I recently had the pleasure of being invited to the Madame Tussauds Blackpool Marvel Experience opening night. It was a fun evening and I left feeling impressed with the quality of the experience and all the exhibits.

Being a podcast about 20th Century Pop Culture this kind of thing is perfect for me. I got to get a photo with Sid Rotten, Freddie Mercury and the Two Ronnie’s. I was a happy little nerd to begin with.  So to top it off with the main reason I was there was awesome.

The exhibit is split into four areas each focused on different parts of the comic experience. The first is a faux comic book shop displaying a wide array of modern Marvel comics, many of which I have read. However the thought struck me that this was a missed opportunity. The racks could have been used to demonstrate the evolution of the Marvel universe from its Birth in the early 60’s to the Modern Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), which the exhibits focus on. Although this may be filled differently when open to the public.

Moving past this you enter the second zone with a smouldering Hemsworth Thor. The statue is excellent, not only is the face spot on the Thor Avengers movie costume is perfect. Set up like an ice cave you also get to see if you are worthy by trying to lift the Asgardian war hammer Mjolnir.

Beyond this is zone 3, an open area with several excellent Marvel Heroes and photo opportunities. The goliath Hulk looks incredible (see what I did there!). He is accompanied by the meanest mother fu… er, greatest spy master Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury and your friendly waxwork Spider-man.

Hulk 1.jpg

In my opinion, the best is saved for last where you will have the chance to have a picture with a full size Groot. It looks stunning and who doesn’t want to join the Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s not the largest exhibit but it is an excellent celebration on the modern Marvel Universe. All the displays are great with (mostly) life like statues and loads of interactive elements. They are a slice of British pop culture heritage and to have this joined by some of the most iconic characters in modern pop culture is wonderful.

I congratulate the team that worked on this for capturing the essence of wonder and imagination that Marvel and the MCU inspires.  It’s a well worth a visit for anyone holidaying in Blackpool.

Excelsior!

Does a hero stop being a hero when they kill?

When you’re a kid you are taught basic black and white rules of morality. Don’t steal, don’t lie and of course don’t kill. As you get older you start to understand that there are moral grey areas. Situations when these steadfast rules of right and wrong are called into question. When certain wrongs could be right. This can start an interesting debate about how best to react to a situation. What is the best moral stance?

Action movies often (if not always) throw these ethics out the window and hope that you, as viewer, are happy to just go along with the ride. You are given a protagonist who is thrown into a situation and must fight for their life or save someone. Simple.

Ok so let’s talk Die Hard. John McClane is trapped in a building with armed men, willing to kill to get what they want. They put him and others under threat. Throughout the film McClane responds with deadly force. In this situation we can accept that killing is inevitable and in this case acceptable, as it is his only way of survival.  

In both Rambo First Blood (1982) and Terminator 2 (1991) we get a direct response to the need to kill. In First Blood Rambo uses brutal but non-lethal methods to take down the police. Rambo is highly skilled and able to use those skills to prevent the killing and lets the Sheriff know that it could have been different. This is a change from the book and makes Rambo a smarter and more dangerous character. The holding back displays a humanity that I think is missing from some actions heroes.

In Terminator 2 it is established that the T800 has detailed files on human anatomy to make it a more efficient killer. However, when given a directive that it should not kill it is able to do so, again using non-lethal (if sill crippling) force.

We can take from this that being skilled in killing means that the hero should be less likely to kill. They need to demonstrate a restrain and have an ability to disarm and stop an attacker, rather than just kill them. Going back to John McClane, we can see that being a New York cop in a desperate situation and not a skilled one-man army the killing is an act of survival rather than attack. Morally, McClane is in a different situation.

You then have the satire of the situation. Robocop is programmed to be a skilled one-man army machine. It is demonstrated in the film that he can disarm a perp without killing when the woman is held at gun point. He has pinpoint accuracy. Plus, he is mostly bullet proof, which reduces the threat level. So, when he walks into a dug den and starts wantonly killing everyone in sight I have ask whether this is satire or if Robocop is failing as a hero.

Taking this to the extreme we get to Batman or as Tim Burton would have us see him, Murderman. In the 1989 Batman film he blows up a chemical factory that we have just seen is manned by goons and quite possibly unwitting factory workers. Not to mention the fact that he has just released god know what into the environment to affect anyone living in the area around the factory. Later he opens fire on a parade with a level of accuracy that would make a Storm Trooper proud. Bullets and shrapnel flying everywhere. Don’t tell me people weren’t hurt after that! In Batman Returns (1992) he has taken it to the next level when he just drops sticks of dynamite down some baddies trousers. This is supposed to be the most skilled martial artist in the world yet he can’t resist a bit of killing.

Ok, I know that Batman is more fantasy but the principle stands. If John Rambo and the Terminator can take the moral high ground over you, you’re in trouble. Spiderman has it right, with great power comes great responsibility. If you are skilled killer, then you should be skilled enough not to kill. I really do think that falling back on just killing in action films is a fault of the writers. The best and most interesting heroes are not just machines they know that lives matter.

