Advanced Review of the BBC's The City and The City adaptation

I recently had the opportunity to watch the first two episode of the BBC Two adaptation of China Miéville's novel The City And The City which will start on April 6th.

In the last year we have had some amazing high concept sci-fi shows come our way. I’m a big fan of WestWorld, Altered Carbon and Black Mirror. All the American shows have a gloss and sheen but we brits like to have a grimier cynical take, which is why Black Mirror always stands out. This same approach is taken with The City and The City. This is a European noir murder mystery wrapped in a high concept sci-fi world.

The high concept in The City and The City is that two cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, exist in the same space but in different phases of existence. Citizens of both cities can travel to the other across a heavily guarded boarder. Each city has its own history and social structures, as well as a heated rivalry.

The press release describes the series as:

The body of a foreign student is discovered in the streets of the down at heel city of Besźel. Cases like this are run of the mill for Inspector Tyador Borlú (David Morrissey) of the Extreme Crime Squad - until his investigations uncover evidence that the dead girl had come from another city called Ul Qoma. But the relationship between the two cities defies comprehension and will challenge everything Borlú holds dear.

The show plays with this concept brilliantly in its use of design, colour pallet and cinematography. The city of Besźel is established as a 1980s Eastern European former communist state, all drab concrete and crap cars. The city of Ul Qoma on the other hand is a modern cityscape of steel and glass. Establishing this concept and the world quickly is useful because you are dropped into this world and expected to keep up with what is going on.

The police procedural element is standard enough and easy to follow. Confusion creeps in as you’re escorted around Besźel and its complex political and social structure. While they are talking English for the most part non-English words and phrases are used, to highlight that this is a different world, with little to no explanation. Further to this, the story moves along the dank corrupt corridors of power in the city of Besźel and the viewer needs to keep up to understand who has authority over whom.

Half way through the first episode I was a little lost, however by the end I was so absorbed by the world and the details that were being presented that it didn’t matter. I understood that the show was making me part of the investigation. I didn’t need to know everything at the start because enough information will be parceled out as the story progressed. It’s up to me to be quick enough to pick it up and keep it straight in my head.

This world and story is brought to life by a great cast. David Morrissey brings a gravelly gravitas to the core of the show, which is what I would expect from him. The rest of the cast is led by Mandeep Dhillon as the fun and sweary Besźel Constable Corwi. She and Morrissey are great foils for each other, an anchor for the viewer and representations of a culture that is changing over generations. They are joined in the second episode by Maria Schrader as Senior Detective Dhatt of the Ul Qoma police force. She is more than a match for Morrissey, carrying a level and air of authority with ease. Having German born Schrader representing Ul Qoma is a great move; she brings a modern European sensibility and energy as the story progresses.

What I have seen so far is strong; it pulled me into the mystery and the world. I’m itching to watch the rest of the series. The second episode ends on a cliff hanger that will take the story in a different direction and if it is as textured and well thought out as the start, it’s going to be ace. I have also purchased a copy of China Miéville's novel so I can enjoy the source material as well, but won’t be reading it until I have watched the full series. There is so much depth and detail to this world that I’m expecting to get very different experiences from the different mediums.

In summary, this is a strong show that I really hope finds an audience on the BBC. It will have you talking about it the next day. The concept and the ideas that have been fleshed out deserve discussion and attention. The City and The City showed me that British Sci-fi can compete and I hope you try it out.  

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!

The “Circus Theory” of entertainment, Or why Marvel need more fire eaters

When I spent my spare time dressing in lycra and throwing other men around a squared circle I learnt a lot about how to organise a show to maximise the enjoyment of the audience. It’s a simple theory that my close friend and co-host Mike has quoted at me so many times – a show should always be like a circus. In itself it sounds a bit daft, so let me explain.

The Circus is a single show, you sit down and for an hour or more you are entertained. However, the key is that during that time you will experience so many different acts. It could be the acrobats swinging through the air, the Clowns tumbling, the stunt bikers or the fire eaters risking their lives, if you don’t like one you will like the next, or the next. There will be something that keeps you on the edge of your seat and you will go away thinking about.

