Monday, 28 March 2016

interview: Tony Luke (2003)

This second interview with my old mate Tony Luke was conducted by email in June 2003, presumably for SFX. I’m posting it here now, along with our previous interview, as a tribute to Tony, a true Maverick and  good pal, who passed away last month.

How much of a connection is there between the movie of Dominator, the Comic Afternoon version of Dominator, and the original Metal Hammer version of Dominator

“Apart from Dominator himself, and the various designs he's been portrayed in, the rock aspect has always been a mainstay... The Metal Hammer version was very much a jokey thing, as it was very difficult to tell an ongoing story in half a page every two weeks, so we were well pleased when Kodansha offered us a chunk of Comic Afternoon to play around with every month - in colour! For the Japanese version, we made a lot of punk references in the script and the art - there's a lot of Clash and Sex Pistols on the karaoke machines out there - and introduced the other three demons: Extricator, Decimator and Lady Violator. The tone was semi-serious, but was offset by the comedy provided by Extricator and Decimator. A couple of those characters’ manga sequences were adapted verbatim for the movie.”

How long has it taken you, from initial idea to finished film, to make the Dominator movie? 
“It became viable for us to make Dominator ourselves when the prices of computers and software came crashing down at the end of the ‘90s… until then, we’d looked at doing a stop-motion version in the Archangel Thunderbird style, but I didn’t fancy going through the stress of having to deal with a lot of weirdo freelance model-makers again, and thus CGI became the obvious vehicle. The Sci-Fi Channel approved co-production in summer 2000, Alan delivered the following November, which was followed by the storyboarding and character construction, and we began actual production in November 2001, with completion in April 2003. Renga Media’s hardware expanded exponentially to cope with the vast amount of raw data the project produced… Upon completion, we discovered that Dominator was actually the UK’s first-ever full-length CGI animated feature… not bad for a start-up company.”

Give me some technical info on what hardware and software you used to make this all-CGI feature.
“Renga’s an all-Mac setup, though we do use PCs from time to time if the occasion demands; that’s simply because the Mac has a more stable OS than Windoze, and the hardware’s far less likely to cause problems. Indeed, most technical problems we encounter we fix ourselves… When we began Dominator, we had to use packages like Poser and Bryce simply because our lack of funds dictated that we use the cheaper packages (Maya still cost about £10k when we started production, though it’s now down to a fraction of that…). We pushed those packages to their limits, and beyond. Indeed, we made a deal about how lack of funds shouldn’t stop anyone from getting started – there’s always a way, even if you are on a low budget. Editing and post was done on Macs running Aftereffects and Final Cut Pro, top packages that have seen a lot of Hollywood exposure lately. In the end, we were running two edit suites and a rack of other Macs networked into a render farm. We’ll be doubling our capacity for the next film.”

What sort of collaborative structure exists between you, Doug Bradley, Alan Grant and Yasushi Nirasawa? 
“Renga Media was set up to look after and protect the projects we four have developed together, although we’re now taking on outside projects, like music videos. After Kodansha ran Dominator, Alan and I were approached by numerous Hollywood outfits to buy the rights, but these deals always involved the transfer of all rights, including moral, to the company in question; if we’d gone down that route, we might as well have consigned Dominator to the bin for all the return we would have seen. So we waited until the technology was cheap enough to allow us to do it ourselves.

"In 1998, we gave Nirasawa-san a one-third share of our copyright in return for his character revamps. A wonderful guy, he’ll be back for Dominator 2… As far as Dominator’s concerned, the rights belong to myself, Alan and Nirasawa-san, with Renga (co-owned by myself and business entrepeneur Jim Brathwaite) licensed to handle and explore the property… Doug acted as co-producer on the movie, and is also a shareholder in Renga; he’s been an invaluable asset to everything we’ve set out to do, and deserves far more recognition than he currently receives. We’ll be doing a lot with him in the future.”

How did you go about gathering your eclectic voice cast? 
“It was paramount that we had some ‘name’ artists as well as a cast capable of delivering the dialogue in as natural a way possible… no dodgy Hanna-Barbera voices here! Dani Filth became involved as we’d approached Cradle of Filth way back in early 2000 to use their music on the movie, and we wanted an established rock star to portray Dominator himself. Dani played him somewhere between Lobo and Zodiac Mindwarp. Cradle went on to supply ther track ‘Carrion’ for the title sequence, and we’ve now got a really good ongoing relationship with them. They’re destined for great things. Doug was involved in Dominator right from the start, when it became apparent that it was beyond our then means to make further Archangel Thunderbirds without losing all the rights and creative control, and he suggested Ingrid Pitt to play Lady Violator in her demonic form. Ingrid’s a great laugh and, like Doug, a real professional.

"Alex Cox I knew from when we’d co-presented BBC2’s Godzilla documentary, and he jumped at the chance to play the villainous Tory minister Bishop. He’s got an amazing voice, he really should do more animated work. Sci-Fi’s Seera came on board as Hellkatt after I asked her whilst she was interviewing me for her show. Robert Rankin lives around the corner, and after hearing him give a reading, I asked him to do the narration – we had a lot of fun doing that session, even if he does think he sounds like a pervert. Liza Goddard’s a distant relative, so it was relatively easy to get her involved – she’d done a voice for a short 8mm movie I made 20 years ago whilst at college. How things change.

"The most fun we had was recording Mark and Lard – they’d agreed to do Extricator and Decimator very early on, and I wanted an established comedy duo for those characters. Somehow, two pissed-up Mancunian demons trashing southerners really works in the animation medium. The session itself was hysterical. Doug handled the direction, as he did on most of the other sessions, but we found that they were at their best when they were just being themselves and ad-libbing like crazy… we ended up with quality comedy there. In the future, I’d like to get Robert Powell in to play the voice of God – after playing Jesus, there’s only one up you can go from there, I guess – and some more American voice artists. I’d also like a couple of name Japanese actors to be involved in Dominator 2, and we’re in active talks with… ah, you’ll find out in due course!”

Where next for Renga Media? 
“We’ve got a fair bit on – a video for soundtrack contributors Digitalis, an ad for US horror convention HorrorFind in August this year featuring Doug, an animated series for cable called Goffz (think The Mission living in South Park), and Dominator 2 later this year. We’ll also be doing a 10-minute animated crossover with a DC Comics character, which will be available for download only. We’re also going into merchandising with Dominator T-shirts, with more to come. We’ve only just begun…“

Sadly, there was no Dominator 2 – and now there never will be. Tony continued to work on other projects but eventually his long-term health problems overcame him and he left us on 18th February 2016. RIP Tony, thanks for everything.

interview: Tony Luke (1996)

I first met Tony Luke in the early 1980s when we were both very active members of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society. By 1996 I was working on SFX and able to do this big interview with Tony about his comics work.  A few years later we did a second interview about the film version of Dominator. After that I lost touch with Tony. I knew he’d had a lot of health problems over the years. Nevertheless it came as a great shock when I learned that he had passed away on 18th February 2016, aged just 49. A short version of this interview was published in SFX, but here’s the full transcript.

When did you first become interested in comics? 
“What kind of question is that?”

Okay. Comics/science fiction. 
“I was one of these horrifically nerdy kids in school who was into the films of Ray Harryhausen at the age of about eight. By the age of nine I knew every lighting cameraman who worked on all his films. Not very popular, as it were. I've just always enjoyed stuff that was a bit different, but that goes way beyond comics. I couldn't get hold of many comics when I was a kid because my dad wouldn't let me read them. It was a bit of everything: movies, books, anything that would stretch my imagination.“

When did you start creating your own stuff? 
“I got hold a little 8mm camera when I was a kid and started making stop-motion films and stuff. By the time I hit my mid-teens, when I left school, I was making loads of very, very cheap remakes of Ultraman movies and stuff. The weird thing was I kept on getting called up to go on programmes like Mad About and Blue Peter, where I got introduced to Peter Duncan - him out of Flash Gordon.”

Were these films using models? 
“Yeah, I built the whole shebang. I built stop-motion foam rubber models. And straight from that I went to do a degree in film and TV in Manchester, where a few things happened. At the same time 2000AD had come out and that inspired me. While I was at college it became very much a choice of what I wanted to do. Was I going to work in film and TV or was I going to work in comics, or something inbetween? So I went for something inbetween! I'm a bit fuzzy on my early years. I was a nerd, I admit it. I was horrible. I never, ever, ever owned an anorak.“

The earliest stuff of yours I remember seeing was the old Nemesis the Warlock photostories in 2000AD
“Let me get this sorted out once and for all. It was done as a piss-take of all the photo-love stories that were predominant at the time in girls' comics. We thought, 'We'll have a laugh and do one in 2000AD to annoy the purist fans'.”

