Horror Novels that still scare me

As I am writing this the sun is shining, it is a wonderful summers day, we have to treasure them in the UK, we don’t get many. Looking out the window as a wisp of cloud floats past on the midday breeze it doesn’t feel like a day of Horror … for most. I, like so many horror fans, love it all year round. The greatest horror novels don’t care whether it’s night or day, foggy or bright sun, Halloween or Summer Solstice they will take you somewhere horrific and make your skin crawl. That is what a good book can do and that is why I love them.

As I have gotten older and a little more world weary the affect these books have has changed. I no longer cower under my bed sheets, hoping that a thin piece of material will protect me from some unseen terror waiting in the shadows. However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t put down a book and still have it sneak around in my brain, creating a feeling of unease. Over the years there have been several books that have affected me to the extent where they might have affected my sleep. In the light of day, it is ridiculous but there have been moments when my foot has fallen from the covers and a little voice in my head tells me to pull it in asap.

I had a think about which books have stayed with me the most over the years. After a while I landed on two books that have I enjoy and scare me in different ways now to when I was young. The first is Stephen King’s “The Shining” and the second is James Herbert’s “Haunted”.

When I first read The Shining, I was in my late teens and I read it as a haunted house story, which it is. The book is packed with a creeping and ever growing sense of dread expertly written by King. There are scenes in that book that give me physical shivers. I think Joey had the right idea to keep it in the freezer at night. Now that I am older, have a growing career and a family the book reads in a very different way. Where once I focused on the spooky inhabitants of the overlook I now see more fear and terror in the mental breakdown of Jack Torrance. A man desperate to prove that despite his faults and mistake he is a good man. His guilt and repressed frustration being manipulated by isolation as well as supernatural forces are the real backbone of this book.

This book is one of King’s best and is one of his most personal, his own struggles with drink and drugs are well known. His fears and struggles are clearly reflected in those of Jack. While I don’t have similar substance issues I can relate the frustrations and worries of wanting to do the best for a family. This great book speaks of the dark shadows that move in the night as well as those that cloud a man’s heart. This is one of the highest recommends I can make.

The second book I want to mention is James Herbert’s “Haunted”. I love this book so much that I have several copies of the book, including a signed limited edition. This is a slim novel but has so much to love. A gothic tale of a sceptic being invited to a house in a remote area that is supposed to be haunted. The story is simple and very well paced.

This was one of the first Herbert books I read when I was younger and much like with The Shining I focused on the spooky element of the story. I still really enjoy this part but again as I have gotten older I have noted that there is more to this book. The sceptic, Ash, so solid in his beliefs, being twisted not only to be made to believe but to be broken for what he believes. More and more we line in a world so twisted and manipulated by large forces that it is hard to hold on to any single belief or idea. The book explores the idea of faith and belief in an idea and yourself. The story of Ash continues in two sequels. The best of these is The Ghosts of Sleath, a story which continues the ideas of faith while maintaining the great spooky scares.

Both books are amazing ghost stories that will creep into your brain and unsettle and scare you. As the books are so well written that can be enough to enjoy. However, each of them have so much more to offer and so many more ways to keep you awake at night.

What Horror Novels do you love and you love being scared by?

The Horror writers that made me love Horror

Well it's July so what better way to celebrate the long sunny days than with a review of the Horror writers that got me hooked on to the genre as a kid. 

I am a big horror fan and I made a start on Horror novels when I was in my early teens. As soon as I started I started to try different writers. Below is a list of the writers that had the most influence on my tastes.

1.    Stephen King: Is it any surprise that ‘The King’ ended up on this list? I don’t think you can talk to anyone about horror writing without talking about Stephen King. A King novel was one of the first ‘grown up’ books I tried to read. I was trying to run before I could walk by taking on Pet Semetery and IT before I was out of ‘Point Horror’ (how good were they!). I failed to get through either and so took on Carrie. I loved it and wanted more King but after my failure to conquer the first two books I was a little intimidated. It was then that I found out there were several collections of short stories available, perfect. I got a copy of Night Shift and ploughed though it as quickly as I could. It was like being prepared for the bigger King books. Since then I have read a load of his books but it’s always good to know that there is more to read.

2.    James Herbert: My Mum introduced me to James Herbert when she read ‘Ghosts of Sleath’ when it was first released in paperback. She handed me the slightly worn paperback and suggested that it might be something I would enjoy. She wasn’t wrong and I read it in a week. It would be a year or two before I would get another Herbert book. This was the mid 90’s and the internet was not what it is now. I had to wait until I found another book in a shop or car boot sale. The second Herbert book I read was ’48. A totally different read but just as thrilling. Years later I have a complete collection of Herbert paperbacks and I am about 2/3 of the way through them. James Herbert was a great writer and a wonderful example of British Horror sensibilities. His books cover all aspects of horror and no matter your favour I am sure there is a book that you would like.

3.    Dean Koontz: Koontz is another one that I was introduced to by my Mum. This time however, I pinched a couple of the books from the shelves to take on a school trip. I took Midnight and Phantoms (Affleck was the Boom in Phantoms!) and of the two I loved Midnight. The stories were a bit pulpier, fast paced and filled with some great gory horror. I can’t say that Koontz is one of my favourite authors; however I enjoy most of his books. A few other that really stood out for me are Tick Tock and Demon Seed. The Odd series are also really good and worth reading.

4.    Clive Barker: Barker is a funny one; I was first introduced to his work via the Hellraiser film when I knew very little about how things worked. I just assumed he only made films. I was happy to find out how wrong I was in the late 90’s when I was given the paperback omnibus editions of the books of blood for Christmas. Wow was I in for a shock! This collection of wonderfully twisted and gory tales sucked me in. Barker’s imagination is vast, dark and compelling. His books vary from full on Horror to more fantasy but I enjoy them all, for the most part. While I enjoy his books you have to commit to them, they will challenge you and there are time when I am not sure if they are genius or in need of a more strict editor.

5.    Point Horror: I was too old to appreciate the Goosebumps books when I found out about them. Luckily a series of books existed for the early teen market, Point Horror. These books are written by a number of different authors, so it’s a bit of cheat but this series is still a milestone for me. They are predominantly based around urban legends horror tales and basic horror tropes but for the 12-year-old me they were perfect. These are a great entry point for younger readers, they are a horror enough that they aren’t for young kids but not overly complex or too violent or gruesome.

My top 10 Guilty Pleasure Movies

My top 10 ‘Guilty Pleasure’ movies

As I defined in the last Blog, a guilty pleasure movie is:

“A movie that I enjoy despite knowing that said movie is objectively not very good or is not held in high regard by most people.”

Having confirmed that, check out the below list of my top 10 Guilty Pleasure Movies and why I love them.

1.        Masters of the universe (1987) (IMDB – 5.3 / RT - 17%): This is a camp sci-fi classic produced by Cannon films and is a part of 80’s movie history. Why? That’s something I will cover someday. Anyway, I was a big fan of the toys and cartoon when I was a kid so to see some of the characters pulled up on to the big screen, I was pulled into this. Although, even as a kid I knew there was issues with parts of this film but I was down for the ride. I enjoy it in a different way now I am older but there is still part of me that gets a kick out of He-man and Skelator fighting. The film is well made but being released at the wrong time and laden with a few too many clichés it was never going to be a success. That does not mean that this shouldn’t be enjoyed as a B-movie sci-fi romp.

2.        The Shadow (1994) (IMDB – 6.0 / RT - 35%): Batman 1989 was a watershed moment for the superhero movie. Studios wanted to start making them, but keep them cheap. So instead of turning to the comic companies they turned to copyright free characters. So why not the character that partially inspired Batman? The Shadow is a much darker noir pulp character willing to kill and aggressively punish criminals. The film doesn’t reach those levels of darkness; it stays in the family film territory but it’s still great. The visual’s and effects on this film are so 90s, which is part of why this film stands out for me. Alec Baldwin is perfectly cast and the pulpy writing gets me really invested in this adventure romp. The character deserves a reboot on screen but more, this film needs to be found by more people.

3.        Rocky IV (1985) (IMDB – 6.8 / RT - 39%): In 1985 Rocky Balboa single headedly brought the Cold War to an end, or so Rocky 4 would make you think. The first 3 Rocky films are a trilogy of amazing sports dramas about achieving and holding onto success and what it can cost you. Rocky 4 is a propaganda film that includes a robot butler and the possibly the craziest and best work-out montage ever! EVER! The pacing, music and climax are so awesome that if you are not jumping up and down pumping your fists in the air, I would check your pulse.

4.        Child’s play 2 (1990) (IMDB – 5.7 / RT - 40%): The first Child’s Play film is good, but it’s not until 2 that the series gets into its full slasher / killer doll groove. The second film feels more confident by being more camp, and therefore more fun. This film has some excellent kills and has so much more fun with the concept. Also the final act in the toy factory is amazing. This is a film I watched at the right time, it may have even been the first Child’s Play film I saw. It is a definite milestone on my path to enjoying horror films.

5.        Ghostbusters 2 (1989) (IMDB – 6.5 / RT – 51%): This film gets a lot of hate because of how good the first film is. Now I love the first Ghostbusters; it would be in my personal top 5. However, this is the first Ghostbusters I got to see at the cinema. 1989 is a watershed year for me, it’s my first big summer of movies and this stands out to me. I should also say; I think this film is a lot better than people remember. The acting and comedy are solid and it has several scenes that I think are genuinely unnerving. Maybe not the strongest sequel ever made but I love every part of this film, from Ghostbusters being down on their luck to the finale and the odd painting at the end.

