Kool Kat of the Week: A Spirited Endeavor: Filmmaker Ashley Thorpe Conjures the Ghosts of BORLEY RECTORY, The Most Haunted House in England

Posted on: Aug 22nd, 2013 By:

Ashley Thorpe. Photo courtesy of Carrion Films.

British filmmaker Ashley Thorpe’s trilogy of terror, SCAYRECROW, THE SCREAMING SKULL and THE HAIRY HANDS, earned a Visionary Award at Atlanta’s Buried Alive Film Festival in 2010. All three shorts produced by Ashley’s Carrion Films were set in the fascinating mythos of Dartmoor in Devon, a place so layered in fog and legend that people literally were known to disappear into its mists and never be seen again until they returned as ghosts. But it wasn’t just the rich subject matter that turned heads here in Atlanta, it was the unique look achieved through rotoscope animation, which particularly in SCAYRECROW, the tale of a haunted highwayman who rises from the dead to avenge his lover, also evoked Hammer Films’ horror movies of the ‘60s and ‘70s in its texture.

Ashley wasn’t able to attend the last Buried Alive but sent a trailer for his next film BORLEY RECTORY, a documentary short on a Suffolk manor that has a reputation as the “Most Haunted House in England.” Since then, he’s attached veteran actor Julian Sands (WARLOCK, GOTHIC and a guest at DragonCon 2013 next week) as the narrator and Steven Severin, one of the founding members of Siouxsie and the Banshees and now an acclaimed composer/accompaniest for silent films, to create the score, and is in the midst of an Indiegogo crowd-source campaign to fund the project which has the potential to launch Ashley to the next level. Meanwhile he’s also writing and painting some cool covers for Fangoria magazine, and yes, he has several features in preproduction as well – HELL-TOR, an Amicus-inspired portmanteau, and SPRING HEELED JACK, based on the Victorian London legend.

Beyond his talent as a filmmaker, Ashley’s one of the nicest chaps we know and the Indiegogo campaign is in its final push through Aug. 31, so well, we just couldn’t resist making him Kool Kat of the Week.

ATLRetro: Your past films are based on legends of Dartmoor near your home town of Exeter in Devon. Can you talk a little about how growing up in such a haunted area has influenced the arc of your filmmaking?

Ashley Thorpe: I was surrounded by local myths and ghost stories and specifically elderly couples eager to tell them! It seemed like an inevitability that most social get-togethers – especially at a country pub – would end with a grisly ghost story or two. Though I initially dreaded these chilling stories – in fact I’d often go and hide in the toilet until they were over – I now feel very lucky to have been “exposed” to these diverse tales of ghosts, demons and devilry at a young age as they’ve absolutely inspired and influenced pretty much my entire body of work, in there in my mind, a nest of tiny scorpions breeding in my cranium!

I think it’s because it’s a landscape that is simultaneously very beautiful and yet potentially very dangerous. It’s romantic and it’s deadly. And what’s more. Dartmoor has always felt to me like a region that has been precariously tamed. We may have civilized the outskirts by posting churches on the boundaries, but it’s really still a wilderness out there. Tales of the devil are common in this region and are more often than not pre-Christian. For instance, the actual tale of the demonic Huntsman and his pack of hellish Whisht hounds that I referenced in THE DEMON HUNSTMANGlass Eye Pix’s TALES FROM BEYOND THE PALE radio theater series] is based upon a genuine Dartmoor myth that I’d heard as a kid, and its origin I suspect is probably prehistoric. It’s an ancient legend bound in the conflict between Celtic and Christian religions; the benevolent horned gods of one age becoming the malevolent devils of another.

I didn’t really appreciate how important the stories were to me until I’d moved away and lived in various cities and abroad, but it’s a land very close to my heart. I remember being told as a child that if all the unclaimed bodies, scattered in their shallow graves, rose from the moor, the dead would outnumber the living. Wonderful stuff! The earth out there is alive with their stories. The land has a thousand ghosts; all you have to do is listen.

Borley Rectory is in Suffolk, taking you away from Devon, but it’s also a story you discovered as a child. Can you talk a little about what drew you to it and made you want to make your next film about it?