That was an editorial decision? 
“Oh yes. Done to annoy the purist fans who had popped up by then who were being very precious about the characters. So we thought since 2000AD was supposed to be a subversive comic - certainly at the time it was a fairly subversive publication - we thought we'd do this and annoy everybody.”

Which you succeeded in doing. 
“Indeed. What we didn't realise was how many purists were out there! Looking back, it was really, really funny. I look on something being a success as to whether you get a reaction out of somebody, and what I find really funny now is that people say it was great. And I know it was a load of old rubbish at the time.”

You did those with Pat Mills. How did you get to know him? 
“I rang him up when I was doing a film for my college entrance exam, and he gave me a lot of help. Years later, I did a 15-minute stop-motion animated version of Nemesis the Warlock which had a bit of money in it and got shown on BBC2 in '88. That went down well; I had a lot of nice feedback from that. It was done in a weird, ‘Trapdoor-y’ type style. I did a lot of work with Pat and had a very, very good time working with him. I think he's a cracking writer, one of Britain's best, and I think his stuff deserves a far bigger audience.”

Around that time you were becoming quite notorious... 
“I knew you were going to use that word.”

Okay: infamous? In certain sections of fandom. 
“The people I knew in fandom at the time, some of them have gone on do very good things. My friends and I were involved in this because we made a lot of good contacts, made a lot of good friends through it, which was absolutely fine. But we also encountered a very, very unpleasant side of it which was this snobbery that dictated that if you are a fan then you must be a fan and how dare you become professional? Shocking! Shouldn't be done! We thought, 'Bollocks to this!' and went off and did our own thing. Ten Grand was a zine that my friends did that I did some artwork for about ten years ago, and they've gone on to do great things: TV series and stuff. But we just didn't like the snobbery side of it so we got out pretty much as quickly as we got in.”

Do you think your early work on fanzines was useful in furthering your career? 
“I've never had a problem with anybody telling me what they think of what I do. But I would say this: if someone's going to offer criticism, then let it be constructive. If somebody doesn't like it outright, then that's absolutely fine. But if somebody says, 'I didn't like it because you weren't using the right materials or the right tools,' then, well, get lost, really. It's what I do and that's it, and I'm not going to make any apologies for it.”

Have you ever had a proper job? 
“Yes, I worked in Odyssey 7 in Manchester for a while.”

That's not a proper job! That's a science fiction job! 
“I cleaned out toilets in the East End for a while for a company when I moved down to London, just to get some money. And while I was doing that I was thinking, 'I'm going to get out of this job as soon as possible and I'm never going to go back to it again.' Some of the graffiti in the ladies' bogs is absolutely disgusting. While I was doing that I dreamt up the whole thing of Dominator - the original version of Dominator, which ran in Metal Hammer magazine for about six months. Every two weeks, a little half-page thing. Just a little joke strip, with guest appearances by Zodiac Mindwarp.”

How did you approach Metal Hammer
“I just sent some stuff in. Originally it was going to be in Kerrang! but I fell out with the editor and gave it to Metal Hammer instead. It ran its course, and by then I'd moved down to Brighton where - how can I put it? - I lost track of life for a couple of years. Basically, sex, drugs and rock'n'roll. In that order. I just thought about what I wanted to do. In '89 Alan Grant called me up and said, 'Marvel Comics are going to bring out a US/Japanese co-production comic and they've tendered it out to different writers. As you know a lot about Japanese stuff, do you want to give it a go?' I'd grown up watching Japanese monster movies and I'd seen a lot of Japanese animation on the continent like Mazinga and Captain Harlock. So I was well acquainted with Japanese pop culture, so we put this proposal together called Psychonauts for Marvel's Epic imprint.

“We got a very good artist called Motofumi Kobayashi who did the first two books then took a break to do the comic version of the Gulf War. And then he did the sequel! I'd love to see it! It's probably what Stormin' Norman would like to have done but didn't get a chance to do. When I was about six years old I saw a Godzilla movie. To a six-year-old, all the effects looked extremely convincing. So I'd always enjoyed all that stuff and I saw a lot of stuff on the continent on TV. Psychonauts came out three years late. We had this bit with genetically engineered dinosaurs running around all over the place. Unfortunately it came out right in the middle of Jurassic Park and everyone thought we'd ripped it off, which was rather embarrassing. But the seeds had been sown and I had some discussions with the Japanese.”

As I understand it, you are the first westerner to become successful in Japanese comics. 
“I wouldn't say the first westerner. What I can say was that Psychonauts was the very, very first ever joint co-production between a western and an eastern publisher. It came out simultaneously in America and Japan. It was the very first one created exclusively for the Japanese and Americans. Alan and I wrote that together. I went on to write a few Judge Dredds and Judge Andersons for 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine with him after that. Then Dominator came along. What happened was that the original version finished in Metal Hammer and at the back end of 1990, Tundra Publications wanted to do a version of it. So for about a year and a half that was on their slate. For one reason or another it didn't happen, so it went to Kodansha instead. Kodansha are one of the three biggest publishers in Japan. They sell millions of comics every week, magazines, coffee table books - they're a big publishing house.”

How had they come across your work? 
“I extricated myself from the sheer crap that my life had become in '91 and went to America for a bit to just get away from it all and see what else life had to offer. While I was out there I was going out with a biker chick; I fell off the back of a bike, banged my head and got inspired. As a result of that, I very cheekily asked a friend I was staying with, who worked at Tundra, if I could join them in San Diego for the comic convention there. So I went over there - it was brilliant. I secretly stayed in the Presidential Suite for six nights without anyone realising I was there. While I was there, I saw as many publishers as I possibly could, one of whom was Kodansha, who had a stall there. I showed them my portfolio and they immediately said, 'Can you do something for us?' So when Dominator became available after they took it away from Tundra they went with it immediately and commissioned a year's worth of monthly episodes in colour, with Alan writing it. The full name of the publication is Manga Frontier Comic Afternoon, which is 1,000 pages long for about £4 each month. There's loads of stuff in it. There's some great artists in there, many of whom I'd been inspired by in the first place, so suddenly finding my stuff in the same place as them was great.”

Do you produce it in English and they translate the speech bubbles? 
“Yes, I did all the artwork right-to-left in Japanese format. Alan did the script, then I indicated where I wanted each speech balloon to go and they translated it over there in Tokyo. I have a very good relationship with Kodansha and I haven't got any complaints at all. They're about the best publishing company I've ever worked for.”

Did they go for it because it was a British-Japanese amalgam? Did they like the British or the Japanese aspects? 
Dominator was always partly inspired by Japanese stuff in the first place, but they were at the time actively starting to look for different art styles. The style I was doing things in at the time - which was cut-and-paste montage - they really liked that because they'd never seen anything like it. Almost every publisher we took it to in the west said, 'No, this won't work. No-one will go for this style. No-one's interested.' One publisher in particular, who I won't mention by name, said, 'No, the Japanese will hate this.' So when Kodansha suddenly snapped it up for a year, we went out and got very drunk. I think in particular it was the art style, because that is completely different”

Explain this style. 
“I photo-reference everything, then retrace, redraw everything back onto the page.”

So is it a drawing or a photograph? 
“Some of the more illustrative pieces use photographs all montaged up, which I do now on the Apple Mac. Originally I was just sticking bits together with photocopies and glue. The Judge Anderson strips I did were retraced from photo-reference but I was using the same style I applied to Dominator on Anderson and I don't think it worked quite as well as it could have done. Now what I do is reference everything up. What a lot of people don't realise is that almost every artist working uses reference. It's just some people are more obvious than others. I do a lot of work with Glen Fabry and he uses reference all the time. Glen uses a Mac as well, with a poser program to put a humanoid structure into a particular pose which he then paints back down onto the board.”

What is the actual story of Dominator
“Dominator is the reincarnation of a Scottish warlord from 2,000 years ago who ends up on Earth, having escaped from Hell after 2,000 years, and is pursued by three of Hell's best agents: Violator, Decimator and Extricator. He's got problems because Violator's his ex-squeeze from Hell and she's none too pleased when he starts getting it together with a reporter from the XNN news channel, who also happens to be a reincarnation of his dead wife from ancient Scottish days. We were having a slight dig at Highlander while we were doing this, but for the most part Alan wrote a wonderful script with his trademark lunatic humour, which interestingly enough, translated very well into Japanese. British humour and Japanese humour are actually very, very similar, which comes as a surprise to most people. There are a great many similarities. We wound up Dominator after a year, having felt at the time that we'd told as much as we could, and I'm now working on something completely different.”

So Dominator's come to a finish now? 
“For the time being, yes. He's going to come back again.”