6.        Lord of Illusions (1995) (IMDB – 6.0 / RT - 61%): The Hellraiser franchise is what defines Clive Barker on screen. However, there are several other adaptations of his work that are really good (Midnight meat train and Nightbreed mostly notably). The one that ticks most the boxes for me is this adaptation of a short story from the Books of Blood and directed by Barker himself, Lord of Illusions. A horror, detective story about magic, cults and dames in distress. This is a brilliant horror noir that gets massively overlooked, Also Scott Backula is great in it.

7.        The Rocketeer (1991) (IMDB – 6.4 / RT – 62%): Like “The Shadow” this film came in the wake of the success of Batman. The Rocketeer however was not in public domain, as he was created in 1982 by Dave Stevens. However, not particularly well known the right weren’t very expensive. This is a proper old school adventure in the mould of 30’s serials, think Indiana Jones including fighting Nazis. Produced by Disney it is a family adventure with great characters and fun action. An early film for director Joe Johnston who would use his touch of fun and adventure in future films Honey I shrunk the kids, Jumanji, Jurassic Park 3 and Captain America the first Avenger (bringing back the 40’s serial nature).

8.        The Running Man (1987) (IMDB – 6.6 / RT - 63%): This film is the pinnacle of Arnold’s one liner actioners. Based on a much darker and grittier story by Stephen King the film is so 80’s from the costumes to the predicted technology. It’s not subtle in its message but it still has one as well as the great over the top action. I would say that this film would not only appear on this list but would be pretty high on my best of Arnie list as well.

9.        The Goonies (1985) (IMDB – 7.8 / RT - 70%): This is guilty less because the film is bad but more for the fact that at 35, I still want to be a Goonie. Goonies was one of the first films I can remember watching as a child. It fed my desire and love for adventure and the number of childhood adventures I attempted to go on. This holds up so well and I think should held up as a kid’s movie classic. Go back and check it out with your kids and see if they love it.

10.     Killer Klowns from outer space (1988) (IMDB – 6.1/ RT - 71%): This homage to 50’s sci-fi horror B-movies is nuts and relishes in its daft concept. The idea of vicious Alien clowns that travel through space in a ship that looks like a circus tent is brilliant. The acting is a bit wooden but everyone involved is giving their all and some of the scenes are cheesy joy. The practical special effects and makeup are wonderful and look great on the Blu-ray version. The best thing is that all of this is topped off by the tongue in cheek tone throughout. A perfect film to watch with a few beers and friends.

Guilty Pleasure Movies and why we love them

This month I have done commentaries for two films that I am a big fan off but I’m not sure I would admit that to everyone I know. Actually, I suppose putting the commentaries on a podcast and then writing about them shows that I would … so let’s get it out there. I really enjoy the Child’s Play Films and the 80s He-man movie, Masters of the universe. Wow, I feel better just saying it! The question is, why do I feel embarrassed for enjoying these films? Surely enjoyment of a medium such as film is subjective? One person’s flop is another person’s classic.

Before we dig into it more let’s start by being clear, I am talking about “Guilty Pleasure Movies” and so we are all on the same page let’s give that a definition:

“A movie that I enjoy despite knowing that said movie is objectively not very good or is not held in high regard by most people.”

I think that’s a fair starting point. Something else to acknowledge is that while enjoyment is subjective, film quality is most definitely objective. It is quite easy to identify parts of a film that are not good, whether its cheap special effects, bad acting or jerky editing. All of which can sink a film in an instant. So why then do so many people love bad movies? I want to give 3 suggestions that I can definitely relate to.

Ø  The ‘Fuzzies’: This comes down to a simple notion, watching said films makes you feel happy. If your bored, a little depressed or feeling ill there will be a film you will pull out that will make you feel a bit better. This is most likely going to be down to nostalgia. It might have been the first horror film you saw, or you saw it with your childhood best friend or it was given to you by someone important to you as a gift. Or it could be that you have an emotional connection to the source material the film is based on and this is the only movie version there is. Don’t underestimate the power of nostalgia, it can make the best of overlook some glaring issues in films.

Ø  Nod and wink humour: It’s said that no one wants to make a bad films, However when you have a really low budget you might not have a choice but to make a bad film. This can go one of three ways. The creators understand what limitations they have and use that for entertainment by leaning into the daftness of it (usually in horror), ignore it and try and be as straight as possible losing all credibility you have, or try and be as straight about it as possible and make something that is so bad its good. These are the films you watch with your mates. The best hope is that the creator embraced it and rolled with the situation. The film maker is bringing the viewer in on the joke and they are laughing together. For a lot of B-movie horror films this take the form of gore effects being quantity over quality. Yeah the decapitation looked a bit iffy but the buckets of ‘blood’ that coated everything looked awesome.

Ø  Your Imagination: It might just be that the film you love is just too weird for the mainstream but the concept, design and / or end product really tickles you fancy. It reaches into you and for some reason this film gets a positive reaction, when others are left scratching their heads. Let’s not be shy about it, we all have things that we enjoy that we might only share we a small group of people. There are also going to be films that for some reason or other fit into that category and tickle your fancy. These are probably the best guilty pleasures, the ones you want to show to people and explain why it’s so good, tell people what you see that they don’t and why seeing this film should change their world view. The likely hood is that it will remain that little film that you love having on your shelf but others will never quite get it. Love that film, it speaks to the real inner you.

So they are my 3 reasons why people love films that are considered guilty pleasures. I mean it doesn’t have to be just one of the above. I am sure, in fact I know, there are cases that are covered by two if not all three of the above.

Please let me know what you think. Can you relate to the above reasons or do you think there are more? Please let me know. In the next blog, I will provide a list of 10 movies that are my guilty pleasures.

My Secret Origin

Everyone has a story, an origin story if you will, about how they were first introduced to comics. It changes from generation to generation, country to country and person to person but they are always interesting. In Britain there are several comics that will almost always be mentioned, for the younger readers there is the Beano and the Dandy. They are filled with whacky Comedy anthologies containing looney toon level characters with very British twists.

I got these sporadically for years as a young kid and got an annual for each every Christmas. As far as I was concerned these were comics. I was aware of Batman and Superman but only in the sense of characters that were toys and appeared on other merchandise. It was not until years later that I would learn about them and their full and complex mythology.

So how did I bridge that gap between Dennis the Menace and the Dark Knight? My Nan took me and my sister on a lot of day trips in the summer holidays. She couldn’t drive so we travelled on coaches to the destinations. These journeys could be incredibly dull and I loved to read so what better way to pass the time than reading comics?

Before one of these journeys I was given some money to buy something to entertain myself with. So I trotted into the local newsagents, my money in my hand not knowing that on this occasion my life would change. I looked through the usual magazines and kids comics, not really interested in what I was looking at. That was until I noticed an orange cover sticking out from the back. Pulling it out I was confronted with a helmeted character astride a bike clad in guns and a large gold eagle. It was an issue of “The Complete Judge Dredd”.

I opened the pages and flicked through the black and white art. It contained several chapters of the classic Cursed Earth saga, Judge Dredd and a bunch of cohorts travelling across the radioactive cursed earth on a mercy mission. I was hooked!! But I wasn’t finished there. As I pulled out the issue of Complete Judge Dredd, I uncovered that week’s issue of 2000AD. I was noticed it because the same character, Judge Dredd was it. My chubby little hands grabbed it from the shelf and opened it up. I couldn’t believe it, these stories were in colour!

I purchased both comics and ploughed through them several times that day. However, the one thing that struck me hard was that neither of them contained the end of the stories. I had to get the next issues to see what was going to happen. I went back to the newsagent a few days later and asked when the next issues will be in. They told me and I was back week on week absorbing the mad beautiful sci-fi horror that was early 90’s 2000AD.

As is very obvious from my previous blogs and podcasts, I did not stop there. As the title of this blog states, 2000AD was my gateway drug into the comic world. It was and is such an amazing comic and a staple of British pop culture.

After a couple of years of the 2000AD world I came across a Forbidden Planet in my home town. Holy Shit!! There are shops dedicated to this and so many other wonderful comics!! It blew my tiny little mind. My obsession was about to go to the next level … but that is a story for another day.

I would be fascinated to hear your comic’s origin story, what was your first comic? Where did you see it and what did you feel about it? Please let me know.

List of 5 comics you may not have heard of that deserve a film adaptation

You will notice from the dates on the series below that I am breaking my own rules again but this is my blog so it’s ok every now and then. So, I am listing comics series that I think are underrated and would also translate the big screen awesomely.

1.    Elephantmen (2006):

In a future war a corporation has found a way to fuse Human and Animal DNA to create super-hybrid soldiers. They are programmed for war, violence and killing, the perfect soldiers for the future battle field. They fight for many years but when the war ends they are liberated, helped and rehabilitated to be useful members of society. They take on jobs and live their lives but to many they are dangerous genetic freaks, they are The Elephantmen.

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The series is noir sci-fi and primarily follows Hieronymus (Hip) Flask a Hippopotamus, who works for a law enforcement agency.  Using his natural and trained skills he takes on a series of mysteries that start to centre in on the other Elephantmen. As he interacts with them we find out more about the world, how they have managed to move on, or not.

As well as being a fantastic sci-fi series in the vain of Blade Runner it challenges the ideas of what former soldiers go through when they come back to society. It also highlights the theme of what makes us ‘Human’ and whether we are victims of our nature or if we can push against it and be more.

This series would make a fantastic film franchise, especially now that the special effects have reached a level that can make Hip and the other Elephantmen so real. This could be much more than a summer blockbuster; this could do what great sci-fi always does; say something about who and what we are, using something out of this world. This could be an awesome mix of story and visuals.

Elephantmen is written by Richard Starkings and individual volumes and a Mammoth collection are easily available on line.

 

2.  Blacksad (2000):

What if Disney animated an adult focused noir detective series populated by anthropomorphic animals living in 50s America? Well you would get Blacksad. Think Zootropolis written by Raymond Chandler.

