Sunday, 31 October 2010

They're dead... they're all messed up

The sun creeps over the horizon on Halloween morn. Somewhere in America, Michael Myers munches on his Sugar Puffs, glances through the Sunday papers and wonders who to murder this year. In a small room in West Yorkshire, Rob has a cup of tea and starts to compose his final Halloween blog. And in Pittsburg, USA, a corpse stumbles through a graveyard, coming to get you, Barbara...

The best scary movie of all time is Halloween. This is an undisputable fact and anyone who disagrees is not only a liar, but is also very ugly. The second best movie, though, is contestable. No, it's not Halloween 2, 3, 4, 5 or whatever 6 is calling itself these days. It isn't the Shining, though I've just realised that I should probably have covered that at some point. Maybe next year.

The second best horror film ever is either Night of the Living Dead (a George A Romero film about zombies from 1968) or Dawn of the Dead (a George A Romero film about zombies from 1978). It's a tough call, but for now I'm going to go with the original.

You have probably heard of Night of the Living Dead (herinafter referred to as Night; not to be confused with Night of the Hunter, One Night at McCool's or M. Night Shyamalan). It is pretty much the most influential zombie film ever, setting the tone, iconography, narrative structure and rules for pretty much every zombie movie that followed. It is not the first film in which the living dead rise en masse; that honour goes to 1932's White Zombie, directed by Victor Halpern. But Night is pivotal in its depiction of the zombie, and of the cultural significance of the zombie movie. So, yes, sorry, it is responsible for Resident Evil 2 and the truly boring Outpost. But, redeemingly, it is also responsbile for Shaun of the Dead, and - by direct consequence - my cool Shaun of the Dead 'Zombie Killer' T-shirt. So I forgive it.

The zombie films of the 30s onwards were more about Haitian Voodoo, where mystical witch-doctors with stupid facial hair raised the dead to act as servants and do all the washing up. The fear factor was not about being attacked by zombies, but about becoming one - losing one's own will and spending the rest of your life having to put Bela Lugosi's recycling out. Looked at now, the films are thinly veiled parables of American scientific ratonalism winning out against ethnic superstition. The zombies are all black ( and thus irrational ) and the (white) heroes win by being unimpressed by such nonsense and shooting it repeatedly until it stops.

Romero's films cut right against this pro-Western, 'America is ace' ideology and created a morally ambiguous universe where the zombies represent much more than the simple fear of the 'other'. For a start, Romero's zombies are almost all white. And they don't live on some far off island either - they live in the suburbs. And - best of all - they don't have a boss anymore. That's right - at some point between 1932 and 1968 one particularly lucid zombie must have tabled the motion 'Sod carrying stuff about, let's start eating people's brains and see if that isn't more fun.' The motion was passed by a huge majority.

So, the protagonists of Night don't have to go looking for trouble in the Caribbean. It wanders right up to them and starts chewing on their faces. Before too long, a bunch of squabbling survivors are holed up in a country house, frantically nailing coffee tables to windows. Outside, a shambling mass of the walking dead gather, mulling about aimlessly like those people you see queuing to audition for the X Factor. Only less gormless.

The rest of the film is quite a slow burn. The dead make the odd attempt to thrust their arms through the makeshift barricades, and the scenes where they consume their victims break new ground for gross out visuals. But the main trouble comes from the living people inside the house. Night is born into an America that is seeing dead bodies on the news every night; bodies of American troops in Vietnam, and also bodies killed by those same troops. The idea that America is the great bringer of civilisation and hope to the world doesn't look quite so convincing from here. Romero plays heavily on the question of where the monsters really are, and how easy it is to tell the difference.

For a while I only owned this film in a hideous colourised version. You know the kind - it's like someone let a child loose with a set of crayons and said 'Make sure everyone's shirt is nice and colourful!' It was rubbish. Now it is, thankfully, much easier to get the DVD in the original black and white. It is a film which really works in monochrome - the shadows and light play gorgeously against each other and there is a real sense of claustrophobia thst you just don't get when everyone's hair is bright yellow and wobbles like jelly.