I’m not saying I want the cheesy white bread characters of the early 20th century. What I am saying is that we have moved past the killing and destruction without consequence of the 80’s and 90’s. In this day and age, it is more important than ever before for the heroes that are being presented to the world to be shown to consider their actions and the consequences they will have.

Good sequels and Bad

I am really looking forward to seeing The Shape of Water when it released in Feb in the UK. It’s an original film from a fantastically creative film maker and it looks amazing. I must confess though, I am more excited for The Predator, Deadpool 2 and Avengers: Infinity War.

This year there are more than 30 sequels coming out at the cinema and I am sure that I will watch a good portion of them. Although, the way sequels are treated is funny. Fans and movie goers in general, myself included, lament the lack of original movies coming out but we love to see the on-going adventures of characters we know and love. The trick to making a sequel successful is to make it interesting and fresh while not affecting what has gone before or changing what is at the core of the character.

If we look at a couple of movie series that have multiple sequels we can see where some have succeeded and others have failed, at least in my opinion. Now I am going to discount any series based on books (Harry Potter, Hunger Games etc) as they have a template to work from.

To end on a positive note let’s start with two film series that I mostly enjoy but have followed a very similar path and as a result are at a low point. The Terminator and Alien.

They both start with a small sci-fi horror concept, one a haunted house the other a slasher film. Each gained attention and success by creating a complete world and just dropping the viewer in them. The follow ups take that concept and instead of treading the same ground, up the ante. Aliens and T2 are examples of perfect sequels being great movies in their own right, while building on what was established in the first films. James Cameron being the director and creative force behind each is a testament to his talent.

Unfortunately, after that is where its starts to fall apart. In both cases the third film in the franchise tries to do something new, without really respecting the characters that have been established. Both T3 and Alien 3 have uneven tones and do not feel like extensions of the stories that have already been told. In my opinion Alien 3 is a better film that T3. This could have just been a wobble overall but the issues continue.

The fourth instalments in each series (Terminator: Salvation and Alien: Resurrection) are jumps forward in time and force story telling conceits to keep certain characters in play. Both ignore key elements of the past films in favour of trying to standalone. They are shallow and forced. I would even go as far as to say that both have a negative effect on the films that have come before by taking characters in a poor direction.

In both cases this should have been the end. Profits and credibility were low but there was going to be more. In recent years, we have had Prometheus (and Covenant) and Terminator: Genysis which have both tried to rewrite the history of what has come before. I would suggest that that the result is mostly negative and in some ways insulting to fans of the series.

As I say, both are at a low point now but I am sure we will get some form of movie continuation at some point. The only thing I can hope for is that we get a sequel that is honest to what the heart of the franchise is about.

On the flip side is a series of films that have reinvented themselves to become one of the biggest money makers of recent years. Much like Alien and Terminator the Fast and Furious films start with a small and tight concept. It was nothing new but it was fun did better than expected, it was bound to get a sequel. The following two films try different approaches but always keep the core fun, if daft, elements in play … and fast cars, lots and lots of fast cars. The fourth film in the series is the most interesting for me, it goes back to the beginning but starts to grow the focus of the first three. They move from underground racers being involved in crime to crime stories centred on core characters that happen to be excellent race drivers.

This is taken to the next level in 5, with the addition of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. 5 through 8 are crazy crime action movies. They have massive set pieces and explosions, and they took a middling franchise into one of the most successful of the 21st century.

Another example of knowing your franchise but keeping it fresh is the Mission Impossible series. Each film since the first in 1996 has had a different director that has brought a different tone and feel but they have kept the similar sense of fun action and big stunts. Doing so they have gone from strength to strength, with the 6th instalment coming in 2018.

I know that these are very different beasts and that the F&F and MI series is are more pulp action nonsense overall. However, there is something very important that the Terminator and Alien franchise can learn from them. People want to see these characters do what they do. It’s why Bond has 25 films, why Rocky never started MMA, it’s also why people get so frustrated with the Hellraiser franchise (that’s a blog for another day).

As movie goers, we cry out for new and fresh concept and characters and stories. These will always excite and intrigue us. However, let’s be honest, as some studios have shown over the decades, if you put time, effort and money into a well thought out sequel you will satisfy fans and bring in new people as well as make a ton of cash.

Christmas Dinner Movie Menu

As we dance and prance towards Christmas day and the break from work and the usual rat race it provides, I know that many of you will be filling your hours with festive traditions. One of the more modern traditions that has taken hold is the watching of Christmas Movies, usually the same few that tap into family appreciation and nostalgia.

We’re no different in my household, I love Christmas movies. Every year my wife marks the start of the festive season by watching ‘Love Actually’. We watch ‘it’s a wonderful life’, ‘Four Christmases’ and ‘Home Alone’ 1 &2 together at some point in the first few weeks of December. My daughter is starting to find her own favourites in ‘Elf’ and ‘Frosty the Snowman’, which we sit and watch with her.