The series centres on John Blacksad a private detective and black cat, as he falls into different pulp style detective stories. He is your stereotypical gum shoe, a hard-nosed detective with a heart of gold. He can’t refuse a beautiful dame or a victim in danger.

The first story is straight forward and a great homage to its many pulp sources. However the second and third stories make a shift to become more political statements. ‘Arctic Nation’ deals with the concept of racial segregation in a small town. The story doesn’t mess around and includes a racially motivated lynching near the beginning and gets even darker at times. The third story ‘Red Soul’ deals with the McCarthy era witch hunt for communists. This story has some heavy themes about how your politics and how you act on them can define you.

There have been several attempts to create an adult focused animated movie, very few of them have been successful. This series has so much potential to tell action packed important stories about who we are using Disney like characters. I am convinced in the right hands this could be amazing.

Blacksad is a Spanish comic written by Juan Diaz Canales and drawn by Juanjo Guarnido. English translations are easily available on line. 

 

3.    Skullkickers (2013):

I admit I haven’t played Dungeons and Dragons; however I have enjoyed a lot of fantasy novels and films so I am well aware of the tropes and clichés that the genre is populated with; the medieval environment, swords, sorcery, dwarves and elves on and on it goes. Keep those in place and make it a madcap action adventure series written by Jim Zub and you get a refreshing take on an old story. Two nameless warrior mercenaries wandering the land looking for money and adventure, a massive muscle bound barbarian (nicknamed Baldy) and a tough as nails dwarf (nicknamed Shorty); from there we start the story.

The great thing about this series is the fact that the majority of the fantasy elements are taken seriously. The threats are serious; it’s actually our heroes that provide the comedy in the midst of the action. They are living the life they want and they are having fun doing it. There is nothing deep or thematic in the book to read into. This is designed to be popcorn fun action and it succeeds. Think Guardians of the Galaxy mixed with Tolkien.

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Also the art is perfect for the series; it’s simple and bold with great character designs and excellent imagination.

Skullkickers could be an amazing action adventure franchise, a balls to the wall summer tent pole blockbuster that would rival Lord of the Rings and out do World of Warcraft. I can see Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as Baldy, it would be awesome.

Individual volumes and oversized collections are available on line.

 

4.    Rogue Trooper (1981):

War is hell, but what if you were created for the sole purpose of existing and fighting in that hell? On the far off planet of Nu-Earth in the distant future a war has been raging for years between two armies, the Norts and the Southers. The war has lasted so long that the atmosphere of the planet is unbreathable with poison gas. To provide a more robust army the Southers create Genetic Infantry (GI) soldiers that can breathe the atmosphere. They’re stronger, faster and more resilient; they will bring the war to an end. However, in their first major engagement in the Quartz Zone they are almost all massacred. The Norts knew they were coming and ambushed them.

Of the deployed GIs only Friday survives, left to wonder the war torn landscape not fighting for any side, just trying to survive. He is not alone in this journey; he has three others with him. Each of them dead and their personalities replicated on a chip and installed on a piece of his equipment (Helm, gunner and Bagman – the names sort of explain themselves).

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Rogue trooper and has been running for 35 years and has built up a fantastic sci-fi mythology. I wouldn’t even try and touch on it here for fear of missing something out. If you want to know more I strongly suggest you check it out on line.

There are so many story opportunities in this series and so many ways they could be told. My preference would be a gritty sci-fi war story, imagine a sci-fi take on Saving Private Ryan, Platoon or Black Hawk Down.

The complete stories are being collected in volumes and available on line.

 

5.    Half past Danger (2014):

The tag line for this 6 issue limited series says it all really – Dames, Dinosaurs and Danger! This is blockbuster comic making at its best. Written and drawn by Stephen Mooney, it homage’s pulp novels, serials and classic adventure tales. It wears its influences on its sleeve and parallels or comparisons can be made between characters in this book and so any others; Indiana Jones, Doc Savage and Steve Rogers.

Set during World War 2 the series follows Tommy ‘Irish’ Flynn as he is shanghaied into joining a small band of elite soldiers. Their mission is to stop the Nazi’s from capturing and weaponiseing Dinosaurs from a long lost Island.

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Like I say, this isn’t particularly original but it is a whole lot of nostalgic fun with beautiful art and fun dialogue. The images could be used as story boards they are framed in such a cinematic way.

Harrison Ford it clearly too old for Indy (despite a new film being produced!). It’s time for a new adventure series to take the centre stage.

A great hardback edition is available on line.

My top 5 episodes of Yes Minister and Red Dwarf

The last two podcasts have been a history of Yes Minister and Red Dwarf. As well as going into detail about why I love the shows so much. I really enjoy the shows but there are episodes that always stand out. So I challenged myself to list out my top 5 episodes for each show.

Top 5 episodes: Yes, Minister / Prime Minister

§  Series 2 (YM), EP 3: The Death List – It’s easy to take the moral high ground when you aren’t the target. However, what happens when you are the target? Jim has to consider his position on surveillance spending when his name is found on a terrorist death list. Are politicians live expendable for the greater good and economic savings?

§  Series 3 (YM), EP 3: The Skeleton in the closet – We’ve all make mistakes when we are young but I am sure these mistakes won’t cost the Government £40 Million. Should a certain senior civil servant lose his job over signing the wrong document 30 years ago?

§  Series 3 (YM), EP 4: The Moral dimension – How corrupt is the government when trying to win an international contract? Is it corruption or miscellaneous spending and management overheads? The question is how moral do you have to be to enjoy a sneaky drink in a dry Islamic country?

§  Series 1 (YPM), EP 1: The Grand Design – Want an introduction on our 80’s cold war nuclear position, then this episode is a good place to start. There are some excellent discussions about the use of defence / offence weaponry but at no point does it get heavy or depressing, a great example of how good the writing is.

§  Series 1 (YPM), EP 3: The key – After 3 and a half series the relationship between Jim Hacker and Humphrey Appleby runs like a well oiled machine. This episode takes that dynamic and really pushes it to its limit as they each make power plays to keep the upper hand over the introduction of a new member of Jim’s team.

Top 5 episodes: Red Dwarf

§  Series 3, Ep 3: Polymorph – Is everyone just a bundle of emotions held together by a situation? What happens if you start to take some of them out? Anger, Guilt, Fear or vanity – who would you be without these? Well the boys get to find out when they are attacked by the genetic life-form the emotion eating Polymorph. What can they do but get out there and twat it!

§  Series 4, Ep 3: Justice – There is so much to love about the episode. The concept of the Justice Zone is brilliant and I would love to see it or something similar used elsewhere. I like the fact that this also deals with the idea of dealing with guilt and responsibility, a deep theme that culminates in a court scene defending Rimmer on the basis of being incompetent and self important, rather than guilty. One of the best scenes in the series.

§  Series 4, Ep 6: Meltdown – War is hell, especially when you are being led by Arnold Rimmer, against Hitler, Caligula and Rasputin. The boys land on a planet of wax work replicant robots locked in a battle for good and evil. It has been going on for millennia and finally they are going to have the help of the boys from Red Dwarf. How else could this end than in victory, but for whom?

§  Series 5, Ep 2: Inquisitor – Have you lived a life that could be considered worthy? What would you say to convince a time travelling droid that could wipe your existence from reality? It might be easier for you and me but it isn’t that easy for a space bum, a cowardly hologram, a neurotic android and a narcissistic cat. Someone isn’t going to get out of this existence alive.

§  Series 5, Ep 6: Back to Reality – Not sure what it says about me that there are three episodes in this list about alternate versions of the characters. Anyway, how would you feel if you found out that the reality you know is actually just an immersive computer game? The boys used this game to escape their ‘real’ lives. However we find the crew’s worst fears are played out in this alternate world, driving them to despair. Also, who doesn’t love Dwayne Dibbley? 

Can Sitcoms be catogoriesed?

The term ‘sitcom’ was created in the 1950’s to cover a new type of comedy. ‘I love Lucy’ is considered the first show to meet the full criteria but the first show considered to have created the format is ‘Pinwright’s progress’ which ran for 10 episodes in 1946 – 47.

Since the format has been created it has been used in so many different situations, work places, homes or places of leisure. They have all been covered but as I have been watching sitcoms over the years and more recently for these few shows, I have noticed that sitcoms primarily fall into one of seven categories. While they may contain elements of several categories they all fit into a primary category.

 

The Buffoon – These shows revolve around a single individual whose antics are the source of the comedy. These can be of two kinds, an individual who is aware of their foolishness or someone who is so convinced of their ability while everyone around them sees the foolishness. This is one of the most popular categories, some shows have even changed direction to fit into this character, it’s the Homer Simpson affect. These are a chance to laugh at the arrogant pompous prat that you know and can’t believe has gotten to a certain position in work or life. Examples are: The Brittas Empire, Keeping up appearances, Citizen Kahn, Some Mother’s do have them, Fawlty Towers

The sensible person – These shows are the counter to “The Buffoon” shows. In these the main character is the lone sensible individual stuck in a situation surrounded by idiots and trouble makers. The comedy coming from either the individual suffering through the antics of the idiots around them or getting out of trouble usually caused by said idiots. These shows reflect the frustration we have all felt at one time or another, when we have been exasperated by the incompetence of others, believing that we are trapped in a world in which only ‘I’ seem to know how to get things done. Examples are: Blackadder, Allo Allo, Porridge, The Vicar of Dibley

The grotesques – When shows move away from single main characters you have to consider the group. The first of these groups is the exaggerated and twisted versions of reality that are the grotesques. The comedy and jokes are created by the unbelievable and sometime vile antics of the group. These may push the bounds of reality and taste at time but they can also be incredibly funny, in a twisted and very British way. These are the shows that have a hyper stylised slap stick version of the world, almost ‘Looney Toon’ in the levels of violence and comedy. It’s easy to laugh at these but there is an underlying acknowledgement that the viewer knows someone, or a group of people, that are reflected in the grotesques of the show. Examples are: Bottom, Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie, The young ones, The league of Gentlemen

The Circus – A less exaggerated version of the group sitcoms are the circus. Shows that portray a group of people of differing statuses. The easy option for this category is a group of buffoons; this will either be all of them acting in their own interest or this group of Buffoons against the world. A more complex and in many cases a more satisfying version of this is having competent people at odds with one another while trying to manage the circus around them. The comedy comes from the group’s interactions and them dealing with the larger world. Examples are: Benidorm, Bread, The thin blue line, My Family, Yes Minister (Prime Minister)

The Underdogs – These are the down trodden and underrepresented. These are the shows that, when done well, usual have the most heart. These are the losers that we love to see make good but we are also happy to laugh when they fall on their arse. Examples are: Steptoe and Son, Red Dwarf, Inbetweeners, Only fools and Horses, Dad’s Army, Last of the Summer Wine.

