Taboo – Episode 1: “Shovels and Keys”

FX’s Taboo
Episode 1: “Shovels and Keys”
Directed by Kristoffer Nyholm
Written by Steven Knight

* For a recap & review of Episode 2, click here.
screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-11-33-44-amWe begin on the open ocean. From a ship in the water comes a boat. In it is a mysterious, hooded figure. They hit land and the figure digs something from out of the ground. He reveals himself as James Keziah Delaney (Tom Hardy). He pushes on to a city nearby where he goes to see a dead man; interesting that he takes the coins from the man’s eyes.
Forgive me, father. For I have indeed sinned,” James tells the corpse. Is this his own father? Or someone else close? I’d bet that’s old Mr. Delaney himself, though time will well.
Between these first scenes, the eerie music of the theme and its montage of bodies floating in the water, Taboo is off to a beautifully sinister start and I already need more.
screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-11-34-24-amLondon, 1814. The streets are alive with the sound of capitalism, and people are all doing various things to stay alive, stay fed. In the midst of the city a funeral procession goes on. Zilpha Geary (Oona Chaplin) ad Thorne Geary (Jefferson Hall) sit for the funeral of her father. At that very moment in walks James.  “There walks a dead man,” someone says, as Zilpha is mortified to see her brother. Another interesting note: James plunks the two coins from his father’s eyes into the collection at church. But there’s a dreadful air surrounding the man, everyone seems to fear him. Next to the grave James seems to be doing some semi-voodoo-type stuff, saying prayers in another language, wiping a red streak of ochre (or something similar) down from his eye like a tear. So much intrigue in such a short time.
Sneaking about while everyone drinks in the pub, James comes upon his father’s lawyer, Robert Thoyt (Nicholas Woodeson). Everyone believed James dead, except for his father, which everybody thought was a product of the madness inherent in whatever illness he suffered through until death. Thoyt tells James of his father’s last holding in America, although says the asset is worthless. Oh, is it now? Well, the male Delaney heir doesn’t buy into all that.
Thoyt: “If America were a pig facing England, it is right at the pigs ass.”
Dark things are brewing. Thorne doesn’t seem thrilled with James’ presence, nor with the prospect of his doing business in the wake of his father’s passing. Also, there’s a strange connection between James and his sister Zilpha; possibly an incestuous tone to their prior relationship. Hard to tell, but strongly suggested. Furthermore, James is a changed man since being in Africa, where all thought him lost. He sees everyone around him almost as a group of vile creatures.


In another, more upper class part of London, Sir Stuart Strange (Jonathan Pryce) rejoices over old man Delaney’s death. He’s not exactly surprised to hear about the son turning up again. He’s already had Mr. Wilton (Leo Bill) try digging up dirt on James. His mother was mad. At 11, he was made a cadet for the East India Company; a “company boy” Strange says, wide-eyed. He reached the rank of Colonel, even. Then in 1800, he fought a lot, set fires, and a ton of other craziness. Said he knew where there was treasure in Africa. In 1802, he left for Africa on his own. He was on a slave ship at one point which sank; could be where we saw him in that first scene.
But now he’s back with business to conduct. This makes Strange and others nervous. They tried dealing with Zilpha, however, James’ return makes that pointless. Will they do something underhanded? Highly likely. Especially considering… the rumours, about James Keziah Delaney.
At his old family home James finds the caretaker, Brace (David Hayman); one of the very few happy to see him. They were, and still are, close. “In all this dirty city, there is no one I can trust, apart from you,” James tells his friend. We find out more of his father, too. That he was bad near the end. He’d crouch at the fire and speak in a strange language to James. I also want to know more of his mother. I wonder if she was from Africa, or somewhere else, because it seems there’s something further to her character than just simply being the mother; she has secrets, I believe. And James, he’s seen darkness, as well.


James starts going through his father’s things. In an old office of his family he finds Helga (Franka Potente) running a brothel out of the space. She offers half of her daily take to stay, and James isn’t interested. Back at the Geary household things aren’t so smooth, either. Thorne wishes his wife Zilpha would be firmer in hand with her brother. “Delaney is nothing more than a nigger now,” he says. I feel we’re going to see a bit of liberation on Zilpha’s part. Whether that’s a good thing is left to be seen. Because there’s a weird vibe between her and James to boot.
The rumours about James in Africa involve evil, witchcraft, all sorts of nasty stuff. There’s also a boy, I assume James’ brother, who was taken in by a family. And we see that there are other reasons Delaney feels the cold shoulder of people in London, not just due to whatever he did while in Africa.
Moreover, James is trying to figure out what happened to his father in the end. All the while fighting off the madness in his own head: “I have no fear to give you,” he rants to himself, walking through the morgue and speaking to corpses. Ghosts, all around him. Particularly an African man, chains around his wrists, bloody from the neck down; he approaches James, who soon repels him. Then back with his physician friend Dr. Powell (Michael Shaeffer), he discovers his father was poisoned.
James: “I know things about the dead
Poor Zilpha’s caught in such a hard, awful place. Her half-brother, returned from his macabre adventures, is making things difficult, as well as her husband Thorne pressing her into making the decisions he requires, lording over her like a maniac. There’s a determination in Zilpha, though. She won’t be pushed over, not entirely, even if it is the early 19th century.


