Black Angel


Anyone who has been reading this blog for a year or two will know that I like to bang on about Excalibur from time to time, John Boorman’s 1981 King Arthur movie having been a bit of a seminal moment for me.  The first time I saw it - 5th July 1981, a day to mark with a white stone - I remember that it reminded me of a strange little movie called Black Angel, which had played as a supporting feature with The Empire Strikes Back the previous year. But Black Angel was long gone by then, and never released on video or shown on TV, so I was never able to compare and contrast the two.

A few years ago I came across a reference to this lost movie on the internet, and wrote a piece about my memories of it. It turned out to be the work of Roger Christian, better known as art director on Star Wars and Alien, who sent me a very nice e-mail after I posted my piece, in which he mentioned that he was hoping to get it restored and re-released somehow.

Well, thirty four years later, I have finally been able to watch it again. It’s a fascinating little fragment of cinema history, whose influence can be traced through '80s fantasy films like Excalibur and Dragonslayer all the way to Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies and HBO's Games of Thrones.

The story is a fractured, elusive affair. A knight (Tony Vogel) returns to his homeland to find it ravaged by war and sickness. Falling into a river, he almost drowns, but his life is saved by a mysterious girl. She claims to be bound as a servant to the Black Angel - who, when he finally appears, turns out to be a sort of personification of Death, all black armour and fraying cobwebs. The knight does battle with him… 

I remember being entranced by it as a teenager (it was the first time I’d seen on screen the sort of imagery I loved in the work of artists like Brian Froud and Alan Lee), but the story never quite came into focus enough to be satisfying. I feel rather the same way about it now. It feels like a haunting fragment.

It’s really a mood piece, like many short films. The budget looks miniscule, but the photography, by Roger Pratt, is remarkably beautiful. It unfolds like a series of paintings. There are lingering shots of wintry upland landscapes, through which the knight rides on his white horse. There is a great sense of the physicality of the landscape, the mud and wind (Christian claims Kurosawa as an influence; I wonder if there's also an echo of Terry Gilliam's mediaeval landscapes from Jabberwocky and Monty Python and the Holy Grail?). But it's a world of magic too; the scenes shift in a dreamlike way - the knight falls into a river, but emerges from a broad lake; figures appear and disappear; smoke drifts through the forests.  

To an Excalibur fan it’s all eerily familiar, because it’s made from the exact same elements as the 'quest for the grail' sequences in the later movie. In interviews, Roger Christian has mentioned that John Boorman loved his film and said it had the look that he was after for Excalibur, but the parallels go beyond the visuals. The increasingly hallucinatory nature of the knight’s quest seems like a direct forerunner of Sir Perceval’s adventures in Excalibur. The music is by the same composer, Trevor Jones, and features some of the same elements - ethereal singing, odd twanging electronic sounds, and a descending synthesiser scale which is repeated almost exactly on the Excalibur soundtrack. There is some underwater footage where the floundering knight errant tears at his armour as he sinks. Even the sparse, looped-sounding dialogue is similar (‘Follow me!’ cackles the raggedy old man whom the knight meets at the waterfall, vanishing into the trees, just like the child Mordred in Excalibur.

For me, watching Black Angel again felt like tracing something back to its source. It’s always worth remembering that works of art don’t exist in isolation; everyone has their influences; creators see stuff they like in other people’s work and import something of it into their own. As Picasso is supposed to have said, ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. And one of the pleasures of getting to know a work of art is working out its ancestry, and tracking all the tributaries which fed into it.

In the interview I linked to above, Roger Christian mentions vague plans of returning to the world of Black Angel and expanding it into a longer film. I have no idea where those plans stand, or whether the tenebrous atmosphere of the original could survive the process, but it would be great to see him do something of the same sort again.

I bought Black Angel on i-tunes for £1.49. It may be available in other places too - I'm still a bit vague about how you buy movies online).

There is a great interview with John Boorman here, in advance of his new film, Queen and Country.

It's Festival Season...

... which is why I haven't posted much here recently. It doesn't stop the indefatigable McIntyre, though; she has written detailed accounts of our adventures in Budleigh Salterton and at the Isle of Man LitFest.

Photo: Sarah Reeve

Now we have a short breather and a chance for Sarah to work like crazy on the pictures for Reeve & McIntyre Book 3, and for me to enjoy some nice long walks in the autumn sunshine. Then we're off to the North Cornwall Book Festival, where we'll be appearing on Friday 24th October.
Before then, on Saturday 11th, you'll be able to find me at my local comics shop, Gnash Comics in Ashburton, where I'll be helping to support the Books Are My Bag campaign for bookshops. And I'm also sorting out what I'll be doing at Armadacon in Plymouth.  Both of those are solo Reeve events - no Sarah McIntyre, no spacesuit, and definitely none of this sort of thing...

Cakes in Space - the Book Trailer

The new Reeve& McIntyre book, Cakes in Space should be in the shops now, and here's a trailer to whet your appetite, made by MBFilms.  I particularly like the starship's squeaky brakes sound effect...

And there are still a few tickets left for our Cakes in Space event at Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street, London, on September 13th. They're free, but you do need to reserve a seat.

Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Bun!

Just home from the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where Sarah McIntyre and I unveiled our all-new Cakes in Space multimedia CAKETACULAR.  Which went well, I think. The plan was to do something that was less like a usual author event, and more like THEATRE, my dears. So we perform what amount to comedy sketches built around ideas from the Cakes in Space book before Sarah leads the audience in some community drawing and we finish, of course, with a song.

We were very nervous beforehand - would we remember our dance moves, would the video insert work, etc... But all went smoothly, and we had two great audiences. Thanks to everyone who came along, and to the Festival organisers and technical staff, and to Elaine and Keo from Oxford University Press for looking after us.

And it wouldn't be Edinburgh if Sarah didn't manage to get us photographed Looming Over Authors More Famous Than Ourselves in the Authors' Yurt. Here we are looming over Children's Laureate Malorie Blackman...

We'll be back on stage soon, at Daunt Books in London on 13th Sept, at the Budleigh Salterton Literary Festival in Devon on 20th September and at Manx LifFest on the Isle of Man on 26th/27th September (exact timing TBC)