What about this crossover? 
Comic Morning is the weekly sister publication which has well over a million readers each week. There's a character in there called Sioshi and they suggested a crossover between Dominator and Sioshi: 'Do what?' Sioshi is a very traditional manga-styled character. He's got his own TV series in Japan and it's the eighth highest rated programme in Japan. So we thought ,'Yeah, let's do a crossover. Let's have a laugh.' So we did this one-off story, which got over a million readers.”

Who wrote that? 
“Alan wrote the story, sent it in, it was approved by Kodansha, then I went off and submitted the pencils, Kodansha approved it, and I did the final artwork. I had about a week to do it in. I used all of the Sioshi artist's references to get as close a match to the character as possible. So we had this thing where two characters from two completely different universes and art-styles are running around the place, slugging it out in the middle of Tokyo.”

Was this successful? Do you get reviews of these sort of things? 
“I haven't seen any reviews, but everyone I've met who's read Dominator really enjoyed it and said when is it coming back. Now there's the film prospect coming along.”

Whose idea was it to do a film? 
“Since the character came along... I got the idea for the character from looking at some old kabuki dancers who had very long hair with masks, and that's where the original design came from. I'd always seen Dominator as having a natural progression to the film or video medium. When the series started in Japan, over the year it ran, I had a number of calls from various film companies and production companies, but none of them seemed particularly keen on dealing with Kodansha who were joint copyright-holders of the property, which was a little annoying. Eventually Spice Factory said, 'We'd like to get the rights to this.' I'd been doing some script work for them on an aborted Doctor Who game. I said, 'Well, if you're happy to go to Kodansha and talk about it, then fine.' They have done, and kudos to them for doing it, because if things work out it should be rather a nice, tasty little film appearing on the screen in about two or three years’ time.”

Any ideas on cast or crew? 
“None at all at the moment. I've got a dream cast, but I'm not really going to say anything other than I think Famke Janssen would make a nice Violator.”

What's the new comic thing you're working on? 
Sim-7 is starting later this year. It was supposed to be last year for two reasons. One, my editor and I decided to start everything all over again to take into account the second reason, which was that I just laid my hands on a Mac. So my art-style changed completely again, became a lot more refined. A lot of the rough edges that people criticised - possibly quite rightly - from the old cut-and-paste style were thereby eliminated, resulting in a much more seamless piece. I took time off to properly study photography, composition, illustration. What you're going to get is a series of eight illustrations each month: full colour, full page. Going back to the original manga from 200 years ago which were basically one-page illustrations: one panel, one page, one picture, with a caption at the bottom.

“The basic theme behind it is these twins come to Earth - Agony and Erotica - who are sent by the universal goddess to tempt and judge mankind. This they do and they affect the world in various peculiar ways. There's another character in there called King Hell who's basically the ruler of the Earth for Satan. It's ‘King Hell’, not ‘…king hell!’ I explained the other meaning of this to the Japanese who found it most amusing. That's going to start later on in the year in Comic Afternoon. I'm actually really pleased that it's taken a bit longer to get it going, because what I've found that I can do on the Mac completely blows away anything that I've done before.”

Has any of this Japanese stuff been reprinted in English? 
“Not at all. For various reasons, the western comics industry has spectacularly shot itself in the foot. The industry has imploded quite dramatically, and there's not nearly as much stuff coming out as there used to be. As a result, sadly, the more esoteric stuff is not nearly as available as it was four or five years ago. If Dominator does make it to the big screen, then yeah, we'll bring him back. Whether that's in a completely revamped form again for the western market or a reprint of the old version, I don't know. Probably both.”

What do you think of the recent explosion in popularity of manga and anime? 
“What I find bizarre is that distributors over here, and the TV networks, have been incredibly resistant to the art-style and stuff for years and years and years. There's still hardly anything on TV. But suddenly Akira becomes very, very successful, and there's this huge explosion. Personally, I think it's wonderful because it justifies everything I was going on about ten years ago. From another point of view, I wish it had happened ten years ago. What I find disappointing still, is that we're only getting 1% of the output of the Japanese manga and anime industry. There's an awful lot more stuff out there that would probably go down extremely well, be that in a published form or on TV. We're still lagging about 20 years behind the rest of Europe.”

How is your stuff regarded in Japan? 
“God knows! I had quite a few letters which I got translated, most of whom wanted the address of the model I had for Violator. I realised pretty early on that she was the most popular part of the str-p. We're going to have to change Violator's name for the film because, even though our Violator was created six years ago, Todd McFarlane's Spawn has a Violator character in there as well. As I'm quite a big Spawn fan, I don't want anybody getting confused between the two characters. Sim-7 I've got really high hopes for. It's what manga was, but updated. What they're calling it now is 'renga'; that's Kodansha's term for the full-page, speech balloon-less illustration style.”

Is anybody else doing it? 
“It's purely me. I'm writing, producing the entire thing.”

But is anybody else doing that style? 
“Oh, yeah, sure. In the last three years, a lot more western artists have started working over in Japan. I believe I was one of the first. Dominator, as far as I know, was the first original UK-produced comic strip to appear in Japan, specifically for the Japanese market. But they certainly had other people from the west working for them before we came on.”

With Dominator, did you have an overall plan? 
“The first five or six episodes we had pretty well planned out. We changed things around from episode six onwards because there were an awful lot of other things we wanted to get in, and we figured we'd pack as much as possible into the first run, and then see what we could do a couple of years later when we came back to it. So we had the first six planned out, then we had to write the other six very quickly. But I had a lot of fun doing it.”

If the Dominator film gets made... 
“If it happens, fantastic: I'll buy everyone a pint. If it doesn't happen, then at least I'll have had the experience of writing the script, because Spice Factory have asked Alan and I to write the first couple of drafts of the script. Which again is extremely nice because that's what the Japanese do. If there's an adaptation in Japan - animation from manga - they will get the original creator of the strip in to work on the animation version, as a rule. What's great is Spice Factory are actually following that; they're not getting someone else in to rewrite it who'll immediately change it completely around from what it originally was. If there's any changes in it, then Alan and I will instigate them, certainly at first.”

If the Dominator film happens, it's a smash hit, he becomes a world famous character and everybody wants Dominator pencil cases and Dominator thermos flasks: would you be happy or would you feel you'd sold out? Suppose it became as big as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
“Given the Turtles' humble beginnings, and given that Eastman and Laird worked very hard to get those characters anywhere at all, I’d say they deserved all the success they got.”

But most people now consider the Turtles to be a crap kids cartoon and aren't even aware that there was a comic book. Suppose that happened to Dominator
“If I made a lot of money out of Dominator, I'd put it back into something; very likely a publishing company set up along the lines of a Japanese publishing company, which would do what I've experienced from Kodansha. Which is to have an active and exciting editorial team, actively encouraging fresh new talent to bring out exciting publications and instigate new projects because I don't think there's enough of that going on in Britain now.”

What is the state of comics in Britain now? 
“Pretty dire, isn't it? Lack of imagination and foresight. The whole adult graphic novel thing from the '80s was almost like the kiss of death. In far too short a space of time, certain PA people tried to con the general public that comics were - and always have been - this incredibly valid adult art form. The audience split up into different bits and it lost its mainstream footing. I think what we see as comics are going to completely change in the next ten years anyway. It's like it was 20 years ago. Something exciting and fresh will come along in the next couple of years in this country - I sincerely hope so - that will give the industry a good kick. But I don't know what that could be. Well, actually I do know what that could be, but I'm not saying.”

Where are you aiming at now? 
“I realised a long time ago that my future's pretty much with Japan, and Kodansha to a large degree, because they have a different attitude: that attitude I was talking about earlier of encouraging and working with the people who work for them, which is not overly practised on this side of the Pacific. I have a great affinity for Japanese culture, but then again if there was a better and more forward-thinking industry taking place in this country, I'd be just as happy to work for a UK company. Where do I see myself going? I guess primarily Kodansha for the foreseeable future. I have other series planned. I'm about to go off to Japan to discuss them with my editors. I've got something to come in after Sim-7 which takes me through '97, '98. In the middle of all that, I've been doing some work with Glen Fabry for Manga Mania. I've got a story out in the new Skin Tight Orbit collection which is rather rude, putting it mildly.”

Where do these commissions come from?
“Say the Manga Mania cover: that was, 'I'd like you and Glen to do a cover together.' So Glen painted a version of the character Armitage from Armitage III and I Mac-ed it up on my computer to print what you get.”

Do you think computers are useful? 
“For illustration on the whole, rather than just comics, I think they're a wonderful tool. But that's all they are - just a tool. What you put in is far, far more important than how good you are at messing around with it once you've got it in there. It's like an airbrush, it's just a tool. If you've got a good idea then you'll get it out whether that's with a pencil or with a Mac.”

