Frequently Asked Questions
Will you send me your autograph?
I don't do that by mail but will be happy to give it to you if we meet.
If I send you my copies of your books, will you sign them?
I'm afraid I don't offer that facility. If we meet I'll sign and if you like inscribe all my work that you own.
If I send you some of my work, will you offer me editorial advice and criticism?
I can't, sorry. I haven't even enough time to read all the material publishers send me or to write the introductions people ask me to provide for imminent publications. In any case, my views don't matter unless I'm actually editing a publication. Otherwise you need to convince whoever you want to publish your work that it's worth their doing so. Their standards and requirements may be quite different from mine.
What are your favourite horror stories?
Ten that I think are crucial:
"The Fall of the House of Usher" (Edgar Allan Poe)
"Carmilla" (J. Sheridan Le Fanu)
"The White People" (Arthur Machen)
"The Monkey's Paw" (W. W. Jacobs)
"The Willows" (Algernon Blackwood)
"The Colour out of Space" (H. P. Lovecraft)
"A Warning to the Curious" (M. R. James)
"Smoke Ghost" (Fritz Leiber)
"Running Down" (M. John Harrison)
"The Hospice" (Robert Aickman)
Whether these are the most terrifying is a moot point. Some certainly deserve the adjective, but I don't think it covers all the qualities of any of them.
What are your favourite films?
I've a bunch of answers to this one. My old friend Graham Fisher, luminary of various Merseyside film societies and latterly the organiser of one in Ellesmere Port, has asked various film buffs for their ten best over the years. What I hadn't realised until recently was that he kept all the lists, and reminded me how my favourites have changed or otherwise since the mid-sixties. So here, in the hope you folk out there will be amused, we go...
Ten best films, 1966: VERTIGO (Hitchcock); VIVRE SA VIE (Godard); MURIEL (Resnais); PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (Fuller); LES PARAPLUIES DE CHERBOURG (Demy); THE SEVENTH SEAL (Bergman); HERCULES CONQUERS ATLANTIS (Cottofavi); TOUCH OF EVIL (Welles); NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (Laughton); MAN OF THE WEST (Mann).
I'd still defend any of those, even if most have been crowded out over the years. Criterion have released two other Fuller films on DVD, and I hope they get round to that one. Mann's grim bleak Western looks more seminal than ever - along with several by Boetticher it makes Leone's films in the genre seem less radical than they're sometimes claimed to be. The Cottofavi demonstrates how much an intelligent director can find in even the most maligned genre. Mario Bava was there too, of course, with HERCULES IN THE HAUNTED WORLD (now on Region 1 DVD).
In 1988 we find me listing VERTIGO again, along with CITIZEN KANE (Welles); FANNY AND ALEXANDER (Bergman); LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (Ophuls); PERFECT DAY (Laurel & Hardy); RANCHO NOTORIOUS (Lang); LA RÈGLE DU JEU (Renoir); SANSHO DAYU (Mizoguchi); SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (Donen & Kelly); VAMPYR (Dreyer).
I'm not sure any defence is necessary here either. The Dreyer is the only horror film ever to make my top ten. I've a separate list for horror films that we'll come to in due course.
Only four years later Graham was after lists again - I forget why - and this time mine consisted of VERTIGO, SANSHO DAYU, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, FANNY AND ALEXANDER, LA RÈGLE DU JEU, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, VAMPYR, THE MUSIC BOX (Laurel & Hardy), TAXI DRIVER (Scorsese) and BRINGING UP BABY (Hawks).
And so we come to last year. Since SIGHT AND SOUND asked many of its contributors and former contributors for lists (though not me, alas) we played the game afresh. And my choices were VERTIGO, LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, SANSHO DAYU, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, LA RÈGLE DU JEU, TOUCH OF EVIL, LIBERTY (Laurel & Hardy), LOS OLVIDADOS (Buñuel), ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (Hawks) and GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES (Takahata).
Some thoughts on these... VERTIGO remains Hitchcock's most disturbing and surely most personal film - a metaphor for direction and a supremely uncomfortable examination of voyeurism. I may add that I first saw it in 1967, in a 16mm black and white print, at the long defunct Merseyside Film Institute Society. I found it so haunting and moving even in that form that I immediately booked to see it again the following night. Little did I know that it would soon become unavailable for years.
LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and SANSHO DAYU are among the cinema's greatest tragedies, the work of two of its greatest directors. I'm almost equally fond of Ophuls' THE RECKLESS MOMENT: only the spectacle of James Mason with a (perfectly acceptable) Irish accent keeps me at a distance. Mizoguchi also directed the astonishingly beautiful SHIN HEIKE MONOGATARI and the gravely ghostly UGETSU MONOGATARI (a title I've seen translated as TALES OF A PALE AND MYSTERIOUS MOON BEFORE RAIN). The Ophuls films are available on Region 2 DVDs from Second Sight, while the Mizoguchis can be had on Region 1 from Criterion. SANSHO DAYU is also on the first of Eureka's Region 2 double-disc bills of two Mizoguchi films.
SINGIN' IN THE RAIN - a great musical and also one of the funniest films about film. If I ever wander into a room where it's playing I can pretty well be guaranteed to watch it to the end. LA RÈGLE DU JEU is a mysterious film in my experience: quintessential Renoir, full of his understanding of and sympathy for humanity, which is never less than critical, and yet I always feel as if I haven't grasped all its insights and implications - one reason why I keep it on my list to see again. More power to the bfi for releasing it on DVD.
TOUCH OF EVIL rather than CITIZEN KANE? It may depend which I've seen most recently. TOUCH demonstrates how much of the genius of KANE survived the vagaries of Welles' career, and puts paid to the nonsensical notion that KANE owed it all to the script. KANE is a masterpiece made with the backing of the studio; TOUCH is a masterpiece made under far less promising conditions, and at least as challenging a piece of work.
I could certainly list any number of other Laurel & Hardy titles. HELPMATES is a great favourite - like all their best shorts, it contains as much fun as many a feature film. On the whole I prefer the shorts; WAY OUT WEST has fine scenes, but of the longer movies only SONS OF THE DESERT strikes me as essential. LIBERTY is presently top of the heap on the basis of the superb restored version in the LOST FILMS OF LAUREL AND HARDY series on Image DVD. I think it's not only hilarious but as terrifying as anything in Harold Lloyd: comedy on the edge of nightmare.
LOS OLVIDADOS was the first subtitled film I ever saw, as the support to Bert I. Gordon's THE CYCLOPS, when I was fifteen years old. It remains the bleakest film about poverty and street children I’ve ever seen, and still retains its power to shock more than fifty years after it was made. Despite its unblinking realism, it slips without warning into fantasy – a dream sequence that is one of the few pieces of film to have given me nightmares. It proves that Buñuel never stopped being a surrealist, and I’d argue that the grotesqueness of some of the film’s brutally realistic images proves that too. The film also helped me find the direction I wanted to follow as a fiction writer, and I’ve tried to make fantasy and realism illuminate each other in my stories ever since. The Spanish DVD – I wouldn’t believe this either if I hadn’t seen it for myself – offers an alternative happy ending.
There had to be a Hawks; I'm only sorry there wasn't also room for Sirk and Lang and Mann (no, not Delbert or Daniel). RIO BRAVO is certainly a candididate, not least as an antidote to the still overrated HIGH NOON, a Western that could have been directed by Grace Kelly's prissy spinster. BRINGING UP BABY still has my vote as the funniest comedy talkie, which flags only very slightly in its later scenes. But I find the stoicism of ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS very powerful in its understatement. Lesser known than several of the director's other films it may be; lesser it certainly isn't.
And GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES? If you don't know the animated films of Studio Ghibli in Japan, I envy you the revelation. Their most famous name is Hayao Miyazaki. I could certainly have chosen his gentle quintessentially Japanese fantasy MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO, although my favourite is probably KIKI'S DELIVERY SERVICE, a tale of an adolescent witch who has to leave her community to make herself useful in an unfamiliar town. It's charming, thrilling and extraordinarily touching, and contains more magic than the whole of Harry Potter. GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES, however, is not just the most moving animated film I've ever seen but one of the most moving films of any kind. In some ways the final shot is the most powerful of all, but many of the images are unforgettably haunting. Even writing this brings them back, and tears to my eyes. The film can be had as a Region 1 DVD, but I strongly recommend the six-disc Studio Ghibli set available from Hong Kong, which also contains both of the Miyazaki films cited above and much more essential material.
Favourite horror films?
Watch this space.