Sunday, 1 July 2012

Back to the Eighties: MOONSTALKER (1986)

MOONSTALKER (1986) (aka Predator the Quietus) Directed by Leslie McCarthy




The late, great Cliff Twemlow was a true working class renaissance man who- until his death in 1993- tried his hand at everything from stints as a nightclub bouncer, library music composer and horror paperback writer, finally settling on a dual career as an actor and DIY filmmaker. Twemlow’s best known film ‘G.B.H’ (1983), the violent story of a Mancunian nightclub bouncer- autobiographically played by Cliff himself- was a fondly remembered good time rental from the early days of British video. Its ballsy claim to be “more brutal than The Long Good Friday”, non-stop action and one-liners worthy of Gene Hunt himself, easily winning audiences over, despite GBH’s humble, shot on videotape origins.

Stories about the so-called “Beast of Exmoor” proved to be the inspiration behind this 1986 effort which adds horror elements to Twemlow’s tried and tested GBH formula. “The Beast”, if you remember, was all over the papers in the 1980s thanks to constant tabloid speculation that a high amount of sheep deaths were the result of a giant, panther like cat being loose in the countryside. Clearly not even this angle was sensationalist enough for Twemlow, nor Moonstalker director Leslie McCarthy, who instead use the film to posit the theory that the beast was in fact a werewolf!!! Given such a spin on the story like that it’s no surprise that a New York newspaper dispatches ace reporter Kelly O’Neil (Cordelia Roche) to a little village in England to investigate the apparent werewolf attacks. The paper also hires big game hunter Daniel Kane (Twemlow) in order to provide the back-up brawn to her brains. Clearly taking no chances, Kane arrives in the UK carrying with him machine guns and “an image that’s as wholesome as sewerage”. The fact that you are not really allowed to run around the English countryside tooled up like Rambo is cheekily dismissed by a line claiming that Kane has been granted a special permit to bear arms by the Freemasons!! “Charles Bronson eat your heart out” wisecracks one character.



Kelly’s initial scepticism starts to crumble when Mr Rooney and Mr Clancy, a pair of old Irish drunkards, start feeding her stories about the werewolf’s exploits. The drunken duo’s merry demeanour and habit of injecting exclamations of “bejesus” and “Mary, Mother of God” into their conversations quickly endearing them to Kelly. “That’s real Irish charm” an easily impressed Kelly tells Kane. Kelly inadvertently gives Rooney and Clancy a flash of inspiration about how they can settle their bar tab when she mentions the cash reward on offer for the werewolf’s capture. Setting into motion several attempts to find the werewolf by the ‘Oirish’ double act, whose well pissed antics provide the film’s idea of comic relief. The werewolf itself occasionally surfaces to polish off livestock and a few minor characters as well as scare a pair of randy teenagers off having a quick bonk in a field. Just to add to the village’s problem of having a lycanthrope on their doorstep, a local biker gang have started throwing their weight around- as well as the odd Molotov cocktail- too. Sporting names like Weasel and Badger, and looking like they’ve escaped from the set of Death Wish 3, the motley bike gang are naturally destined for a run in with a certain big game hunter. After Kane beats up all of Badger’s gang, Badger sneers “not bad with boys are you old man, how do you make out with men”, only for Kane to shoot back at him the film’s funniest line “I don’t, my scene is with women, but I respect the preferences of others”.

As if the film didn’t have enough support characters to be going on with, we also get to meet the delightfully named Wilbur Sledge (Darryl Marchant), a strange young man who appears to know more about the werewolf than he is letting on. Wilbur serves as a mouthpiece for a surprisingly poetic and philosophical side to Twemlow’s screenwriting, and his script offers Wilbur plenty of opportunity to wander about the countryside delivering eccentric soliloquies about trees (“You are such a statuesque tree, proud and mighty, why did you anger the lord of lightening”), passing rabbits, and even the werewolf itself (“The beast is lonely…it needs my friendship”). An utterly unique presence in the film played an equally unique looking actor -imagine a Gary Numan lookalike and a Roddy McDowall sound alike, dressed as a farmer and delivering dialogue that suggests Twemlow trying to channel the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, and you have Mr Wilbur Sledge. Such a character would make for an incongruous presence in pretty much any film, and stands out even further here thanks to having being dropped in amidst such quintessential 1980s action film stables as a gun totting mercenary and a bike gang. The fact that Darryl Marchant looks to have never been troubled by the acting world before or since, and as far as I can tell remains a one film wonder, only adds to his and the his character’s mystic. Every moment Marchant is onscreen you are completely captivated by him and left wondering “what the fuck was his story?” and “where on earth did Twemlow find this guy?”