Anything else you want to add? 
“Other stuff I did. I did a lot of pop videos that got shown on MTV: Wolfsbane, Christian Death, Creaming Jesus...”

Did you do it for anybody good? 
“Um, no.”

Did you direct those? 
“Pretty much made the entire thing single-handed. I stopped doing that because I got too many bands coming up to me going, 'Can you make a video for us for a hundred quid?' No.”

Did yours look like they were made for a hundred quid? 
“The Wolfsbane one cost about a thousand, and we fooled a record company executive into thinking it had cost 30,000. I kind of pixilated the band at the Marquee and got this incredibly manic, stroboscopic, epilepsy-inducing thing which actually got complaints from some people. It sent some epileptics completely round the bend when it was shown on TV.”

8Hz is not a good frequency to make your videos at. 
“Music is a big influence on what I do. I've always got something playing on the system when I'm working. So with that background as well, a lot of the imagery that I found when I was making videos I put into the work I do now.”

Are you starting to see people influenced by your work? 
“Yeah, I've met a couple of Japanese artists influenced by me! Which I find incredibly bizarre. I feel vindicated in a way.”

Vindicator! There's a good name! 
“We've got a list of about 150 of them.”

Ah no, sorry. That was a dodgy 1988 Canadian robot movie. 
“I'll take your word for it. I'll be the first to admit the style I work in tends to throw people here in Britain because they're used to a particular style of comic that's been published over the last fifty years or so over here. I'm grateful to the Japanese for letting me spread my wings over there. Because I've been able to experiment, which is what I've always been really interested in doing. People say, 'Why do you have to have your stuff look so life-like?' Because I'm interested in merging real life and fantasy. I like that style, that's my style. I'm not going to make any apologies for that. It's what I do and I want to make that as good as I possibly can. It's just my personal thing is to bring the characters that I work with into the real world as much as possible. So you look at something - and I think this'll be apparent in Sim-7 - I want to challenge the readers. I want to make them think, I want them to react. I want them to feel like they're involved in the illustration themselves. My editor certainly feels that the style I'm working in is very conducive to that, and that's really what I'm going for. I'm going to go for it until it's really refined; not so refined that it loses the craziness and vibrancy that got Kodansha's attention in the first place.”

Is there anything else you want to tell the world? 
“My wife models for all the female characters in my stories, including the quadruple-breasted whore.”

Ro, what's your opinion on modelling these thing? Do you have to dress up in the dodgy costumes?
Ro: “Oh yes.”

How do you feel about what ends up on the page?
Ro: “I was utterly horrified when I finally saw myself in print. I looked so awful - look at my cellulite!”

Tony: “I just want to point out that Ro works in the pathology lab of the local hospital. She comes back telling me all these stories of horrific organ transplants and bits of people in buckets, so she shouldn't criticise me so much for putting all that into my stories.”

But those have been removed by surgeons for medical reasons. Yours are just blown apart by aliens. 
Tony: “I've never blown anybody up.”

Ro: “You blew a great big hole in my stomach. You inserted a fanny into my abdomen.”

Whose fanny? 
Tony: “It was hers!”

Ro: “Was it? You bastard!”

Tony: “I'm going to change the tone of this completely. I've lived a strange life. I've had a very peculiar, up-and-down, sadly at times all too visible life. Shagged my way around half the world, got drunk in some very good bars in Mexico.”

You were going to talk about John Hurt. 
“I met John Hurt ten years ago. I was on Get Set. When I was on all these Saturday morning kids’ programmes when I was a nerdy teenager making rubber monster movies, I won this prize of the inaugural flight to Miami on Virgin Atlantic. I sat next to John Hurt when they were showing this film I'd made. I was 19 years old. He was pissed off his head, he turned to me and said, 'People like you should be running the British film industry. This is fucking great.' 'Thank you very much indeed.' Then he says, 'Are you going to get your leg over tonight?' and I went, 'I hadn't thought of that.' I realised that I was halfway across the Atlantic and I was still a virgin. So that night I finally managed to do something about it.”

Was that because of John Hurt? 
“No, it was because of one of the waitresses in the hotel. I can honestly say three good things have happened to me in my life: one, getting pissed on the plane over the Atlantic; two, falling off the back of a bike and seeing the road to, not Damascus but Tokyo; and thirdly actually getting married. Because everyone's got this ridiculous idea of me that I'm some complete animal. And sod it, sometimes I am. Alright, sometimes I'm a complete bastard and I make no apologies for it. I enjoy life, I enjoy what life's got to offer.”

Are you settled down and domesticated now? 
“I think I'm worse than ever. But I've met someone I can do that with at last.”

Ro: “I can eat vindaloos and you can't.”

Tony: “Yeah, I've actually met my match. What was good about that was the number of people who I've found out have been taking bets all these years, saying I never would get married. I collected an awful lot of money just before I got married. I think it's a great shame that in the country anybody who's got a passing interest in SF, fantasy or horror gets lampooned as an idiot. That's partly the fault of the general media, but I think it's also down to the large percentage of fandom who are in a strange way are actually happy to encourage this. I don't like it, and I wish it would change. I wish fandom would be more open to new people. All I can say is when I first dyed my hair black and turned up in a biker jacket, I was immediately criticised for being different. I thought, 'You bunch of bloody hypocrites.' They were all the people who said, 'It's great to be weird and different and strange,' but they couldn't handle anybody who in their eyes was, and I thought that was gross hypocrisy. That's why I got out of fandom.”

Tony Luke, 1970-2016. RIP, mate.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

She’s Dead

Director: Nik Box
Writers: Alexander Lewis, Nik Box
Producers: Alexander Lewis, Matt Stuart, Nik Box
Cast: Alexander Lewis, Julian Lee Seager, Jamie Smith, Serena Chloe Gardner
Country: UK
Year of release: 2014
Reviewed from: online

This hour-long blackly comic horror is well-made and entertaining but doesn’t quite deliver what it promises.

The first act’s great. Writer/producer Alexander Lewis is Ben, a young man who has woken up after a night on the tiles to find an unknown, dead chick next to him. After wrapping the whole room in plastic sheeting and an ineffectual attempt to remove her arm with a saw, he has called in a fixer, Mr Clean (Julian Seager: Welcome to Essex, Welcome to Curiosity, Scareycrows) to help him dispose of the body before his parents get home. Seager plays Mr Clean as a pragmatic professional while Ben is understandably out of his depth and these scenes work well.

Act two introduces us to Barry (Jamie Smith), an idiot friend of Ben’s who was the first person he called but initially wasn’t able to help. Mr Clean can see that Barry is more problem than he’s worth but once he has seen the body, he’s part of the situation. There’s quite a long scene of Barry, who obviously doesn’t get to meet many women, alone with the corpse. This monologue is drawn-out and goes on too long. More problematically, after Ben and Mr Clean return and then a short conversation between the three, the other two leave again and we get basically a repeat of what we’ve just seen.

And then in the third act this turns into a completely different film. I won’t tell you the twist and I won’t include the tag on this review that would give it away. You may guess it. It’s more entertaining than the overlong ‘Barry the perv’ middle act but it’s not what we’re expecting. What we’re expecting – well, I was; you won’t be after reading this review – was development of that first act’s black comedy. Attempts at resolution frustrated; additional complications arising; character conflict as the clock ticks down. But there's none of that.

There is literally a ticking clock in this film as occasional captions tell us not only the time but also how long till Ben’s parents arrive. Despite this, despite having less than an hour to dismember the corpse, dispose of the pieces, take down all the plastic and restore the house to its normal state, none of our three characters seem to be in a hurry. The film’s pace could reasonably be described as ‘placid’. One would expect Ben to become increasingly frantic but he really doesn’t seem bothered (which is sort of explained at the end, but not in a way that actually justifies his actions and attitude).

Having said that, I did really dig the minimalist approach of the film which is mostly filmed in quite long, static shots. A picture this talkie would normally be all shot/reverse-shot but a deliberate, appropriate and clever decision has been made here, so that on the one or two occasions when we do cut to a close-up from a different angle, it feels odd and uncomfortable. Plus it has just four actors and was shot in four days in a single location. Effective use of minimal resources.

There are a couple of musical sequences as the camera pans up and down the underwear-clad body. Serena Chloe Gardner (Banjo) does a magnificent job of remaining completely still – and unresponsive when being groped by Barry. These musical interludes do rather seem like padding to reach a one-hour running time but they also break up the otherwise largely talkie scenes so I didn’t mind them. And the justification is that these happen when the living characters are out of the room, allowing the story to unfold in real time – which brings us back to the ticking clock.

