“We can’t just ignore it.”
This is a ‘directors cut’ of the blog post that accompanies ‘Sarcophagus.’ There was simply too much to write about! So I’ve truncated that particular post, allowing discussion of Tanith Lee’s episode to retain its focus.
If you were a child of the 1980’s, then perhaps some of these memories might relate to you?
I’ve always had an interest in the irrational childhood fear. By irrational, I mean the seemingly innocuous moments that end up giving me the shivers. These are the screen based moments that stick; television adverts, film company logos, and of course anything which was designed to give people the creeps, from horror movies (the poster for ‘An American Werewolf in London’ freaked me out) and Public Information Films involving the dangers of flying kites near pylons and entering sub-stations.
But it’s the unintentionally scary that is of interest to me.
There’s a website called the Closing logo’s group, which catalogues a ton of different screen based idents from film and production companies both past and present. Under each logo entry there is a heading called the ‘Scare Factor’, suggesting that production company logos having some kind of creepy effect is an actual thing.
A great example is the video below. ‘The S from Hell’ is a documentary that explores the fear generated by a simple logo and fanfare for the company Screen Gems. I love how it captures the image of watching something through the gap in the door, or the crack in your fingers. Someone describes the logo as “the personification of all evil“.
Have a look and see for yourself.
The S From Hell from Rodney Ascher on Vimeo.
The Universal Pictures logos used in the 1980’s is my ‘S’ logo. This is the one with the two gaseous rings encircling the globe. No I don’t know why a movie logo should scare me either, but it did. It looked so imposing and awesome, and that there was no context for those two rings was unsettling in itself. The logo itself belongs to an era that people of a certain age will recognise; Knight Rider, The A Team, Back to the Future, Jaws. Yet it dates all the way back to 1963, making it one of the longest running logos in film. It was designed by Eyvind Earle, responsible for much of the pioneering artwork seen in the Disney movies of the 1950’s.
It’s sometimes irresistable to imagine what would happen if one gave these images a Blake’s 7 twist.
Blake’s 7 never struck me as a scary show. Perhaps I didn’t remember enough of it as a child. Doctor Who and Sapphire and Steel had the fear factor all sewn up for me. I vividly remember the anticipation of buying the VHS of Doctor Who ‘Inferno’ and looking forward to the tantalizing fear of green mutants running towards the camera in film footage reduced in resolution by a NTSC copy, which somehow gave it an added distant and unsettling edge. More about this can be found in the blog post about ‘Duel.‘
Today it’s one of the things I think about a lot. How would I have viewed Blake’s 7 if I had watched it as a child? Would it have scared me? So in a moment of self-indulgence, here is a collection of things that did scare me during my childhood during the early to mid 1980’s.
It’s worth starting with television adverts. There is a wealth of fear locked up here. So with the same fervour displayed by Avon as he discovered the room full of precious things in ‘Cygnus Alpha’, lets take a look at them. I’ve compiled them into a ad-break here…
THE MAXELL ADVERTS
There is a series of adverts in particular I want to celebrate. One that taps into one of the overall themes of this blog, namely bold creative decision-making on a very small budget.
In the early 1980’s I remember watching two adverts for Maxell cassettes. This featured Peter Murphy from the British rock band ‘Bauhaus’. As a child the adverts scared the pants off me, but really opened my eyes to the power of the screen. So I really wouldn’t be here talking about Blake’s 7 if it were not for these two masterpieces of the small screen.
As an older 39 year old child, I still get a wonderful thrill when I hear the high-pitched noise and see the darkened room – a reminder to my younger self to put my fingers in my ears, and shut my eyes tightly.
As both adverts unfold I’m reminded of the classic battle of making the most of your time and budget, a classic Blake’s 7 dilemma. The production values on these videos are really good with excellent lighting and the very essence of 1980’s chic contemporary cool. Even the shoes featured in the advert did good business.
It’s easy to see why the Maxell advert is memorable to so many; the silhouetted house, the infrequent electronic noises, and the cat howls that punctuate the sequence, give this an unsettling edge. The choice of music: Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on the Bare Mountain’, already famous for its inclusion in Disney’s ‘Fantasia’, creates a suitably stormy feel. And lets not forget Peter Murphy’s steely glares towards the camera, providing the added spook value.
I sought to track down anyone who might be able shed a bit more light on these terrifying memories. And I was lucky enough to make contact with director Howard Guard who has enjoyed a successful career on both sides of the Atlantic. He was kind enough to shed some light on the making of the advert.
Guard was quick to point out it was a low-budget commercial, resulting in all kinds of hard work to achieve the footage required.
“The ducks were on wires pulled by a man hanging over the top of the set. The low angle tracking shot onto Pete’s shoes was by putting the Arri on a sheet of hardboard (shiny side down) and me pulling it, and the focus puller running alongside. I had an industry phone call about it at the time asking where we got the rig. The lightening was open fronted Brutes and a man arcing the carbon” – in basic terms this a technique for activating the huge lights you might see on a large-scale exterior shoot. (3)
This is an advert that relies on the skill of filmic technique, rather than any kind of special effects work. At the time of transmission, Guard noted that “It was never intended to be a slick piece of optical trickery. It was simplicity itself; all in the shot material and the editing.”
