Friday 27 January 2017

On a Thousand Walls #1: The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz (1999)

So one of my favourite blogs right now is Adam Scovell's Celluloid Wicker Man. He writes about all the stuff I've been writing about these last few months and he's actually researching it full time, and he's academically inclined and he's got a book coming out soon. Anyway, back in 2015, he coined the term "urban wyrd", which he used to describe things that felt like folk horror, and looked like folk horror, and which clearly weren't. Adam talks around the subject, but he suggests a particularly urban subgenre made of folklore and psychogeography, social isolation and urban myth.

Now while I've been working on We Don't Go Back I've bumped into the occasional film that I want to write about, but had to discount because it just wasn't in the theme. I mean, it felt right, but it was in the city or it was about something other than folk. I'll be honest, there's two movies I've reviewed in We Don't Go Back that are very much edge cases: Symptoms, which doesn't really have the pagan thing so much, and Psychomania which has all the satanism and stone circles and stuff, but is somehow, indefinably not really there (it's still terrific though). But there's all these films that have that subtext I love and they're not folk horror and I still want to write about them and... you know, I reckon Adam had that experience too. Hence, urban wyrd.

In the spirit of being the second person to have a good idea, welcome to On a Thousand Walls, where I attempt to develop an idea of what a list of "urban wyrd" films looks like.

Adam talked in his post about Quatermass and the Pit and Death Line. I'll add to them Philip Ridley's Heartless. Dead Man's Shoes will get a write-up. I don't think there's a more quintessential urban wyrd movie than Candyman. I'm going to make a strong case for the inclusion of Christine Lawlor and Joe Molloy's Helen (a film that you either think is a work of stunning, mesmerising beauty, or an experience slightly less interesting than watching paint dry, and I'm in the former camp, but I respect and understand the latter). Similarly, I'm going to make arguments for Dennis Potter's controversial play Brimstone and Treacle, and for Andrzej Żuławski's almost as controversial collapsing-marriage horror Possession.

I'm going to start, though, with something more obscure and awkward than any of these, Ben Hopkins' 1999 oddity The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz.
The Happy Eater.
A dustbin lid covers a hole on a grassy bank beside the M25. A man crawls out of it feet-first. he's wearing a sort of motley of bric-a-brac and rags and literal bones. A cab picks him up. This is Tomas Katz (Thomas Fisher), although at no point is he called that; we only know that he is Tomas Katz because the language of the film tells us this, and the end credits list him that way. Something about him, compounded by his accent, suggests he's Polish, perhaps.

Katz tells the driver that he sees into dreams, and he narrates a recurring nightmare the cabbie has had about the corporate mascot of the Happy Eater having murdered his children. And then he and the driver swap places.
From the ground.
And so it goes. Katz, now Roy the cabbie, drives a politician, and changes places with the politician. He starts a war. He takes on different roles, different lives. As a child, he leads the other kids on a campaign of arson. As an old man, he bankrupts the Bank of England by withdrawing all the moey in one go. As a television pundit, he rings a tuning fork that kills all the children and blows up all the TVs.
London is built on a mystic network, Cuthbert.
The only person who seems to be able to stop him is the Chief Inspector (the wonderful Ian McNeice), a blind psychic who concludes, correctly as it happens, that a malevolent spirit is bent on using the geography of London to end the world and kill the Astral Child That Represents Existence.

London is encircled by the M25, an endless road that travels in an infinite ring; a literal road to nowhere.
The Chief Inspector:Provincial detectives laugh at me behind my back because I rely on the spirit world to bring criminals to justice. they call me Mystic Meg. Little do they know that London, Cuthbert, is a city built on a mystic network. London is full of forces we know nothing about. Even the bollards, even the bollards can have powers.
This is not some namby pamby, wishy washy blue helmet sort of war. This is the full testosterone.
One of Katz's early contacts is Mr. Schlauch, the Controller of the London Underground. Outwardly calm, Schlauch contains an alternative self, dreams strangely.
Schlauch (voiceover): Here in the Underground control room, I see myself as Emperor of London, and I dream of the day when London will cover the entire world's surface. And the United States of America will become London's 57th postal district. And the Central Line will run from Alaska to Vladivostok. And I will control all of it from this control room. But for the moment, the lack of investment is really getting me down.
Our struggle is over.
He gives Schlauch a mango with a stick cross stuck in it and a BT telephone book, and these become the Orb of Power and the Book of the Names of the Dead. His secretary and announcer become his witchy acolytes, the ground-level stations vanish, and for much of the film, Yvonne the announcer declaims portentous horrors to the trapped people on the platforms.
Yvonne: The next trains arriving on all platforms are carrying the souls of the dead on their final journey from all the gathering rooms of the afterworld.
To placate the fax devils press hash hash 6 star star 6 hash star 6 and garnish your fax machine with dogwood rose.
And the London Underground is, in its own way, magical. Distances change in the London Underground. Londoners know that there are some stations that require lengthy and complex journeys to travel between, while on the ground they're a few minutes' walk. Using it as a magical sigil to unravel the world, what could be more obvious?