I had the USBORNE BOOK OF GHOSTS as a boy, and although a great deal of the book frightened me, it was that moniker “The most haunted house in England” that really caught my imagination. I’d seen images of Harry Price debunking other supernatural phenomena in other mystery books, so for him to all but declare this as the pinnacle of ghostly phenomena made it seem all the more fascinating and scary. So the story has been with me again since childhood.

I spent a couple of years working on radio scripts and developing a feature script and it had all become very laborious. I wanted to make a new short to remind myself why I loved doing this in the first place, and I chose Borley Rectory because I could picture it very visually and it seemed like a nice summation of what I’d attempted to do thus far. I’ve always loved vintage ghost photography, not just because of the subject material but primarily because they are often very beautiful images. I wanted to see if I could make a film that evoked similar sensations that are evoked by such photographs. It’s a story that is rich in gothic archetypes, so visually very strong with plenty of scope for the various apparitions.

BORLEY RECTORY has a rich history of hauntings from headless coachmen to a bricked-up nun, a screaming girl, and being built on the grounds of a Medieval monastery, the British equivalent of an ancient American Indian burial ground. Will you be portraying the house’s story more generally or focusing on a specific legend?

Very generally. The funny thing about Borley is that the Nun is the only ghost that seems to have any “back story” as such, with the other apparitions almost functioning as satellite phenomena. This film is going to be an introduction, a primer if you will, very much like the Usborne book that sparked my interest. It’s a “way in” to the legend. The historical data on Borley and the hauntings are incredibly rich and layered and dense, often contradictory and beset with duplicity, so I think to make something “definitive,” you’d have to do an HBO series on it. You could make an entire film just on Marianne Foyster, for instance! What I’m really interested in is trying to evoke the place, and explore what it was that attracted people to the Rectory and its legends – manifestations of desire, loss or some fatal flaw in character.

The animation in your previous films, especially SCAYRECROW, owes an aesthetic debt to Hammer films, which you also grew up with. In the Indiegogo pitch, you talk about being fascinated with ghost photography. Will viewers of BORLEY RECTORY also see a Hammer influence or is this an indication that you will be taking a different direction?

Yes, SCAYRECROW is the one that is most obviously a love letter to Hammer horror, although I think  THE HAIRY HANDS has aspects of an episode of the HAMMER HOUSE OF HORROR TV series. BORLEY RECTORY will be created in the same fashion as SCAYRECROW’ and THE SCREAMING SKULL, but visually will be quite the different animal. I’m really aiming for vintage ghost photography – glowing black and white imagery, images that conceal as much as they reveal, yet texturally very beautiful. On occasion, it may even veer into abstraction with only the narration keeping it grounded. Consider it my ultrasound of a haunted house!

You met Julian Sands through interviewing him for Fangoria, for which you’ve recently been a correspondent and cover artist. How did this blossom into Julian as narrator, and I understand he’d like to work with you on future projects as well?

Yes, indeed. I interviewed Julian for a retrospective I wrote on Ken Russell’s GOTHIC. Julian saw the films, loved them and asked me if I was working on anything. I’d literally just finished the first draft of BORLEY RECTORY, and so I asked him if he’d be interested in performing the narration and thankfully he said “yes.” Julian and I have loosely discussed working together on other projects, but future work will absolutely depend on the success of this campaign. If BORLEY RECTORY goes well, I’d love to develop the Dartmoor portmanteau feature HELL TOR, as there’s definitely a role in there for Julian.

Julian Sands shares a laugh with Ashley Thorpe while recording the narration for BORLEY RECTORY. Photo courtesy of Carrion Films.

What about Steven Severin? Talk about a score in landing him to do the score. How did you get him on board?

That was Fangoria again, although believe it or not, I initially turned him down! Steven performed in Exeter, and I interviewed him about his score for Carl Dreyer’s VAMPYR. We kept in contact regarding the article [recently published in Fangoria #325], and then Steven asked me out of the blue if I’d had anyone in mind for the BORLEY RECTORY score. I was stunned. At the time, every film I’d made up to that point has been scored by my old friend Mick Grierson, so I initially said no! The Banshees are one of my favorite bands, but I explained that Mick was as much a part of Carrion as I am and that it would  feel like a betrayal. Mick is a department head at Goldsmiths College in London, and as the year wore on, it became obvious that he just wasn’t going to be able to dedicate so much of his time to the film. However, Steven remained dead keen even after the long production hiatus, and a combination of circumstances and Mick’s academic responsibilities just really made the partnership at this time an obvious choice. I couldn’t be happier really. It’s very exciting to be working with Steven, and I’m looking forward to seeing what we can create together.

