Tag Archives: Cinema

My Golden Age of Movie Posters

Note: Click on all the images to see them full size.

If you love movies as much as I do, there’s a good chance that you love movie posters too. You probably have them on your walls, use one as your desktop wallpaper, and perhaps even collect movie posters like some people collect Picassos. I have a few myself, and why not? Some movie posters truly are works of art. Or at least, they used to be. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’ve got another case of that rose-tinted nostalgia-vision, but it seems that the hand-crafted movie poster has become an endangered species.

Growing up in the eighties, I spent my childhood in awe of the great movie poster illustrators, the artists whose work embellished the films I worshipped. I was a budding artist as well as a movie fanatic, and the eighties may have been the heyday of the movie poster artisan. It was, I see now, the perfect time for me to grow up in. Part of the excitement of any new movie, particularly those by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was that first glimpse of the new artwork by Drew Struzan or Richard Amsel. These were artists who created posters upon which their signature was redundant. You knew who had created it simply by the style of the illustrations. They were in a league of their own, and in my opinion will remain so.

Star Wars reinvigorated the movie poster, accentuating the concept of the one sheet as a collectible piece of artwork. That’s not to say movie posters weren’t collectibles before then but, as it did with so many other things, Star Wars set the bar a little higher. The movie poster was suddenly romantic and energetic again, and the best designs for Star Wars ably captured the film’s wonder, sweep and spectacle. The posters were not just promotional tools, but important artistic creations in their own right. Perhaps, the most famous is the image of heroic Luke Skywalker, complete with accentuated physique, holding his lightsaber aloft, with the giant head of Darth Vader in the stars behind him. Known as Style A, this was a poster design interpreted first by Tom Jung (who would create posters for all three of the original Star Wars trilogy) and then by The Brothers Hildebrandt, with dramatically differing styles.

Drew Struzan’s poster for the film, in collaboration with airbrush artist Charles White III, was a nostalgic piece harkening back to the Saturday morning serials upon which the movie was based. It has a torn poster on plywood effect that only came about because the original design had no room for the movie credits. The romantic design ethic continued with The Empire Strikes Back. Roger Kastel illustrated the classic poster for the Star Wars sequel (see below), having previously created the iconic image for Jaws. Again, it is an evocative illustration encompassing a montage of scenes and characters. The fantasy and romance pours from the poster and the colours beautifully reflect those of the movie. Tom Jung also created his own poster for the movie, featuring a striding Darth Vader holding out his hand, a pose reflecting the movie’s famous and oft-quoted line, ‘I am your father’.

…….………….

Richard Amstel produced two wonderful illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark, having earlier worked on the poster for Flash Gordon (above). The Indiana Jones series, a natural successor to the romantic nostalgia of Star Wars, followed suit in utilising great artists to render promotional materials. Amsel’s work on Raiders still ranks among my favourites of all time (see his alternative version at the top of this page). The beautifully realised image of Harrison Ford lifting out of the sandstone (a mix of watercolour, acrylic, airbrush and coloured pencils) is not only iconic, but sets the tone and setting of the film perfectly. Again, Drew Struzan was given the chance to create his own design for the film, for its 10th anniversary re-release. Sadly, Richard Amsel died in 1985, only 38 old. Struzan then became the go-to guy for the Indiana Jones movies, as well as many others connected with Spielberg and Lucas, such as the Back to the Future trilogy and the Star Wars prequels.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there were many great artists working during this period. John Alvin created the famous poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which portrays the fingers of the alien and Elliot touching. The idea paid homage to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (suggested by Spielberg). Alvin was also responsible for the paws emerging from a box for Gremlins and the original poster for Blade Runner. Bob Peak created the art for each Star Trek movie poster, throughout the eighties. They, and many more like them, are the reason why movie memorabilia from that period is among the most sought after.

These days things are different. The ease and speed at which a poster can be knocked together using Photoshop means beautifully hand-rendered movie posters are a far rarer beast. To the men signing the cheques, it’s far cheaper to hire someone to sew together a couple of head shots or do a photo montage on the computer. I understand it, this is a business after all, but there was something about those old posters that fired the imagination and stoked the sense of wonder as you awaited your first screening of the next celluloid dream. They produced the kind of artwork that cannot be achieved with a mouse and keyboard, any more than an Impressionist masterpiece can be. The industry no longer seems to need the artists the way it once did, and it is always sad when an art form becomes surplus to requirements.

Struzan is still working, however rarely, and still producing immaculately hand-drawn posters. Hellboy was graced with his work along with, naturally, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, the golden age of he and his peers is long gone. At forty, I may grumble about my age, but I will always be grateful to have spent my formative years during the heyday of these unsung artistic giants. And I will always remember how I was just as influenced and inspired by the artistry they used to promote the movies as I was by the movies themselves. Thank you, guys.