She’s Dead is the first film work I have watched from Dead Good Films Like, a production company which Nik Box set up in 2004. So far as I can tell this has no connection with The Dead Good Film Company which was Adam Trotman’s and Thomas Lawes’ prodco in the late ‘90s, responsible for such classics as Rhino Bitch and Demagogue (the latter of which got me my first ever credit in Fangoria).

Over the years DGFL have made a number of shorts and sub-feature-length films with exploitation titles like Mr Rape’s First Date and Dracula vs the Ninja on the Moon. She’s Dead was released on DVD in January 2014 (available through the DGFL website) also given a legitimate US release the following month as part of a four-film, two-disc set. Under the umbrella title 21st Century Grindhouse, this also included Wrath of the Violent Vicar, Terror of the Blood Demon and Brutal Jesus and the House of Wasted Youth. The film screened at the Movie Days/Dark Zone festival in 2013 where it picked up an award for Best English Film.

MJS rating: B

Friday, 18 March 2016

Devil Town

Director: Nick Barrett
Writer: Nick Barrett
Producer: Stephen Callo
Cast: Johnny Vivash, Matthew Hebden, Elina Alminas
Country: UK
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: Online screener

This 16-minute short is a well-written, well-directed, well-acted slice of British horror and well worth your time. Theatre/radio actor Matthew Hebden is Patrick, a corporate arsehole with a smartphone and no time for anyone around him. Johnny Vivash (The Fallow Field, Kung Fu Flid) is Driscoll, a homeless man who follows Patrick into a smart coffee shop and engages him in conversation.

For most of the running time this is a two-hander, with director Nick Barrett doing a good job of keeping the conversation flowing and our attention paid. Patrick airily tries to dismiss Driscoll and even offers him money to go away. But Driscoll has a secret that he wants Patrick to know. About what’s really happening in the city. His is a They Live-style paranoid delusion which Patrick casually dismisses with a reference to Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

But of course, we have to wonder whether there is some truth behind Driscoll’s paranoia. Without giving anything away, I can reassure you that this does not lead to a simple “Ooh, he was right after all” twist. The story develops in its second half. And questions you will start wondering – like why has Driscoll singled out Patrick, and why has a posh coffee shop allowed a scruffy tramp to come in and sit down – will be answered.

The two leads both give absolutely terrific performances. Vivash brings real depth to a character who could have just been a drunken bum. And Hebden travels a hugely impressive emotional pathways from irritation to exasperation to tolerance to scorn to confusion to understanding to acceptance to realisation to, well, terror. Elina Alminas, who had bit-parts in Jupiter Ascending, Ex Machina and the live action Disney Cinderella, provides solid support as the waitress.

Fine cinematography by Marcos Avlonitis and Nick Barrett’s own atmospheric score combine to build a steadily increasing mood of uncertainty and doubt throughout the picture. Currently doing the festival rounds, this is a gripping, scary, clever film which I expect to read more about as word spreads.

MJS rating: A-

Friday, 11 March 2016

The Other Side of the Door

Director: Johannes Roberts
Writers: Johannes Roberts, Ernest Riera
Producers: Alexandre Aja, Rory Aitken, Ben Pugh
Cast: Sarah Wayne Callies, Jeremy Sisto, Suchitra Pillai
Country: UK/India
Year of release: 2016
Reviewed from: UK theatrical release

Let’s start this with a brief recap of Johannes Roberts’ career because I have seen (almost) all his films. His first couple of movies were jointly directed with James Eaves. Sanitarium is a medical horror which I actually first saw in its unreleased, longer cut as Diagnosis. It was later re-edited and had a framing story added featuring no less than spoon-bending con artist Uri Geller as a detective (and token name value). Then Jim and Jo made something called Alice which also got chopped up and retitled, seeing release as the unfathomable Hellbreeder.

Roberts' solo debut was Darkhunters, about supernatural detectives hunting a dead man. Then came Forest of the Damned (aka Demonic) in which some teenagers go to the woods and get attacked by fallen angels; this was the feature debut of both Eleanor James and Marysia Kay. And after that came the episodic phone serial When Evil Calls which was turned into a feature with the addition of linking scenes featuring Sir Sean Pertwee. If you want more detail on those five movies, they are discussed at length in my book Urban Terrors.

Jo was at a bit of a low ebb after When Evil Calls. When a reviewer sums up your film as “Fuck this movie” it’s difficult not to feel dispirited. (Although personally I preferred it to the formulaic Forest of the Damned, notwithstanding the latter has Ella and Marysia clambering around in the nude).

That was the first stage of Jo Roberts’ career. A few years later he re-emerged, re-energised, with the absolutely brilliant F which to my mind remains his best film. I love the way it takes the hoodie horror subgenre and does something different with it, balancing on the very edge of the supernatural, literally demonising young people. This was followed by a US cable movie, Roadkill, which is the one Johannes Roberts feature I haven’t seen. (On the other hand I have seen the obscure Dark Secrets, on which he was credited as executive producer. This was produced by Ernest Riera who had worked on Forest of the Damned and When Evil Calls. He has since directed the unreleased Forest of the Damned 2 and indeed is co-writer of this movie.) Then came Storage 24, a generic but fun monster-on-the-loose picture which was written, produced by and starred Noel Clarke.

Which brings us to The Other Side of the Door, a ghost story set in India. This is the big time: produced by Alexandre Aja (Switchblade Romance, Hills Have Eyes remake) and distributed by 20th Century Fox. Not sure what the budget was but this actually looks like a Hollywood movie. It was released on 330 screens in the UK and 550 in the States. The gulf between Other Side and Sanitarium is immeasurably vast but Jo Roberts has straddled it and that’s a huge achievement in itself.

So anyway, the story here is a fairly conventional Monkey’s Paw-style narrative with the Indian setting helping to both distinguish the movie within its subgenre and provide an otherworldly ambience for the characters and plot. Jeremy Sisto from Law and Order is Michael, an American antiques dealer sourcing items in Mumbai. Sarah Wayne Callis from The Walking Dead is his wife Maria. After a prologue, the film jumps ahead six years and it is at this point that Jo does an impressive show-don’t-tell job, letting us work out for ourselves that though they have a daughter now, they also used to have a son.

A little later we get to see how that son, Oliver, died. A road accident, a car in the river filling with water, Maria facing a Sophie’s choice of whether to save Oliver (whose leg is trapped) or his sister Lucy (who is unconscious). She saves Lucy but is understandably distraught at having had to abandon her screaming, terrified little boy and let him drown. This is a really, really harrowing sequence and very well shot, I can’t imagine what the health and safety issues are like when shooting a sequence with two very young actors and a lot of water.

Back in the main narrative, Lucy is fine but Maria is haunted by guilt. The family’s servant Piki (Suchitra Pillai from the Indian version of 24) has a solution. She knows of a temple in a distant part of India where, if you scatter the ashes of a loved one outside and wait for nightfall, they will come to you. Maria will be able to say goodbye to Oliver and tell him how much she loves him. But, Piki stresses, on no account must Maria open the door.

Well, I think we can all guess what’s going to happen…

To be completely fair to Maria, she only opens the door when she thinks that Oliver’s spirit has almost gone, but it’s enough and something has come through from ‘the other side’. Back home, Oliver makes his presence felt. At first Maria is delighted to be able to once again sit and read a bedtime story to her invisible son. Lucy realises that her brother has come back and is young enough to accept this, although her mother swears her to secrecy. Michael is off buying antiques and has no idea what has gone on. This is all very creepy although I can't help feeling that the film has played its hand too early. We're shown pretty much from the off that Oliver's ghost really is present, never getting the chance to experience any of the 'is it all in her head?' speculation that characterises many of the best ghost stories.

Gradually Oliver turns from darling boy to impudent child to evil spirit. Plants and animals start dying as he sucks the life from them. Without going into detail, things get worse and worse, deadlier and deadlier. Jo does a great job of twisting the knife, showing his years of horror film-making experience. The finale is genuinely shocking although the ‘twist’ epilogue seems kind of cheesy.

I certainly enjoyed The Other Side of the Door, as indeed I enjoyed Storage 24 (although I still think F beats them both). The cast are solid, including the kids: Sofia Rosinsky does a sterling job as Lucy, who becomes increasingly involved in the story as the film progresses. Logan Creran doesn’t have much to do as Oliver except appear in a few flashbacks or pop up towards the end with some prosthetic stuff on his face. Most of the time Oliver is a voice, provided by Jax Malcolm.

The production design by David Bryan (who used to design Big Cook, Little Cook!) is terrific. Everything is a set except for the exterior of the couple’s home which is actually the house where Rudyard Kipling was born. Aja provided his regular DP Maxime Alexandre who does a cracking job. This is a good, solid cinematic ghost story. Commendably, the script, design and direction use the Indian setting without patronising or stereotyping. Although this is very much a Western view of India; you couldn't mistake this for a genuine basmati horror like Bhoot or Hawa. (One thing that is a little regrettable: among all the stills released by Fox's publicity people, I can't find a single one of Suchitra Pillai.)