James brings money to Ibbotson (Christopher Fairbank), who took care of the other Delaney boy while the father went mad and James went about his business elsewhere. So, is that his brother, or could it be his son?  Hmm. There’s a gorgeously textured number of layers already in this story, and I feel that this first episode is putting them out in front of us with grace. This should stretch out nicely over the series’ 8 episodes.
Up at the East India Company, James goes to talk with Sir Strange and his brethren. An uneasy meeting, for sure. They all treat him as if he were a mythic figure out of a book. “Do not pretend,” James tells them plainly. They want to talk about Nootka Sound, where old man Delaney’s last property bought from the Natives lies; a point of contention between “His Majestys government and the cursed United States.” What’s fun is that James knows much more than any of these stuffy old bastards ever imagined possible. He has quite a grasp on all that’s happening in terms of geopolitical plans and strategies coming down the pipes. He realises Nootka Sound (a sound on the West Coast of Vancouver Island) will become extremely valuable, both to the British and certainly to the Americans. So the bribe comes out. And that doesn’t interest James any more than the rest of it. Sir Strange gets angry, and the look on the faces of the others spells quite the story, as James rises calmly to leave. Now they’re left with only other options. None of which will come to pass without lots of blood.


At home, James receives a letter from Zilpha. She wants the “secrets of the past buried” and now we see she and James are on two different ends of the spectrum.
What exactly will he do from here?
I, for one, am damn excited to watch more.
screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-12-31-13-pmWhat a great opening episode. Honestly, I expected a lot, and for me this one delivered. Great involvement of artists, from Tom Hardy (and his father Edward ‘Chips’ Hardy), to Steven Knight, to Jonathan Pryce, and of course director Kristoffer Nyholm on this first episode.
So much to come. Join me, as we take a ride with James Keziah Delaney into the dark, gritty spaces of London, and beyond!

Advertisements

William Friedkin Gets to the Pulse of Fear with The Exorcist

The Exorcist. 1973.  Dir. William Friedkin.  Written by William Peter Blatty, based on his novel.  Starring Ellen Burstyn, Max Von Sydow, Lee J. Cobb, Kitty Winn, Jack MacGowran, Jason Miller, and Linda Blair.  Warner Brothers.  18A.  132 minutes.  Horror.

5 out of 5 stars [Movie]
5 out of 5 stars [Blu ray release]

By now, everyone has either seen The Exorcist or knows all about it.  Simply put, it is the story of a young girl who is possessed by some type of demon; her non-believer mother eventually gives in and realizes what she needs is not modern medicine, not psychology, but a Catholic exorcism.  This is the plot of the film.  From there, the wild bits begin.
1380897081_1What I’d like to talk about instead of the plot itself are the effects because on the Blu ray release from Warner Brothers there are tons of amazing special features.  The best, and my most favourite, is one called “Raising Hell: Filming The Exorcist“.  This basically features tons of shots from behind-the-scenes, filmed originally without sound [explained to be because they wanted the extra filming to be inconspicuous to Friedkin who might’ve gotten annoyed had they been dragging more crew around the set than was needed], and over top we get interviews with everyone from Friedkin to Blatty to Blair, to people working on the crew.  It is amazing.

One of the moments I absolutely just died for was when they show two things.  First, is a moment where Reagan [Blair] attacks a man.  Friedkin wanted a shot following the man all the way down as he fell to the floor, shot tight looking right at his face, as if from Reagan’s point-of-view.  This is brilliance right here.  Friedkin clearly has an innovative spirit.  We watch as they show the contraption they’d built to do just that one shot – it is the best thing ever.
Second, they show a bunch of shots detailing the house set for the film.  I should have known, from how some of the camerawork goes, the house was a set, open at the top and such, but just to see them doing actual shots going up the stairs with the rig they’d built to get the camera operators up and down in smooth ways.  It is crazy.  Beautiful, really, to see all the effort that went into making this film so god damn great.
Exorcist11Another aspect worthy of note in regards to The Exorcist is the lighting.  At one point on the “Raising Hell” documentary, they talk about the use of wires in the bedroom; for pulling people, as well as objects, around the room in certain shots.  It looks perfect on film, but to hear Owen Roizman [Director of Photography] talk about how he had the wires painted in broken formations of black and white so it would make the wire less visible on camera, it is an absolute treat!  These tiny tricks of the trade are really cool to hear from the mouths of those involved in the production.

