Dawn of the Cats

This morning, I looked out my kitchen window just in time to see a black cat’s ass vanishing through a broken windowpane in my garage door. Thirty seconds later, a ginger cat turned up and searched all around, clearly wondering where the black cat had vanished to. It searched and searched but never figured it out.

I went to the garage door and opened it and explained to the cat, who was still concealed somewhere within, that it seemed like a very nice cat but, unfortunately, I wasn’t amenable to letting it set up any kind of residence in there. There was the worry – well, let’s not put too fine a point on it - of it doing some weeing in there and thus significantly reducing the already questionable amenity of the place. Plus, being unaware of the physical likelihood of this occurring, there was at least the possibility of a litter of kittens arriving at some point in the shed and all the inherent responsibility and worry which would come with that.

“So, dear black kitty, I am going to close up the hole in the glazing with a tatty combination of flattened game console box and black duct tape. Then I am going to leave the shed door open for a while so that you may affect a dignified and unpressured exit. Then I am going to close the door on your black cat’s ass and wish you all the best.

I taped up the window, all the time being sensible of the eyes of the cat being on me from the gloom and amassed tat in the garage interior. When I was done, I once more entreated the cat to come out in its own time. Then I retreated to the house where I set up a stakeout on the garage door from across the kitchen sink.

After a time, quite a long time, the little black cat came out. It peered out cautiously and seemed to sniff the air, possibly to see if there were any ginger colleagues or crazed humans still lurking about. Then it eased out and slinked on its way. I nipped out and closed the door.

The end.

I don’t think the cat was living in the shed. It was sleek and well-minded. I think the shed had very recently become a hobby for it, a stop on its daily patrol. There are probably some mice in there to stalk or a nice corner to dream in when the rain was coming down.

This episode has focused my mind once again. It had all slipped into my peripheral vision, my sub consciousness.

There are a lot of cats round my street.

An awful lot.

When I come around the corner into my street, there are often four or five cats to be seen. Sitting on walls, skulking behind hedges, eyeing each other up, eyeing me up. The next time I come around the corner, there may be four or five cats but they may be different cats.

Who owns all these felines? Who keeps them well-fed and watered, as they so evidently are? Are cats really popular in my neighbourhood or is there one main household responsible for the herd? A cat sanctuary where the little mites roam free, unhindered by any resource or contraceptive concerns.

It’s kind of spooky. It’s like the first reel of The Birds except it’s about Cats. They seem to be congregating, conspiring, laying their plans against us.

Don’t get me wrong, I like cats. They’re got shedloads of character (see what I did there?) and they don’t give a shit about anything much. That’s all commendable stuff in my booklet. I am, however, a little bit allergic to them. Nothing earth shattering: if one were to rub up again my bare arm, it would come up on an itchy rash and then shortly-after, go back down again (my arm, not the cat). I wouldn’t fall to the ground convulsing or anything. The rash, ma'am, just the rash. All this means that I usually stroke them with my index finger. That particular digit seems to be largely immune to irritation. It’s all fairly harmless stuff but it does tend to keep them at a small remove from me. And that, in turn, makes me that little bit more paranoid about them.

As I type this, there’s a cat sitting out in the front garden looking in. Does it know what I’m doing? Will it now alert its compadres and will they then commence a swift and stern action against me? Is this how it finally begins, the Feline Apocalypse?

More next week.

I hope…

Tales from the Lodge and The Joys of Portmanteau Horror

After much anticipation, I got to see the new portmanteau horror/comedy film ‘Tales from the Lodge’ this week. It’s written and directed by Abigail Blackmore, who was a key member of the ‘Class of 2008’ on Twitter, of which I was lucky enough to play a small part, if only mostly as a spectator.

But more of that anon. (That means nearer the end, Gran).

The set-up is pleasingly familiar, A bunch of thirtysomething pals reunite at a remote holiday cottage to memorialise their friend and spread his ashes more or less on the adjoining lake. It’s ‘The Big Chill’ and ‘Peter’s Friends’ with the prospect of fun and high-anxiety and these are both delivered in spades.

