various persons designated by FVB. These malcontents include a deranged plastic surgeon named Dr Maxwell Edison (Steve Martin) and a malevolent, mind-warping cult leader who calls himself Father Sun (Alice Cooper). If all of this seems convoluted and just the teensiest bit OTT, you ain't seen – or heard – nothing yet!

Suffice it to say that Strawberry, Billy and the boys, aided and abetted by Dougie and Lucy, pursued by a manic Mustard as they seek to recover the stolen instruments, and finally confronting the villainous FVB, who turns out to be a megalomaniacal rock band called Future Villain Band (Aerosmith), get to perform a sizeable number of Beatles songs along the way, and some of them quite impressively (e.g. Here Comes the Sun, You Never Give Me Your Money, A Day In The Life). However, for me the two stand-out performances are actually Frankie Howerd's hilarious rendition of When I'm Sixty-Four (click here to view it), and (click here) Steve Martin's hysterically insane interpretation of Maxwell's Silver Hammer (a song by Paul McCartney that I have to confess I'd never heard or even heard about before, and which sounds deceptively like a children's song until you listen to the words and realize that they are actually describing the murderous activities of a youthful serial killer!).

A tragic, moving scene is the unexpected death and sorrowful funeral of Strawberry Fields, but hey, this is SPLHCBTM, so that is soon rectified by the Sgt Pepper-dedicated gilded weather vane atop of Heartland's City Hall. For not only does it magically come to life as Billy Preston strutting his stuff in an eye-dazzling gold lamé suit but also it soon works the very same magic upon Strawberry too, restoring her into the land of the living as good as new, before swiftly banishing the baddies and kitting out the goodies in shiny new outfits – just in time for them to bring this bright, breezy, if sometimes decidedly bewildering movie to a happy-clappy close with a huge array of mostly music-based showbiz stars joining together to sing the movie's theme song. Knowing that this scene was coming, I paid close attention to see how many stars I could spot, with my eventual tally including Helen Reddy, Keith Carradine, the Paley Brothers, Leif Garrett, Carol Channing, Tina Turner, Peter Noone, Dr John, José Feliciano, Rick Derringer, Robert Palmer, Sha-Na-Na – and, with no apparent reason whatsoever for his inclusion there, Barry Humphries as his Aussie alter ego Dame Edna Everage.

Beatles purists will no doubt hate this movie with a vengeance, but as an exercise in vividly colourful visuals, entertaining if indisputably nonsensical storylines, an outrageously eclectic mix of stars that would never be expected to appear together (Frankie Howerd, Alice Cooper, George Burns, Peter Frampton, Donald Pleasence, and the Bee Gees – really??!!), and the unquestionable quality of the classic, timeless songs upon which this whole eccentric extravaganza is hung, it is very far indeed from being the worst big screen or small screen experience of two hours' tenure that the critics would have you believe it to be. Take my word for it, I enjoyed it immensely – but, then again, I'm sure that you know me well enough to know that I would!

Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees as Sgt Pepper and His Lonely Hearts Club Band (© Michael Schultz/Apple Corps/RSO Records/Universal Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)





Monday, August 3, 2020

CAVEMAN


Illustration of Atouk astride a very Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins-reminiscent dinosaur in Caveman (© Richard Svensson)

 [This review's original version was posted on my Facebook timeline, 26 December 2019]

After originally recording it on a VHS videocassette tape at least 30 years ago but without ever subsequently watching it, tonight [26 December 2019] I finally got around to viewing the 1981 prehistoric comedy movie Caveman, starring Ringo Starr, Barbara Bach, Dennis Quaid, and Shelley Long (albeit in DVD format, so the poor old videotape version still remains unwatched, and probably always will now!).

Directed by Carl Gottlieb, it tells the tale of a puny caveman outcast, Atouk (Ringo's character), and how he gradually gathers together a loyal clan of similar misfits that finally stand up to and defeat a bullying rival caveman clan, thanks to a series of inventions and evolutionary ploys that they have developed throughout the movie, such as weapons, fire, upright stance, and even Atouk's ability to ride a giant reptile into battle as a veritable war-horse.

Unapologetically slapstick in style, it is packed full of great visual and aural gags. The caveman language is only rudimentary, so the movie has to rely heavily upon sight and sound effects. However, these no doubt help to grant it international appeal, as do some purposefully comical, sub-Harryhausen stop-motion dinosaurs, plus a man-in-a-costume yeti.

For as is virtually de rigeur in such movies, Caveman anachronistically juxtapositions cavemen (and women) alongside dinosaurs and a pterosaur, plus the afore-mentioned yeti and also a bizarre giant Venus flytrap-like plant with tentacles and amorous intentions upon a bewildered Atouk. My favourite monster was the giant unidentifiable quadupedal dinosaur with a horned snout and bulging frog-like eyes that initially terrorises the cave tribes but is later galvanised by Atouk as his battle steed.

Interestingly, in overall form this memorable monster bears at least a passing resemblance to certain of the huge and historically-significant if nowadays palaeontologically-outdated dinosaur reconstructions created more than a century ago by painter and sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and still on outdoor display today in London's Crystal Palace park. Perhaps they served as inspiration for some of the prehistoric creatures in this movie?