Just us – The groups in the previous categories are usually thrown together in a situation and vary in size. This category could be considered an off shoot of the previous group categories but I think there are enough shows for it to get its own category. The shows in this category focus in small groups of 2 to 4 people. The comedy derives from the situations and the interactions within that small group. These smaller groups can be of varying status and success however the key to these shows is the sincerity of the relationship between the principle characters. Examples are: Just Good Friends, Men Behaving Badly, The likely lads, Waiting for God

Awkward! – This is a relatively new form of sitcom that has become popular in the last 10 years or so. These shows will have a focus on characters and the comedy comes from the reaction to an act or situation rather than the typical set up and punch line. It seems to me that these shows are aiming to make the viewer feel uncomfortable as well as laugh, I equal measure. Raising a question in the viewer of whether they should actually be finding this character or situation funny. Examples are: The Office, Gavin and Stacey

As I mentioned previously, the majority of sitcoms will cross two, maybe even three of the above categories. However, they will always fit into a primary category that forms the crux of the show. For Example, “Steptoe and Son” could easily be slotted into “Just Us” as the show focuses on the relationship between a Father and Son. However, I contend that while this relationship is important to the show, the bigger key to both the heart and comedy of the show is the fact they are ‘Rag and Bone men’ (add in link). They are at the bottom of the social ladder with aspirations and desires of doing better. Therefore the show fits primarily into the “Underdogs” category. If they were wealthy the relationship between the two would change and the source of comedy would have to change. The same case can be made for “Only Fools and Horses”.

The point I should make is that some shows will shift as they evolve. “Blackadder” series 1 is very firmly in the Buffoon category and actually suffers for it. The writers understood this pretty quickly and from series 2 onwards the character of “Blackadder” changed to become the ‘only sensible person’, thus changing the drive and comedy of the show. It also becomes a lot better.

Looking back at the categories above it is easy to apply them to British sitcoms. I am not so sure, however, that they could be applied to sitcoms from other countries. For example, where would Friends fit in? I would suggest it would most likely be “The Circus” but it is this its primary crux? It makes me wonder then, as with so many other art forms, can we see a fiction telling a greater truth? In this case what it means to be British. I am sure that everyone, at one point or another has said “my life could be a sitcom” but which category do you, or others, see your life in?

What do you think of the above categories? Do you agree or disagree with them? Do you think that there are different categories for American sitcoms? Let me know what you think via email or social media

Why I think Action Movies are important.

There are a slew of essays, books and podcasts that provide an academic or more serious analysis of films. These cover everything from how they reflect the state of society at the time, the hidden meaning inserted by the director or even how philosophical or religious undertones can be interpreted. These cover almost every genre, from Horror, hard sci-fi, melodramas and more recently superhero films. The one genre that I think gets a raw deal is “Action”.

Action films often get written off as dumb fantasy escapism for teenage boys, with bad plots and wooden acting. I want to revisit this as a concept and ask if this is actually all they offer. Don’t get me wrong I’m not making a case for all action films to be considered deep, artistic representations of the human condition. As with Horror, melodrama and superhero films, there are those that deserve attention, those that should be enjoyed as entertainment and then there those that should just be forgotten (Mr Seagal, I’m looking at you!).

The action film, in the form we know it today, evolved from the disaster, revenge and cop films of the 70’s. The everyman and down trodden hero was replaced by muscle bound supermen. The gritty car chases and small scale fights were overtaken by epic explosions and one man army killing sprees. However, that in itself is an interesting point to make. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jean Claude Van-Damme, or the Austrian Oak, the Italian Stallion, The Swedish meatball and the Muscles from Brussels were all, ironically, the embodiment of the 80’s America; Big, Loud and full of attitude; shoot first ask questions later and any number of other clichés. Action films and their stars became the representation of this decade much more than any other genre.

This raises a further point I would like to highlight. It is often discussed that Horror films are used to explore the underlying fears of a social group of society in general. However, like fear these films and the themes are more personal, at least when done well. Easy examples are “Dawn of the Dead”,

I suggest that more than almost any other genre, Action films react to real world events quicker and more evidently on larger scale, representing the state of America at least, if not the world:

Reagan became President in 1981; we get the Reagan era and the larger than life supermen action stars already mentioned. You also get a range of mainstream Cold War propaganda films like Red Dawn (1984), Rocky 4 (1985) and Rambo 3 (1988). Seriously, go check out the politics behind the Rambo sequels, it’s fascinating when you consider where we are today.

The fall of the Berlin wall and Soviet Russia led to more diverse action films. There was no longer a dread super-villain hanging over the world, so while maintaining bombast and the larger than life stars of the 80’s we get more diverse heroes. Keanu Reeves (Point Break 1991, Speed 1994), Nic Cage (The Rock 1996, Con Air 1997, Face/off 1997) make it to the A-list. We also get new foreign stars and directors coming into American Cinema, like John Woo (Hard Target 1993) and Jackie Chan (Rumble in the Bronx 1995).

The tragic events of September 11th 2001 led to some believing that it was the end of the action genre. However the reality was the birth of less bombastic and more introspective actions heroes like Jason Bourne (Bourne Identity 2002) and Daniel Craig’s James Bond (Casino Royale 2006). It was a time when Heroes felt guilt for their actions and having to deal with the consequences.

Finally, we have had the economic crisis of 2008 and the small world mentality that has grown from this. These events have led to a nostalgic hunger for “better, simpler times” and the resurgence of the old bombastic simpler Reagan era heroes. Actors in their 50’s and 60’s becoming action stars in The Expendables (2010), Taken (2008), The Last Stand (2013) and even Arnie coming back to the Terminator Franchise (2015).

The question now is how will the action genre react to Trump’s presidency and the rise of isolationist politics? Will Hollywood continue its liberal leanings or pander to the beliefs of the masses? The point is, Action films can be used as a great barometer of the state of the western world.

That was a quick look at how Action films can be tied into and be related to real world events. Now let’s take a look at something just as important, the quality of the action. There are a million and one low budget action films which rely on bad gun battles and poorly edited and choreographed fights. However, from time to time we get a film that presents the violence as ballet like, each shot and move a thing of brutal beauty. The Lobby shoot out in The Matrix (1999) stands out as an epic and beautifully constructed sequence. Check out any 80’s or beyond Jackie Chan film to see some of the best choreographed comedic martial arts on film. Try Terminator 2 for one of the best running gun battles / car chases in modern cinema between a van and a helicopter.

All of these and every other great fight scene takes month’s to conceive, stage and pull together, with skills from so many different departments. The stuntmen, the special FX team, the actors, the cinematographer and the editor are just a few of the people that have to get it right for a fight scene to get the heart racing.

As a final note I would also like to mention the most important part of all this, the heart of the film, the characters involved. In the cases of the best action movies, the reason that the fight scenes, gun battles or car chases have such an impact is that the audience cares about the characters in peril. Without this the action can be cold, hollow or just plain bad.

Consider John Rambo in First Blood, yes the ambushes and town invasion are great to watch but they are also heart breaking as you follow Rambo being forced down a path that can only end in ruin. When he breaks down at the end, it all floods out and his vulnerability is laid bare. Rambo wasn’t an angry vet out for revenge; he was a lost soul reacting to events in the only way that he knew how. Say what you will about Stallone but by the end of

Deep, I know but consider Die Hard. Why is it one of the best action films of all time? Yes, the special effects and action are well staged, the script is sharp and Bruce Willis is pretty much pitch perfect.  Technically that sounds good but on an emotional level all of that builds to create a story in which I am invested and I really care whether John McClane makes it out of Nakatomi tower. If one of those elements hadn’t worked I’m not so sure it would be as fist pumpingly iconic. It would have been ‘Under Siege’ or one of the other lesser Die Hard knock offs.

Do these films deserve Oscars? Probably not

Should they get more attention for the skill that is involved in making a good action film, never mind an iconic one, or how they affect us and what they say about us? Most definitely!

This has been a bit of an action ramble I admit but I feel the point is more than valid. Action films are designed to entertain first and foremost. Done well, they will. However, with just a little more thought and kicking away some of the rubble you can find that these films represent so much more. Hopefully one day someone with way more knowledge and skill than me will take up the challenge and Action films will get the representation they deserve.

 

Top 10: Genre Action Films of the 20th Century

Sometimes action films mix it up with other genres, sci-fi, Historical fiction even horror. This list is my top 10 genre action films in date order. What do you think of the list? What films would you add?