I really liked ‘Tales from the Lodge’. For lots of reasons. But not least because it is funny and savvy and very understanding of the genre and the tropes it is consistently riffing on. There’s a hint of the iconoclast about it too, as it gives the horror film a bit of a shake and then enjoys the sounds of the bones as they rattle. But, as with everything good, there’s a bit more than just that going on. 

After an initial viewing to enjoy the gags and the banter and the jumps and the shivers, a second viewing is rewarded by a creeping realisation that the characters' stories are all efforts on their parts to confess something about themselves to the others. Lurking just beneath the banter and the comradely fun, there is an undercurrent of guilt and betrayal and of truths longing to be told. The film rewards a little scratching at the surface fun. Could it be that the lodge itself is a metaphor for the heart (a very present theme within the narrative) and that the tales that emerge from within that isolated house are really coming from that much deeper place.

But more of that anon (or maybe not, maybe that’s quite enough of that).

To some extent, I was born and raised on Portmanteau horror. Those great Amicus film were shown in cinema matinees when we just kids and I loved them. I also got to see Night Gallery on telly when it first came out and the Roddy McDowell segment from the pilot still lives with me to this day. And yes, I could also do the argument that Night Gallery was anthology horror rather than portmanteau horror but, hey, time is short and we all have places we need to be. In addition to the movies there were also the comics. In my neck of the woods, in the early seventies, it was Creepy and Eerie comics that ruled the roost and both had dubiously-related gatekeepers who guided us through the even-more-dubious content within.

But, hands down, the granddaddy winner of them all, was the movie ‘Tales from the Crypt’. I can’t say exactly when I saw it but I read that it came out in 1972 and I saw it in a matinee so I’d make a conservative estimate that I caught it in 1973 when I was all of ten years old. For ten-year-old me, it was sheer perfection. Serial killer Santa, Monkey’s Paw twists and, king of kings, Peter Cushing’s sad old Mr. Grimsdyke coming back from the dead to wreak poetic justice. I don’t think I even knew what Valentine’s Day was. All I got was this dude was scrabbling out of his grave to straighten things out and, man, that was all I needed to know.

The characters in these stories were often poor enough examples of the human race. People did nasty things and met their comeuppance. The stories came short and sharp, such that if you didn’t like one there would always be another along in a little while. But, for me, the main trope of Portmanteau Horror was always that everything was simply not going to be all right. There may be fun and shivers and incredulous laughs along the way but you could always rely on the fact that everything was going to end shittily.

Tales from the Lodge uses all of that and shakes it up and plays with it too. It even manages to maintain the tradition of using high profile and talented actors to feature in the stories (and in the film entire). It combines the traditional 70’s schlock with more modern tropes, such as the one where characters in the stories sometimes lip sync the narrator saying their dialogue. Something that TV’s Drunk History series did so well.

A word, too, for the music. Warren Bennett has written more tunes for the moving image than I’ve had hot dinners and here his work is reflective and jumpy by turns and always with that trademark musicality of his. 'Sweet Billy Pilgrim' also features prominently on the soundtrack with my own favorite ‘Arrived at Upside Down’ sneaking in, to great effect.

Abi’s direction and writing are spot on. I’ve always greatly admired how she effortlessly captures the gentle ribbing of good friends. I have no doubt it is her unfailing determination to get work done and seen that has driven this project to its full fruition. I hope and expect it will open creaking doors to ever escalating levels of horror and fun.

One final point, and I feel you will have sensed this already in the subtext. The film is about old friends meeting up, the joy of seeing each other again mixed with the bitter-sweet ache of missing those who cannot be around to share in the fun.

Life mimics art. Doesn’t it though? So many of the names associated with the project are names I have known for so long. People who I have come to care about and, although we may never meet or shake hands, who have become friends. For me, there is at least some element of this film echoing that. Reading the credits was, for me, something of an emotional experience. To see that Warren and Tim sat down together to write one of the songs. To see Bob thanked right at the top of the list. To see Jana and Julian in there as they would always be. It’s a great warm thing that transcends the creation whilst also remaining an integral part of it. 