The rest of Romero's Dead films are variable in quality. Dawn (1978) is amazing, and in some ways a better film. Day (1985) is a more acquired taste, but has some good moments. Land, Diary and Survival all get slowly worse and are not essential.

That's all for now. Good night. If you can.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Sympathy for the Wolfman

Rob wanders ever closer to Halloween, but will he remember to stay on the road, and beware the moon?

What is the difference, do you think, between a horror film and a thriller? Is, for example, The Silence of the Lambs a horror film? It sure looks like one, with all that blood and shadows and people going "Agh! My face!", and the narrative arc is very faithful to the genre, culminating with a lone female confronting the monster in darkness. But there's something about it, isn't there, which stops us putting it away in the 'horror' section of our meticulously organised DVD collection. We stand, proudly naked after an enjoyable evening's viewing, and slip the DVD where it belongs - under 'thriller'.

Quentin Tarantino says the difference is simple: a thriller could happen, a horror could not. Now, knowing Tarantino he probably stole this idea from someone else, but nevertheless, I quite like it. Horror has to have some kind of supernatural bent, some form of monster that is incongrous to our notions of the real world. If you meet Michael Myers, you are in a horror film. You can tell this because if you shoot him repeatedly in the eyes, shouting 'Please will you just die you bastard', he just keeps walking towards you, all smug. If, on the other hand, you go up to creepy hotelier and mother-lover Norman Bates and stick a pencil in his eye, he will simply shriek theatrically and drop down dead. They are both knife-wielding psychos, but only one is supernaturally endowed.

And so to tonight's film - An American Werewolf in London (John Landis, 1981). Now, there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a horror film. It is about werewolves and zombies and ghosts and a world of magic. However, what makes it special is the way it plays with its genre.

I have watched American Werewolf many, many times. It was on BBC1 shortly after the introduction to my house of a Betamax VCR (as detailed in last week's exciting exploration of The Evil Dead) and we taped it. I then watched it repeatedly, until every line and every shot became burned into my teenage brain. Here are some reasons I love it.

1. Jenny Agutter

Sigh. Yum. Ahhh. Jenny Agutter. Hmmm.

When our eponymous protagonist David is attacked by a werewolf, he finds himself in a London hospital. This, it turns out, is the best hospital in the world, because you get Jenny Agutter as a nurse. Not only is she intelligent, confident and fun to be with, she is also - crucially - happy to take David back to her house and do a special naked shower dance with him. Now that's a nurse.

Nakedness aside, there is a brilliance to Agutter's portrayal of Nurse Alex Price that is key to the film's success. In a film where the moon turns men into giant wolves and zombies watch porn in cinemas, Alex feels very much like a real person. She is not some stereotypical girl-in-peril, there to be threatened by the monsters. She is a believable character with a normal life and small, beautiful quirks, played with convinction by Jenny "I-am-lovely" Agutter. She doesn't feel like she belongs in a horror film, she feels like she could just walk of the screen and join our world.

Gosh, that would be nice.


2. Remember the Alamo

Many American directors have tried to represent England on film. It is almost always entirely rubbish. You know the sort of thing. Everyone is basically Hugh Grant, we all live in a castle, you can drive from London to Yorkshire simply by going through a big field, that kind of thing. Well ha ha ha America. You bunch of obese cowboys with houses that grow out of the side of hills. Or something.

John Landis is American, and so are his protagonists, Jack and David. The England represented here is quite definitely and deliberately from an American perspective, and is thus populated by a number of peculiar and eccentric characters. The joy of it, however, is that these people all seem quite plausible. From Brian Glover's grumpy chess playing Yorkshireman to Paul Kember's clumsy and inept police sergeant, everyone here tastes real. The characters and situations are all at least a little familiar and resonate with an England that really exists.