These are all sweet, fun and fill you with the warmth of happiness and the potential of the season. They are great but they all have a Ying to their Yang. I love the sweet but I love savoury as well, like ‘Gremlins’, ‘Batman Returns’ and

So, to celebrate the season I have created a Christmas Day menu of sweet and Savoury Movie treats.

Ladies and Gentleman, what would you like for Dinner?

 

~ Starters ~

Option 1: A small bowl of spicy Gremlins, accompanied by fresh A Nightmare Before Christmas

Option 2: A Home Alone melt with a New York style sequel for dipping

~ Main Meal ~

*Option 1: Several large slices of The Santa Clause, with roasted Grinch and a baked Bad Santa

*Option 2: Poached Krampus, with a cheeky portion of A Miracle on 34th street and matured National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation

*both served with generous servings of It’s a wonderful life gravy.

~ Dessert ~

Option 1: A scoop of A Muppets Christmas Carol topped with lashings of Elf

Option 2: A slice of Scrooged drizzled with rich dark Batman Returns

~ Coffee ~

Option 1: A smooth cup of Die Hard with a sprinkling of Jingle all the way

Option 2: A hot pot of The Holiday with a choice of creamy computer generated Christmas Carol or a selection of Four Christmases

~ Wine ~

Red: A dark and full bodied Black Christmas

White: A fruity and light White Christmas

~ Beers & Ciders ~

Cider: A dry but fruity bottle of chilled Lethal Weapon

Beer: A Belgian import, a tall glass of In Bruges

My Top 5 Haunted House films

The haunted house has been a staple of cinema since the beginning. Cob webbed shadowy corridors and creaking doors used to varying effect to create that perfect spooky atmosphere. I love a good ghost story but so often I think it is done poorly. I really dislike the Insidious film series for their reliance on jump and noise scares rather than fear and tension … just my opinion. While I can find something to enjoy in the run of ghost film remakes like 13 Ghosts (2001), The House on Haunted Hill (1999) or The Haunting (1999), they don’t deliver the creepy horror I love in a good haunted house film.

Below is a list of my top 5 favourite Haunted House films:

1.       The changeling (1980) – After the death of his wife and daughter George C. Scott moves to a renovated mansion to focus on his music and work through his grief. His time in the house is soon interrupted by noises in the night and distant whispering voices. This opens up into a mystery that is preventing the unquiet spirit from moving on.  The Changeling uses its locations and sound brilliantly to unnerve the viewer. The film is laced with tragedy and lose, which makes the final reveal the more impactful and shocking.

As a side note, I should mention that the events of the film are loosely based on events that the screenwriter claimed happened to him when he lived in a town house in the mid-60s.

2.       Poltergeist (1982) – For years there have been tales of the production of Poltergeist and who was actually in charge on set, Producer Steven Spielberg or Director Tobe Hooper. Regardless of who actually ‘directed’ the film, the fact remains that this is one of my favourite horror films. It is the quintessential modern haunted house film, clearly influenced by the events of Amityville. 

The standard American family living in a good neighbourhood where the kids can play safely. It is template 80’s Americana. This is then be shattered by the ‘abduction’ of the youngest daughter, leading to the acceptance and handling of the supernatural presence. There are moments that stretch the suspension of disbelief (a tree attack!) but the overall film is a masterclass is quiet drama being punctuated with hard hitting scares. More so than The Amityville Horror (1979), this film helped move ghost stories from gothic mansions to modern suburban homes.

3.       The Others (2001) – As I mentioned in the opening, in the late 90’s, early 00’s Gothic horror was not in vogue. It was replaced by loud, more action orientated horror (13 Ghosts / The House on Haunted Hill / Ghosts of Mars). However, in 2001 Alejandro Amenabar wrote and directed the first Spanish entry on this list, the Spanish/American produced The Others. A magnificent gothic tale that plays like a novel.

The film lays interesting and believable constraints on its protagonists, as to why they cannot leave the haunted location. Trapping them in with the fear, unable to escape. This makes for great conflict as we watch Nicole Kidman’s lead start to unravel as she deals with events that she does not want to believe are real, while trying to protect her children. The tension and scares culminate is a successful twist and a satisfying ending that a lot of modern horror films lack.

4.       Paranormal Activity (2007) – Found footage films are the lowest budget films that can be made. This usually means they are a gateway into Hollywood for armature or up-coming film makers, but they are usually poor. Every now and then though a film comes up that understand how to use the format to great effect. For me, Paranormal Activity nailed it.

The film follows a couple that have moved into a new house and quickly start to experience strange goings on. The hand-held camera footage is given justification and I am pulled into the daily goings on of the couple and their friends. This is then used to great effect later to build tension and for the viewer. The Camera doesn’t always focus on the central point, so you are pushed to take in the whole screen to look for the scare. The tension builds in this films to an excellent open ended pay off, the way a found footage film should. 