Caveman definitely delivers a fun-filled 90 minutes' worth of prehistoric palaver, and also provides a striking reminder of how very beautiful the young Shelley Long was in the 1980s.

Publicity still from Caveman featuring Ringo Starr as Atouk (© Carl Gottlieb/Turman-Foster Company/United Artists)



Sunday, August 2, 2020

THE LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM (VERSUS THE LEGEND OF THE LAMBTON WORM)

Publicity poster for 'The Lair of the White Worm' (© Ken Russell/White Lair/Vestron Pictures – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)


[This review's original version was posted on my Facebook timeline, 22 April 2020.]

Last night [21 April 2020], I watched the 1988 British horror movie The Lair of the White Worm, directed by the infamous Ken Russell (who also wrote its screenplay), and what a surreal, hilarious romp it was. Loosely inspired by Dracula creator Bram Stoker's final, same-titled novel (first published in 1911), it also drew even more heavily than that latter novel did upon the famous northern England legend of the Lambton Worm - a huge limbless serpent dragon laying waste to the countryside until it was eventually slain by Lord Lambton. Indeed, in the movie version, Caswall, the surname of the local aristocrat in Stoker's novel, has been changed to the Lambton-soundalike surname D'Ampton. Set in rural Derbyshire, England, it stars a young Hugh Grant as Lord James D'Ampton whose ancestor reputedly slew a huge serpent dragon known in this area as the D'Ampton Worm; an also young Peter Capaldi as visiting Scottish archaeology student Angus Flint who unearths a giant snake-like skull during some local excavations; the regal Catherine Oxenberg as Eve Trent, the co-owner (with her sister Mary) of a countryside bed-and-breakfast hotel near to where the skull was found; and, above all others, a fabulously OTT Amanda Donohoe as the serpentine (in more ways than one) and seductively evil Lady Sylvia Marsh (changed from Lady Arabella March in the novel).

Lady Arabella March, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm, published a year before Bram Stoker's death (public domain)

In deliciously (forked) tongue-in-cheek style, Donohoe plays the part of an immortal, sexually-charged snake priestess, secretly serving a gigantic male ophidian deity named Dionin who has been lurking unseen for untold ages within the vast underground cave system not far from D'Ampton's castle and Marsh's stately home. Moreover, Lady Marsh is capable of transforming into a blue-skinned, venom-fanged humanoid snake whenever the need to ravish and abduct an unsuspecting local for sacrificial purposes arises, which it does on a very regular basis throughout this manic movie. And as if all of that wasn't enough, anyone bitten by her is transformed, vampire-like, into a befanged snake-human themselves.

The White Worm rears up above the forest, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in the original 1911 edition of The Lair of the White Worm (public domain)

Yet another of the movie's multitude of plot lines is that centuries earlier, in this very same location and currently the subject of Angus's digs, a convent had been built upon the site where in Roman times a pagan temple devoted to serpent worship had existed, and this confrontation of religions is visualised very dramatically via a series of hallucinations interspersed through the film, in which, as was his wont, Russell left nothing to the imagination – intertwining and juxtapositioning in shocking, eyeball-shattering fantasy sequences all manner of Christian, ophiolatreian, and explicit sexual symbols and images in often deeply disturbing, overtly offensive scenes. These aside, however, the film is mostly played for laughs, strewn with the kind of saucy double entendres and phallic allusions that would make a Carry On star blush, plus a neat twist at the very end. Very much a cult classic and an absolute must for monster-movie buffs like me.

My 1960 Arrow Books paperback edition of The Lair of the White Worm, which I first read just a few years before the movie version was released (public domain/Arrow Books)

But what was the story of the Lambton Worm that so influenced this movie? I retold its legend in my book Dragons: A Natural History (1995), so here, as a ShukerNature exclusive, is my never-before-seen original version of that retelling, before it was edited down in order to fit the space allocated to it in the published book.

Dragons: A Natural History (© Dr Karl Shuker/Aurum Press)


Curse of the Lambton Worm
It was Easter Sunday morning in 1420, and everyone from the village of Washington, close to the River Wear in County Durham, England, was hurrying to church - everyone, that is, except for John Lambton, the young, dissolute heir to Lambton Castle nearby.

Eschewing spiritual solace and observation of the Sabbath for more material, disrespectful pleasures, he was fishing in the river, ignoring the disapproving glances of churchgoers passing by. As the morning drew on with not a single fish taking his bait, however, Lambton's mood darkened, and he cursed aloud with blasphemous abandon at his ill-fortune.

As if bidden by this profane outburst, a sudden ripple shivered across the river's surface. Moments later, Lambton felt something tug sharply at his line, but it was not a fish. When he hauled it up out of the water, he thought at first that it was some form of aquatic worm or leech, small yet very elongate with black slimy skin. Then it raised its head, and looked at him - and even the brash Lambton caught his breath in horror, for his unexpected catch had the head of a dragon...and the face of a devil!

