Dune designs

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Currently racking up the bids at eBay (again) is an early draft of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s script for his ill-fated film of Dune. Aside from some diverting glimpses of dialogue and plot elaboration, what’s most interesting about the draft is the character and scene sketches, some of which are sampled below. I’ve still not seen the documentary about the unmade film so I can’t say whether any of these have appeared in public before but if they have they’re new to me. No artist is credited but the naive style rules out both Moebius and HR Giger (who arrived late to the project in any case). Best bet is either Jodorowsky himself—in 1967 he was writing and illustrating a comic strip, Fabulas Panicas—or Jodorowsky’s colleague from the Panic Movement days, Roland Topor. In the early 70s Topor was working with René Laloux on the animated SF film Fantastic Planet.

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Many of the conceptions differ radically from the more graceful designs that Moebius produced later on. Also of note are details such as the anal entrance to the Emperor’s throne room, a Harkonnen orgy and an insemination scene viewed from inside Jessica’s vagina. By the time Giger joined the production team the instruction was not to create anything too erotic or adult since the film needed to reach a large audience.

There’s more from the Dune script (and larger copies of these images) here. (Thanks to Jay for the tip!)

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The Captive, a film by René Laloux

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The feature films of French animator René Laloux are the closest thing to cinematic equivalents of comics magazine Métal Hurlant. Laloux’s collaboration with Roland Topor, Fantastic Planet (1973), is familiar to Anglophone audiences but fewer people are aware of Time Masters (1982) and Gandahar (1988), two more science fiction films made with Moebius and Philippe Caza respectively. Time Masters looks marvellous but the story (based on a novel by Stefan Wul) lacks the strangeness of Fantastic Planet. Gandahar,  based on a novel by Jean-Pierre Andrevon, I’ve yet to see but anyone searching for it should be aware that the version dubbed into English (and retitled The Light Years) dumped Gabriel Yared’s score, and had a sexual encounter censored by the usual rabble of prudish American producers.

The Captive (1988) continues the collaboration with Philippe Caza being a 7-minute adaptation of Caza’s comic story Equinoxe (1982). The music for this one is also by Gabriel Yared, and this copy at YouTube includes English subtitles. For comparison, the comic story is here. Of the two I prefer the comic but then I’ve always enjoyed Caza’s work.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Les Temps Morts by René Laloux

Sorcerer: Druillet and Friedkin

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Earlier this week I finally got my hands on the recent Blu-ray reissue of William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977). Having only ever seen the film on the travesty of a DVD that appeared in 1998 I’m going to enjoy watching this at the weekend. Brits ought to know that (for now) the only edition available seems to be the US version although it is region-free, and if you buy from a UK film dealer on eBay you won’t get hit with import duties.

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Sorcerer designs by Philippe Druillet.

By coincidence, Sorcerer has a minor connection with Philippe Druillet, although his contribution was so minimal that there’s not even a mention of his name on the obsessively detailed Sorcerer film blog. If you’ve seen the film (or Henri-George Clouzot’s equally good earlier version, Wages of Fear), or even read George Arnaud’s novel, you’ll know that the crucial part of the story concerns a potentially suicidal expedition by four men in two trucks, each of which are carrying crates of nitroglycerine through hazardous terrain to the site of an oil-well fire. Friedkin and writer Walon Green expand the story without aping any of Clouzot’s set-pieces (something few directors today would resist), while Friedkin adds some details of his own, notably in the design of the trucks which have distinct “faces” and their own names—”Lazaro” and “Sorcerer”—hence the film’s title which also nods misleadingly to The Exorcist. The truck design was Druillet’s contribution although there’s very little of this apparent on-screen, understandably so when his sketches show fantastic designs that would have no place in the dishevelled jungle town where much of the film takes place. Later sketches by production designer John Box can be found at Wikipedia.

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Sorcerer designs by Philippe Druillet.

What interests me most about this connection is its being another example of the surreptitious influence of French comics on American cinema during the 70s and 80s. Moebius is the most obvious example of this but it’s also there in the influence of Métal Hurlant/Heavy Metal on the look of Blade Runner, and in Enki Bilal’s design of Molasar in Michael Mann’s The Keep. Since the 1980s we’ve seen a greater industrialisation of conceptual art for the cinema, as a result of which directors are less inclined to look outside Hollywood for their stylists. And now that the treadmill of superhero franchises is grinding away relentlessly, Continental comics and their creators are even less visible than before.