5.       The orphanage (2007) – “Presented” by Guillermo Del Toro but the creation of Director J. A. Bayona. I will admit that this being a subtitled film meant that it took me a while to get around to watching it. I am so glad that I eventually did. A woman returns with her family to the orphanage in which she grew up to reopen it as a home for children. However, things take a tragic turn when her son goes missing. This one event starts to pull together strands for a mystery involving her past as well as that of ghosts trapped in the orphanage.

Oscar Faura’s cinematographer is beautiful throughout. He and Bayona use the central building and its cliff side local to create a sense of isolation and timelessness. This accentuates the fear and tension as the film grows to its tragic gut punch of a conclusion.

5 Haunting Horror films based on true stories (aside from Amityville Horror).

When I started researching this I was expecting to find a glut of films that would fit this category in the 70s and 80s. There were a couple but they were a bit tenuous (The Exorcist). It seemed more like a nugget of a real-life event was taken and then turned into something completely different. I suppose this way no one extra had to be paid. This changes in the early 2000’s and from 2005 onwards we have had a continual stream of Horror Movies based on ‘real events’. This has culminated in the Conjuring films, based on the accounts of the Warrens.

Below is a list of 5 films that are based on alleged real paranormal events:

1.       An American Haunting (2005)

Events: in 1817 the Bell family started to suffer an alleged haunting by a ghostly witch. It started when the head of the family, John Bell, came across a strange animal in his corn field. Shocked by the animal’s appearance he opened fire, the animal vanished. That night for the first time, the family were bombarded by a beating sound on the side of their home. From that point on the haunting got worse.

The noises continued. Sometimes outside the house, other times in the same room as members of the Bell family. Many people as well as the family reporting the sounds as well as seeing and feeling things within the house over several years.

Whatever the entity was that was haunting the family it made its final attack in 1820, when it allegedly poisoned and killed John Bell. Laughing loudly as he took his final breathes. It is said that the ghost returned in 1828 for a short time but was not heard of again after that.

This is regarded as one of the earliest and most wide spread hauntings in American History.

Film: The film has got an interesting cast with Donald Sutherland and Sissy Spacek and several up and coming actors at the time. It has an interesting modern wrap around mechanism as access into the period setting. It also maintains the actual, relative down beat, ending of the legend but condenses the haunting period of years to what feels like months. While the film maintains the haunted happenings the scares and tension never really amount to much, it was only a 12 (PG-13).

It was an interesting exercise in period drama horror, however I think this would have been better if it had either been more stylised (ala Sleepy Hollow) or tried for some harder edged scares and content (ala Annabelle Creation).

2.       The exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)

Events: The film is based on the tragic events that lead to the death of German woman Anneliese Michel. She dies in 1976 suffering from malnourishment and dehydration after months of being subjected to exorcist practices.

After suffering a seizure at the age of 16 Anneliese began to suffer increasing periods of depression. These low points and neuroses began to become focused on religious artefacts. A huge concern for a girl that came from such a religiously devoted family. Soon both she and her family became convinced that she was possessed by something evil. After several attempts the family convinced two priests that she needed intervention.

This started the exorcisms that eventually led to her death. Following her death her parents and the two priests were prosecuted for murder. They were found guilty of negligent homicide. This also forced the Catholic church to distance itself from the case and change its stance to state that she had been mentally ill and not in fact possessed by an evil force.

Film: They take a leap with this film as the story is told in retrospect, dealing with the court case that follows the death of Emily Rose. This is not a film about whether they can save the possessed girl, we know the answer is no. The film spends more time dealing with the question of whether she was possessed at all. It’s an interesting conceit and that isn’t fully explored. If they had had the confidence in the audience, it would have been a better film. However, they never want to completely condemn the priest.

In a better film, he would have been played as a more unreliable narrator. There would have been more uncertainty about whether she was possessed or if the priest hadn’t been obsessed due to his religious zeal.

That said, the film is good fun and the core cast are mostly good. This is a solid possession horror film with an interesting concept. The frustration is that this had the potential to be something more and elevate the genre and story into a classic.

3.       The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)

Events: of all the ‘True Events’ on this list, this is the one that has the most holes. This is the first but not the last appearance of the Warrens on this list and their paws are all over this.  The haunting was alleged to have focused around the House and son of the Snedecker family, who was suffering from a form of Cancer. Minor events were reported but nothing of great note. That is when the Warrens got involved and the story became ‘clearer’.

The entity harassing the family was supposed to have been linked to the previous use of the house as a mortuary. It was stated that there were several employees of the mortuary that practiced necromancy and necrophilia. It was the spirits of these people that were returning at the heart of the events.