But – and it’s a but I don’t like having to admit – the one thing that the film isn’t… is scary. As a supernatural drama it’s top-notch stuff, but as actual horror, as an example of a film genre defined by the emotion it creates in the audience, I found that emotion curiously absent. I empathised with the characters, I loved the creepy atmosphere, I liked the way that Oliver’s character changes, I enjoyed the special effects thing that has also been unleashed, I really felt involved in the heart-wrenching climax. But I wasn’t actually ever frightened. (Except, a bit I guess, when the car is filling with water.)

And this isn’t because I watch a lot of horror films. I can still be scared. Anyway, who the hell is a film like this aimed at if it’s not people who watch horror films.

The problem lies fairly and squarely with the soundtrack. The film is scored by Joseph Bishara whose other credits include the Night of the Demons remake and all three Insidious films. He is evidently one of those composers who believes that anything scary in a horror film should be emphasised with a big, crashing chord. And this is just a huge bugbear with me.

Because not only is that a massive cliché, it’s actually self-defeating. Bishara’s determination to match every shocking or disturbing image with an orchestral music sting robs those images of their ability to shock and disturb. His music detracts when it should (and thinks it is) be emphasising.

Here’s the nuts and bolts. A sudden noise will always make people jump. That’s an instinctive reaction. Human beings are programmed to jump at a sudden noise, as are most mammals that aren’t apex predators. It’s how our ancestors avoided being eaten. On the cinema screen, it doesn’t matter a wit what you show when that chord crashes. If we’re looking at a film of a spring meadow and a butterfly comes into view, accompanied by a thunderous orchestral blast, we will jump.

In a horror film like this, our instinctive reaction to the sound means that we don’t get a chance to react to the image. And it’s the image that should be scaring us. Effective horror scores counterpoint the imagery or even ignore it – and that’s what make the imagery scary. Music that doesn’t acknowledge the scary image says, “Did you notice this? Whoa, what was that? Did you really see that? Holy cow, what is going on? Now you’re really worried, aren’t you?” But music like Joseph Bishara’s score for The Other Side of the Door just beats us over the head, yelling, “Look! Look at this! See the scary thing! Do you see it? Do you? Do you?!” By the time we’ve recovered our wits, the scary thing has either disappeared off screen or simply isn’t scary any more.

There are a bunch of moments in The Other Side of the Door which could have been really, really terrifying but the lumbering behemoth that is Bushara’s music robs them of their power and that’s a real shame. It neuters the horror and undoes the director’s hard work.

That’s my main beef. Aside from that: yeah, I enjoyed the film and I think you will too. What’s interesting is to compare and contrast this with F, since both deal with a parent/child relationship. In some ways they are opposites: in F the outside force is a wedge pushing the generations apart, in Other Side the outside force binds them together when they should have separated. But in both films a parent is trying desperately to cling on, in defiance of reality, to a lost relationship with a child.

What has happened inbetween, which may have exerted an influence on Roberts’ oeuvre, is that Jo has become a dad himself. His Instagram account is full of photos of Ludwig Roberts (aka ‘Earwig’) who is a little cutie and no mistake. So perhaps F can be read, if one is in a film studies mood, as being about Johannes Roberts’ relationship with his father while Other Side reflects his own newfound status as parent of a small child. Except of course this film was shot in 2014 before Earwig was born. Nevertheless, fatherhood – including impending fatherhood – changes one’s attitude. It can’t have been easy overseeing post-production on a film about a parent losing a child when you’ve suddenly got one yourself. (It’s also interesting to note that the last British horror film made in India, The Dead 2, was also about parenthood. Is there a subtext somewhere that equates post-imperialism with paternalism?)

One final thing. About four years ago, back in May 2012 – when Earwig was just a twinkle in his father’s eye – Jo Roberts was looking for some feedback on a treatment he had knocked together for something called The Door. I’ve met Jo a few times and we’ve corresponded over the years so I offered to take a look, had a read and sent back some detailed notes.

The treatment, which Jo freely admitted was “very off the cuff and rambling and not finished” contains the kernel of what would become The Other Side of the Door. The couple are British not American and they don’t have a daughter. In this first pass at the story the mother saves a little Indian girl from being hit by a car then finds that the same car has knocked down and killed Oliver. It’s the father of the girl, rather than a servant, who tells her about the temple. Once Oliver’s spirit is home, the story develops differently with more emphasis on doors as a motif. The other side of Oliver’s bedroom door becomes as significant as the other side of the temple door. The mum brings Oliver back each night by scattering ashes inside his bedroom and finds footprints in them in the morning. There is also stuff about other spirits trying to trick their way through by pretending to be Oliver, which would have been nice to keep.

Frustratingly, although I have Jo’s treatment and his reply to my feedback (“I think you really hit the nail on the head. I’m going to start to work and reform the treatment over the next few weeks – this has been super helpful!”), I no longer have the actual notes I put together and sent. So I have no idea whether any of my suggestions ended up in the finished film. But until I eventually get my own feature writing credit somewhere, it’s nice to know that I was able to help, in some small way, with the very early stages of this one.

Since completing Other Side, which was all shot in India, Jo has spent a couple of months in the Dominican Republic shooting his underwater epic 47 Metres Down. He and Ernest Riera have also sold a script called The Pool, touted as ‘Cujo in a swimming pool’ which Paul Hyett is attached to direct.

This film was originally announced for a late February release but got bumped by a week to early March so that it could premiere at Glasgow Frightfest (where Paul H showed some early footage from Heretiks). Some Pacific Rim territories retained the earlier date so, if the IMDb is correct (it could happen one day) the first people to see this were audiences in Indonesia and the Philippines.

MJS rating: B+

Saturday, 5 March 2016


Director: Shankar
Writer: Shankar
Producers: Kalanidhi Maran, Hansraj Saxena
Cast: Ashwairya Rai, Rajnikanth, Danny Denzongpa
Country: India
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: UK theatrical release

I don’t get out to the cinema much nowadays, what with the family and the job and everything. Most of what I watch is on DVD. So it was pretty unusual this week for me to be at the cinema on two consecutive days.

Given how infrequently I see anything on the big screen, what are the chances that both films would be foreign? Well, pretty good I suppose. I like foreign films. What about the fact that both movies were about robots? Not unbelievable - I like movies about robots. Oh, and they were both two and a half hours long. That is stretching coincidence a little far.

Yes folks, within a 33-hour period I spent five of those hours sat in a cinema watching overseas robot movies. But the above notwithstanding, they couldn’t have been more different. Sunday afternoon was spent watching the restored version of Metropolis; Sunday evening’s viewing was the most expensive Bollywood film ever made - Robot.

Actually, I saw three films that weekend. On Saturday, Mrs S and I watched Made in Dagenham, the story of the machinists’ strike at Ford in 1968 which precipitated a worldwide movement towards equality of pay for women. It was good fun and even featured Marysia Kay in a small, non-speaking role. There are actually parallels between Made in Dagenham and Metropolis (alliteration aside). Both are about a worker’s revolt against injustice, led by a woman, and both manage to be watchable movies without falling into the trap of tedious left-wing polemic which such a scenario suggests. Admittedly, one does this by being a feel-good, lightweight comedy-drama and the other does it by being a powerful, thrilling sci-fi epic - but I never said they were the same film, did I?

Also, obviously, one of them is silent. And black and white. And German.

All the above proves is that you can find similarities between any two films, no matter how different. Well, almost. I’ve tried to work out if Made in Dagenham has any parallels with Robot and I think I can honestly say that it doesn’t, beyond the fact that they’re both in colour, and talkies. Which isn’t saying much, is it?

Metropolis, by the way, is a whole new film with the extra material. It still doesn’t make complete sense but it makes a hell of a lot more sense than it used to.

But anyway, this isn’t a review of Metropolis or Made in Dagenham. This is a review of Robot. And I am here to tell you that this is an awesome film. I enjoyed the other two very much - I enjoy a lot of films - but Robot is one of those movies that takes you to another level. It is both magnificent and magnificently bonkers.

This is pure Bollywood. It’s nearly three hours long, it has lots of singing and dancing, the women are unbelievably beautiful and the men wear jackets that I would swap my entire wardrobe for. Unlike some other Bollywood flicks - and certainly unlike the public perception of Bollywood - it’s not a blatant rip-off of a Hollywood movie (or even two Hollywood movies). Although admittedly some of the imagery is derived from The Terminator, The Matrix and their various sequels. But I think that falls more neatly under the category of ‘homage’.