Take for example David's first day alone on London, where he flicks through all of three television channels, finding nothing but snooker and adverts for tabloid sleaze. Or the polite conversation he makes as he waits, naked but for a woman's red coat, at a bus stop after his first night of carnivorous lunar activity. This is a real and believable England.

3. Stay on the Road

Landis has made a real world with real characters, but this is, of course, not a story about reality. It is about unreal monsters, impossible transformations and supernatural consequences. And this is why the film is great: not only does Landis acknowledge that this is a werewolf film, not only do we the audience know that this is a werewolf film; the characters all know it too.

Shortly after being bitten, David is visited in hospital by his friend Jack. This is a nice enough thing for any friend to do, made all the more impressive in this instance by the fact that Jack is dead, killed by the same werewolf that bit David. Jack appears from nowhere, all bitten up and stuff, and fills David in on the situation: get bitten by a werewolf, become a werewolf. Turn all hairy at full moon. Bite others. Jack himself is in limbo until David dies.

David, of course, reacts with some disbelief. Werewolves just exist in films, right? And Landis has lots of fun referencing these films, both in dialogue (David's knowledge of Hollywood horror is, thankfully, encyclopaedic) and in cinematographic nods to previous werewolf films. And this is genius. Because now the tension between this very-real world we are watching and this very-unreal world that the story presents works to the benefit of the film rather than against it.

Let's take a different example: The Nightmare on Elm Street series. Part one is really good: unsettling, imaginative and properly spooky. Part two is much less so, and so on. The law of diminishing returns applies and by parts five and six we are watching utter, unscary nonsense. But why? Well, because the world of the Elm Street films became more self referential and thus less and less believable. Freddy started to literally wink at the camera and the film became too keen on playing postmodern games of 'look at me, I'm a horror film'. The blurry boundary between waking and dreaming that makes the first film creepy is lost.

American Werewolf sticks to the road: it never takes its eyes off the fact that it is a horror film, where deaths matter and rules apply. It still manages to get away with intertextual playfulness like David asking if he needs a silver bullet to kill himself. But what makes it great is that the supernatural world seems to exist just behind the veneer of reality. Jack pops up out of nowhere, his increasingly decayed appearance at odds with the mundane surroundings, and of course David himself knows that the monstrous side of himself is ready to surface, uncontrollable and unstoppable.

So, there we are. Go watch. The films also has ground breaking special effects that still look amazing now, a great soundtrack, lots of laughs and a number of really effective shock moments. And, of course, Jenny Agutter. In a shower.

Just don't go anywhere near American Werewolf in Paris. Complete crap.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Horror for Christians

...four more days to Halloween, Halloween, Halloween...

I had written a review for you, by my computer ate it, so for now, here is something else to look at until tomorrow.

An interesting place to go, while we are feeling all supernatural and creepy, is The Flicks that Church Forgot. This link will take you to a series of excellent, open minded podcasts on horror movies from a Christian perspective. The guy doing them is a massive fan of scary movies and it is refreshing to see someone approaching these films from a theological perspective that embraces the subject matter. The podcasts on the history of Halloween itself, and his rebuttals to common Christian complaints about the holiday, are well worth checking out.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Why have you disturbed us..?

Rob's journey towards Halloween leads him back through the eighties, through the woods, and into a run down cabin...

My general dispostion when watching a horror film is one of enthusiasm and joy. Typical behaviour includes hysterical laughter when a flesh eating beast bites off somebody's fingers, or bouncing up and down, pointing at the screen whenever there are zombies. It may come as a surpise to anyone who has experienced a scary movie in my company to know that it was not always thus. In fact, the truth is this: I used to be very, very scared of horror films.

In the early 1980s I was a nervous and insular child, scared of almost everything. And I mean everything. Old people, young people, trees, the sky, breakfast cereals, insects, bits of fluff that might be insects... everything. And I soon found that, as if the world did not contain terrors enough, some vile peddlars of fear had decided to make films with the express intention of making me piss myself into oblivion.