A joy, really. A joy.

But, all that aside, I greatly enjoyed ‘Tales from the Lodge’ for the fun, naughty, four-wheel-drive joy ride that it is. I also sensed some subtle current of real-life concerns running beneath all the Grand Guignol happenings as they swiftly unfolded. We need that. 

Well done, Abi (et al).

Can I watch it again?

Better Watch Out, Four Eyes

Sometimes, mostly when driving, I use the expression ‘Four Eyes’ in a derogatory sense. 

In fairness, there isn’t really a non-derogatory sense in which to use it so maybe just ignore that.

I’ll say it when that other driver does something typically stupid and inconsiderate. And is wearing glasses, of course. 

I really only use it when there’s somebody in the passenger seat and I sense that my usual stream of undiluted abuse might be viewed as a little over-the-top or clinically insane of some such thing.

I did it the other day and the person in the passenger seat turned to me and grinned and said, “I hate to break this to you but…”

I know. You don’t have to tell me. I’ve been wearing glasses myself for the best part of twenty years. Constantly, unswervingly wearing glasses.

Yet still I call other people 'Four Eyes'. What’s that all about?

I haven’t really thought of myself as ever wearing glasses. In much the same way as I haven’t thought of myself being the age I am. I've always been quite a way behind reality in who I think I am, how I think I look, and what I'm going to achieve. One side effect of this is that I haven’t ever really given up on things. Things like twenty-twenty vision or youth or crazy dreams.

Until these days. Until now.

But we’ll come to that…

I’ve always had some pretty outlandish dreams of how my life would go. When I was twelve, I was pretty sure I would play James Bond someday. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think I would actually be James Bond just that I would be the actor playing the part in the movies. I didn’t see anything overly difficult in achieving this proposition either. I had no illusions that I was a good-looking kid (I wasn’t) but I didn’t see ‘good looking’ as a requirement for playing the part of the secret agent. I figured I would manage it all right, without too much bother.

Then, in my twenties, I figured I would be a writer and would one day be primarily known as a writer. That outlandish dream pretty-much persisted through my thirties and forties too.

Remember Lucy Jordan? That lady in Marianne Faithful’s song seemed to let her dreams go relatively early on. At the age of thirty-seven, she’s already realised she'd never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair. At thirty-seven, most of my crazy dreams were still going full tilt. I always thought Lucy Jordan should have held out a while longer. And, yes, yes, you may say she did get to ride in the car blah blah but I don't think she did really. 

(As a side note, I just looked up Google to get the name of the titular lady who gave up her dreams in that song. What I got was ‘The Ballad of Lucy Jordan HD’. I then spent an embarrassing 15 seconds wondering what the ‘HD’ stood for. Was she some kind of doctor or something? I figured it out eventually.)

But now here I am, deep in my fifties and things have changed, even for me. These days, when I call that driver in the other car ‘Four Eyes’, there’s a bit of self-awareness and irony thrown in there along with all the ire. Realisation is finally dawning, I think. Not all of your dreams tend to come true.

At the age of fifty-six, Marianne might sing of me that I realised I would never play James Bond, nor drive without glasses, nor be known primarily as a writer. Whereas, up until this point, I had usually felt a decade or two younger than I actually was, So often now, I feel my true age or even a little older. Real life seems to have finally caught up with me. Some aspects of it have even passed me by.

But all is not yet completely lost.

I’m sitting here after midnight, typing away and there’s still time for some silly dreams to come true. Some day yet, I may be known as a writer as well as being known as that pretty nice guy, occasionally funny, and quite irritating to a number of people.

Some day they might even want a slightly overweight and grizzly James Bond who runs the bad guys mercilessly off the road and calls them 'Four Eyes' as he whizzes past on his way to his next adventure…

…even though he is clearly wearing glasses too.