Its jaws were very slender, brimming with long needle-like teeth, and evil-smelling fluid oozed from nine gill-like slits on either side of its neck, but all that Lambton saw were its eyes. Like icy coals they glittered, snaring his own in a glacial, mesmeric trance - and as he gazed helplessly into them, all the sins of his misspent, wasted youth danced amid their malevolent darkness like mocking, accursed wraiths.

Lambton Worm illustration by John Dickson Batten, from More English Fairy Tales (1894)  (public domain)

Lambton had initially planned to keep whatever he caught, but all that he wanted to do now was to rid himself of this loathsome creature, and he lost no time in casting it down into a nearby well. From that moment on he was a changed person, seeking redemption and salvation for his former misdeeds, a mission that led him a few years later to set out as a crusader - some say in the Hussite Crusade, others say in the Middle East. And so he left Lambton Castle far behind - but he also left behind a monstrous manifestation of his former wickedness.

Unbeknownst to Lambton, his vermiform captive had thrived within the well's gloomy confines, growing steadily and stealthily larger, and ever more powerful. One morning, some Washington villagers spied a strange trail glistening with acidic slime, leading from the well to a hill close by. Intrigued, they followed the trail – and a terrible sight met their eyes.

So huge that its snake-like body had enfolded it nine times within its mighty coils, a hideous limbless dragon of the type known as a worm or orm lay basking upon the hill. Livid slime seared the grass beneath its body, and poisonous vapour spiralling out of its mouth withered the leaves of the surrounding trees.

Thus began the Lambton Worm's grisly reign of terror - during which it laid waste to Washington's once-verdant countryside, devoured livestock and even small children with impunity, and turned the villagers into captives within their homes, frightened to set foot outside their door for fear of encountering their land's deadly despoiler. In desperation, they attempted to pacify the monster with an offering of milk - an ancient, customary gesture when faced with a marauding dragon - and so a huge trough was filled with fresh milk and placed in Lambton Castle's courtyard where it could be readily seen by the worm.

Coloured vintage illustration of Lambton doing battle in his spike-bearing armour with his virulent namesake (public domain)

As anticipated, the creature rapidly slithered forth, and gleefully lapped up the creamy offering with its viperine tongue. For the rest of that day and all through the night, it remained passively wrapped around its chosen hillside retreat - but when no further milk was forthcoming on the following morning, it rampaged in fury, with the terrified villagers cowering in their houses. So from that day on, every village cow was milked exclusively to provide a sufficient daily tribute to satisfy the worm.

Every so often, one or more brave villagers attempted to dispatch their serpentine enslaver with sword or lance, but even if they succeeded in slicing the beast in half, the halves immediately joined together again - yielding a fully-intact, highly-irascible worm that rarely gave its attackers the opportunity either to repeat their ploy or to flee the fray.

Years passed by, until at last John Lambton returned home from the Crusades, and was horrified to discover the worm's baneful presence. Determined to rid his land of this animate evil that had been inflicted upon it by his own youthful decadence, he sought the advice of a wise old witch. She informed him that he would only succeed in killing the monster if he wore a special suit of armour surfaced in sharp blades, and if he confronted it in the middle of the river where he had originally caught it.

There was, however, a price to pay for success. After slaying the worm, he must also slay whoever was first to meet him afterwards. If he failed to do this, the Lambton lineage would be cursed, and for nine generations no Lambton heir would die in his own bed.

Lambton Worm illustration by CE Brock, from English Fairy and Other Folk Tales (1890), edited by Edwin S Hartland (public domain)

Heeding all that the witch told him, Lambton arranged for the spike-adorned armour to be prepared at once, and promptly set forth in it to engage in battle with his dreadful foe. By swift and subtle sword-play, Lambton enticed the worm into the fast-flowing water of the River Wear. Once there, however, the worm seized him in its coils - but the more that it sought to crush him, the more severely his suit's razor-sharp blades pierced its body. Aided by his own sword's ready thrusts, the blades eventually sliced the worm into several segments - and before they could recombine, the river's swift current bore them away. Thus was the fearsome Lambton Worm destroyed.

Joyfully, John Lambton returned home to his castle - but although he had vanquished the worm, its curse lingered on. His old father, ecstatic to see that his son had survived his formidable encounter, was the very first living thing to run out and greet him. At this, Lambton became pale with fear, knowing that if he were to secure the safety of his descendants he must kill his own father - but he simply couldn't do so. Instead, he killed his most faithful dog, in the hope that this sacrifice would be sufficient - but it was not.

For the next nine generations, every heir to Lambton Castle met a tragic end. The worm had gone, but for ever afterwards the legend of this terrible serpent dragon would be irrevocably intertwined with the name of Lambton.


Finally: for further details regarding the Lambton Worm, be sure to check out Paul Screeton's comprehensive coverage in his book Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs: The Lambton Worm and Other Northumbrian Dragon Legends (1998), for which I was delighted to write a foreword. Its main title is a line from a famous folk song retelling the Lambton Worm legend – click here to listen to ex-Animals member Alan Price singing it on YouTube, with its full lyrics provided below the video.

Whisht Lads and Haad Yor Gobs (© Paul Screeton/Northeast Press Ltd)


This crossover article of mine first appeared here in my ShukerNature blog.