Clearly I avoided these things as best I could, fleeing in terror if the television looked like it might be about to vomit some hideous tale of monsters into my mind. Fate, however, had other ideas. By some confluence of economic, technological and societal factors, the onset of my childhood anxiety coincided exactly with the advent of the home video recorder. My dad had just started working at Rediffusion - cutting edge home entertainment supplier - and one day he came home with two things: in his hands a shiny new VCR, and on his face a mental grin that I had hitherto associated with alcohol.

The first - and in all honesty only - thought that went though my head was 'Hurrah - I never have to miss Doctor Who again.' (The previous year I had sulked all the way through Raiders of the Lost Ark at the cinema because I was missing part 4 of Doctor Who - The Visitation. In retrospect, my priorities were perhaps in need of some refinement.) I was most excited at the idea of videoing Doctor Who and watching it endlessly, repeatedly, forever, until I died.

My dad had other ideas. To him the VCR was a wonderful new device with which to torture his eldest and most disappointing son. Every night he brought a fresh stack of terrifying films home from work to insert into the yawning, evil maw of the Betamax. And what films! This was the early 80s, remember, in that brief but astonishing period when there was no regulation for the video industry, and so all manner of nightmares clawed their way onto magnetic tape. Barely 24 months would pass before a number of these films would be banned outright, but for now they were all free to roam the land, crawling into my house, my television and my dreams.

Many fearful monstrosities flickered their fuzzy way across the screen in those months. Michael Myers was present, though not yet beloved. Zombies of all shapes and sizes. Men with axes, drills, machetes. All glimpsed briefly as I hurried back to the comforts of a Dalek paperback in my bedroom, muffled screams and 80s synths chasing me up the stairs.

Grandaddy of them all, though, was The Evil Dead. Possibly the most concisely and brilliantly named film ever (unless Bikini Ski School is any good, I never got round to renting it), Sam Raimi's masterpiece  became the poster child for the video nasty scandals of the mid 80s. It was famously withdrawn from rental shops, lest it corrupt the brains of those watching. And though I now deplore the weak-minded reasoning that went into banning the film, my twelve year old self was all in favour of such knee-jerk moral conservatism. Yes, ban the thing. Make it go away. I'd seen a clip of it, in which a woman's leg went all spider-webby and she started cackling and her eyes went weird. For weeks afterwards I literally could not sleep, staring at the foot of my bed where I expected the demonic visage to rise up any moment. Whatever needed to be done to protect the children - me - was a good thing. Damn the long term aesthetic consequences. Withdraw it!

Well, as it turned out, my dad was in charge of withdrawing it from Rediffusion, and he withdrew it to our house. Great. So now this giggling horde of demons was living in a plastic case under the VCR in the living room. The tape itself seemed like a living thing - or perhaps more properly an undead thing. I hardly dared touch it.  My brother, who has always been way cooler than me and was instantly fine with the film, used to chase me about with it when arguments got out of hand. Tosser.

And the, one day, The Evil Dead changed my life forever. I was in by myself, and I was bored. I went into the living room, picked up the tape, and looked at the monster. What would happen, I wondered, if I just watched the thing? Now? With massive trepidation I inserted the cassette, sat down, watched the thing from start to finish and fell in love with horror films.

The Evil Dead is brilliant, and funny, and scary, and horrific. There is something about  it that I find profoundly disturbing, even now. It is, in places, truly horrible and it deals with demonic possession in a way that knows no boundaries. It is not a film I would freely recommend to all comers. Some will find it gratuitous and unnecessarily nasty. It is well made, but in a very different way to the cinematic craftmanship of Halloween. This is a kind of insane, primal film-making that has rarely been seen since, and it is deservedly regarded as a classic of the genre.