Later, we get to watch as Roizman talks about all the wire work, including how they dragged all the furniture around in Reagan’s room during those frenetic scenes.  It’s wild.  I knew it had to be practical the way they’d accomplished such shots, but to actually see it and watch the process is something special.  Roizman especially has a very nostalgic memory of the production, and a lot of his comments, especially concerning a young Linda Blair and her performance/attitude on set [which seems to be remarkable for such a young actress at the time], are great to hear.  These features really help give The Exorcist even more appreciation amongst its fans, and genre fans in general.

Exorcist8

One of my favourite things about DVD and Blu ray is the fact we get commentary on a film while watching it.  Probably one of the best things to come along with the advent of these new technologies.  William Friedkin’s commentary on The Exorcist is fascinating and pretty damn informative.  Even in the first few moments, Friedkin puts to bed any notions people have about the opening scenes not belonging in the film.  He explains why it is there, what it means, and I love it – I understood anyways, but it helps to actually have a director of a film say “this is the reason”, and having it match up with what you thought.  I’m sure most people who love the film get it, it’s just better to hear it right from the horse’s mouth [disclaimer: William Friedkin is a human man, he is not a horse.], and know for sure.  Even further, you get a lot of really interesting tidbits and facts about the production of The Exorcist.  Just delightful to hear Friedkin talk about his experience filming the opening of the film in Iraq, how he was there without the protection of U.S government, and telling us about how he enjoyed the Iraqi people and their hospitality.  Very neat.  Hearing the director talk over beautifully framed and perfect looking images on a high quality picture of the film is sublime.

The film itself is an astounding 5 out of 5 stars.
The story works on its own, but Friedkin really hammers it home.  The acting from both Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn is on point.  Burstyn is one of the greatest actresses ever to grace the screen.  Here, she really excels, as a mother who doesn’t believe in religion or any of that stuff yet soon comes to understand the devil has taken hold of her daughter, seeking out the help of priests; not many could pull of such a horror role, but Burstyn is so wonderfully natural here.  Blair did a fabulous job as a young girl.  It’s incredible to think she was able to do such a role and give the performance she did.  On the Blu ray documentary, she talks about how Friedkin would often shelter her from the reality of what she’d be doing onscreen by joking with her; Friedkin himself talks about it, and it seems they really had a cool relationship, a lot like an uncle and niece sort of thing where he coaxed her into some of the scenes by tickling and teasing and the like.  You can tell Friedkin works well with actors and actresses just by how Blair, at such a young age then, was able to work with him and give it her all in a tough role.  Combined with the effects and the pure intensity of Blatty’s writing, the performances lift The Exorcist above a lot of trashy horror that was coming out in the 1970s and makes it an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking.
1380821626_1The Blu ray release is far beyond the state of perfect.  So many special features are available here, you’ll take days and days to get through it. “Raising Hell” is absolutely the best of them all, but there is more than just that.  You get a real in-depth look behind the making of The Exorcist.  I couldn’t believe how much bang for my buck I got when purchasing this, especially seeing as how HMV recently had it there for less than $10 [the ultimate steal of a lifetime if there ever was one!]. It is really worth it if you enjoy the film.  You get some great inside looks at the make-up effects Dick Smith pulled off; a master of the trade.  Those alone are almost worth the price of the Blu ray, just to see him work at the craft.

Anyone who has yet to see this, go buy a copy now.  If you’re a horror fan especially, don’t sleep on this.  When I first saw The Exorcist I was about 15 years old.  It didn’t really affect me at the time.  However, I still enjoyed it alot.  Years later, I revisited the film, and I couldn’t get over it.  For days, the story lingered on me like cigarette smoke.  I could not shake it off.  Burstyn and Von Sydow really pulled me in and rocked my world.  The performances and the effects, it all got to me.  It’s now one of my most treasured Blu rays, as well as one of the best horror films I’ve ever seen.  Once again, this is a film that has no hype – the hype is very real, in fact.

And if you don’t get a chill running up your spinal fluid into your brain when you hear the repeated line from early in the film, “Father – could ya help an old altar boy?“, then you know what?  Check your pulse.  Because the rest of us are absolutely terrified.