 

The entrance scene from THE SCREAMING SKULL. Photo courtesy of Carrion Films.

Reece Shearsmith also has joined the cast recently. I know not everybody over here knows who he is, but for those of us lucky ones who discovered the weird and wonderful LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN, that’s quite exciting, too. How did he get involved and what role does he play?

Reece is amazing! He’s mainly known for his comedy grotesques, but he is an incredibly gifted actor. What’s more he’s also, like most of the League of Gentlemen team, an absolute dedicate of classic horror films. He’s a sincere fan, and we share many points of reference. His involvement came via a number of supporters like Derren Brown and Andy Nyman. I noticed that Reece had been tweeting support for our campaign so I tweeted a note of thanks. We got chatting, and he expressed real excitement for the project and the subject. So I just came out and asked him, and Reece, to my amazement, said yes. His involvement has really elevated the project. His fanbase are ravenous!

Reece will be playing the Daily Mirror journalist V.C Wall who was the journalist that really broke the story to the world in 1929, so a key role, and he’ll get to speak some wonderful and genuine news reports written by Wall from the period. I’m excited and simultaneously terrified to direct him! It’ll be fun. I have a feeling there’ll be a lot of horror nerd-outs!

You’ve also attracted some pretty amazing supporters such as Stephen Volk (screenwriter, GOTHIC), British mentalist Derren Brown, Robert Young (director, VAMPIRE CIRCUS) and comics writer Steve Niles. Have any in particular surprised or delighted you as the Indiegogo campaign progressed?

The support has been amazing actually and really quite diverse. Local support has been strong, but I’ve been slightly overwhelmed by the response internationally across the horror community. I’ve never been a fan of scenes as such, but the horror community have restored my faith in humanity after the film and TV industry gave it a good kick in last year! Stephen Volk and Johnny Mains have been incredibly supportive and generous with their time, and Chris Alexander [editor] at Fangoria has been there since the beginning. The support from Derren was great as he said a number of lovely things about SCAYRECROW when it came out back in 2008, so it’s a nice feeling to know that he’s still supportive, still watching. Indie filmmaking is tough so it’s invigorating, energizing to know that someone out there cares about what you’re doing or trying to do. Can’t do it without you!

Crowd-sourcing has its rewards but also its challenges. You have more than 80 supporters and have raised over 5,000 pounds, but you did extend the fundraising period and reduce the target of the campaign from 20,000 pounds to 10,000 pounds. Will you have to turn to another source to make up the difference, or will you just be tightening the production’s belts.

Yes, the extension was inevitable. I got hit with a very time-devouring contract to animate some feature titles shortly after the campaign launched, so as I was AWOL for a few weeks, I pushed the deadline back to the end of August. I reduced the target, too, as it became clear that we were going to struggle to reach 20K. We still may have to turn to other sources to make up the additional budget, or we may get started with what we raise and reevaluate later next year. Either way the budget has always affected me far more in terms of “time” rather than “quality.” Less money means less crew and more for the core to do. It will be distinctive and original whatever happens. “Don’t panic lads, we’ve been saved from casual mediocrity by lack of money again!” If we can’t afford horses, we’ll get the coconuts out again, ha ha. You know at no point during SCAYRECROW did any of us get on a horse. I spent much of it riding a tree trunk! You’ve gotta have that Terry Gilliam spirit to survive.

You have some pretty cool perks for contributors. What’s your favorite and why?

I spent a long time working out the rewards, but I think my favorite HAS to be the limited edition vinyl of the Severin soundtrack. I mean that has to be the best fundraiser perk ever, hasn’t it? It was Steven’s idea actually. I made a mock-up for fun of what the soundtrack would look like if it had been released in the 70s with a very Pan Horror / Amicus style sleeve, and Steven went crazy for it, loved it and suggested that we try it for real, make it a super limited edition very special reward for investors. It’s going to be a beautiful thing. A real collectors’ item. Even if I don’t make a penny from BORLEY RECTORY, at least I’ll get one of those! The tour of Borley with author and publisher Johnny Mains is pretty amazing, too, plus you’ll be “written into” a Robert Aickman tribute collection to be published next year. That’s pretty amazing, too.