Halloween is an interesting time for me. It used to be a time when I was genuinely scared of the supernatural. Part of me is still afraid, and fascinated, by the idea of a world just underneath the one we see, and of a time when the walls between the two worlds are thinner than normal. I like to remember the scared child I used to be, and I hope he hasn't gone away completely. Films like the Evil Dead remind me of him, and that is, I think, a good thing.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

all the rage

Continuing my journey into Halloween, I stumble and grunt my way through the empty streets of London, 2002.

One film that gets better the more I see it is 28 Days Later, Danny Boyle's pulse quickening tale of things-that-definitely-aren't-zombies chasing Cillian Murphy around a deserted England. One the surface it looks like a 21st Century riff on a tale that has been done dozens of times before - boy awakes alone, boy finds world deserted, boy gets chased about by monsters for a bit. The two tales it calls to mind most are Matheson's 'I am Legend' (filmed a number of times with increasing degrees of stupidity) and Wyndham's 'Day of the Triffids', the 1980 version of which still renders me terrified of rhubarb. And, of course, it is hugely indebted to the horde of zombie films that shambled in the wake of Romero's 'Dead' trilogy.

28 Days Later is, however, not a zombie film. Oh no. Ask Danny Boyle, see what he says. In fact, I'll save you the bother. He'll say no. Not zombies. No. Rage infected humans, he'll say.

But, but, you might splutter, society has collapsed due to a phenomenon which causes perfectly normal people to transform into flesh eating monsters who hunt without reason. What are they if they aren't zombies?

And here Boyle will point out two things to you. The first, he will say, energetically nodding his weird shaped head, is that you have mistakenly assumed cannibalism to be an essential characteristic of the creature we call a zombie. Whcih is, of course, untrue. Zombies only became cannibals in the 60s, some 30 years after their cultural birth. The original, 1930s, ready salted version of the zombie did little more than stumble about looking stupid, occasionally fetching you things if you asked. Didn't eat anything. No.

Secondly, and more importantly, Boyle would say, taking off his glasses and rubbing his nose, it is important to note that the infected are not dead. They are still alive. So not undead. So not zombies.

Now, I'll admit that for quite some time I was in the 'They are zombies, whatever you say' camp. Generically speaking, 28 Days Later has all the iconography and narrative structure of a zombie film, so who cares about technicalities like how dead they are? A number of commentators have said similar things, and put Boyle's insistence on the 'infected'ness of his creatures down to a reluctance to associate with the little-regarded subgenre of the zombie movie. Nowadays, I'm not so sure. I think it is probably quite important that the rage infected humans are alive.

What ths film is about, I think, is civilisation. More specifically, it is about the vague and shifting line that divides our concept of civilisation from its opposite, whatever we might call it. Barbarism? Third-world-ism? The thing about the infected is that they have not really gained the desire to become something monstrous. It is more like they have lost something. The infected have lost the ability to keep themselves in check, to suppress their base desires and act in accordance with everyone else. Once free of these civilising instincts, they are free to do whatever they want... and what they want to do is scream, and run, and smash, and hurt. Not like monsters, but like children. Or like me, inside, lots of the time. Sometimes all I have to do is drop a spoon. You want rage? Try hiding the remote control for the TV, or watch to see what happens if my PC disobeys me.

Boyle's direction, and Alex Garland's script, give us two excellent pointers as to how problematic the concept of civilisation is. First, and perhaps most obviously, we have Major West's soldiers. It is no accident that they live in a big country house, full of culture (check out all those lingering shots of statues). Our heroes reach civilisation, and find it worse that what they run from: monsters disguised behind soft words.

And then there's Jim. Ostensibly our hero, Jim is a walking critique of the hero's journey experienced in most Western texts. Overtly feminised at the start of the film, he transforms himself by steps into a 'real man', so that by the end he can defeat the monsters and win the girl. He has got there by killing a child, murdering men and finally by resembling the very creatures we are meant to be afraid of. The camera starts to treat him as it does the infected: the frame rate drops and jerks, Jim flashes past the frame in silhouette.Finally we see him plunge his thumbs into another man's eyes. Compare this to Will Smith's clean cut scientist-cop-hero-genius-Jesus in the narratively similar I am Legend and the ideological differences become hard to ignore.