Ironically, for an advert that places such a strong emphasis on sound, sometime it’s fun to turn the volume right down and think about the the studio floor. The sheer effort and co-ordination that Guard mentioned. Marc Hill was an art director on the shoot, and talked about how “half the construction crew were behind the wall moving the ducks and various props with Howard shouting “more, more” like an old-time silent movie director.” (1). It’s this image that I’m drawn to frequently, as I think of Guard directing the crew to make the magic happen: the music replaced with the sounds of shouting, orders and commands, industrial wind machines, crackles of lights being ignited, and assorted creaks and whooshes of various objects swaying in the storm of the living room.
But what we did hear in the end was a classic piece of music. Guard recollects that the advert was edited to two different sound tracks. “I cut the film with Simon Laurie to Mussorgsky’s ‘Night on a Bare Mountain’ and a second version to Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ I loved both versions but we went with Mussorgsky in the end.” And it’s an inspired choice allowing the score to fade down naturally and let the very sinister whispering voice deliver the “Break the Sound Barrier” tagline at the end.
As I reached the end of my correspondence with Guard, I was delighted to discover the location of the house that features in silhouette at the end of the advert, another scary image in my mind. This was a former mannequin studio in west London, and it still stands today. It was one of those moments where, after all this time, I’m still amazed at the power of the internet, allowing me to find an obscure house that featured in a television commercial from the early 1980’s – pure television archeology.
The follow-up commercial for Maxell video tapes, naturally has a more visual flavour, employing lasers, cats and frogs, whilst retaining the famous Le Corbusier chair, palm tree and Peter Murphy’s glare. Guard noted “I shot until 4.00am and 3000 feet of film trying to get the frog to jump with the laser behind.” Whether the frog jumped or not, the advert had a lasting impact on me. The filmic techniques and physical effects jump out, from the use of colour to the eerie darkness of the very opening shot – a similar darkness that opens another of Guard’s famous works of the early 1980’s – the advert for Fry’s Turkish Delight “Full of Eastern Promise.”
Guard signed off with the words “I remain fond of it.” He’s not the only one. The adverts seemed to be popular with the audience and the younger market that Guard was aiming for. This was noted in a contemporary article in the journal, Creative Review.
“From the time of the first transmission, Downtowns (an advertising agency) received sacks full of mail and numerous phone calls about the commercial. Many were simply congratulatory; others demanded to know where they could buy the man’s shoes or even where they could find the man. And Peter Murphy of Bauhaus, the man in question, has found his subsequent concerts interspersed with references to Maxell, thrown in by the audience.” (2)
At the other end of 1980’s decadence there is a commercial for ‘Mandate’ aftershave. This advert plays on high wealth living, featuring a powerful, “almost domineering” man. The man in question gets out of the shower, and prances around wherever he is, in his home or hotel. He interacts with a woman, whose thoughts we get to hear through a voice over. He has a somewhat creepy vibe about him, especially as he looms down to the camera. When I first watched this I was not drawn to the suggestive way the woman handles the aftershave package, nor the representations of men and women featured in the film – I was far too young to understand that. This one was all about the gentleman as he approaches the camera. Also scary is the rather clinical, sterile music for this one, which sounds like it belongs to an informational film about some medical facility, or a prototype version of the theme music for the long running BBC drama ‘Casualty’. Oh yes, this one is very sinister – and the grouting on the bathroom tiles is a shoddy job too! Unforgivable!
Bubbling under the main list are adverts for man-underwater-to-suggest-congestion type thing. It was the close up face at the end that gave me the shivers. There is a space age advert for ‘Zanussi’, complete with scary whooshing logo. Finally there is an interesting two-act advert for ‘Set Two’ hairspray, complete with moody voice over. This was just simply weird, but sometimes it’s hard to define what weird actually is.
THE NOT ADVERTS
Here is something that demonstrates the power of the internet. Imagine being spooked out by a piece of obscure music that accompanies a continuity segment for BBC1 from over 30 years ago. You know that you’ll probably never hear this specially composed piece of music again, but then the internet happened, and low and behold you finally find it once more. And here it is. It’s weird and not particularly suited to a welcoming continuity segment, and therein lies its unsettling nature, as the various human sounding ‘blips’ and ‘breaths’ rhythmically pulse around the material on-screen. It’s a bit ‘Art of Noise’ in it’s sensibilities, which is fair enough as it was 1985, around the era of ‘The Tripods’.
OK, so this is mid 1970’s, but I remember two archival shows from the 1980’s/90’s that featured this. One was called ‘TV Heaven’ – a Channel 4 series, hosted by Frank Muir. This devoted an entire evenings programming to a specific year. And then there was ‘The Rock and Roll Years’ – perhaps one of the greatest BBC TV series ever broadcast. This mixed news footage and the stories of a particular year, with the music of the time. And there was no narrator. They even featured Doctor Who in 1963. When I first saw this clip from 1974 I was terrified that I just didn’t understand who the scary man was, and why was he performing the way he did on cosy ‘Top of the Pops’. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you Ron Mael from ‘Sparks’.