We applied the same idea to a wrestling show. You would have a hard hitting match between two technical experts, a fast paced highflying stunt-fest, a dramatic tag team match, a comedy match and finish with a no holds barred hard-core match. They were all wrestling matches but we added in variety so that there was always a match that would stand out for everyone in the audience. 9 times out of 10 this worked perfectly (as long as the matches were good!).

In essence … variety is the spice of life.

So how does this apply to Marvel? I have read Marvel comics on and off for years and enjoyed quite a lot of what I have read. In the last few years however I would say that the majority of what they have to offer is stale and cookie cutter bland. It’s not for want of trying; they have introduced new characters and had some interesting and talented creators work for them. The problem is the majority of the output is a homogenous mass of superhero noise with a couple of outliers that try, sometime successfully, to break the mould (Jeff Lemire’s Moon Knight, Tom King’s Vision, Jason Aaron’s Mighty Thor). They are all slight variations of the simplest of acts; flashy crisis / event driven cartoons with snappy dialogue and humour. This sounds like a good comic, right? It would be but when it makes up 95% of the companies output it gets very boring.

Even when they start with a flair for something different, like Jason Aarons Doctor Strange run, they soon fall back into the standard fare. It’s like the “House Style” leaks into everything and eventually makes it all the same. They have the their “Fresh Start” coming in May 2018 which I am sure will be a loud and fabulous tidal wave of more of the same.

DC isn’t completely free of this but they keep it contained and seem to have found a way of using it. Batman, Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman, the stories often run in cycles and they will never push the boundaries too far. At least in the main run. They use it like a warm blanket, a patchwork quilt of continuity and nostalgia. The difference is that they are actually different characters. The Superman books always feel different from the Batman books which feel different from the Green Lantern books etc.

That wouldn’t be enough on its own, the house style does leak in. So what has kept them a step above? They acknowledge that variety is important. They have multiple worlds they dip into time and time again and use them to try something different; Earth 2 in the New 52 era was interesting for this. They have Else World stories, like the current “Batman: White Knight” story that is playing out an idea that could never be used in the main Batman book. In addition to that they have created imprints that have stretched the possibilities of comics and the superhero world. Swamp Thing, Constantine and Sandman all pushed the boundaries in ‘Vertigo’ during the 90s. More recently they have created the new Imprint ‘Young Animal’ which has allowed creators to push the boundaries of imagination with Shade the Changing Girl, Doom Patrol and Mother Panic, all of which can and do interact with the main DC continuity.

So what we have is two companies producing very similar products:

The first company producing a large quantity of similar products centred on a central style. They rely on customer good will and nostalgia or the love of specific characters that then appear in almost every book (Deadpool at the moment). The result is that customers start to drop off as they tire of not being challenged or being given something slightly different.

The second seems to have learnt a lesson. They also court the sense of nostalgia that exists for their top tier characters and have a habit of over saturation for hot property characters (Harley Quinn, we’re looking at you!). However they have also found a way to challenge those ideas and concepts. Moreover, they have created avenues for creators to really push the boundaries of imagination. A sandpit part of the universe that not only has Batman and Wonder Woman but also a snarky English magician con-man and a team of heroes that live on a teleporting transvestite street called Danny.

I will always want something fun and exciting from my nostalgia character superhero books. They are the bread and butter of the comic book industry and when done well can be great, we all love the acrobats. These are not always enough, for me at least, sometimes I want something different like a fire eater. Then I will look to the fringes and check out something like Doom Patrol or Hellblazer. That means my money is going to go the company that will provide me a Variety Show in their superhero offerings.

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.

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?

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)

90s Cartoon theme Songs (by J-Man)

I grew up in the 90's. By the time my little eyes and ears could comprehend what they were being subjected to, the era of mad animation had already begun. The 1990's were a colourful time, from the acid induced dance music to the sugar and additive-laden neon sweets and drinks. Luckily the animated shows we were given were no different.
Accelerating from the successful franchises of the 80's, most of which made money from the toy and merchandise tie-ins, the animation of the 1990's seemed to blast full speed with style, irreverence and a no holds barred approach to the premise of new shows.