Obvious, that is, to a Londoner.

OK, look. I've been to London a lot, and I have a lot of friends in London and I do sort of adore Great Britain's capitol. But you get this weird impression sometimes that to Londoners, London is the whole world. If you're not British, it can be hard to imagine the weird gravity London has on Britain; the only other capitol city I can think of that so holds the rest of the nation in its orbit is probably Tokyo.

Outside of London, we in the provinces look at the Island of Britain thus:
Here's England, here's Scotland, here's Wales. We know where London is, and we have a good idea where Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Birmingham and Manchester are too.

But when we talk to people in London, they give us this impression:
That is, the rest of us are in a suburb. I thought this was what they thought too, for ages. I expressed this opinion to a number of friends over the years, since I'm nothing if not repetitive with my opinions. A lifelong Londoner stopped me one time and said, no, you're wrong. That's not how it is at all. In fact, it's like this:
There is only London. You never need to leave London. You have everything happening there. Nearly anything that happens anywhere in the UK happens also in London; not everything that happens in London happens outside of London.

So when the film The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz presents us with an apocalypse, the end of all existence, that happens because of London, it's an apocalypse that begins in the suburbs of London and reaches its climax in central London. The world of the film is enclosed by the M25, because the M25 encloses the world.

That's psychogeography, right there: London is a place where directions and distances themselves vary depending on your vehicle. London is a place surrounded by a road that goes on literally forever. London's very own bollards and windows have their powers (and receive a cast credit). 

The war Katz starts is with Gwupigrubynudnyland, a nonsense name, because if you're from London, pretty much everywhere that isn't London is Gwupigrubynudnyland, garbled syllables, empty of meaning. It could be Wales just as easily as the "Far Middle East".
Is that the Astral Child?
Katz isn't the start of the delirium gripping London. It's been coming along for a long time. The London the devouring spirit Tomas Katz rampages across is already beset with "a higher incidence of language in Potter's Bar" and "a window conspiracy in Hoxton". Television pundits argue about who's to blame for the world's madness without ever even coming close to approaching the question of what to do about it. One of the pundits is a rabbi, "dead for two years but recently exhumed". It's all unravelling. And the mischievous spirit from the sewer, he's not here to start the apocalypse, he's here to end it. 

The Chief Inspector, through astral projection and seances, contacts him. Katz calls himself "No."

That's his real name. If anything "Tomas Katz" is a placeholder name for a travelling entertainer from Poland, just another identity that "No" stole. "No" has stolen the Astral Child and is keeping her in the sewer. The Chief Inspector must stop him. He can't.

It was always too late.
What monitor am I thinking of?
Katz/"No" enlists the most vacuous man in London, a security guard called Dave, who watches endlessly a vast bank of monitors in blank inactivity. He gives Dave the power to erase the world, piece by piece, removing everything. Dogs. Legs. Pigeons. Skirts. Bit by bit, starting at the outskirts and working towards the middle until St. Paul's, Canary Wharf and the NatWest Tower are all that is left of the world, and with them gone, only light, substance and Dave himself remain to be obliterated. "No" is negation personified. He is the freedom of refusal, and the ultimate refusal of existence. He is the final "no".  
The next trains arriving on all platforms are carrying the souls of the dead
on their final journey from all the gathering rooms of the afterworld.
The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz is goofy and strange, bleak and funny, and delirious ideas tumble out of the script and fall into your lap over and over at such a pace that you can't keep up; in the last half hour, the effect is oddly wearing. There's so much lunacy you want it to slow down. Nonetheless, it's funny, thought-provoking and when it's silly, it's sort of infectiously silly. And it could only have been made in London.