This did lead to several grander events. This included the son attacking his cousin and being held in a mental health ward for a period. However, following Ed Warren’s death in … several people linked with the investigation and the documenting of the events admitted that Ed told them to embellish what they knew in any way they could think of to make it scary.

The House is still occupied and the current occupants have frequently stated that they have never experienced any paranormal activity.

Film: The movie has a couple of well-placed scares and some moments of tension, however the overall film is very pedestrian. The facts from the true events are close enough regarding the house and its history. However, elements of the family are changed for safety. The focus on the main son having cancer is reduced.

There is little to say about this film really. It’s competently made, the acting is sufficient and its creepy at times but it just feels very run of the mill and safe for this genre. It’s a shame really because again, like the Exorcism of Emily Rose, this has the potential to add an element of ambiguity and tension with a just a few changes. Could the son’s illness have been at the root of the events? Could it be suggested in the film that this was a hoax to raise money to cover medical costs.

It’s worth checking out if you are a fan of the genre but there are better films on this list.

4.       The Conjuring (2013)

Events: Ah the Warrens. The couple that have now become synonymous with modern haunted house movies, thanks mostly to this film. As is usually the case, the story the Warren’s tell is very different from the truth the family have sated. The Perron family lived in the house at the heart of the story of a decade and the hauntings were spread over this while period.

The haunting was centred around the spirit of an alleged witch called Bathsheba Sherman who died in 1885. There is little evidence that she was in fact a witch, however it was alleged that she killed several infants as sacrifices to the devil. The haunting took on several aspects for the different inhabitants. Some saw apparitions, others were physically attacked but all the heard the noises and voices.

The haunting was never fully resolved. The case may have been closed by the Warren’s however after the Perron’s sold the house in 1980 there were further reports of ghostly activity. This is an event that I think deserves a more attention and possibly a closer adaptation of the story.

Film: Forgetting the alterations of the history this was a return to form for haunted house films. I really enjoyed the tone and feel of the film. It’s has an excellent sense of creepiness and uneasiness running through it. There are some incredibly well placed and paced scares that are incredibly effective.

The strength of the film is in the first two thirds. The build-up of the family dynamic and the relationship that grows with the Warrens. This investment in characters underlines the tension and scares. However, this is partially undone by a clichéd and overly dramatic finale. This will most likely be regarded as a milestone in horror history however it just falls shy of becoming a horror classic. I won’t even go into the dreadful sequel and Annabelle spin-offs. This Franchise has such potential but is being squandered on cheap jump scares and poorly written and preposterous characters.

5.       Deliver us form Evil (2014)

Events: The book ‘Deliver us from evil’ written by Lisa Collier Cool, chronicles the supernatural cases of former New York Police officer Ralph Sarchie. It is set up to be like the real life X-files. It covers a number of cases of possession and ghostly attacks that are alleged to be related to crimes that were left unsolved. Of course, they have been solved by Sarchie but the truth would not be accepted by the public.

Sarchie has appeared on several podcasts, radio and TV shows to promote the book and Film, telling his tales of the supernatural that lives in the Bronx. Demon neighbours, ghostly vengeful brides and the exorcisms that were carried out to save the people involved. Its sounds like he was a busy guy, maybe the Bronx is over a hell mouth and they would have been better off with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Film: Eric Bana is a New York cop that starts to uncover a conspiracy of soldiers possessed by demons from the middle east. The plot is a little daft and the direction is not subtle in anyway however this odd combination of horror and cop drama is fun if not scary. Bana is committed to the role and is sufficiently brooding and earnest about it all. It does all fall a part in the finale, as they usually do. If these events are alleged to have happened I am sure that someone in the media would have noticed.

A fun film for Halloween or with a few beers but not a solid recommend.

Fact or fiction in entertainment

In October, I spent a lot of time thinking about how we, as viewers, process scares in horror films and how they have evolved over time. This flows nicely into what I will be covering in November. Earlier this year I read the book, The Amityville Horror by Jay Ansen. It was a fun and at times unnerving horror novel, however the thing that kept resonating with me was the fact that this was supposed to be an account of a true event in people’s lives. Knowing that added an element of horror however as I read on it disturbed me more and more.

It highlighted something that happens again and again in entertainment, more so in films that books. The facts of the story are adjusted, amalgamated or even omitted. Sometimes the essence of the story survives other times it gets lost in the script rewrites and editing. What does that mean for the people that lived through the events? Do we get an accurate view of events?

I have learned over time that regardless of facts, perception is truth for most people. If a film or book states “Based on True Events” then some (most?) will take that to mean that this is the truth. So when it gets questioned or fault is found in the film this then gets mixed in with questioning the validity of the true events.

There is a Hollywood version of history in which every story follows a three act structure and, for the most part, reaches a satisfying ending. I am sure that anyone reading this will be able to attest to the fact that real life is not that simple.

In November I am going to take a look at The Amityville Horror. First as a historical event, the complicated mix of fact and fiction that has become the legend. I will then be looking at how this has been represented in the media. As a follow up I will also be investigating how this event, the novel and the first film changed the direction of Haunted House films.