Initially built up as a likely werewolf suspect, Wilbur instead ends up taking on a friend/spiritual adviser role to Kane. After Kane gets injured by the werewolf, Wilbur even volunteers to stitch him back up with a needle and thread, a scene that acts as Moonstalker’s one real stab at gore. It probably would have been advisable for Kane to have just gone to hospital, but as it turns out Kane is impervious to pain anyway having mastered “jungle law”, so that’s alright then!!! An impressive werewolf finally takes centre stage in the expected Kane vs. Werewolf climax. Even if it is all slightly bungled by post brawl revelations that first suggest a Scooby-Doo type explanation for the werewolf, only to then take it all back and opt for a genuine ‘monster on the loose’ explanation instead. Presumably sparing Twemlow and Co the wraith of any believers in the real life Beast of Exmoor in the process.


Moonstalker gives the impression of having a greater amount of money and ambition behind it than the average Cliff Twemlow vehicle, with shooting done on film instead of the usual Twemlow medium of videotape. The film makes a decent attempt at bamboozling the audience into thinking its opening scenes were filmed in New York. Thanks to some NYC stock footage and shots of actors pretending to be junkies and roaming what in reality were the mean streets of the North West of England rather than the East Coast of America. Yet for all of the upgrade to film and illusory ‘overseas location’ work, Moonstaker still retains all the recognizable hallmarks of Twemlow’s small scale, but enthusiastic film work. Twemlow’s eye for action scenes and ear for brilliant, tough guy movie dialogue are on fine form. Little known areas of Twemlow’s beloved North West are predominantly what are offered up as background scenery, Moonstalker being partly filmed in the sleepy village of Chipping and an off-season scout camp in Worsley. The cast includes such Twemlow regulars as Maxton G. Beesley and Brian Sterling-Vete, adding to the strong sense of a close-knit filmmaking troupe at work.

 

Peek in at any stage of Cliff Twemlow’s life and career and what immediately strikes you is that here was a man who gave his all to whatever offbeat path life was pointing him in the direction of. His career as a nightclub bouncer, documented by himself in his autobiography ‘The Tuxedo Warrior’, would see him pay multiple visits to the hospital over the years (by the end of the book he is back there again with broken ribs and a fractured skull), his stint as a library music composer resulted in ‘two thousand’ pieces of music, and his 1970s fitness regime, also documented in The Tuxedo Warrior, saw him daily attempt 400 push-ups, 100 sit-ups, and three mile jogging sessions (with lead weights tied to his legs- according to local legend). This drive and determination was clearly the central force behind his film career, and the fact that he even had one and was able to carve out a mini-film industry for himself in 1980s Britain, was perhaps his most remarkable achievement in life. While even seasoned low-budget filmmakers like Norman J Warren and Lindsay Shonteff struggled to get film projects off the ground during this decade, Twemlow was highly prolific in comparison, and seemingly doing what he did purely out of a love of making movies rather than for fame or money, since neither came his way on account of his film work. In fact, ‘G.B.H’ aside, his films were so invisible to the general public while he was making them, that it is really only now, years after the fact that we’re discovering later films like Moonstalker exist at all. By rights Twemlow should be an inspiration to all low-budget filmmakers out there, perhaps one day he’ll get his due.

Behind the scenes stories about Moonstalker further add to the idea of Twemlow as the sort who’d jump through rings of fire in order to see a film get completed, and at times threaten to rival the onscreen incidents in terms of entertainment value. According to one Moonstalker cast member the production was plagued by weird, supernatural occurrences and an actual ghost can briefly be seen in the film itself (although if this is true I’ve failed miserably to spot it every time I’ve watched the film). Given such hair-raising production troubles, a quick title change at the last minute (the original title ‘Predator the Quietus’ being unusable when it emerged that Hollywood was about to unleash a ‘Predator’ of its own) must have been a comparatively minor problem for Twemlow. Another moment of low-budget ingenuity saw Twemlow talk a local Fiat car dealer into providing transport for the production in return for some obvious product placement in the finished film. A handshake that resulted in poor Kane having to spend the film searching for a werewolf in a Fiat Panda, a less than macho mode of transport that characters unconvincingly insist is a jeep.