From television to film. There was ‘Jaws’ – the James Bond Henchman, not the shark. I was terrified by him. Watching ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) on TV I remember being very unnerved by the shots of ‘Jaws’, towering like a sphinx in Egypt. In fact the whole sequence set during the nighttime pyramid light show is eerie, especially in its use of verite soundtrack, such as the light show narration, in conjunction with the fictional aspects of the story. The lighting does half the job, and actor Richard Kiel does the rest.
In fact this introduction is the highlight of the characters contribution to the franchise. In ‘Moonraker’ (1979) he will be a mix of menace and comedic relief, but here, in the pyramids of Egypt, and later in a phone booth and a train wardrobe, he is at his most chilling.
Childrens shows do not escape the scare factor either. Take Sandy getting stung by a Portuguese Man O’War (known as a ‘Bluebottle’ in many parts of the world) in the episode of ‘Flipper’ entitled ‘Call of the Dolphin.’ I didn’t know what a Man O’War was, but it looked really weird and that terrified me. I later discovered that, in ‘Flipper’, it didn’t look anything like what it really does, resembling an inflatable ball with some string, rather than an alien looking float with a mass of tentacles. Budget cut backs I guess?
Finally we have this intro to an 1980’s ITV strand of movies. The theme is fairly self-explanatory, but not the fact that this eerie soundtrack came from a piece of library music call ‘Watching and Waiting’ by Richard Allen Harvey which featured in the Australian soap opera ‘Sons and Daughters’.
The ascending notes are pretty spooky, and the visuals are suitably matched, although I seem to recall some kind of thunderclap at the beginning of this sequence, which perhaps this video lacks.
DISCUSSION OF BLAKE’S 7
So was Blakes 7 ever ‘behind the sofa? Here is a speculative list of what I think might be scary.
Lets start with corridors. Always a space where you are exposed to danger. Perhaps the language of any Doctor Who story involving long corridors and Daleks are the source of this fear. The idea that it us not usually the Dalek that comes around the distant corner at first, but its shadow. So seeing Dayna in the middle of a three-way corridor in Sarcophagus always felt like the worst place to stand – where impending threat could come from any direction.
Similarly Blake getting clobbered in a tunnel in ‘The Way Back’ is quite unsettling. Again there’s something about long bleak corridors that makes this nasty looking. You can run, but you’ll always be in the firing line. Yet here it’s the fact that when he turned a corner, the danger was right in his face.
The discovery of the four bodies of the original Star One crew is pretty sinister. It’s all about the eyes, or rather the lack of them, and what lurks behind the door. It’s shot in the classic horror style, from the protagonists perspective.
The heartbeat of Terminal is a simply brilliant sound effect that is made ever more eerie by the fact that it is never fully explained. I’ll talk about this in the review of ‘Terminal’.
The opening scenes of ‘Warlord’ are very unsettling. There’s no doubt that the imagery and soundscape is chilling, but it’s also something about the fact it was shot on film. It’s stark and cold. Even the shopping centre location used is pristine, which only adds to the clinical feel to the piece. It’s stark in the same way that Public Information Films (PIF’s) about not breaking into electricity sub stations was cold, bleak and therefore scary.
There’s the shot of Pilot Four Zero succumbing to the alien plague in ‘Children of Auron’. It’s all about the mise-en-scene of the shot; the harsh lighting hitting Michael Troughton’s defeated features, the vacant glare, the futile but valiant lean forward to desperately keep control of the ship, the intensity of the soundtrack, and juddering images that magnify the horror that is taking place. It just communicates utter hopelessness, and that is unsettling.
Finally I can’t help but think that I might have found the Blake’s 7 logo fairly sinister too. It’s looms up on us, the music goes all sombre, and the shape and form of the whole thing is bold and imposing. I reckon it would have made an impact. The ‘B7 from hell’.
Looking back there are some themes emerging that make, in my mind at least, something scary. We have plenty of rich imagery, and symbolism, but it’s when things don’t quite fit within their more familiar contexts that unintentional fear is created. Also things that ‘loom’ towards us; faces, planetary objects, text appearing from nothing, and heads that emerge from nowhere.
And in contrast, when things are not looming towards us, it’s when the camera focuses in on something unsettling – a malevolent glare, a darkened room, a figure in the shadows.
But many of these things need that little extra push, and it is the soundscape that offers it; the imposing fanfare, or cold clinical musical score, a cat howling, or a collection of sounds that do not seemingly fit in with the context of the moment.
These are clues and cues that suggest something about what tapped into my mind as a child. But reading the discussion boards and articles that cover this theme, there is one clear agreement connecting about what might make something scary – that it is subjective.
Don’t have nightmares.
(2) ‘The sound and the Fury’ – Creative Review (May?) 1982
(3) Interview with the author. October 2017.