Rajnikanth (aka Superstar Rajni) pulls double duty as independent scientist Dr Vaseegaran (‘Vasee’) and his robotic creation, initially named Robo but then rechristened Chitti. (The name is suggested by Vaseegaran’s mother because it’s what she would have called her second son, if she had one.) Vaseegaran has a gleaming high-tech lab, a couple of idiot assistants, two smaller humanoid robots wandering around (one of which is referred to as ‘R2’!) and no obvious source of income.

For reasons unexplained he gives his full-size, ‘andro-humanoid’ robot a rubber mask modelled on his own face, giving rise to a marketable situation of Rajnikanth acting opposite himself. Except that, for a lot of the time, he doesn’t. There’s probably a few split-screen shots in here but often, when creator and robot appear on screen together, the latter is a stand-in wearing a mask. It’s a decent enough mask and the fact that the robot has (a) a wig and (b) large, never-removed, wrap-around shades helps to disguise the fact that it’s someone else.

Vaseegaran has a beard - initially long and straggly, later trimmed to a neat goatee - but this doesn’t quite succeed in distracting the audience from noticing that the ‘identical’ robot has a significantly bulkier jaw. Also, in some shots, the robot is clearly a couple of inches taller!

The reason for Vasee’s unkempt appearance is that he has been working solidly on the robot for months(!) and consequently has been completely ignoring his girlfriend Sana. She has sent him 200 texts and e-mails, even tried to get to see him in the lab, but he has been completely out of contact.

Is he mad? His girlfriend is Ashwairya Rai. Aishwairya freaking Rai!

Former Miss World Asjwairya Rai. Bollywood queen Ashwairya Rai. Very probably the most beautiful woman on the planet Ashwairya Rai.

Listen, I’m not one for mooning over sexy film stars. Okay, I wouldn’t exactly fight off Angelina Jolie or Kiera Knightley or Megan Fox or... well, I’m only human. It’s nice to watch attractive, glamorous people, purely on an aesthetic level. But I’m not the sort of fanboy who goes crazy over some actress.

However, like any heterosexual male, I would crawl naked over broken glass to touch the hem of Ashwairya Rai’s sari. She is smoking, simple as that. She’s now 36 (she was Miss World in 1994) and she gets more stunning every year. The fact that she’s evidently very intelligent and successful is, of course, terrific too. (I’m base, but I’m not that base.)

But still: Ashwairya Rai. I know this is a lightweight science fantasy but the idea that even the nerdiest nerd would prefer a robotics lab over Ashwairya Rai just doesn’t hold water. I mean, okay, yes, suspension of disbelief and all that but dude, there’s a limit!

Vasee and Sana are on the verge of breaking up but they decide they love each other really and this is the cue for the first song and dance number, which sees the two actors in some stunning desert locations. This is one of those Bollywood films where the musical sequences are all fantasy sequences rather than everyone on screen suddenly breaking into a big production number (unless they’re actually in a scene at a party or some similar occurence when folk would actually dance).

This is a film of two halves - literally, as there is an intermission about an hour and a half in. But also figuratively as part one is basically a comedy. Chitti has to learn about the world, starting by learning not to take things literally (a bent traffic cop who asks for ‘a cut’ gets a bleeding palm). Everyone is impressed by the robot, including Vasee’s mentor, the shifty Dr Bora whose own robotic prototypes don’t work properly and who would dearly love to get his hands on Chitti’s ‘neural schema’.

When Sana asks to borrow Chitti for a couple of days, she finds that he is the perfect man. Sana lives in - and may actually have set up - a women-only retreat for war widows, young and old. Chitti is only allowed in because, though he appears male, he’s a robot, not a man. He proves himself an excellent cook and superb at tidying and cleaning, using vast amounts of knowledge that were inputted by Vasee.

Sana is studying to be a doctor, possibly a midwife, but her revision is disturbed by noisy yobbos who live in the next house. Chitti goes over there and calmly destroys their stereo. When loud music comes from down the street, he once again is a gallant, using his high-tech powers to eliminate the noise-making equipment. When the street gang threaten him with knives, he simply magnetises his body and all the knives stick to him, along with the youths’ jewellery (which would of course be non-ferrous). In one of many funny and original gags, Chitti arranges all the metal objects around him to make himself look like a particular god whom the locals are busy worshipping.

Chitti helps Sana with her revision but, being naive, he also helps her to cheat in her medical exam, using a high-tech device to see the paper in front of her and pass the answers into her ear or even project them onto the answer sheet for her to trace. This relates to a never-clearly-explained remote viewing/communication wotsit that is part of Chitti which does feature more significantly in some other scenes. A couple of senior doctors come across this man sitting alone on a park bench spouting advanced medical knowledge out loud for no apparent reason and Chitti, being naive in the ways of duplicity, explains that he is helping Sana cheat but she gets away with it by claiming that she doesn’t know the man and he must be a lunatic.

More disturbing than this betrayal is that Sana, the film’s heroine, is prepared to cheat in a medical exam. This isn’t just a qualification, this is recognition that the student actually knows this stuff before she starts treating people. That she would even consider this is deeply worrying and frankly inconsistent with the character who is otherwise a good person.

Later, Sana and Chitti are attacked on a train by the combined yobbos from the revision sequence who have diligently armed themselves with weapons made only of stone and wood. There follows an extended fight scene, presaged by the data input scene in the lab when one of the categories of info uploaded into Chitti is clearly labelled ‘martial arts’.

Thrown from the train because his battery is running low, Chitti recharges himself, gives chase (using wheels in his feet) and reboards the train to finally put paid to the whole hoodlum gang, punching and kicking and generally beating them up. Of course, you know what this makes Robot, don’t you? It’s a late flowering of that quintessential 1990s subgenre, the KCM - or Kickboxing Cyborg Movie.

The one thing which Chitti lacks, it seems, is feelings. So Vasee adds them and Chitti has a whole new set of problems to deal with, not least that he falls in love - predictably - with Sana. After helping to deliver a breach baby when mother and child are both close to death (a well-handled, very emotional scene), Chitti receives a peck on the cheek from Sana and reacts in the same way that any man would if he had the lightest of kisses from Ashwairya Rai: he falls hopelessly head over heels in love with her.

This leads to probably the oddest sequence in the film when he visits Sana in her room and she sets him the challenge of catching a mosquito which has just bitten her. Not only does he chase the mozzie across the city to a smelly sewer outlet where millions of the things live, not only does he identify the insect in question, but he actually has a conversation with the (CGI) mosquitos. This really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film and, even in a Bollywood fantasy, it stands out as making no sense.

Nevertheless, Chitti loves Sana. He fixes his hair, puts on a really fabulous jacket and cuts a rug with her at a party, making his creator understandably jealous. But Sana makes it clear that she loves Vasee, she is engaged to Vasee and she will not consider a relationship with a machine.

“And so the story begins,” smirks Doctor Bora in a scene designed to close the first half as the curtain descends.

So essentially what we have here is a version of the Pinocchio story: the innocent, artificial man-boy who longs to be human. We’ve seen it many times. It’s Data from Star Trek all over again, it’s Edward Scissorhands without the garden shears. In fact, the film it reminds me of most is the 1987 John Malkovich comedy Making Mr Right, in which a scientist creates an android in his own image who then falls in love with a real woman, creating what might be termed a two-sided triangle.

But if the first half of the film is Pinocchio, the second is Frankenstein as the movie turns into an all-out, action-packed, sci-fi thriller. Where the first half was a comedy with some action elements, this is an action film with a few comic elements, even getting quite horrific at times. This is a movie which, despite its lightweight, light-hearted over-story isn’t afraid to have some quite unpleasant moments, including an attempted rape of Sana in the train sequence (which the surrounding thugs all want to film on their mobiles) and a genuinely shocking road-death.

Vasee has designed Chitti specifically to work as a soldier, with the long-term aim that an army of such robots would help to protect India and would mean that no wife or mother ever had to lose a husband/son. There is even a statement in the dialogue that, for this reason, Chitti does not comply with Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics. (Asimov gets mentioned in the chorus of one of the songs too, along with Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein,)

But adding feelings to Chitti has caused him to fall in love and he now refuses to demonstrate his abilities to army top brass, telling them instead that there should be more love and peace. Furious and embarrassed, Vasee takes Chitti back to the lab and, to quote a famous book, gives him a reprogramming with an axe that he’ll never forget. The pieces of robot are thrown into a skip and taken to one of India’s many biggest rubbish tips.

But... you can’t keep a good robot down and the pieces manage to just about reassemble themselves enough to make contact with Dr Bora, who is still scheming to get his hands on Chitti’s schema (whatever that is). Rebuilt once again in Vasee’s image, but with sharper sideburns and a white streak in the middle of his hair, Chitti is supplied with some sort of red memory chip doodad. And that’s what turns him completely evil...