THE CONJURING, an old-fashioned haunted house movie, has been a big hit stateside. Does that encourage you that there’s a market for a return to atmospheric ghost stories in the horror film genre?

I think it’s great that a decidedly – perhaps archly – old-fashioned ghost story has made such an impact, but the audience has always been there, it’s just taken the market an age to catch up with what people really want as is so often the case. I think the market becomes less and less important as time goes on. The audience will find or indeed make its own entertainment. I didn’t start making the animations about neglected myths to get noticed; it was an attempt to tell the stories I wanted to hear. If you can find a way of telling your stories whilst bridging a cultural void, you’re onto a winner. Fingers crossed, eh?

Finally, would you like to share anything else about upcoming projects, such as HELL-TOR and SPRING HEELED JACK or your recent work with FANGORIA?

I’ve always loved the Amicus portmanteau, and when I initially started developing a feature, my first notion was to create one of my own. HELL-TOR is a collection of Dartmoor legends woven together. THE HAIRY HANDS was originally the book-end story, but ended up being developed into the short I produced with the Arts Council. ‘THE DEMON HUNTSMAN was mooted to be in there, too. The other three stories haven’t seen the light of day yet, although the kelpie / exorcism story, “Crows Mere,” was one of the first pitches for the second season of TALES BEYOND THE PALE. It’s definitely something I’d love to make. It would be a wonderful opportunity to get a British Horror portmanteau back on the screen. I should probably chat to Reece about this!

My long term project is SPRING HEELED JACK – a Dickensian horror story – as opposed to the more familIar later period that sired Sherlock Holmes, Jekyll & Hyde and the Ripper crimes – and is inspired by the “genuine” boogeyman from the early 1800s. The tale of a rooftop bounding demon that could appear and disappear at will caught hold of the public imagination, becoming in time a popular character in Victorian fiction, in particular the Penny Dreadfuls [popular working class fiction] of the period who took the figure and transformed him from a shilling shocker phantom into an embryonic super-hero. With his crime -ighting exploits bedecked in bat-like cloak and horned cowl, it is difficult not to see him as anything other than the template of what would become Batman.

I have been fascinated by the myths of Spring Heeled Jack and have often wondered why his presence on film has been so negligible. Apart from it being a delicious bit of British esoterica, the story fascinates me because it occurs in a period that has thus far pretty much only been defined by Dickens. It presents itself not only as an opportunity to explore early Victoriana – at a time when genre templates for horror and detective tales were coalescing in popular fiction – but a chance to make something akin to a classic “Hammer Horror” with a real underworld edge. The script is currently in development, and I have started pre-production character and concept art. I suppose if I could pitch it, I’d have to say it’s “Victorian Batman meets Sweeney Todd meets THE FLY!” It’s quite melodramatic, psychologically disturbing, a tale of a super hero becoming a super villain.  It’s easily the darkest thing I’ve written, dark and dastardly – and deliciously deviant. I’d love to make it, a dream come true, but I have to be a midwife to history first!

To support or share the Indiegogo campaign for BORLEY RECTORY, click here. Watch SCAYRECROW for free on Vimeo here. 

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Fear of Hitler and Channel Flipping: Why Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS Radio Broadcast Ignited a Panic in America on Halloween 1938

Posted on: Oct 31st, 2012 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

Orson WellesWAR OF THE WORLDS radio broadcast (1938), the most famous of all media hoaxes, was, in fact, not a hoax at all.

It starts, 40 years before the incident, with the publication of H.G.Wells’ novel WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898), which was almost the first – and certainly the earliest that is still influential – science fiction novel of alien invasion. It was part of a larger genre of Invasion literature,” a body of proto-SF novels concerning England being invaded by its more familiar enemies, generally the Germans. The other Invasion novels tended to be propagandist to the point of jingoism, and Wells, who always was internally torn regarding the subject of militarism, chose to deconstruct the literature. It is almost, but not quite, an anti-war novel. Though it featured feats of great heroism by the English military, it devoted significant real estate to human hypocrisies, cowardice and cravenness. It challenged the nationalistic/colonial myths that drove most other Invasion novels.