But no matter which show you loved the most (or simply just watched because you didn't have anything better to do while you eat refreshers and drank panda pop) the first and most resonating taste of a cartoon is its theme. And the 90's gave us some wonderful themes.

*Be warned, if you begin looking up some of these themes on youtube it's very likely you will succumb to the endless black hole of intro's. Just as Scott and I did.*

The list of catchy choruses, magical melodies and bouncing bass lines are endless. I have a special affinity for theme songs. There is something potent about the tiny snapshot of music purpose-built to set the tone of a show. Each one is like a 30 second score, encompassing the feel, the energy and often the premise of the show to come. Those of you who have stepped foot in Super Shakes will probably have noticed a handful of themes in the shop playlist (In between copious amounts of Seal). So if I took the time to go over every jingle that puts a smile on my face then this would be an incredibly long blog. [Though honourable mentions go to any theme without lyrics such as Doug, Rugrats, Ren and Stimpy; and to superstar composer Danny Elfman]
For the purpose of time and sanity I'll instead present to you 3 observations during my time in the infinite back-to-back session of intro videos. So if you are simply a curious party or are in the process of creating your own authentic sounding 90's theme song, keep these in mind.

Rule 01: 90's keep it brief

Apart from the quality of the animation and the steady decline of muscular He-Men, a new trend also occurred - swifter intros. Just as every comic is somebody's first, the same applies for cartoons with their self contained stories and repeatability. Because of this many 80's shows began with an intro that was in itself a prologue, as is the case of the hilarious and infectious opening to Ulysses 31. [Check it out here - https://youtu.be/OZ4c1X5ene8 ]
But once we past the invisible decade barrier, things start to get more straight to the point.
Maybe it was because the old style was beginning to feel tired, maybe it was to simply shave an extra minute and a half off the total run time. There is a good chance that it was because as we merged into the era of lunacy and (Ani)maniacs there was no story structure.
"Mama had a chicken! Mama had a cow! Dad was proud, and he didn't care how!"
Enough said.

Rule 02: Ducks have Soul

The musicianship behind theme tunes is often passed by. Since most of the themes are over and done with in 30 seconds, a lot of these gems and respective artists don't get to become as recognised as the 30 seconds (or less) of effort that goes in to most modern pop songs. And although there were many thematic changes to soundtracks as time progressed including Guitar riffs getting more fiery and saxophones (unfortunately) dissipating, one trend I did notice was that shows with ducks had a passionate theme that few competed with.
Lets begin with Duckula (Which began in the 80's but waddled into the Nine-zero's). Beginning with a dark and spooky backstory and blackened images, all is blasted away once the vocals burst in. I get the impression if the theme was a minute longer we would have some glass shattering vibrato on our hands. At several points there are moments when it is as if the microphone they used cant actually handle the singing. Kudos to the composers for making the very silly premise of this show get glossed over by the energetic theme.
From Duck vampires to Duck crusaders, namely DW - Darkwing Duck. This Noire-styled big-billed master of surprise had a hearty theme too. In order to even attempt to replicate the pipes on this performer you have to fill your lungs first. You can just hear the force in their voice as they repeat the title of the show, to the point where when the second verse comes in the whole song seems muted in comparison. But so do many things after you listen to this theme a few times, its hefty.
Then in 1996 as if there weren't enough rich vocals and duck centred animations; along comes The Mighty Ducks. Not the rousing live-action family comedy starring a handful of young actors (Including the future Foggy Nelson from Daredevil sporting virtually the same haircut). This is jacked up, colourful, anthropomorphic ducks playing hockey, and the theme is just as mighty. The entire song seems to be shouted and the eager singer can barely get the first sentence finished without adding some vocal flair. The incredible intensity of this theme leaves no doubt about the final statement "Ducks Rock!".