This is a film about our definitions of civilisation and how they can make us blind to our own monstrous nature. We exclude ideologies that seem less rational and trust in our intellectual superiority. But doesn't it seem like that intellectual edge is used, more and more, to mask the horrific things we do? To give comfortable words to horrible ideas so we don't have to face up to the insanity of our culture.

Anyway, that's what I think. It is also a top monster film and I really like the scary bit in the tunnel.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The night he came home

Halloween creeps ever closer, and so it is time to give you another great seasonal film recommendation. And I'm going to jump straight to the best Halloween film of all time; the one that bears the name of the season itself.

There are probably too many reasons I love Halloween (John Carpenter, 1978) for me to be coherent. I may as well just put the film on and stand there, pointing at it, shouting "That! That! That!" Alternatively, I could  pile dozens and dozens of copies of Rob Zombie's godawful 2007 remake in to a pit and then urinate constantly onto them, simultaneously drinking gallons of cheap lager to ensure there is no pause in my stream of contempt.

I really, really love this film. And because my love is an inarticulate, violent beast, I am going to simply list five reasons why Halloween is great.

1. The music.

I'm listening to it now. It's magical. Hey - you should listen to it too! Let's see if this works:

Ok, so hopefully you can now listen to it while reading. Cool. Anyway, the score, written by Carpenter, is a thing of eerie wonder. It is at once minimal and deceptively complex. The layers underneath the main theme build a sense of real dread. For me, anyway.

2. Mr Myers

This slim, spectral nightmare of a figure has wandered through my dreams ever since my young self first saw the film. Subsequent incarnations of the character have been somehow wrong - too bulky, too short, too 'I'm a monster'y. The origial Myers doesn't really seem to exist in this world, as if he's just passing through on the way to... I don't know, killing some angels. He's utterly unknowable, and thus utterly terrifying.

3.  The structure

Like all great drama, the film is tightly focused. Outside of a brief prologue, setting up Michael's childhood discovery that he really likes big knives, the film takes place over the course of 24 hours. Much of the story is set at day, which, for me, is when monsters are really scary. I mean, they should come out after dark, right? What kind of bold-as-brass psycho wanders around at day? Answer: a confident, patient one.

I love the time the film spends developing the town and the characters. The eventual descent into evening darkness is all the more creepy for having got used to the day. And, of course, once the night comes, it's here to stay. 30 Days of Night could have learned a trick from this.

4.   The cinematography

Carpenter really knows how to frame a shot. For years, I only had this story in a kind of sqashed up pan-and-scan TV version on VHS. This was back in the bad old days when TV broadcasters and VHS distributors alike thought nothing of lopping the sides of the picture off so it fit onto your resolutely square TV screen. But Michael Myers lives on the edges of the picture! That's where he lurks, all white masked and spooky. Only when I finally got to see a proper widescreen copy did I fully realise the brilliance of the film making. Rather than focus on the killer, as most half wit horror directors are wont to do, Carpenter keeps Myers on the periphery. He is occasionally to be glimpsed behind a hedge, in between washing, in a distant window; but rarely up close.

5.   The lack of reason

Sequels and (sigh) remakes have all tried to find a reason for Michael's Octobery slaughterfest. Lost sisters, star signs, ancient cults... a host of reasons why the man in the white mask might have gone into the murder business rather than, say, IT support. All stupid, all diminishing the character. Michael is great because he really doesn't have a reason for what he's doing, at least, no reason fathomable to us.