Wells told his tale with potent verisimilitude, using real and exactly contemporary settings, and employed literary devices like its first person narrator addressing the reader directly as if he’s discussing events familiar to all: “It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days…The storm burst upon us six years ago now.” He referenced other sources when there were story details that the narrator could not have been expected to have directly witnessed, “As Mars approached opposition, Lavelle of Java [observatory] set the wires of the astronomical exchange palpitating…He compared it to a colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet, ‘as flaming gases rushed out of a gun.’…A singularly appropriate phrase it proved. Yet the next day there was nothing of this in the papers except a little note in the Daily Telegraph.” These were effective devices for creating a faux-realism, as it mimicked the style of a history book and the epistolary novel more than the then-evolving fictional narratives of most modern novels written in a close third person POV.

The Mercury Theater must have been drawn Wells’ narrative when they chose this work for their 1938 Halloween-eve broadcast. Another was probably related to [the fact that] Universal Studios had established that Americans had a taste for being scared, but by the late 1930s, their great franchise monsters slipped towards self-parody because folklore-based supernatural thrillers were not the best platform to address what was really scaring America at the time. The rise of fascism played a large role in science fiction replacing supernatural tales as the fantasy of the Zeitgeist.

The cover of a 1970s LP of the broadcast.

In the Mercury Theater version, scriptwriters Howard Koch (CASABLANCA [1942]) and Anne Froelick (HARRIET CRAIG [1950]) used real and exactly contemporary settings, this time in the U.S. and within the range of the New York City broadcast tower. They heightened the immediacy by presenting the first half of the broadcast entirely in the form of faux-news bulletins interrupting “regularly scheduled programing,” which was also fictional. The bulletins came with increasing regularity, then took over the programing entirely as the war turned hot and people started to die. There were emergency response bulletins, casualty figures, evacuation instructions and reports of millions of refugees clogging the roads. A government official makes a statement, and the actor mimicked President Roosevelt’s voice, though the character was given a different name. The story didn’t use the device of real-time, wherein the events of the narrative covered the same length of time as the experience of audience, but the time-compression was deftly disguised. As the audience listened for minutes, they never questioning that hours of story-time had elapsed (or months, if you include the reports of the observations “of the colossal puff of flame suddenly and violently squirted out of the planet” Mars).

As the story moved to its pre-intermission climax, Orson Welles (producer, director, and starring as one of the reporters) claimed to be transmitting a view from the top of a Manhattan skyscraper, and described an apocalyptic scene: “five great machines” wade across the Hudson River to New York City, spewing poison gas. As the smoke drifts from west to east, he can see people “falling over like flies” while others, panicked, dove into the East River “like rats.” Finally, the gas reaches Welles. The last sound is the voice of a desperate ham radio operator, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there… anyone?”

A thing about these bold devices, though they have the power to captivate, even overwhelm, the audience, is that they limit options for complex storytelling. The more conventional devices are more flexible, which is why they are used more often and which is how they became conventional in the first place. When the story became more complex and character-driven in the second act, more conventional dialogue and monologue were used. It marked a bold dramatic shift, akin to how innovative and overwhelming the Omaha Beach sequence was in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998), but as that sequence told us very little of the actual plot and specific characters, as soon as audience was properly impressed and completely tamed, and the action moved away from the beach, a far more conventional WWII film unfolded.

Orson Welles performing WAR OF THE WORLDS.

Because of the scandal, the very fine second act is under-appreciated. Especially notable is a sequence where the narrator (again Orson Welles) hides in the basement with a madman. It’s a scene in the book (and I should note that the Mercury Theater version, for all its changes from the original, displayed the most fidelity of any of the major adaptations of Wells’ novel). Mercury revised this sequence to address contemporary concerns. The madman is clearly traumatized by the violence inflicted on his nation, and rants delusionally of taking revenge by creating a cult of personality around himself and training a generation of ruthless warrior children. This was a pretty explicit reference to Europe, traumatized by WWI, falling in goose-step behind fascism. Mercury’s WAR OF THE WORLDS, like H.G. Wells’ WAR OF THE WORLDS, articulates the fears of the coming World War; they just happen to be talking about two different World Wars. The stressing of the poison gas over the heat-rays was another change from the original novel, reflecting that the world had changed since 1898.