Probably the oddest thing about the Sorcerer/Druillet connection is that the commercial failure of the film in 1977 has often been laid at the door of Star Wars, the advent of George Lucas’s dismal saga being regarded, with some justification, as the opening of the gate to the barbarian hordes. (Friedkin’s film might also have fared better had it not been titled as though it were an Exorcist sequel.) The irony here is that George Lucas happened to be a big Druillet enthusiast, although there’s little evidence of this in his films; in addition to writing an appreciation for Les Univers de Druillet in 2003, he also commissioned Druillet to create a one-off piece of Star Wars art in the late 70s. Knowing this it’s tempting to imagine Lucas creating a very different kind of science-fiction film in 1977, one with some Continental weirdness at its core. But when the world has already been deprived of Jodorowsky’s Dune it’s best not to dwell too much on might-have-beens.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Ô Sidarta: a film about Philippe Druillet
Lovecraft: Démons et Merveilles
Heavy Metal, October 1979: the Lovecraft special
Philippe Druillet album covers
Druillet’s vampires
Salammbô illustrated
Druillet meets Hodgson

The Man Who Paints Monsters In The Night

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HR Giger. Photo by Eve Arnold, 1979.

The news of HR Giger’s death was prominently featured in UK papers, something that wouldn’t have happened without his connection to the Alien films. Artists like Giger seldom make the front-page news even though he was well-established before the call from Ridley Scott. He’d already worked on Jodorowsky’s aborted Dune project alongside Moebius (who also did some work on Alien; people forget that), and his work had even appeared in a major feature film before Alien with a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance from his portrait of Li Tobler in Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977). Alien may have made him world-famous but I’ve always felt that Ridley Scott needed Giger far more than Giger needed either Scott or Hollywood. Paul Scanlon and Michael Gross’s The Book of Alien (1979) shows the production designs for the alien components before Giger’s involvement, none of which had the requisite strangeness that made the film such a success. That success would have made many artists decamp to Los Angeles in the hope of repeating the trick but Giger kept his distance. You can’t blame him when his work was diluted by James Cameron in Aliens while a unique project like Clair Noto’s The Tourist—which had heavy Giger involvement—never got made. (See here and here.)

The following is the first interview I read with Giger, a feature in the Sunday Telegraph magazine from August 1979, shortly before Alien was released in the UK. I wasn’t sure whether I still had this since I’d chopped up some of the other pages in the 1980s when I was making collages. The Sunday Telegraph then was even more of a stuffily conservative title than it is now so it’s a surprise to see Giger given such treatment; he was also the cover star although the cover on my copy is lost. I was given this by a friend whose parents read the paper; the only time I’ve ever bought the Sunday Telegraph was when I appeared in it in the early 1990s for a piece about Savoy Books. The interviewer on that occasion was Byron Rogers who I’m surprised to find wrote one of the other pieces in this magazine. (Thanks to Joe for sending me a picture of the missing cover!)

* * *

THE MAN WHO PAINTS MONSTERS IN THE NIGHT by Robin Stringer

giger4.jpgThe man in black is talking about his monster. “It is elegant, fast and terrible. It exists to destroy—and destroys to exist. Once seen it will never be forgotten. It will remain with people who have seen it, perhaps in their dreams or nightmares, for a long, long time. Perhaps for all time.”

The speaker is H. R. Giger, a Swiss-German surrealist painter, who designed the monster for Alien, the latest screen shocker, made in British studios under British direction to meet the apparently insatiable twin public cravings for space and horror films. Alien has already persuaded Americans to queue in record-breaking numbers outside their cinemas. It is said to have recouped its £15 million cost within 26 days of opening, and it comes to Britain on September 6.

The crew of a space tug on a fuelfinding mission answer a distress signal from an unknown planet. They land and discover an alien spacecraft in which, unknown to them, an awful creature has been spawned and waits seething, but with infinite patience, for a chance of life. Taken on board the space tug, clinging to one of the crew, the creature parasitically reproduces itself in him and bursts out into life in a welter of blood. It proceeds to make itself at home on board by hiding in dark places and jumping out at passers-by. It gobbles up the space crew one by one and grows prodigiously. Being unfamiliar with the monster’s lifestyle, the crew understandably panic.

That in brief the story of Alien, which, of course, has actually been spawned by the movie makers to scare us just a little bit and, in the process. to make them a lot of money.

The man who designed the monster will make some money, too—though not a lot, he says. He is not on a percentage. H. R. Giger, who calls himself H.R., because “the other things are too long and complicated”, is a chunky 39-year-old who lives with his girlfriend/secretary Mia, two cats, 12 skeletons and some books on magic in the middle of a rickety row of terraced houses in the industrial outskirts of Zurich. He always wears black.

Continue reading “The Man Who Paints Monsters In The Night”

The horror

Last year I was asked to write something about my favourite horror comics for Nørd Nyt, a Danish comics zine. I’d pretty much forgotten about this until the printed copy arrived, so here’s my piece in English, a choice of three favourite horror stories.