  1. Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) – The first Mad Max film is good but its sequel is brilliant. It is so out there in story, imagery and action. The story is a simple sci-fi post-apocalyptic western, a lone ‘Road warrior’ helping a small isolated community against a much stronger outlaw force. A young Mel Gibson, before his American break out, is perfect in the role and gives it his all in a film that could have failed massively. This film deservedly created a legacy for both the genre and Gibson. Max may limp off in the sunset at the end of the film but Gibson walked into a series of great roles as a result.
  2. Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the lost ark (1981) – This was homage to the serial adventures of the 30’s and 40’s but also set up a new generation of treasure seekers. When I first saw this film as a kid it thrilled and terrified me. I wanted to be Indy but the fate of the Nazi’s after opening the Ark gave me nightmares, regardless I was hooked. Harrison Ford embodies the slightly jaded archaeologist so much that it I struggle to imagine anyone else filling that iconic fedora. Raiders is pretty much episode after episode of action but directed by Steven Spielberg it hangs together to become and all-time great action adventure.
  3. Highlander (1986) – A medieval Scottish clansman played by a French actor, an Egyptian soldier trained in Japan played by a Scottish actor and an ancient Russian lone killer played by an American. All in all it’s a bit muddled but it works, especially when played with tongue in cheek humour. This is perfect Saturday night entertainment with a legendary soundtrack by Queen and ending in an epic sword fight on a roof. All of it shot beautifully, whether in the dingy alleys of New York or the wide open Highlands of Scotland. The sequels without expectation are bad but this film stands up and should be regarded as a classic.
  4. Aliens (1986) – James Cameron took Ridley Scott’s Alien horrific haunted house film and expanded the universe and story with an action packed war movie. I enjoy the theatrical cut but I am a bigger fan of the extended cut. Not only does it provide more Xenomorph action but it also provides more back story for Ripley and the Wayland-Yutani Corporation. This film is so intense and fast paced when it kicks in, the action is good and the cast are excellent but all of this is held together by something else that makes this film timeless. The practical special and creature affects by Stan Winston are amazing, all topped off by the iconic Alien Queen.
  5. Robocop (1987) – Paul Verhoeven’s break out American film and what a breakout it is. A super violent dystopian dark comedy satire of 80’s corporate privatisation culture, what more could you ask for? How about a bad-ass cyborg cop taking down the gang that killed him.  Not only is the action in this film bloody, violent and top notch but it is punctuated by excellent takes on adverts for ludicrous products (a board game called NUKEM about international annihilation, a vehicle the 6000 SUX, which offers 8.2 miles to the gallon). This is kind of film that benefits from repeat viewings and actually, unfortunately, has become more relevant over time.
  6. The Running Man (1987) – Based on a very different Stephen King novel, under the Richard Bachman pen name. The dystopian story of an innocent man being trapped in a game show in which he gets to win his life back. It may not be as clever as Robocop but its satire of American Television and justice culture is obvious. Once the contestants are thrown into the arena the film kicks into high gear. Arnie is typical Arnie and great for it but the film thrives because of the ludicrous villains like Buzzsaw, Dynamo and Sub-Zero, all over seen by the deliciously evil Richard Dawson, real life game show host.
  7. Terminator 2 (1991) – Another sequel on this list. The Terminator series mirrors the Alien mould, the first is a dark sci-fi slasher film but the second is an all-out action film. I would suggest that this is the peak of Arnie’s action career. The film is outstanding in expanding the universe, upping the stakes and actually makes the original a better film. Three high points for me are the Asylum escape, the Cyberdyne office building attack and the final showdown between the T800 and T1000. The series falls apart after this point but getting a film this good from it is worth a couple of bad films.
  8. Demolition Man (1993) – Another future but this one utopian, at least on the surface. Despite being a fun action film it has a dark message about the cost of peace and human nature. I am not sure I completely agree with the message that we are innately violent and dark and that we should allow that to be a part of society. It comes across a little mixed by the end. However, the fun comes from the Stallone and Snipes characters and their fish out of water antics and eventual show downs. This is supported by some excellent world building using off hand comments and background touches.
  9. The fifth element (1997) – This European intergalactic pulp adventure is brilliant because of its balls to the wall craziness. Written and directed by Luc Besson with production design by Mobius and costumes by Jean Paul Gaultier. This film was going to be crazy stylish if nothing else. Bruce Willis is basically playing a future John McClane, remaining cynical while aliens of all kinds do battle round him. The high points of the film are the battle at the Opera in which Willis shines and Milla Jovovich pretty much throughout. A colourful, funny and imaginative romp that is busting with style in every frame.
  10. The Matrix (1999) – I think it’s fair to say that The Matrix, coming out in the last year of the millennium, ushered in so many elements of movies for the 21st century. It is a film between two eras. It has the urban gothic style that is very 90’s, as well as early ideas about what computers could do but introduced special effects and franchise structures that are still being used today. As a standalone film its excellent high concept paranoid action fun. The martial arts fights are awesome and while Keanu Reeves is never going to win an Oscar he is the perfect opposition to Hugo Weaving’s Agent Smith. I would suggest forgetting the sequels and watching this as a standalone film.

Top 10: Straight Action films of the 20th Century

The only criterion for this list was that the film had to have minimal cross genre elements. So, I have discounted films like Robocop, Terminator 2 or even Indiana Jones. The other thing is that this is a list that I have created and is based solely on the films I love in date order. If you want to suggest anything else or dispute anything on this list, let me know.

1.       Rambo: First Blood (1982) – one of the first true one man army action films but not just action candyfloss. The film provides a perspective on veterans by civilians and their place in society following Vietnam. Stallone’s John Rambo is a damaged soldier looking for connection in the real world. When he is rejected he reverts to his training and takes the war to small town America. The action is raw and brutal but its true impact comes at the end when Rambo breaks down and retells what has seen and been through. This is an action film with a message about ignorance and the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder.

2.       Commando (1985) – A proper candyfloss action film and the second one man army film on this list. This film has no deeper meaning but is filled with some great set pieces and one liners. Schwarzenegger is on true muscle bound action hero form. The fact that his daughter has been kidnapped as leverage to assassinate a country‘s leader is completely immaterial. The plot is so thin but it all builds up to an amazing and ludicrous third act. Seriously, Arnie taking on an entire drug cartels army is awesome. The only thing that brings this down is Bennett, Arnie’s nemesis, who seems so out of shape next to Arnie that the final fight is a bit daft.

3.       Lethal Weapon (1987) – The buddy cop film was already a staple by the mid-80’s; the sub-genre came to America with 48 hours in 1982. This was followed by a couple of other films in the genre but it wasn’t made really popular until 1987 with Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon. The previous entries had leant a little more towards the comedy and while fun they were throw away. Lethal Weapon took this to the next level by upping the violence and intensity, and wrapping around it the great pairing of Mel Gibson and Danny Glover. The chemistry between the two is excellent and what drove this franchise for four films.

4.       Die Hard (1989) – Possibly the best loved action film of all time. Die Hard was a game changer, it took the everyman hero of the 70’s and throw him into the over the top action of the 80’s. Based on the book “Nothing lasts forever” by Roderick Thorpe released in 1979. To me this film is almost perfect, Bruce Willis is excellent as John McClane and Alan Rickman is thrilling as Hans Gruber, the slimy international terrorist thief.  This film was rightfully a break out for each actor and started the film description cliché “Die Hard in a …” of all the films on this list this is the one I have watched the most.

5.       Tango and Cash (1989) – The second buddy cop film on the list. While Lethal Weapon took the genre pretty straight, Stallone and Russell take it full on action cheese. This film is pure dumb fun, the plot is basic and the action is big. Of the two Kurt Russel seems the more at home as the scruffy Gabe Cash while Sly Stallone sometimes feels a little awkward as the well-manicured Ray Tango. However, when that starts to fall away a little by the second act they fall into the roles brilliantly and the fun just keeps on coming. This is not going to win any awards but is perfect Saturday night pizza and beers action mayhem.

6.       Hard Target (1993) – John Woo’s first American film and it had Jean-Claude Van Damme in it. Mixing the oriental directional style of Woo with Van Damme’s martial arts was a great idea and is brilliant fun. In a story about People being hunted for sport we get everything we would expect, slow motion, high kicks, dove’s and amazing action set pieces. This was at the height of Van Damme’s 90’s fame and is one of his best films. It also includes the brilliant Lance Hendrickson at his nastiest, as the main villain.

7.       True Lies (1994) – Take Bond and make him an American Family man built like an Oak and you get James Cameron’s True Lies. This film demonstrates how far Arnold Schwarzenegger had come as an actor. He is charismatic and plays the roles of dull computer salesman and super spy well and with charm. He is also surrounded by a solid supporting cast from the sexy Jamie Lee-Curtis (I grew up when I saw that dance scene!), the entertaining Tom Arnold and the evil Terrance Malik. The comedy never over takes the action and the third act contains some of the best stunts you will see in any action film of the decade.

8.       Goldeneye (1995) – One day I will get to cover James Bond on a couple of episodes but right now I need to admit, Goldeneye is my favourite bond film. This may be due to my age, I was 14 when the film came out, but Peirce Brosnan is my James Bond. I had seen some of the other films before this and was aware of Bond as a film series but had not been pulled into them until Goldeneye. You couldn’t avoid Tine Turner’s excellent intro song and the advertisements. This is one of the few Bond films I have seen in the cinema and I have loved it ever since. Also the game was awesome; let’s just not talk about some of the other Brosnan outings at the moment.

9.       Bad Boys (1995) – The first of two Jerry Bruckheimer actioners on this list and the film that made the Fresh Prince a legit star. This film is great for two reasons, the first is the relationship between Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, the second is the stylised action. Watching it now I will admit that some of the directorial choices date the film to the decade. This is small a minor complaint however when many of the other choices still stand up so well and the main cast are so good. It should also be noted that this is the feature directorial debut of Michael Bay; regardless of my feelings about his more recent Transformer efforts his style is perfectly suited for this action.

10.   Con Air (1997) – I flip-flopped between this and The Rock to put on this list, both Jerry Bruckheimer films. In the end I decided to go with Con Air because it is slightly more fun and has the amazing John Malkovich as the main villain, Cyrus ‘The virus’ Grissom. Nic Cage delivers one of his more subdued performances amid some more flamboyant choices from the bad guys around him. However, it is clear that he is having fun; he is a pretty good action lead. The premise of the film is daft and some of the leaps in logic and credulity push the boundaries at times. However, the film is endlessly quotable and the plane grave yard sequence is so much fun and chock full of great moments.