Evolution of the horror movie scare

As usual, before I start I have admit that I am not an expert in Horror films (despite the many, many films I have watched). This blog, as with all of them, is just my opinion and I am happy to be challenged and on anything I propose. In fact, I welcome your comments and feedback. So, let’s get stuck in.

From the earliest days of cinema Horror has been a popular genre. With films like The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Nosferatu (1922) people loved being scared. Over the course of the next century the genre evolved and changed to reflect the fears of society. Also, upping the ante again and again on what the films could show to elicit fear and scares. Each generation has films that they claim are the best in genre and are the peak of fear. The question is, who is right if any of them?

I am a big fan of horror movies and enjoy the varied sub-genres for different reasons, expecting different things from them. However, there is a core conceit, I should feel a sense of fear when watching the film. It’s how that fear is evoked that might change. For example, the tension built up in the first half of ‘Halloween’ (1978) creates a sense of fear that elevates the events of the second half of the film. While the notion of Freddy Krueger in the first Nightmare in Elm Street (1984), a killer you cannot escape, is scarier than many of the actual ‘scares’ in the film. The film plays for blood rather than tension.

Since these films were released the genre has altered several times. The 80’s were filled with slasher films and low budget high gore video nasties. There were entries into the genre in the mid to late 70s that can be considered ‘classic’ films. However, the genre has always been fuelled by B-movie fare. It was these movies that became much of the output in the 80’s. unfortunately this meant that the genre was at a low point going into the 90’s. It was pulled from the doldrums by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson with Scream (1996).

The film was a huge success and made Horror a viable commercial prospect again. As is always the case, Scream was followed by a litany of poor imitators. It also opened the channels for the ante to be upped once again. As we had had the video nasties of the 80s in the early 2000’s we were introduced to torture porn with SAW (2004) and Hostel (2005). The popular films source of scares had shifted again, now to victims literally being tortured or under threat of torture. The mechanics of the torture device might be clever but the scare had become simple and base.

I’m not a fan of these films. In fact, I find them tedious and a slog to watch. In my opinion, the acceptance of these as milestones in modern horror is the moment that the craft of creating tension and paying off with a scare was dropped. However, they were not the only films that changed the course of the genre during this period. The Blair Witch Project (1999) introduced the low budget high tension scares of the found footage format to the mainstream. It also introduced the notion of moving the focus of a threat or scare from the films characters to the viewers. This combination of excessive gore and direct viewer threat has been the main thrust of horror films for the last decade.

Things have started to change in recent years. Directors like Adam Winguard and Ti West have started to reintroduce the slow burn horror movie (House of the Devil 2009, You’re Next 2011). Are we at the start of another shift in horror? Could films like ‘Get Out’, ‘IT’, ‘Annabelle: Creation’ or even ‘Split’ drive the shift into the next iteration of popular Horror?

All these shifts and varying films are filled with different types of scares but do some work better than others? I understand that different people are effected by different scares but I also think that the art of a well-structured scare has been lost. The majority of horror films of recent years have all made the same mistake, in my opinion. There is a belief that the scare needs to be directed at the audience. This has been done over and over with loud musical stings and jump scares. Don’t get me wrong, these can be effective when used in the right place and sparingly. However, they have become the standard go to shorthand for a movie scare. By the third time something jumps out at me with a thump of noise, I check out. The other issue is that by directing these scares at the audience more than the characters they take the audience out of the experience rather than bringing them in. why should we care about a character surviving if we as the audience are continually put in their place?

It should be remembered that Horror films, like all forms of entertainment must contain a variety of elements to work. Some jump scares are fine, as long as they are accompanied by the building of tension and some well-placed reveals. The other elements that are more important are characters that matter and the audience cares about. It should be these characters, that we grow to love, that are under threat and to which the scares are directed. Fearing for these characters, I believe, is more effective than an audience directed scare. The final element is the context of the scare within the story. A scene can be well constructed, look great and have excellent effects but if the story is poor or makes no sense then everything else is for nothing.

All those different types of horror films that have been popular and fallen out of favour. All those masters of horror that have brought something new. They’re all valid and all deliver something worth watching as both movies and examples of Horror history. However, for all the differences the things that remain constant are at the heart of all good films. A good story, filled with characters we care about that is filmed well. Within that a good writer and director can introduce any types of well-constructed scares and the audience will be terrified.

What are the examples you think of that manage to blend all of these elements to make a great Horror Film?

Zombies!

If someone asked you to describe a Zombie I’m pretty sure you would detail a decaying corpse shambling along in tattered clothes, driven only by its need to eat human flesh. A creation of a virus, chemical mishap or just maybe there being no room left in Hell. That is the accepted modern take on a Zombie. How that came to be though is not completely clear.