The fact that this was a fiction was made clear before the play began, and it was announced again at intermission, and at the end Orson Welles breaks character to state once more this was fiction, “the equivalent of dressing up in a sheet, jumping out of a bush and saying, ‘Boo!’” Yet reportedly more than a million Americans believed it was all true (later attempts to come up with more realistic estimates put the number in the thousands). The not-a-hoax had unleashed THE NIGHT THAT PANICKED AMERICA (a title of a 1975 ABC TV movie that recreated the events).

OK, so what the hell happened?

Well, the Mercury Theater had fairly poor ratings as it was put up against the very popular CHASE AND SANBORN HOUR on NBC radio. About 15 minutes into CHASE AND SANBORN, the first comic sketch ended and a musical number began. Apparently the musicians weren’t that talented and many listeners started “channel flipping” (a truly degenerate cultural pastime that was introduced with the corrupting new technology of radio, and even today has yet to be purged from our civilization). When the listeners hit CBS, they encountered music they liked better, the fictional “regularly scheduled program” of “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra.” It’s not a surprise they stopped, as it was actually the CBS Orchestra directed by the great Bernard Herrmann (CITIZEN KANE [1941], PSYCHO [1960]). They had missed the opening announcement that this program was fiction and part of the story’s set-up. When the next faux-news bulletin came in, all hell started to break loose.

A poster for the George Pal-directed, best-known movie adaptation of WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953).

Oops.

But wait, that’s after the 15-minute-marker. It was only about 20 minutes before intermission and next announcement that this was fiction.

Yeah, but that was still after the announcement of the “evacuation instructions.”

Oops, again.

The New York Times reported, “In Newark, in a single block at Heddon Terrace and Hawthorne Avenue, more than 20 families rushed out of their houses with wet handkerchiefs and towels over their faces to flee from what they believed was to be a gas raid. Some began moving household furniture. Throughout New York, families left their homes, some to flee to nearby parks. Thousands of persons called the police, newspapers and radio stations here and in other cities of the United States and Canada, seeking advice on protective measures against the raids.”

Things were worse in Concrete, Washington, when the power and phones went out with disturbingly convenient timing with the radio play’s unfolding narrative.

Future TONIGHT SHOW host Jack Paar was on-air at Cleveland’s WGAR. As panicked listeners called the studio, Paar attempted to calm them on the phone and on air, “The world is not coming to an end. Trust me. When have I ever lied to you?” The listeners accused him of being part of a government cover-up.

One of the lessons of that night was the dangers of the malleability of the public in the hands of a powerful mass media. This was an early lesson, but not the first. On the other side of the ocean, Germany’s leader, Adolph Hitler, had already spent years successful molding the will of millions with media propaganda no more honest than a deliberate hoaxes like ALTERNATIVE THREE (1977), GHOSTWATCH (1992) or ALIEN AUTOPSY (1995) but far more effective than any here listed. Effective to the point of permanently altering the course of human history. One can hear Hitler gloating as he cited the panic as “evidence of the decadence and corrupt condition of democracy.”

One last note: If you read about this incident today, you will likely be reminded by the writer that WWII would erupt just months after the broadcast. Most American writers of this subject are myopic to the point of error and trivialization. You see, by the time of the broadcast, the Nazis had already intervened in the Spanish Civil War, Germany had already taken Austria, Italy had already taken Ethiopia, etc, etc. For tens of millions in Europe, the war was already underway; and most of the panicked Americans didn’t think we were being invaded by Martians, but Germans.

Editor’s Note: Robert Emmett Murphy is based in New York. This article is number 52 in a series of 100 essays he is penning, inspired by the British documentary THE 100 GREATEST SCARY MOMENTS (2003). It is reprinted with permission. The moment selected for the list can be found at the 1 hour, 36 minute marker. Listen to the entire original broadcast of WAR OF THE WORLDS here.

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