One of the greatest sins of the remake is to recast the young Michael as an angry greaser child with abusive parents and a terrible home life. The minute this happens, Myers has a motivation and a context, and is thus potentially cureable or at least understandable. Carpenter has no time for such nonsense - his Michael is from a seemingly normal, well-to-do family, with no obvious motive for his subsequent love affair with screaming and blood. He remains inscrutable, and that is why he is scary.

So, there we are. Halloween. If you haven't watched it, you should. If you have watched it, you should do so again. If you are Rob Zombie, you should go have a long, hard think about what you have done.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

There's something in The Fog.

Many years ago John Carpenter made a wonderful film about fog. It was called, with a directness rarely seen nowadays, 'John Carpenter's The Fog'. I have just watched the remake, which eschews such solipsism and is content to be called 'The Fog' and not, for example,  'Some Fog, but not John Carpenter's The Fog, my Fog'.

Much to my surprise, I really liked it. A good remake! Well I never.  Remakes are almost always rubbish, generally missing the point of what made the original special in the first place and giving you a horrible experience that is all the more upsetting for containing a faint taste of the original. Kind of like vomiting up a really nice wine. 'Mmm', you think, as puke flavoured shiraz shoots out of your nose, 'this was much nicer on the way in.'

The worst offender of recent years was Rob Zombie's truly idiotic 2007 remake of The Best Horror Film of All Time, that being 1978's 'Halloween'. (Note: not 'John Carpenter's Halloween.' He was young, then, and humble.) There are so many problems with Zombie's remake that it is difficult to start listing them without descending into a feverish spiral of everlasting hatred that renders one unable to speak, stand, or do anything beyond stare in horror at the wall, not seeing the wall, looking through the wall. So I won't.

(Even though it was awful. And stupid. And poor.)

But for now, I'll leave it alone.

(And badly directed. And an insult to the human race.)

But that's for another time.

(And just plain thick.)

Moving on. There has been one really good remake of a horror movie in recent years, and that has been Zack Snyder's mental re-imagining of 'Dawn of the Dead'. And, if we go back a little further, to the 80s when I was younger and possessed of voluminous hair,  we have 'The Thing'. Sorry - 'John Carpenter's The Thing.' A great remake, which is about to be remade again. But on the whole, remakes suck.

In fact, if we're honest, most horror movies suck. I watch a lot of them, and though they please me in a base 'Oh look, someone's head has come off and that girl will probably get naked in response" kind of way, they are mostly a bit rubbish. The ones that are good, however, are wonders to behold. As we enter the spooky skies of the Halloween season, I thought I would share with you some of my favourites.

I'll just do one tonight, and briefly, for I have rambled enough. It seems appropriate to sing the praises of the reason I started to write tonight: 'John Carpenter's The Fog'. It's about zombie ghost pirates, which should be all you need to go and seek it out immediately. Having just watched the remake I am a little hazy on the plot details of the original, but I do know that it features the following:

Fog. Lots of spooky, pirate-concealing fog, that charges up the street and gets into your house through gaps and such. It is lit most beautifully, and probably tastes like evil candy floss.

Jamie Lee Curtis. She is good at screaming and being attacked by monsters. In this, she does both.

The cool and spooky line that provides my title tonight: 'There's something in the Fog'.

A classic 'small town under seige' feel, that keeps the dramatic tension... er... tense.

A small but well formed bunch of characters who make the town seem real and make you genuinely care when they are in peril.

A great, minimalist Carpenter theme that suggests all manner of eerie goings on, and brings a mythic feel to proceedings.

Look, it's me, John Carpenter's The Fog

So there. Go watch it on DVD. With the windows closed.