The reanimated dead appear in literature dating back thousands of years in different interactions. The most common origin for the modern iteration comes from the Island of Haiti. In these traditions the Zombie is a person brought back from the dead using magic to act as a slave to whoever resurrected them. This very often gets lumped in with the generic understanding of Voodoo, although Zombies have no actual basis in the Voodoo belief system.

In fact the Haitian Zombie beliefs are a mixture of different belief systems brought over by enslaved Africans and incorporating belief systems that existed in the “New World”. These ideas and beliefs became a part of popular culture in the 1920s, when America occupied Haiti between 1915 and 1934. During this time stories emerged from soldiers on the island of Zombies and how they were created and used by the inhabitants. These garnered so much attention that a book was written on the subject in 1929, The Magic Island, by William Seabrook. Following this further research was done on and around the folklore and actual case studies form the island. The result was more books and articles being published, further raising awareness of the supernatural creature.

So that’s how the walking dead entered the American conscious, but they were still to evolve, or decay if you prefer. The first time a Zombie appeared in a film was “White Zombie” in 1932, which sticks with the Haitian traditions. In fact the distributors used the case studies that had been published in the films marketing, mixing real life fear with the Horror of the film.

In the following decades Zombies would appear in several films, but a closer representation of what we know as the modern Zombie would appear in the Horror comics of the 40s and 50s. These depicted decaying bodies returning from the grave, usually to exact revenge on someone. The design was there but these were not referred to as Zombies out right. Also, they usually had a level of conscious or intelligence that would soon be stripped away.

It is not until “Night of the Living Dead” in 1968 however that we get the first sight of a shambling flesh eater. Were these Zombies though? Romero didn’t think so to begin with. In the film and its marketing, they are never referred to as Zombies. They are called Ghouls, which is a different creature of myth altogether.

It was only after the film was released that the media started to use the term when reviewing or describing the film. This was then picked up by the film maker and his audience. By the time “Dawn of the Dead” in 1978 was released the term was accepted for what we know today.

This of course has evolved since then and the name Zombie is now synonymous with the undead flesh eating walking corpse. There have been several sub-interactions that have sprung up in the decades since Dawn of the Dead. In the 80s “Return of the living dead” (1985) brought us brain eating Zombies. More recently we have had the introduction of the running Zombie in films such as “28 days Later” (2002) and the “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) remake. The original Zombie form does occasionally pop up again though. Most notably in the 1988 Wes Craven film “The Serpent and the Rainbow”.

Whether in the fore or back ground of a story Zombies can be used to have an impact on an audience. They have become so popular for simple low budget gore horror films as an easy way to get some splatter on screen (too many to name!). They are also used as a satire of who we are as a society at our base level (Dawn of Dead – 1978). Or most recently and possibly the most popular vision is the Walking Dead in both its comic and TV format. Delving into what we would do after the Zombie Apocalypse and survive the inevitable collapse of society?

It would seem quite appropriate that as a creature of horror and storytelling, since they shambled into pop culture almost a hundred years ago, they just won’t die. So what are the Zombie films you need to check out? I have put a list of the top 10, in my opinion, below:

1.    White Zombie (1932)

2.    Night of the Living Dead (1968)

3.    Dawn of the dead (1978)

4.    Return of the Living Dead (1985)

5.    The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988)

6.    28 days later (2002)

7.    Shaun of the dead (2004)

8.    Dawn of the Dead (2004)

9.    Quarantine (2008)

10. Zombieland (2009)

 

Werewolves and Werewolf Movies

Stories of people changing into animals, especially wolves, have been a part of cultural mythos since ancient Greece. Those are the ones that have been written down; it is very likely that these stories go back even further. Some suggest that a story appearing in such similarity in such vastly different parts of the world can be taken as evidence that these creatures are real. However, I think it says more about the human condition than the existence of supernatural beings.

Wolves and bears were the apex predators in remote early civilisations. So it was no wonder that they were seen with such reverence and that people wanted to emulate or turn into that. In fact the word Berserker comes from the name given to crazed Norse warriors who wore Bear skins into battle. They were called Bear Shirts, taking the strength and viciousness of the animals into battle.

This idea of taking on the aspects of an animal have survived and been co-opted into other myths, such as the vampires. In addition to this the structure of the story started to take form and the monster went from being a figure to revere to one of fear. It stopped being something that people wanted to take on to become a curse that was laid on them, something that they could not control and would now manifest with the cycle of the moon.

In fact this linking with the lunar cycle became so embedded as an idea that is was accepted as reality at one point. You will have head the cliché of the crazies come out on a full moon, in fact the word Lunatic actually comes from this very idea.