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Drew Struzan’s website

A wonderful site dedicated to the work of Richard Amsel

Tom Jung’s page at IMP Awards

John Alvin’s website

 


My Golden Age of Movie Posters

Note: Click on all the images to see them full size.

If you love movies as much as I do, there’s a good chance that you love movie posters too. You probably have them on your walls, use one as your desktop wallpaper, and perhaps even collect movie posters like some people collect Picassos. I have a few myself, and why not? Some movie posters truly are works of art. Or at least, they used to be. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’ve got another case of that rose-tinted nostalgia-vision, but it seems that the hand-crafted movie poster has become an endangered species.

Growing up in the eighties, I spent my childhood in awe of the great movie poster illustrators, the artists whose work embellished the films I worshipped. I was a budding artist as well as a movie fanatic, and the eighties may have been the heyday of the movie poster artisan. It was, I see now, the perfect time for me to grow up in. Part of the excitement of any new movie, particularly those by the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, was that first glimpse of the new artwork by Drew Struzan or Richard Amsel. These were artists who created posters upon which their signature was redundant. You knew who had created it simply by the style of the illustrations. They were in a league of their own, and in my opinion will remain so.

Star Wars reinvigorated the movie poster, accentuating the concept of the one sheet as a collectible piece of artwork. That’s not to say movie posters weren’t collectibles before then but, as it did with so many other things, Star Wars set the bar a little higher. The movie poster was suddenly romantic and energetic again, and the best designs for Star Wars ably captured the film’s wonder, sweep and spectacle. The posters were not just promotional tools, but important artistic creations in their own right. Perhaps, the most famous is the image of heroic Luke Skywalker, complete with accentuated physique, holding his lightsaber aloft, with the giant head of Darth Vader in the stars behind him. Known as Style A, this was a poster design interpreted first by Tom Jung (who would create posters for all three of the original Star Wars trilogy) and then by The Brothers Hildebrandt, with dramatically differing styles.

Drew Struzan’s poster for the film, in collaboration with airbrush artist Charles White III, was a nostalgic piece harkening back to the Saturday morning serials upon which the movie was based. It has a torn poster on plywood effect that only came about because the original design had no room for the movie credits. The romantic design ethic continued with The Empire Strikes Back. Roger Kastel illustrated the classic poster for the Star Wars sequel (see below), having previously created the iconic image for Jaws. Again, it is an evocative illustration encompassing a montage of scenes and characters. The fantasy and romance pours from the poster and the colours beautifully reflect those of the movie. Tom Jung also created his own poster for the movie, featuring a striding Darth Vader holding out his hand, a pose reflecting the movie’s famous and oft-quoted line, ‘I am your father’.

…….………….

Richard Amstel produced two wonderful illustrations for Raiders of the Lost Ark, having earlier worked on the poster for Flash Gordon (above). The Indiana Jones series, a natural successor to the romantic nostalgia of Star Wars, followed suit in utilising great artists to render promotional materials. Amsel’s work on Raiders still ranks among my favourites of all time (see his alternative version at the top of this page). The beautifully realised image of Harrison Ford lifting out of the sandstone (a mix of watercolour, acrylic, airbrush and coloured pencils) is not only iconic, but sets the tone and setting of the film perfectly. Again, Drew Struzan was given the chance to create his own design for the film, for its 10th anniversary re-release. Sadly, Richard Amsel died in 1985, only 38 old. Struzan then became the go-to guy for the Indiana Jones movies, as well as many others connected with Spielberg and Lucas, such as the Back to the Future trilogy and the Star Wars prequels.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that there were many great artists working during this period. John Alvin created the famous poster for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial which portrays the fingers of the alien and Elliot touching. The idea paid homage to Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam (suggested by Spielberg). Alvin was also responsible for the paws emerging from a box for Gremlins and the original poster for Blade Runner. Bob Peak created the art for each Star Trek movie poster, throughout the eighties. They, and many more like them, are the reason why movie memorabilia from that period is among the most sought after.

These days things are different. The ease and speed at which a poster can be knocked together using Photoshop means beautifully hand-rendered movie posters are a far rarer beast. To the men signing the cheques, it’s far cheaper to hire someone to sew together a couple of head shots or do a photo montage on the computer. I understand it, this is a business after all, but there was something about those old posters that fired the imagination and stoked the sense of wonder as you awaited your first screening of the next celluloid dream. They produced the kind of artwork that cannot be achieved with a mouse and keyboard, any more than an Impressionist masterpiece can be. The industry no longer seems to need the artists the way it once did, and it is always sad when an art form becomes surplus to requirements.

Struzan is still working, however rarely, and still producing immaculately hand-drawn posters. Hellboy was graced with his work along with, naturally, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. However, the golden age of he and his peers is long gone. At forty, I may grumble about my age, but I will always be grateful to have spent my formative years during the heyday of these unsung artistic giants. And I will always remember how I was just as influenced and inspired by the artistry they used to promote the movies as I was by the movies themselves. Thank you, guys.