Chitti goes on a crime spree but, working with the police and army, Vasee manages to destroy the errant android - except it’s not Chitti. At which point the slow-on-the-uptake Indian coppers realise how come Chitti has been stealing vehicles, supplies, jewellery and shoes in multiple places simultaneously.

Yes folks, the original Chitti has built an army of Chittis, all played by stuntmen in Rajnikanth masks, with those same large shades but now a different wig. He has taken over the Indian Robotics Institute and, to top it all, kidnaps Sana in the middle of her wedding to Vasee. This leads into a quite magnificent car-chase (with some deliberate nods to The Blues Brothers, I think) as vast numbers of Indian cops pursue Chitti, with the robot leaping in and out of his convertible to wreak vehicular damage by mashing lorries together and other tricks, while the terrified Sana looks on helplessly

Escaping the police and taking Sana back to his base in the Institute, he installs her as his queen in a palatial suite and offers her all the jewellery and shoes she could want. He also outlines a very creepy plan to create an artificial phoetus and implant it inside her so that she will give birth to the first human-robot hybrid (shades of Demon Seed!).

In a clever and original sequences, Vasee infiltrates Chitti’s base by disguising himself as Chitti - sharp sideburns, two-tone hairstyle and everything - in order to pass as one of the Chitti copies. So he can effectively hide in plain sight because every one of the robots around him is designed to look like him. When the android realises that there’s a human present, he lines up his minions in rows and then walks among them, armed with a sword, trying to work out which one isn’t real (or is real, depending on how you look at it). This is a tense and very effective scene, let down only (and possibly only in the case of this one viewer) by calling to mind the very similar scene when Alex tries to identify Marty among a herd of zebras in Madagascar 2.

Eventually the army move in and everything is set for the big finale in which about a hundred identical Chitti robots, including the original, form themselves into huge geometric shapes through the marvel of (a) CGI effects and (b) the director having watched the Matrix sequels. So actually this is quite effective because it’s all the fun of the big effects sequences from The Matrix 2 and 3 without any of the pretentious bollocks.

So the multi-Chitti forms into a sphere and rolls around, crushing cars and blasting guns. The Chittis stack up into a cylinder or become a carpet and at one point (seen briefly in the trailer) they actually transform into a giant snake which eats up cars. Holy shit, that’s what I’m talking about! Eventually, the multi-Chitti becomes a huge drill and tunnels underground. Then we see one Chitti emerge from a manhole cover and the whole audience starts thinking: ooh, ooh, I know what’s coming next! Is it going to be...?

Yes indeed, it’s a giant Chitti! It’s MegaChitti, formed from lot of individual Chittis. Although once again an unhelpful comparison sprang into this reviewer’s brain. It’s difficult for any fan of Family Guy to watch this and not think: “Men, form a crippletron!” Although one can banish this image to some extent by comparing this with the CyberKing from the Doctor Who Christmas special ‘The Next Doctor’ instead.

Sana and Vasee escape in a truck full of high-tech gubbins and, although the ensuing chase is exciting, there’s a slight let-down in the way that Vasee’s desperate scramble to finally defeat Chitti effectively involves punching lots of calculations into a computer.

But it is all jolly thrilling and a real roller-coaster ride of a movie. This is the sort of film that can be enjoyed by anyone, whatever their level of familiarity with Bollywood cinema. If you like exciting sci-fi action romcom musical thrillers, this is the motion picture experience you’ve been waiting for!

The musical numbers are as spectacular as one might expect (and the music very catchy indeed) although there’s a really odd dance sequence filmed in, of all places (and for no apparent reason) Machu Pichu. The costumes therein are extraordinary (and change every few lines, for both principal artistes and chorus) and there’s an old Peruvian woman who lip-syncs a couple of lines, plus a considerable number of llamas.

More successful (and pertinent) are the two big robotic fantasy numbers, one of which features the two robo-panthers seen briefly in the trailer. These two dance sequences look like they were arranged by someone who had watched a couple of Kylie videos and thought, “Well, it’s okay as far as it goes but it’s really not sci-fi enough...”

As well as being the most expensive Bollywood movie ever (US$35-40 million, which in LA would buy you a medium-sized romcom), Robot had the widest opening of any Bollywood picture, on 2,253 screens worldwide, 300 of them outside India. There was even a red-carpet London premiere with the stars in attendance although curiously most of the western media seem to have ignored this, just like they ignore Bollywood in general.

There are three versions, apparently: one in the original Tamil, entitled Endhiran (which I assume means ‘robot’), one dubbed into Telugu as Robo and one dubbed into Hindi as Robot, which I assume was the one I saw (that would make sense: far more people in the UK speak Hindi than Tamil or Telugu). The on-screen title was Robot although if the dialogue was dubbed it wasn’t noticeable. But then, I was reading subitles rather than checking for lip-sync.

The subtitling was good although occasional words disappeared against a light background. Interestingly, there were brief parenthetical explanations of Indian terms like ‘biryani’ and ‘Diwali’. I realise that some people are unlucky enough to live in places that don’t celebrate Diwali (here in Leicester we have the biggest Diwali celebrations outside India!) but surely everyone knows what a biryani is.

Mmm, biryani...

As is common in Bollywood films, about ten per cent of the dialogue is in English, usually as complete sentences rather than just odd words, occasionally an entire speech. These are faithfully reproduced as subtitles too. Well, I say faithfully but there are several instances of characters saying “Oh shit!” which, according to the subtitles, is Hindi for “Oh no!”

There is one scene that adds a whole new level to subtitling and takes a while to get used to, when Dr Bora meets a couple of German terrorists who want to purchase the killer robots he’s developing. The lead German speaks German, which is subtitled in English, Bora speaks Hindi, again subtitled in English, and inbetween them sits a character who speaks without subtitles. Eventually I worked out that he was a translator so he was just repeating what the other characters have said.

Aishwarya Rai should actually be a fairly visible face and name to western audiences as she has had several non-Bollywood roles in films like The Mistress of Spices, The Last Legion, Bride and Prejudice and The Pink Panther 2. Okay then, I can see why she’s not as well known in the west as she should be. But she was also in Devdas and Dhoom 2 and a whole bunch of other major films which, by rights, should have been global successes rather than global-sized successes among a niche global audience.

Incredibly, Rajnikanth was 58 years old when he made this. I mean, it’s clear he’s older than his co-star and no spring chicken but crikey! His 178 IMDB credits include haunted house comedy Chandramukhi, jungle adventure Bloodstone and a version of Aladdin called Alavuddinum Athbutha Vilakkum.

The slightly oriental-looking Danny Denzongpa, who plays Dr Bora, has almost as many films on his CV as Rajnikanth including western-distributed historial epic Asoka, 1980 horror picture Phir Whi Raat and Brad Pitt starrer Seven Years in Tibet. His distinctive looks - and the number of Himalaya-related films and film roles he has amassed - betray his family’s Tibetan origins. Vasee’s idiot assistants, whose comic-relief clowining is actually quite funny, in defiance of tradition, are played by Santhanam and Karunas.

Visual effects were overseen by Srinvas M Mohan, Frankie Chang and Eddy Wong: Mohan is CEO of Indian Artists Computer Graphics Pvt Ltd and was overall VFX supervisor for the ten companies contributing to the film’s visual effects. Animatronics are credited to Legacy Studios which is parenthetically noted in the credit block and on-screen by its former name of Stan Winston Studios - which makes commercial sense, I suppose. Chung and Wong are Hong Kong VFX guys from Kinomotive Studios and Menfond Electronics and Arts. Another HK contribuior is the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping who arranged some fights although the actual credited stunt co-ordinator is Peter Hein.

Adding another Hollywood link is costume designer Mary E Vogt whose credits include Men in Black I and II, Looney Tunes: Back in Action and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer. The composer - a far more important role than in Western cinema - is AR Rahman who also worked on Elizabeth: The Golden Age and Slumdog Millionaire.

Writer-director Shankar is one of the big names in current Bollywood, a hot talent who specialises in films like this, ones that make even the residents of Mumbai and New Delhi says, “My gracious, that’s a bit spectacular and over-the-top.” His company S-Pictures has released at least two interesting genre pictures: supernatural revenge chiller Eeram and ghostly thriller Anandhapurathu Veedu.

It’s a couple of years since I last watched a Bollywood movie on the big screen and Robot reminded me that it’s something I should indulge in more often. Frankly, there are moments in this film when you find yourself wishing you could be Indian. Although I suppose that won’t apply to most audiences as they already are.

MJS rating: A

Review originally posted 12th October 2010