British Invasion Review: Neil Gaiman's "The Sound of her Wings"

Like Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman produced what can be considered his statement of intent issue after completing the initial arc on his primary series, and being asked to carry on. However, that is where the similarities end. While Morrison moved away from the main character of Animal Man to have a look at the weirdness of the wider world, Gaiman turns inward to take a direct look at The Sandman.

After breaking out of his capture and re-establishing himself as the master of dream, Morpheus is depressed and feeling lost. Just as it is acknowledged in Gaiman’s Black Orchid, Morpheus echoes the feeling that the end was an anti-climax. After taking his revenge and being away for so long where does he stand? The whole issue circulates around this issue with a conversation between Morpheus and his Eternal sister, Death.

Death in this series is very different representation that we are used to. In this case Death is represented by a young cute Goth girl. She has been around a long long time and has the wisdom of ages. However, she isn’t going to be direct with her knowledge and wisdom other than to tell Morpheus to stop moping.

From this perspective we can break the issue into three acts. We start with several pages of Morpheus ‘moping’ and contemplating his place in the universe. These pages have minimum dialogue but are filled with expression.  This is typical Gaiman, giving his stories room to breathe and using the art to tell the story.

The second act starts when Death strolls into the story and starts a conversation with her Brother. We learn more as the conversation progresses about the two and the relationship between them. Death is the older sibling and is coming by to tell her brother to sort himself out, stop moping and get back to what he does best. In one conversation the universe escalates to start introducing The Eternals and provide more nuggets of history for the characters.

The conversation leads to the third and final section when Morpheus is talked into accompanying Death as carries out her job.  We experience a series of lives ending both old and young, one incredibly young. It is during this section that Gaiman starts to bring his theme to the fore, as Morpheus starts to understand his place and what he needs to do next. It becomes clear that this isn’t just Morpheus on this journey; Neil Gaiman is on the same journey and excising the constraints of the first story arc. By the end of the story both Morpheus and Gaiman have come to a clear conclusion, while they may have responsibilities they can carry them out in whatever way they want.

This issue is a real turning point for Gaiman. There may have been independent success before this but this is the point at which Gaiman cracks the code and realises that he is able to apply that same approach and style to everything he does. The series could have ended with the first arc and been a well-crafted fantasy horror story set on the edge of the DCU. Following this issue we are off the edge and Gaiman is free to make the series whatever he wants it to be. That is why this is the statement of intent for Neil Gaiman; in itself it is an interesting single issue, in the context of the whole series it is a conversation that sets up everything that comes after.

British Invasion Review: Grant Morrison's "The Coyote Gospel"

Grant Morrison had been given the green light to write his four issue miniseries for Animal Man and it was a success. The bods at DC knew that if they were going to take a chance on Arkham Asylum then Morrison needed more exposure and if Animal Man was working, why change anything. So they asked him to continue, but after finishing your story what do you say? How about shifting focus to a coyote that has been sent to the DC universe from a parallel animated world?

While the first four issue of Animal Man dig into the weirder mythology of the DC universe, issue 5 creates its own weirdness. It’s an absurd existential tale about sacrifice and fear. Again, I won’t go into deep detail but I will cover the salient points, in fact I am barely going to mention Animal Man himself at all.

The main elements in the issue are the revelations about a coyote that walks around the desert on two legs and a man that loses everything but his faith. The issue opens with optimism and a trucker that has turned his life around for the better. During a conversation with a hitchhiker we learn that he’s a gay man in the 80’s that has found a loving partner and is doing well, he has even found religion. Then they meet the bipedal coyote … and run him down with a truck. This could be the end of the story for both the trucker heading home and the dead coyote. However, we quickly learn that this is far from the end when the coyote’s broken body heals.

The story picks up a year later for these two and in that time a lot has happened. The trucker has lost everything; his partner was killed in an accident. His mother had died from cancer, he had lost his job and the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the hitchhiker he helped a year before has also been killed. Tracking it back he pin points the start of his bad luck on the day he ran over the devil, or as we know the coyote. Now he wants revenge.

After running through several attempts to kill the coyote in some very looney toon ways, the coyote meets Animal Man and presents him with the truth. We learn that he is from a world of cartoon characters, beset by constant violence but where no one can die. Sick of this endless cycle of pointless violence he goes to see his creator and partition him to intervene and stop it. The creator agrees, on one condition, the coyote will be transported to another world to suffer again and again, thus saving his world from violence.

The book ends with Animal Man stating that he cannot read the script he has been given that contains the truth. The Trucker finally kills the coyote believing he has killed a / the devil, thus saving the world.

To stop there for a moment, we are really getting into the Morrison-isms that I have always enjoyed. The concept of parallel or multiple worlds will come up again and again in everything from Doom Patrol, Batman, Final Crisis and of course Multiversity. It is a core conceit of the DC universe that Morrison is a master of. Also, woven into this issue and some of those other stories, especially Final Crisis is the idea of a “creator”. This is returned to later in his Animal Man run, when Buddy Baker actually meets Grant Morrison. In this series and Final Crisis we meet characters that have been forgotten and exist in a limbo waiting for a creator to pluck them out and use them again.

Moving from the purer Morrison ideas, the heavy religious overtones of this issue cannot be missed. From the truck drivers cross and mission to kill the devil, the evangelist on the TV in the Baker home to the idea of the Coyote sacrificing himself to endless punishment to save his world from violence.  Of course the irony being that a man of faith has killed a being that is on a mission of pain for the purpose of peace.

I think because of his longer list of stories behind him Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing 21 is a better statement of his ability; it is better structured and tighter plotted. However this issue from Morrison is like an experiment, he throws in some good ideas in a loose construct and it comes together brilliantly. It’s no wonder he comes back to the ideas again in the future. Of the three issues I am discussing, this is my favourite.

British Invasion Review: Alan Moore's "The Anatomy Lesson"

For Alan Moore his statement of intent came with his American breakthrough. He had done a lot of work in the UK and it had gotten some attention. However, writing for Swamp Thing gave him exposure to a much wider audience. His first issue on the series was a wrap up of the previous writer’s story; in fact the issue is actually called “Loose ends”. With issue 21 he was able to start taking the series in his direction.

In issue 20 Swamp Thing is shot and presumed killed. In issue 21 we literally get a lesson in the Swamp Thing, where he came from, what he is and how he works. I am going to try and avoid spoilers but I will give the basics. The person that had Swampy ‘killed’ has kept his body and brings in Doctor Jason Woodrue, the Floronic Man, to analyse the body. As he learns more and more, so do we. We and Swamp Thing also find out by the end of the issue what he really is.

This issue is a literal rebirth for the character, not only does he awaken from the dead but when he does so everything about the characters essence has changed. This issue takes what started as a mutated Man and transforms him to something much more mythical.

A lot of this issue deals with what it is to be human, and how we define ourselves. It is demonstrated that Woodrue, a plant/man hybrid villain from the DCU, uses synthetic skin to hide his true appearance, wanting to look human.  Does his appearance make him human?

There is also the man that had swamp thing killed, the old General, who lives and works in a digital office space, the king of his castle. The tower of steel and wires, as he sees it, a symbol of his wealth, but if you’re not engaging with society, are you human? Again when we learn what Swamp Thing really is, the question is presented: Are you a person because of the body people see, or the thoughts in your head.

This question is represented in the issue by book end images. The opening page shows Woodrue’s human face looking through a rain soaked window. The final page presents the same image, only now the human façade has been washed away and we see the Floronic man.

This is just one theme that I have picked out form the issue, a lot more can be taken from these 22 pages. However, just in presentation of this one theme we get to see the use of mirroring, which would be used in much more detail in Watchmen. As well as presenting juxtaposing ideas, like nature vs. technology and what it means to be human – Woodrue vs. the general. These are not only Moore ideas that he would visit again but more importantly the techniques used will be refined and used again and again in his future works. A lot of what came before is very good but this issue defiantly represents a turning point for Moore. This is a confident, well written story that being received well encouraged Moore to become more ambitious. 

"British Invasion: The invention of the modern comic book writer" Review

Despite my love of history and reading I haven’t read many biographies. I will admit to an attention span that needs something exciting every couple of pages to keep me going. So pages about someone’s childhood and family always become dry and my thoughts start to drift. However, there are a couple of biographies I would hold up as great examples of the genre that I really enjoyed. Mick Foley’s ‘Have a Nice Day: A tale of Blood and Sweatsocks’ and Kevin Smith’s ‘Tough Sh*t: Life Advice from a fat lazy slob who did good’ kept me engrossed and I would recommend them to anyone. I can now add to that list Greg Carpenter’s ‘British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and the invention of modern comic book writer’.

I should caveat that British Invasion is not wholly a Biography; while it does cover most aspects of the three subjects’ lives it also provides insightful and detailed analysis of their comic book work. The balance that this book strikes is perfect and written in an accessible fashion. This could have been a dry and dull text book but at no point is it overly academic but it also never dumbs down or patronises the reader.

The objective of the book is to provide a history of events and analysis of the impact of three of the most influential comic book writers of the last 30 years. Highlighting how these three men defined an era with some of the most well regarded and loved comic books ever. It achieves that objective and then some.

The history aspect is sufficiently detailed for the reader to understand where Moore, Morrison and Gaiman come from without getting bogged down in “this, then this and then this” listing of childhood events. I found it fascinating that three men from such different backgrounds could become so entwined historically and thematically. The rea historic detail comes later in the book chronicling how each of them entered the industry and then moved from work to work. This biographical context alone provided deeper meaning to the work they were producing. Knowing why and how Morrison created King Mob for ‘The Invisibles’ is one step beyond!