This correlation between bombastic birds and soulful songs doesn't end there. A post millennium show Duck Dodgers has a theme performed by none other than world renowned welshman Tom Jones. And if thats not enough, need I mention one of the the most catchy themes of all - a Tale of a rich Duck who famously dives into his vault of Gold coins? I'm sure you can hear it in your head already. [If not click here to develop a tick that makes you "Woo-Oo" impulsively anytime you hear the title of the show - https://youtu.be/9DXo5haNd9M ]


Rule 03: Repeat the title as many times as possible

It goes without saying that if you want someone to remember your brand, you need them to remember the name. It's quite possible this marketing tactic was discovered in the late 80's. Pick 5 cartoons that ran in the 90's, and sing the theme. (Feel free to do it in your head if you don't want to look like a Freakazoid at the coffee shop). I'd bet that you said the title of the show at least 3 times. Yes it's intended and yes it almost seems silly once highlighted (Try the theme game again with 5 HBO shows; it's very different. I'm betting on 0), but it also puts a recognisable time stamp on our cartoons, a loveable paradigm of silliness.
This may have most memorably begun with a group of adolescent-genetically irregular- Japanese covert martial arts practicing-amphibians. Yes Leo, Donnie, Mikey and Raph's unquestionable chant, which although formed in the late 80's ran deep into the hearts, minds, and dreams of 90's kids everywhere. Brought to life by the mastermind of mindless repetition Chuck Lorre (See Two and a Half Men & Big Bang Theory - J-Man), who may have unintentionally begun a more overt tradition for shows created afterwards. Notably Earthworm Jim, W.I.L.D Cats, Hey Arnold and Rocko's Modern Life all follow the formula that shouting the title is key to a good theme.
You can see this method working in the Spider-Man cartoon series (Theme co-written by Media Mogul and Power Rangers creator Haim Saban). The words are repeated to the point that the synthesised vocoder chanting goes askew into saying Spider-anything. It's almost as if the singer was exhausted or Joe Perry(Of Aerosmith)'s face melting guitar was tiring them out. I used to think that at one point he was saying Spider-Glider in reference to hobgoblin showing up on screen, but it works for any word you can cram into those syllables. Spider-pamphlet. Spider-burger. Spider-spleen. You get the point.
And as if to prove that the musicians and melody makers behind all of these knew what they were doing - See Exhibit B - Bucky O' Hare. The action packed, detailed crammed opening doesn't forget to add the secret sauce; the name Bucky O' Hare is mentioned various times as are most of the other characters. But as we reach the end there is a very self aware moment where after definitely screaming the name several times one vocalist asks the other "Did you say Bucky?" as if they have a quota to fill. Without a beat his colleague replies "I said Bucky." and they both harmonise for a final "Bucky O'Hare!". This not only adds another few name drops to the counter but is a wonderful little giggle at themselves and the absurdity of their job.

To sum up, Memory can be measured by recall, recognition and relearning. With the constant barrage of names and vivid images drilled into our heads several times over before we have even seen the show - our capability to recite, recognise and build on our knowledge may explain why 90's shows and their themes were so (literally) unforgettable.

- J-Man

(@TheMindofJMan)

When did the 20th Century truly end? (by Orie Enav)

I’m a 21st Century boy. Forgive me! At the tender age of only 28, the vast majority of my experience with popular culture happened after the Y2K bug reset civilization as we know it. Of course, I watched and enjoyed many films and TV shows prior to that calamity, but my teenage and university years were solidly based in the 21st Century. However, was the year 2000 really such a turning point that we should differentiate between what came before and after as significantly different? Or did other events serve as those defining watershed moments?

I’m not the first to point this out, and I’m sure I will not be the last, but the years we define “Centuries” as are pretty arbitrary. To say that the world of 1899 was materially different from that of 1900 is absurd, with exception that the latter had the devastating misfortune to end without Oscar Wilde living in it.  More likely, the 20th Century truly began, first incrementally with developments like the ubiquitous availability of motor cars and cinema, and then with a bang at the outset of the First World War. But we’re not here to talk about that.

My own experience is of the transition from last century to our current one, and despite how we all want to party like it’s 1999, nothing much happened then that affected our culture. For that, we must look to the major transitional events of our lifetimes.  Apologies to those too young to remember; luckily, movies are here to teach us about our own history.

1989

The 20th century was forged, defined and consumed by war. As The War to End All Wars drew to a close and the next World War loomed, it became clear that we were in for a period of instability that was largely unprecedented. Following the German and Japanese surrender, old alliances melted away as the strongest allies squabbled over the spoils, and the Cold War Era began.