More to follow. Probably.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

That was England

I've been a huge fan of Shane Meadows's brilliant films since late Summer, 2007. I found myself laid up for a couple of weeks after having a huge lump removed from my right leg. To help me cope with the pain, and to assuage the dissappontment of not being able to take the lump home, I bought myself a big box set of his films - the highly recommended This is Shane Meadows

I'd already seen the intense and masterful Dead Man's Shoes when my brother screened it for me and my horrified then-girlfriend after a drunken night out in 2005. As the film ended, I knew I had found a new favourite director. So I was very excited at the prospect of three brand new (to me) films to watch at my leisure. There was no girlfriend in the picture at this time, so I was free to watch whatever I wanted without having to excuse all the violence and nudity with pretend film theory:

'No, really dear, she has to be naked, because of... er... the semiotics of... auteur theory. Yes. Which you don't know about and I do. And I have to watch this bit in slow motion because of the frame... rate... dissonance. Why don't you go and make me some tea?'

Watching Meadows's films was a joy. 24/7, his first full length feature, is funny and bleak, often at the same time - a juxtaposition that was to inform much of his work. A Room for Romeo Brass introduces the incredible Paddy Considine, an actor who Can Do No Wrong, as troubled child-man Morell.

Best of all, though, and still my joint favourite with Dead Man's Shoes, is This is England. Chances are, if you know me, I have spent the last several years ramming the film down your intellectual throat, shouting 'You must watch this' and reacting with fresh incredulity every time I learn you still haven't. Well, that's because it's wonderful, and funny, and sweet, and upsetting, and smart, and unique, and... ooh... everything.

I'm not going to go into the plot here because a) you should have watched it by now and b) I'm going to talk about This is England '86, so if you haven't seen it, you may as well go and do something else. Perhaps you could sort out that pile of books next to your bed. Really - you can't be reading them all. Or, better still, go and watch This is England '86 on 4 on Demand. (I still think they should have called it FourPlay. That would have been better.)

Anyway. I have mixed feelings about TIE'86. It has been and gone, and I have loved it, but I remain... well, mixed.

Let there be no doubt, I thought it was magnificent. Really, really powerful television that dealt with important stuff without generally feeling like it was trying to be 'important.' The characters were well played and developed in believable ways through naturalistic dialogue. The film-making was well crafted without being showy and affected. The tone - which some reviewers have criticised as uneven - wove comedy, tragedy, drama and farce together in the way that drama seldom manages, but real life always does.

It was great. I loved it. If I see images from it, or think of moments, a little shiver goes through me. So why am I mixed?

Partly, I guess, because that is the intention. It is not a programme that leaves one with a definable sense of what it was 'about'. Soetimes TV and film can do this in a very unsatisfying way, where the final credits leave you wondering what on earth the point was. TIE'86 is more like tasting a variety of conflicting flavours and having them wander around in your mouth, bouncing off each other, making no sense together, making new sense together. Like chasing bitter stilton with velvety wine, or having a banana straight after a Twix.

But also, I think, I am mixed up because I don't know what it will be like, now, to revisit the original film. So many of the characters I know and love, and have got to know in the context of the film over the years, now have new dimensions, new back-stories. Hannah Walters, for example, was credited as 'Shoe Shop Lady' in the original film. A brilliant little vignette, funny and believable, feeling like a real character who would continue to exist beyond the confines of her little scene.

Now, having returned for the series, we learn that she was always called Trudy. She had an affair with Meggsy. And a son. Next time I watch that scene, it will have changed. Not for the worse, I think, but it will have become a subtly different scene. And it will be the same for any scenes with Milky and Lol, or Combo, or  Mr. Sandhu, or even Harvey - a bit part bully in the film who now always had an abusive dad and thus might be better understood.

Aesthetically I like all this. It is not like George Lucas's rampage through the pre-history of Star Wars, whereby every mythic reference was rendered depressingly mundane through pedestrian visualisation. The characters of Meadows's world have grown, and become more interesting and complex. This is just a personal thing. This is England, the film I watched in 2007, is gone. Next time I watch it, I will be a different viewer, with a different understanding, and so watching a different film.

This is, I think, a good thing, as well as a sad thing. Thank you again, Shane Meadows, for refusing to let me lie in my assumptions.