The book however goes further. This is where it is worth noting the author’s (Greg Carpenter) background as a college lecturer. Carpenter has taught courses on topics such as Comics, Shakespeare, Modern & Post-modern American literature and Screen-writing to name a few. So to say that he knows what he talking about is an understatement.

Carpenter’s analysis of the works, both popular and obscure, of each writer is fascinating and thought provoking. I lost count of the times that I dashed to my collection to read an issue or check the page of a book and seeing it in a completely new light, with more depth and meaning.

Having read this book it has achieved three key things for me that have changed the way I will not just read comics from Moore, Morrison and Gaiman but all writers and artists. Primarily, by providing an insight into the life of each writer I now appreciate more than ever how comic books are influenced by the personal situation of the contributors. Secondly, it has given me a deeper and richer understanding and love of the writer’s works. Anything that makes me love something more than I already do is always good. Thirdly, it has provided an education in the questions to ask and elements to consider when enjoying and experiencing any piece of art. I don’t and won’t claim to be able to provide any deep or meaningful analysis but knowing where to start is great. As an addition it has add a number of books I wasn’t aware of to my “Must read” list.

Overall, this is well written, accessible and insightful look at three genuinely brilliant creators that took comic books out of the spiral of silliness and proved that they could be art.

Greg Carpenter’s ‘British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and the invention of modern comic book writer’ is published by the Sequart Organization and available through their website (sequart.org) and other book selling sites (I got mine from Amazon). 

"Elvis Presley" Review

When I decided to review an Elvis album for this blog it struck me how much expectation I bring to anything Elvis. Elvis is so ingrained in pop culture appearing in so many forms, accurate and parody, that I have a very specific image in my head of what to expect. To me, rightly or wrongly, this is the rhinestone spattered jumpsuit glad Vegas Elvis. It was because of that image that I actually decided to review this album, his debut album, 1956’s “Elvis Presley”.

I should quickly highlight that I am actually reviewing the 1999 reissue with a couple of bonus tracks. I thought this would give me a wider selection of songs from this period. Additional Elvis songs are always a good thing, right? Erm … no.

Of the 19 tracks on the album two thirds are pretty much standard 50’s fair. They feel and sound like they could be released by almost any of the similar country rock’n’roll stars of the period. Although Having Elvis sing them with his distinctive voice does make them more interesting. While they may be interesting they are not the kind of songs that would inspire a generation to scream and shout or for musicians to go and create something new. They feel safe, which when you realise that this is a debut album starts to make a little sense. Elvis may become the king of rock’n’roll but he is starting by introducing himself with something that people know. Of these there was one standout worth mentioning, “One sided love affair”.

Being safe is one thing but doing covers is one step further. This album contains several covers that I recognise from other artists “Blue Moon”, “tutti Frutti”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “Blue Suede Shoes”. While the first group of songs were fine, two of these covers (“Blue Moon” and “tutti Frutti”) are awkward and feel incredibly out of place. These two songs are so clearly not designed for Elvis’s voice that I could not listened to them a second time. Shake, Rattle and Roll is an enjoyable step up, fitting the Elvis style but still does not completely feel like an Elvis song. The final cover however is great. Elvis’s version of “Blue Suede Shoes” is classic and does exactly what it is supposed to do. It introduces what Elvis can do with a recognisable song. As a song it is catchy and a lot of fun.

However, there is something amazing on this album, “Heart Break Hotel”. This is an incredible song and one of my favourite Elvis songs. This song alone stands out as a flash of brilliance and a glimpse of what Elvis would quickly produce on a regular basis.

As an album I found this disappointing. As a milestone for Elvis it is interesting but by no means essential. Throughout the album there are moments demonstrating what he could do but the majority of the songs feel like they are being held back, kept at a level that was already common for this kind of music. The standout is Heart Break Hotel which is the turning point, the siren call that Elvis is something different. I enjoy Elvis as an artist but listening to this album confirmed something for me. I am not an Elvis fan. I really enjoy the “best of Albums” but I don’t have a need to go beyond that. In some way’s this is a little sad, on the other it means I can enjoy that best of album, knowing that I really do think this is the best of this work. 

"Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" Review

I have written quite a few reviews of films and a couple of books over the years. That’s not to say that they’re any good but I am more experienced reviewing those. So when I decided to try reviewing an album, a Beatles album no less, I wasn’t sure where to start. I have no musical ability or technical knowledge, so that only left me with how the songs and overall album make me feel, which let’s be honest, is the only thing that really matters.

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was released in June 1967. It is considered the height of the Beatles creative collaboration and one of the greatest albums of all time. So is it any good? Actually yes, it is very good and I was able to listen to it repeatedly over three days without getting bored of it.

This album can be dropped into and the songs listened to and enjoyed individually. There are several that I really enjoy, “Lucy in the sky with Diamonds”, “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” and “A day in the life” all of which are predominantly credited to John Lennon. I wasn’t aware of this until after listening to the album and doing the research for the podcast on the Beatles.  In my opinion these are the songs that feel the most contemporary, even today. It would appear that John Lennon may have been my favourite Beatle.

However the real joy comes from listening to the whole album. This is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Yes the songs are good but the album is a great show. You are welcomed with energy and joy to the show. It then continues from there with ups and downs, all the time with energy and creativity. This album is a tour of styles and imagination from each of the members combined.

When the show is over there is an encore, “A day in the life”, a combination of Lennon and McCartney Lyrics telling two different stories. The tone of the song is different from the rest of the album. A coda highlighting the creative brilliance of the band and how they cover so many different styles and had the ability to balance artistic merit with humour and fun.

If you want to get into the Beatles start at the beginning and experience them as they evolve and grow. If you are looking for the best from a band at its creative height then I strongly recommend enjoying the show put on by Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

A final blog for 2016

It is pretty much generally accepted that 2016 has been a crap year, for many reasons. 

We have lost some of the most influential pop culture icons of the 20th Century. The loss of these people is sad and is a great loss to the creative arts but while we have lost the person their great work is still there and can and should be celebrated. I want to mention something about just two of these great people; David Bowie and Alan Rickman.

In response to the death of David Bowie earlier in the year I went and listened to his entire discography. I didn’t think it was all great but it was really fun to listen to it all and experience his creativity and get a glimpse of his imagination. Bowie was a fascinating character that was not tied into any traditional rules of what could be done as a pop / rock star, breaking down barriers for so many other people to follow. while he may not have had a direct influence on my life, listening to his music is easy to see that has influenced so many musicians and artists that have had an influence on my tastes. 

Alan Rickman was an actor that appeared massively in my life. For me he was the perfect depiction of the bad guy. His appearances in Die Hard, Robin Hood Prince of Thieves and later the Harry Potter series established him in that role for me. I know he has appeared in loads of other films and is great in all of them but to me he personified the perfect villain. Is that a bad place to be? Depends how you look at it. The fact is he was a great actor and he will be greatly missed.

The point of this is to consider the celebration of each of these great people. They are a loss to pop culture but if you are a fan let people know why. That is a big part of what the podcast is about, going back experiencing and celebrating the work and influence of some great pop culture icons. I am really looking forward to celebrating the work of some of these icons, Elvis Presley and The Beatles. 

In addition to this we have seen a massive shift in political belief and loss of common sense. I don’t want to get into a detailed political tirade hear, that’s not the point of this site but there are a few things worth mentioning. The rise of populist politics is cause and effect and just shows that we do not learn lessons from history. Globally we experienced a period of boom during which we all got very comfortable and complacent. When the bubble burst in 2008 the world looked for someone to blame. Don’t get me wrong, there was someone to blame but we all let it happen and we have suffered the consequences.

The period of depression that has followed has been difficult and impacted everyone at home. Decisions that were made behind closed doors in a shiny office building we have meant we have suffered. This has re-established the notion that so much of our lives is out of our control. Knowing this is scary and we want someone to tell us why this happens, who is to blame and reassure us they will do something about it. A protective charismatic leader who we believe has our best interests at heart. In this dark fearful place is where the right wing thrives and its control across the world is growing like a mould.

This of course has been made worse by an escalation in terrorist violence the world over. I am not a religious person and have no theological dog in this fight. However just as a person I understand that this is a fight of good against evil, the twisting of a belief system that is based on hope and love. However, I also understand that this twisting is caused by fear and hatred of a perceived loss of control.

In both cases people worried about the future and their own small world have looked for something secure and clear cut to cling on to. Something that they can say provides perspective and clarity of purpose to their world. That is not to say that the actions that have been taken are right in anyway shape or form. Only that people driven by hatred have used peoples fear as a launch pad to spread more fear and hatred.

Ok, this part has become a bit of a rant, sorry about that. The point I want to make is that we have been here before. There are many examples but you only need to understand the rise of Nazism in Germany to appreciate the possible futures we are now facing. However, there is something that we can do about it.

20th Century Geek has been a positive passion project and while this year has had its own challenges personally it has taught me something about making time to do what you love. It has provided a channel to share a passion with friends and meet a host of people that share my passion or have introduced me to their passion for other things.

The best I can advise is find your positive passion, the thing that makes you happy and smile. Then follow that passion, keep it to yourself, share it or find others that share that passion, just keep happy. The world can be a dark place and instead of looking for someone to share your fear find someone who shares your love. Easier said than done? Well give it a try in 2017 and if you can, let me know what it is and how it goes.

To finish lets talk about the podcast. The podcast has been an experiment, which has meant that the shows have all been a little different in style and content. Having tried a few things, some of which haven't even seen the light of day, I am starting to settle on a format. There will be a lot more of Mike and I chatting about films and other historical tidbits. The one thing that I will be introducing in the new year are a series of interviews with people actively involved in things that celebrate elements of 20th Century Pop Culture. I am really excited about meeting these people and sharing their passion. 