To be fair the presence of Kane’s not really a “Jeep” doesn’t hurt Moonstalker too much. In the event the miscast vehicle fits in conveniently well with Twemlow’s penchant for giving his characters quirky traits that go against audience expectations, generating intentional laughs in the process. In G.B.H, Twemlow had shown his hard as nails bouncer character sharing a bed with a giant teddy bear, and in Moonstalker he makes Kane a strict teetotaller. Resulting in a priceless onscreen moment when Twemlow- a man built like a brick shithouse- goes to a restaurant and asks for “a glass of orange juice, please”. Scenes that illustrate Twemlow’s ability to gamely take the piss out of himself in a way that the egos of far bigger Hollywood action heroes would never have allowed. Well, when was the last time you saw Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal in bed with a giant teddy bear? In spite of Twemlow taking on roles as the film’s male lead, writer, co-producer and fight arranger, there is an egolessness on display here, with the majority of his co-stars given a respectable amount of screen time and moments to shine too, a generosity that also extends to non-acting performers, witness the routine of a nightclub singer (“Jade at the Meridiana restaurant courtesy of Mr John Leyton” according to the end credits) being crowbarred into the film.




Twemlow quickly followed up Moonstalker with 1987’s The Eye of Satan, a similar hybrid of gung-ho action and horror that once again saw him playing a mercenary who answers to the name of Kane. Quite whether The Eye of Satan was conceived as a direct sequel to Moonstalker is a moot point though, since Kane sports rather different characteristics in his second outing. Namely an allegiance to the devil and glowing green eyes!! ( he managed to ditch the Fiat in between films as well.) The Eye of Satan also features several Moonstalker actors in different roles to the earlier film, indicating that Twemlow actually envisioned the two films as being unrelated to each other save for their similar main character. Perhaps this was just as well, since while The Eye of Satan was afforded an obscure video release and a few satellite TV airings on the HVC channel, a dispute with a film developing laboratory in Yorkshire initially resulted in Moonstalker being left on the shelf. In the early 1990s the rights to the film were acquired by Hemdale Film Corporation, a company that had been set up by the actor David Hemmings and his manager in the 1960s. When Hemdale went bankrupt in 1995, Moonstalker and the rest of the Hemdale library ended up the property of the Hollywood giant MGM. The sensible money would have been on MGM regarding the film as a low-priority and burying it, however to everyone’s great surprise MGM have in fact recently chosen to re-master Moonstalker in high definition, subsequently broadcasting a HD version of the film several times on American television in 2010 and making it available on the Netflix service. Quite an achievement for a previously unreleased film starring nobody anyone in America will have ever heard off, and featuring locations and accents that are equally obscure to a US audience. An unlikely happy ending to the saga of Moonstalker, and one which offers hope that all the other lost, forgotten or barely released horror films currently out there gathering dust may one day emerge from the vaults and have their day too.

Back in the UK, Moonstalker had its belated British premiere- nearly 25 years after it was made- as part of the 2010 Salford Film Festival. In true Cliff Twemlow fashion the première was held above a pub located just outside of Manchester City Centre. If the true litmus paper test of a film’s entertainment value is how it plays before a live audience then the film passed with flying colours. Proving a real crowd pleaser, Moonstalker had its audience laughing along with its knowingly implausible storyline, cheering when Cliff’s face first appeared onscreen, while even the slightest hint of an upcoming action scene was greeted by wrestling match like shouts of “Go on Cliff!!”. Me thinks Mr Twemlow would have approved.



2 comments:

John Ninnis said...

I been to most of Cliff Twemlow's film showings since 2009 at the King's Arms and from watching the films with the great Manchester crowd all shouting "Go on Cliff!"

I love the passion of Cliff's films. I even like Ibiza Connection all for the wrong reason but you never see Sam Peckinpah rip off his T-Shirt and show his muscle.

gavcrimson said...

Yeah John, it’s a pity these films are so obscure though, I haven’t even seen ‘Ibiza Connection’ myself.