So what changed in us for the story to change? Well, we grew up, become civilised and repressed our animal urges. The stories of the beast being unleashed had shifted from being one of warrior bravery to representing the release of violent sexual desire. This is the story structure that becomes standard with the birth of film. The person that became cursed is usually lusting after someone but cannot have them because the beast would be let loose. Finally they have to be put down or be sacrificed to prevent the beast from attacking again (The Wolf-man 1941)

It is only in the latter half of the 20th century that the animal side starts to be represented as something that could be embraced. The sexual awakening of the 60s and 70s made it ok to be more promiscuous, and so the beast becomes a sexual release to be revered once again (The howling). This is reclaimed in later films when not only the animal but the cyclical nature of the change is taken on by female werewolves in Ginger Snaps (2000).

Werewolves may not be as sexy as Vampires or as satirical as Zombies but they definitely have more to say about us as a society. What we want and how we are now more that civilised animals repressing primal animalistic urges that get released in different ways such violent or extreme sports, hunting, sexual perversions or even something as simple as loud music and sweaty dancing. After all, underneath art we all just a little bit of an animal.

To celebrate the first vs. battle (American Werewolf in London vs. The Howling) I have compiled my list of 10 werewolf movies you should check out.

1.       The Wolfman (1941)

2.       Curse of the wolfman (1961)

3.       American Werewolf in London (1981)

4.       The Howling (1981)

5.       Silver Bullet (1985)

6.       Monster Squad (1987)

7.       Wolf (1994)

8.       Ginger snaps (2000)

9.       Dog Soldiers (2002)

10.   The Wolfman (2010)

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.

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.

Halloween Count Down: 10 - The Frighteners (1996)

Before trekking across Middle Earth Peter Jackson made splatter gore comedies such as Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992) (both of which I recommend). He changed direction with Heavenly creatures (1994) receiving critical for doing so. The film was nominated for Best Director and Screenplay Oscars. Following this the studios came knocking. Jackson put forward “The Frightners” a film he had penned with writing partner and wife Fran Walsh; it wasn’t the film the studios were hoping for.

The film follows window and spiritual psychic Frank Bannister (Michael J Fox) who uses his psychic abilities (and two ghost partners) to carry out haunting cons. A Ghost disguised in Death’s robes is also numbering and murdering people in the small town and Frank becomes the prime suspect. Eventually he discovers that the ghostly killer is Johnny Bartlett. Johnny, with his girlfriend Patricia, carried out a massacre 30 years previously and killed Frank’s wife following a car accident.

This film is a mishmash of tone but there are so many good elements I enjoy, the whole experience becomes satisfying. Even without knowing the full behind the scenes story the unevenness smacks of studio interference. Jackson’s core story is incredibly dark, incorporating coping with grief, survivor’s guilt and obsession. This is overlaid with strange comedic scenes of flying babies and ghost sex jokes. The latter have an air of studio “notes” to make it lighter.

The final 20 minutes are mostly spared the comedic injections and benefit from it. It’s a cat and mouse chase through the abandoned hospital where Bartlett’s massacre took place. Bannister is trying to get to the hospital chapel but keeps having flashes back to the massacre. We and Bannister watch helplessly as Bartlett and Patricia kill innocent people left and right. The joy taken in the senseless killing is shocking and while a good piece of film it fits awkwardly with the previous 70 minutes.

The killing of the character Milton Dammers further suggests studio issues. Originally written as an off screen gunshot to the chest. However once the MPAA made it clear the film would get an R instead of the much coveted PG-13 Jackson filmed Dammers’ head being blown apart on screen. Also, the fact this was held back from a 1996 Halloween release for a January 1997 release in the UK strongly suggests that the studio didn’t know what to do with the end result.

Despite the unevenness the script is good. Frank and Patricia are parallel characters. Both trapped in the aftermath of the death of a lover, not able to move on. They are being forced to face their past on a daily basis. Frank in his unfinished dream home he was building for his wife and Patricia from her mother’s unrelenting hatred and fear. This theme of loss and being unable to move on is carried through most of the film. The spirits that remain on earth decay and start to fall apart, it is only if they let go and move to the other side that they become “pure spirits”.

There are several standout performances in the film. The first is Jeffery Coombs as the damaged and deranged FBI agent Milton Dammers. He steals every scene he’s in despite leaning a little too much towards wacky comedy. There’s so much more to the character. His reaction when shouted at by women hints at past trauma. Also the scene in which he recounts how Bannister’s wife died could have been just an exposition dump. By adding in a series ticks and character flourishes it becomes just as much about his character as progressing the plot. I would love to see this character in his own film.

The second is Dee Wallace as Patricia. For the first two acts she is the perfect meek guilt ridden victim. When this mask is torn away she relishes in the wild menace and freedom of being able to be the killer she has always wanted to be. While this twist is sign posted pretty early on her character portrayal makes the reveal so much fun. Another highlight is an amazing cameo by R. Lee Emery as a version of the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket.

The decaying ghost make-up affects are really good throughout but the film is let down a little by early CGI affects. They are flat and lack texture which took me out the film in parts. Despite these flaws the film has a look which works for the content.

The Frighteners is an enjoyable horror yarn that has confused moments of horror and comedy but has darkness at its heart that makes it a Halloween must see.