Anyway, time to wrap up so Merry Christmas and have a great 2017. please feel free to contact me either through email or social media, I would love to talk to you about what your passionate about. 

Halloween Countdown: 1 - Halloween (1978)

John Carpenter is a director ruined by the studio system; the more backing he was given the worse he became a victim of his own early success. In 1978 however he was untested with only one film behind him (1976 – Assault on Precinct 13) and with a budget of only $300,000 he produces the magnificent “Halloween” and we get the birth of the first iconic slasher killer Michael Myers (Jason would not be fully formed until 1982 and Freddy until 1984) and a template that would be expanded and mimicked for years to come.

Due to its limited budget and the fact that it was made before the overly gory horror films of the late 70’s and 80’s really took hold Halloween is surprisingly sparse on gory kills. In fact only 4 people are actually killed in the film. Halloween is a great example of necessity being the mother of invention. Throughout the film where they can’t afford to show masses of blood methods of hiding it have been used, whether that’s clever lighting or the first person perspective. Instead the film focuses on building tension and creeping fear, as the viewer you know something is coming but you don’t know when.

This technique is used from the outset, having the first 5 or so minutes of the film in first person perspective. Someone is stalking a young girl and her boyfriend as they go upstairs, within minutes the person enters the house and puts on a clown mask and picking up a knife. The person moves upstairs and enters the bedroom where the young girl clearly recognises the person. Seconds later all we see is the knife moving and the girl screaming. It is revealed in the next scene that the perspective was that of a small boy, Michael Myers and that he has just killed his sister. There is no explanation for why or who this family is. This is the key thing for Michael Myers, he is dangerous and driven to kill but (in the first film at least) we don’t get a reason why and I think that not knowing makes him scarier and more unpredictable. 

His mystery is heightened by his iconic design, a result of the limited budget. Originally he was going to wear a clown mask to mirror the look used as a child. However this was dropped close to production and the legend has it that a member of the design crew had to look for a new mask and bought a Captain Kirk mask, made the eye holes larger and painted it white. Add in a plain dark blue boiler suit and a simple and incredibly affective design is born. This design is so perfect because we still get a face to see but it is expressionless and using good lighting we never get to see his eyes. This could well be a hollow shell, it is only in the last act that we see below the mask and see a scared young man who panics and pulls the mask back on to regain his control. This does raise the question of what is he? Does he need to hide behind the mask to be the killer; is he scared of seeing his own face when he knows what he has done? There is so much we don’t know about what is going on in his head, leaving it so open makes it more interesting.

Michael fits very neatly into the first of the three iconic slasher killer types; silent slow moving killing machine (Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees), Witty and flamboyant (Freddy Kruger, Chucky) and charming seducer (Candyman). Without a given motive and because Michael gives nothing away during the film it is for the viewer to fill in the motivation if they want to. You can be as simple or as deep as you want to be, he could just be a crazy person who is killing based on opportunity and Laurie just happens to survive, or he takes a liking to Laurie and wants to separate her from her friends.

I like to think of things a little more deeply, I have always seen Michael in this first film as a personification of conscience, like a crazy Jiminy Cricket. Each of the kids that are killed has committed some sort of sin (under age sex, drinking, smoking weed or leaving the kids unattended) which singles them out for killing, even his sister at the start of the film.

This is a morality tale for older kids, the film even calls it out when Michael is referred to as the Boogey man by the young kids, which Doctor Loomis agrees with at the end. Children are told, if you’re naughty the Boogey man will come and get you (not a practice I advise) and here we have that played out for real. Laurie is the best of them, she is the goodie two shoes of the group but even she smokes weed at one point. So despite being the best of them she still sins, this is why she is the last to be attacked. I think this also plays into the building of tension for the first two thirds of the of film. Michael is watching and picking his kills. After the opening scene we only ever see the film from a limited number of viewpoints, I have always thought that we have only followed the stories that result in kills but that Michael has actually been watching other kids as well.

This notion is driven home at the end of the film. Doctor Loomis has shot him and he has walked away from it into the night, proving that he isn’t simply human he is something more. Then we are shown a series of shots inside and outside normal homes all normal, overlaid with the sound of breathing. In modern cinema this would be an indicator of the inevitable sequel, however when they made this film there was no intention of having a sequel this was supposed to be left open ended. To me this scene is the final indicator, be good because Michael is still out there and he is watching, he is in your normal looking home or neighborhood. Be good or the Boogey man will come and get you.

The film tries to drive this home by making everything as normal as possible All the kids are normal and doing normal things. They are discussing things that we all talked about when we were that age, school, dating and what we are doing at the weekend. There are parts of the film where the conversation is almost inane to the extent of being distracting. However it all works to make the point that this could happen anywhere.

John Carpenter’s desire for the film to maintain a level of normalcy is betrayed by two key things, firstly, the fact that the film actually points out its own main plot hole. The ones that come to mind are the fact that Michael has been locked up for 15 years since he was six, yet he is able to drive a car from the Hospital to Hanndonfield. It is mentioned by a doctor and an answer is never given. It’s something that has bothered me since the first time I watch the film.

The second is Donald Pleasence and his scene chewing performance. Everyone else in the film is trying to play every scene down and be normal. Pleasence screams, overacts and goes crazy eyes every chance he gets trying to convince everyone that Michael Myers is the devil incarnate. His performance is distracting and struggles to fit in with other parts of the film, he would probably fit in better in a later Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th film rather than this more restrained suspense horror film.

The final thing to mention is the music. John Carpenter is renowned for having done his own music for many of his early films and produced some amazing yet simple scores. Halloween is a prime example of this; the title music has become a seasonal anthem and is another further highlight of how restraint and a minimalist approach can really pay off.

In summary this is a low budget horror film that uses its limitations to its advantage and tells a story about a normal neighborhood going through one night of hell. It builds tension using a brilliantly simple score, well directed photography, clever editing, restrained acting (for the most part) and some simple designs to create something iconic. As with A nightmare on Elm Street this franchise becomes something different down the line, however in this case it’s not for the better. This is a great film that gets to the route of horror, there is something hiding in the dark that will get you if you aren’t careful. 

Halloween Countdown: 2 - The Changeling (1980)

I had not heard of 1980’s The Changeling until a couple of months ago. After that I heard about it several times in quick succession. Each time was praising the film as a forgotten gem. I am always a little suspicious of a film that seems to have fallen of the radar so much. It’s usually for a reason. Having now watched it and really enjoyed it, I understand why this does not get the attention it deserves. The late 70’s and early 80’s saw a wave of classic horror films that changed the direction of the genre to this day. The Changeling would have done better if it had been released 5 or 10 years earlier. This film is a much gentler ghostly thriller than was being produced by 1980. That does not mean that this is a bad film though, far from it.

The film centres on George C. Scott’s character John Russell, a musician and music teacher who, following the death of his Wife and Daughter, moves into a rented historical house. While dealing with his grief he starts to hear strange noises in the house. His investigations into the house lead him to a boarded up attic room that contains a small dusty child’s wheelchair. The hauntings escalate and he finds out more about the child that died in the house.

While I enjoyed this film and happily recommend it there are several issues that need to be addressed and are the reason it got lost in the mix with other films around this time.

The tension builds well for the first two thirds of the film and there are some really spooky moments. The massive house is used like a real haunted house. Doors slam, pipes bang and it’s all played like an old school ghost story, which is one of the reasons I like this so much. There are no huge moments with people being pulled up stairs by an unseen force or a ghostly wind blasting through the house and no mention of Demons. It feels a lot more real. There is a reason for that; the script is based on alleged events experienced by the writer a decade before.  

Unfortunately the mystery is revealed a bit too early and the last third drags as it reaches the finale.  This tension is mostly lost by the time the credits roll despite some great set pieces and performances. However, an uneven script is not helped by pedestrian direction and cinematography. Looking at their other credits both the director and cinematographer have done mostly TV work and it is shows. The locations for the film, the House in particular, are beautiful and a more talented cinematographer could have used them more effectively. Also, throughout the dialogue scenes are shot with the same intensity as ghost scenes, both of which have a TV movie feel.

When you stand this next to similar films around this time, such as Poltergeist (1982), The shining (1980) or The Amityville Horror (1979) it doesn’t stand up. Each of those had something special which makes them stand apart. With stronger more auteur direction this could have been elevated to the classic status along with the other films listed.

As I say there are several great effective spooky moments, also the essence of the story is strong and disturbing. Despite the pacing issues the feeling of grief and how that affects people, possibly opening them up to experiencing supernatural things is played really well. This is bolstered by brilliant sound design. The character of John Russell being a musician is utilised well with a creepy score that both supports and exists within the film.

Speaking of John Russell I would like to mention how good George C. Scott is. Scott plays John Russell as a quiet man looking for peace and to work through his grief. He portrays different sides of the grief so well and with dignity, from crying with despair to reminiscing over a photo album. There are several moments in the film where his is stopped in his tracks by a memory or his emotion and I felt it with him. In other scenes we get to see more of the man that he was. When the hauntings begin he ends up bringing in a medium to conduct a séance. During the mediums rantings and scribbled spirit writing the look of disdain for his face is priceless and completely valid.

His feelings and grief are what propel him through the film and drive him to follow the investigation to its end. I get the feeling that knowing he has done the right thing for this lost soul will make him feel reassured about what has happened to his wife and daughter. A good man whose life has been broken and he is looking for sense and peace in his life.

Overall, this is a good film with solid performances in a pretty strong story. Unfortunately despite these it feels like a film from 1972 released in 1980. Weak direction and a failure to utilise the locations really hinder this film. Had this been directed by Spielberg or Kubrick I am convinced that this would have been a classic. It is well worth a watch especially if you enjoy the smaller more down played ghost stories over the over blown nonsense that is released today.