Fans mourning the end of Stranger Things 3 were granted a temporary reprieve with the swift reappearance of fan favourite David Harbour in his newest project: an oddball half-hour Netflix mockumentary that focuses on a (fictionalised) Harbour’s investigation into his (fictionalised) father’s (fictionalised) long-lost Frankenstein teleplay. Going by Wikipedia, Harbour’s real-life parents are realtors so this special – cumbrously entitled ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein’ (hereafter FMMF) – is actually an opportunity for the real-life Harbour to attack the role with characteristic aplomb, a phrase which here means ‘go full Christopher Guest character in this eccentric ode to overblown acting’.
Mary Shelley’s masterpiece has been reinterpreted, retold and reinvented in myriad ways during the two hundred years since its publication. This might be the monster’s most maddeningly metatextual manifestation to date, with the special riffing on Orson Welles (via David Harbour Jr.’s conceited thesp), Inside the Actors Studio (reimagined as The Actor’s Trunk), and woodenly-acted teleplays rife with cronky sets, clunky dialogue and clumsy delivery. Other than featuring one of Netflix’s most beloved stars, FMMF is utterly uncommercial, seemingly aimed at no-one and achieving nothing except for those people with serendipitously aligned niche interests in badly-acted 1970s plays, reinterpretations of Gothic texts, intentionally overwrought acting, and one David Kenneth Harbour.
I am one of those people.
Last year I had the pleasure of speaking on the post-show panel for the Sherman Theatre’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker with the Hat. It was a vicious, vibrant play that struck me deeply both on the page and the stage, and it has stayed with me ever since. One of the reasons for that is because it called to mind another Guirgis-penned, provocatively-titled, masterpiece: The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, a triumph of the form and one of my all-time favourite works of fiction.
The original, premiering in 2005, was directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman and starred Sam Rockwell as Judas. The story: in a rundown corner of Purgatory (ironically) called Hope, a court is in session. The trial concerns the immortal soul of Christianity’s – perhaps history’s – most infamous traitor: Judas Iscariot. The verdict is almost universally considered a foregone conclusion; to even think of re-evaluating the complicity of Judas in Jesus’ death seems like a betrayal of God and everything His disciples hold dear. But the trial goes ahead regardless; a churlish judge, a sleazy prosecutor and a fiercely intelligent defence attorney wrangle with each other over holy scripture as a star-studded slew of iconic figures parade in and out of the witness stand, and God is conspicuous only by His absence.
Although the play can get as intense and emotional as that synopsis suggests, it’s crafted with a lightness of touch that makes celestials and saints (and even Satan) feel distinctly modern and familiar despite their otherwise-distancing epochal grandiosity. Don’t be put off by the theologically-incendiary title; Christianity may provide the characters, but religion is the context, not the substance: Last Days is a moving meditation on guilt, remorse and responsibility on a cosmic yet deeply personal scale. The language of the angels is rendered colloquial and relatable, humanising and grounding these distant and divine beings. It’s A Matter of Life and Death meets The Greatest Story Ever Told but scripted like a Scorsese movie. Anyone who enjoys the irreverent existentialism of Birdman, Groundhog Day and Harold and Maude, or tv’s recent obsession with the afterlife (The Good Place, Miracle Workers, Forever, Good Omens), this is the play for you.
Intense, provocative, insightful, the play wants you to actively engage with your own problems and your beliefs. It’s only about a hundred pages long, and though its content is dense, its pace is swift, and the questions it encourages you to ponder will keep you occupied long after the final line, and I’d recommend it to everyone. Here’s why…
I am not exaggerating when I say that there are few people on planet earth who were more excited than I to see David Harbour suit up as Big Red. If anyone was going to like this film, it would have been me, believe me. My credentials: I regularly watch Syfy original movies with titles like Rise of the Shadow Warrior, Dawn of the Dragon Slayer and Mythica: The Darkspore FOR FUN. Not in a postmodern ironic way, not as a hate watch – I genuinely enjoy them. The cheaper they look, the better. I have long established on this blog that if a movie looks like it was filmed in someone’s garden for a fiver, the more likely I am to adore it – because these kinds of films are made earnestly by earnest people who sincerely love this stuff too.
That is the difference between a movie like Mythica: The Darkspore and Hellboy (2019): the former genuinely loves what it does and who it’s for, the latter is so arrogantly misanthropic in the name of hard-R edginess that the finished product is nothing but an empty, hollow thing. (Prince Nuada would be ashamed).
So why is it so bad and how did it end up this way?
Earlier this month I was reorganising my shelves (not a euphemism*) when I stumbled on my well-worn box-sets of Robin Hood seasons 1-3. Created by Dominic Minghella and Foz Allan, and produced by Tiger Aspect Productions, this series ran on BBC One from 2006 to 2009, and, for a lot of that time, was my favourite thing in the world. Boasting a superb ensemble cast, a swashbuckling sensibility and the same mischievous sense of fun purveyed by its amiably anachronistic antecedents A Knight’s Tale and the 1970s’ Musketeers movies, the Beeb’s noughties-made Robin Hood was one of my first loves and, as so often follows, one of my first heartbreaks.