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The Dunwich Horror by Breccia (1973)

The October 1979 issue of Heavy Metal magazine came as a revelation. I’d only bought a few issues prior to this, and seeing an entire magazine devoted to HP Lovecraft seemed far too good to be true. Lovecraft art is so common now that it needs to be emphasised how scarce this kind of illustration used to be, the most you saw was paperback art of varying quality. There had been a few comic-strip adaptations but they were mostly in American publications or foreign editions I hadn’t seen. As it turned out, Heavy Metal‘s great JK Potter cover promised more than it actually delivered: at least half the magazine was taken up with continuing strips that had nothing to do with Lovecraft, or strips that did little but borrow a few Lovecraftian motifs for a slight horror tale. The one really outstanding piece was Alberto Breccia’s The Dunwich Horror, one of several Lovecraft adaptations the artist produced in 1973. Breccia’s style was sketchy, shadowy and replete with period details. The faces of his characters looked absolutely right for what I still consider to be one of Lovecraft’s darkest stories (people tend to miss the implication that a backwoods magus very nearly destroys humanity). Until I encountered the artists in Heavy Metal I’d given up on comics as an artistic medium, having no time at all for superheroes or the poor science fiction of 2000AD. Artists like Breccia, Moebius and Druillet showed that there was more than one way of drawing imaginative work, that you could use the refined techniques of illustration to tell a story.

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Les Yeux du Chat (The Eyes of the Cat) by Jodorowsky and Moebius (1978)

This story came to my attention when it received its first English translation in the pages of Steve Bissette’s Taboo anthology. It was printed in black on yellow paper, the original French edition having been yellow and black with white highlights. Compared to Jodorowsky’s customary flights of fancy the story is a very simple one, if typically grotesque: a silhouetted figure stands at a tall window overlooking a futuristic (or alien) city, directing with its thoughts the action of an eagle who hunts down a cat in the streets below. The horror comes from the shocking predicament revealed at the end, and the final line of dialogue, although this remains secondary to the formal perfection of the drawing and storytelling. Even by the standards of Moebius’s meticulous draughtsmanship this is a superbly controlled piece of work. Each spread operates as a kind of split-screen, with the left page showing the dialogue and the silhouetted figure, while the full-page illustration opposite shows a simultaneous moment of action somewhere in the city. One thing I immediately liked about this was Moebius’s architecture which even more than usual manages to seem otherworldly yet completely convincing. Everything we see in this brief tale poses questions that remain unanswered. And like many of the best short stories, a few carefully chosen details can imply an entire world.

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From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell (1991–1996)

Horror doesn’t have to be delivered within genre stereotypes, in fact these days it’s often better if it isn’t when so many of those stereotypes—vampires and zombies, for example—have been diminished by over-familiarity. From Hell isn’t a horror story per se—it’s self-described as “a melodrama in sixteen parts”—but it debuted in Steve Bissette’s anthology Taboo where the brief was to offer the reader something dark or challenging that they hadn’t seen before. From Hell certainly fulfilled that brief: Alan Moore’s writing has never shied from the dark—consider the nihilistic Rorschach chapter of Watchmen—but this is as black as he gets. Eddie Campbell has been vocal about his dislike of horror stories but he was the perfect artist here with his long experience drawing ordinary human beings rather than posturing superheroes. Together the pair delivered a story that was novelistic in scope and minute in its attention to detail. Most people would have thought they knew more than enough about Jack the Ripper but no other representation has been this thorough in its exploration of all aspects of the case.

Watchmen had already aimed for a panoramic range of characters—from the president to a newspaper-seller—but From Hell went much further and in greater detail, with a scope that ranges from a group of homeless women to the head of the British Empire and all the classes in between. One of the most impressive aspects of the story was its exposure of the awful gap at the heart of previous dramatisations, namely the reduction of the lives of the murdered women to a cast of frequently nameless unfortunates who we glimpse for a moment sidling up an alley before their blood splashes on a wall. Moore’s script showed us (as much as is possible) the real women behind the roll-call of victims, crushed by poverty yet still distinct individuals. Looking for human detail has always been a feature of Moore’s writing, it’s why his work seemed so fresh in the 1980s compared with lesser writers who were simply recycling clichés as though there was no other way to behave. So too with Campbell’s artwork which has never been subject to the exaggerations of the superhero genre. One of my favourite moments in the entire story was utterly human and utterly trivial: the scene in Chapter 3 when Walter Sickert and Annie Crook meet. Annie says “I need a wee” so she hitches up her shift and squats in the road. It’s the accumulation of numerous human moments such as this—the moments that genre comics invariably avoid—that makes From Hell such a powerful and memorable piece of work. Eddie Campbell’s art shows us the true London dark, a city as black and terrible as it would have been in the days before electric light.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Heavy Metal, October 1979: the Lovecraft special