Propaganda methods developed in the first half of the century were never more evident than in popular culture. Forget about asking the people to buy T-Bonds, if you want to gain support (and funding) for your proxy wars in Asia and the Middle East, you need to win over the hearts and minds of the electorate. Superman and all his friends fought the Nazis; once that threat diminished, they were replaced by those damn Reds from Russia.

Indeed, 20th century American cinema is dominated by action flicks where the enemy is Russia. James Bond fought the Russians, Rocky fought the Russians, the Manchurian Candidate taught us to mistrust our neighbours more than Joseph McCarthy ever did.  Only pinko commie types like Gene Roddenberry was willing to even consider a benevolent Russian character for the small screen. However, in 1989, that all changed.

Interbellum

When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Hollywood lost its easy target, an enemy we could all understand. The world rejoiced, as a new era of peace was ushered in. Our popular culture was suddenly dominated by some of the best romantic comedies ever made as people turned away from enmity to think more introspectively. Human stories dominated every genre: Superman battled American billionaires; the Friends gang had time for coffee and promiscuity; even the calls were coming from inside the house. Battlestar Galactica, a tale about the struggles of humanity to survive against a foreign alien race of murderous robots, concluded in 1980.

When discussing which Star Trek series is best, as Trek fans so often do, they usually omit the original series from consideration. It was a different time, they say, the effects and the budget were so limited that they could barely produce episodes. Of course the stories were often lame and lazy, they needed to sell accessible entertainment in an age where TV sci-fi was in its infancy! Well, while the former excuses the visual aspects, the latter does not. Obviously there are some standout episodes, but Star Trek hit its popular and qualitative stride from The Next Generation onwards, particularly in later seasons. The bulk of TNG’s best episodes take place after its second season, starting in 1990. The Star Trek we know and love, with challenging moral quandaries and thought experiments that only Science Fiction can provide, flourished in the years after the cold war ended, during a time of peace and prosperity, a time for self-reflection. This was when, culturally, the 20th century truly ended.

2001

So when did the 21st Century begin? Of course, the answer is unquestionably 9/11. A period of relative peace prevailed for a glorious decade, particularly when the Yugoslav Wars concluded and Europe finally seemed unified. Then the planes hit and we awoke as if from a dream to find the world is as ugly beyond our borders as it has always been within.

The external threat narratives returned to our entertainment, only this time the enemy was different. Muslims, Arabs, and terrorists dominated Hollywood stories in a way they had never before. America, as a concept, returned to the forefront not just a political focal point but as a cultural touchstone. Our heroes fought bad guys, always foreign, scary, and brown.

Even our science fiction, intended to be above it all in the lofty heights of philosophy, radically changed. Battlestar Galactica relaunched, but now the story was prototypically post-9/11, in which a great calamity has befalling humanity and the enemy is hiding within. Before 2001, Star Trek embarked first into Deep Space Nine and a sweeping and nuanced wartime narrative, the ups and downs, the surges, victories, defeats, tertiary beneficiaries and tenuous alliances. After 9/11, Enterprise addressed what happens once Earth has been attacked, and a desperate struggle to root out an enemy in a dangerous and unfamiliar territory.

As history moves on and the wars around the world continue, the shock and awe in our entertainment has diminished. It is evident in the Marvel Cinematic Universe how the culture is shifting from clear heroes and villains to more sophisticated plots (even if they don’t always make much sense). For example, the First Avenger fights the Nazis: easy. Then the Avengers, once assembled, fight aliens: again, Easy. But then the Avengers fight themselves in Civil War, over questions of power and consequences.

I will discuss my observations on how the media we consume lags behind the zeitgeist in a separate article, perhaps on the DragonFruit blog. Suffice it to say that the watershed moments of our popular culture are excellent resources for determining the boundaries of our centuries, and nothing of interest whatsoever happened on January 1st, 2000 except for a lot of epic hangovers.

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.

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.

EM pic.jpg

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.

Skullkickers13.jpg

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).

3674867-rogue-souther-colour-red.jpg

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.

HPD pic.jpg

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.