With solid viewing figures and a passionate fanbase, the series generally stands up when re-watching it a decade+ later, even if its naffness is somewhat more prominent in the Netflix era of television. The first season is an entertainingly ramshackle stab at the legend, elevated by the enthusiasm of its talented cast and the beauty of its sensational setting (Hungary gorgeously doubles as a suspiciously sunny England circa 1192). It’s the second season where things get legitimately great, with everyone relaxing into their roles and amping up the interpersonal strife, with turncoats and traitors in both the sheriff’s inner circle and Robin Hood’s gang. Not everything clicks, but it believably builds to a breaking point and culminates in a shocking finale that almost put me off not just the series but television as a whole. The third season shambled along rather lifelessly, slowly decimating any sense of fun and adventure, and shoving everyone else aside in favour of what essentially became ‘The Guy and Robin Variety Hour’. It at least had the decency to go out with something of a bang, but I had emotionally checked out of the show long before its final reel.
This post is my humble stab at exploring what the series did so well, what it faltered at, and how I’d have done it differently…
*if you watch the BBC’s Robin Hood series, you’ll get this reference 😉
In the great tradition of single-character movies, Steven Knight’s Locke ranks with Duncan Jones’ Moon, Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried and Steven Spielberg’s Duel. I fully admit I didn’t get this film when I first saw it. Intrigued by the opportunity to watch Tom Hardy wearing a very nice jumper and speaking with a Welsh accent for ninety minutes, I was initially confused and disappointed by what I found to be a rather unexciting experimental film that concluded without clarity or closure. Revisiting it after four years of studying mens rea and doubles/Gothic fiction, I found Locke to be an unassuming masterpiece with lashings of subtext and suspense that cleverly relocated the movie thriller in a deeply personal context with small but meaningful stakes. The story follows construction foreman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) who, on the eve of a historic concrete pour he has been tasked to oversee (and much to the chagrin of his co-workers and family members), drives from Birmingham to London as a secret he has kept for months begins to unravel…
It’s that time of year again when we think back on the last twelve months and reflect on all the things we’ve done whilst, in my case at least, consuming a metric ton of chocolate. As 2018 trails to a close, my PhD thesis is slowly assembling, Frankenstein-style, into a fully-formed being. (That featured image contains all the notebooks I’ve filled with thesis-related ideas, thoughts and ramblings). Four years’ worth of work later and one era is ending while another peers over the horizon. It’s been a wonderful journey – the most challenging and fulfilling of my life yet – and it won’t quite feel real until I’m holding a bound copy in my hands.
This month, we’re treated to a guest post by indie author JD Estrada on his newly-released middle-grade novella Given to Fly. Named after a beloved song by Pearl Jam (a band whose influence on Estrada’s writing cannot be understated), the story follows the whimsical adventures of 11-year-old John Rivers, a boy whose dreams of flying lead him on an adventure filled with magic and mayhem, and maybe a few hard-earned life lessons along the way.
I’ve collaborated with JD on this blog before now – and was fortunate enough to beta read his latest non-fiction books Peace, Love and Maki Rolls and For Writing Out Loud – though this will be his first guest post on this blog. I was also treated with an early glimpse of Given to Fly, and I found it to be an entertaining, imaginative, emotional thrill-ride that deftly manifested the abstract into the actual, and which actually brought tears to my eyes by the last line. It’s out today, so let’s hear from the writer himself on the inspiration behind this new magical story: over to you, JD!
One of the very first posts I ever uploaded to my blog was a review of Penny Dreadful, in which I enthused over the Gothic decadence and intriguing introspection of this singular series. I love Penny Dreadful very much, but it had many faults and missed opportunities that still plague me. For one, I was always annoyed that the main cast didn’t ever fully ‘assemble’. Secrets that should have been revealed, weren’t, and characters who should have met, didn’t. I still highly recommend the show, especially to anyone with even the vaguest interest in the Gothic, or anyone who wants to see a better version of the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Penny Dreadful was a five series show that only got three, and here’s how I would have handled the two seasons it was tragically denied.
I loved Venom.
Not because it’s good: it’s not. I loved it because it was fun and weird and wacky and totally unlike any comic book movie from the last decade. Brimming with Lovecraftian ickiness and Freudian innuendos, the movie exists in the strange, temporal hinterland between Batman & Robin and Catwoman in terms of tone and execution – despite the fact it came out in 2018.
The movie’s tagline declares that ‘[t]he world has enough superheroes’, and it’s right; this isn’t your typical comic book flick at all. Imagine, if you will, that The Mask, The Odd Couple, and Me, Myself and Irene got into the pod from The Fly: Venom would emerge as the macabre mist-baby of that unholy union. Less the dark anti-heroic gore-fest the trailers sought to portray, and more a body-sharing buddy comedy, Venom is at its best when it leans into its weirdness with fearless aplomb and just has a good time…
Public Service Announcement: go read these books! If you love Gothic anything, you’ll love these, and even if you don’t you’ll get a fantastic, feminist adventure series with a preponderance of tea and cake. Okay, now on with part two, which involves monsters, vampires, and other immortals – plus my casting ideas for an inevitable and much-needed adaptation (Netflix, hear my prayer…)