.

Drew Struzan’s website

A wonderful site dedicated to the work of Richard Amsel

Tom Jung’s page at IMP Awards

John Alvin’s website




That Difficult Second Movie. Or Third. And Fourth.

As a confirmed movie fanatic, I naturally like to keep up with cinema’s upcoming features. Man, there’s nothing like having a movie to look forward to. So, last night, I went to some of my favourite movie sites to see what will be hitting the screens in 2010. A few treasures and a lot of shit, as it happened. Same old, same old, to be sure. But what really struck me was the sheer quantity of movies heading this way with numbers in the title. More specifically, movies with numbers after the title.

Here’s what I found. I’ve included the sequel number in brackets for those films that think they can dupe us by using a subtitle instead. Fools!

Piranha 3D, Hatchet 2, Cabin Fever 2, The Descent Part 2, Rec 2 & 3, Mirrors 2, Puppet Master: Axis Of Evil (10), Zombieland 2, Saw 7, 30 Days Of Night: Dark Days (2), Blair Witch 3, Cloverfield 2, Silent Hill 2, Friday The 13th Part 2 (technically Part 13), Jeepers Creepers 3, The Strangers 2, Hostel 3, Iron Man 2, Toy Story 3, Sex and the City 2, Shrek Forever After (4), Predators (5), Hairspray 2, Step Up 3D, Nanny McPhee 2, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2), The Howling: Reborn (8), Paranormal Activity 2, Tron Legacy (2), Hoodwinked 2, Free Willy: Escape From Pirates Cove (4), Little Fockers (3).

That’s an awful lot of digits, folks. The winning lottery numbers for this week are probably in there somewhere.

Now, I’m not going to sit here and rage about sequels. Not really. Well, maybe a little bit. I have nothing against sequels as a concept, okay? In fact, a few of those sequels are on my list of movies to see. Of course, the rest of them simply pull a weary sigh from me. I mean, do we really need a thirteenth Friday 13th movie, for fuck’s sake? The truth is, I can’t help but feel a pang when I remember that every single one of those movies represents an original idea that didn’t get made. And that’s sad, isn’t it?

The sequel is hardly a new phenomenon. The first movie sequel goes back to 1916 and Fall of a Nation, the film made to cash in on the success of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. And cashing in has usually been the single reason for the existence of the sequel. Although there are those which are presented more as instalments than sequels, such as the James Bond, or Indiana Jones movies, these franchises would never have made it past the first episode if they hadn’t made piles of money.

It’s simple maths for the people holding the purse strings. This made money, so it will make money again, and again, and again. Ba da bing, ba da boom. The problem is that, more often than not, it leads to an increasingly dreadful string of repetitive drivel, which gradually sheds whatever magic made the original such a success in the first place. Steven Spielberg, only too aware how awful the Jaws sequels were, made damn sure that no E.T. sequel was ever, or will ever be made.

There doesn’t even seem to be a time limit on the cash-in philosophy. 46 years elapsed between The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Return to Oz (1985), 25 years between The Hustler (1961) and The Color of Money (1986), and 23 years between Psycho and Psycho II. And then there’s the Disney factor. Not content with making sequels to their own ideas, Disney takes it upon itself to create sequels to movies which were based on classic literature; The Jungle Book II, The Little Mermaid II, 101 Dalmatians II, even The Hunchback of Notre Dame II! One can only imagine that Disney would make The Bible II, if they thought it could get away with it. Perhaps it’s no accident that Spielberg’s worst movie was Hook, an attempt to make a sequel to Peter Pan.

Sequels have a place in our viewing pleasure. Some of my favourite movies are sequels. But while you’re enjoying Iron Man 2, or (if you have no discernment at all) Saw VII, spare a thought for what could have been a great, original, movie made in its place, if only some producer out there had decided to take a risk.

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Five First Sequels That Worked

Aliens

Seven years after Ridley Scott’s original Alien, and fresh from the success of The Terminator, James Cameron decided, for the second time in his career, to make a sequel to someone else’s movie. Fortunately, this time he did a far better job than he had done on Piranha 2: Flying Killers. But let’s be honest, he had slightly better material to work with this time around. Fucking flying piranhas, I ask you.

Cameron’s masterstroke was to take the basis of Alien, which was to all intents and purposes a horror movie, and switch genres to an action movie. Rather than retread the monster-stalks-humans set-up that made Alien so scary, Cameron introduced soldiers, multiplied the monsters, and gave us humans-stalk-monsters-stalk-humans instead. In addition, he took the character of Ripley and, with Sigourney Weaver, evolved her into one of cinema’s most iconic female characters. I defy anyone not to hoot with joy when Ripley marches up to the alien queen in the power loader and barks, ‘Get away from her, you bitch!’ Yay Ripley!

Debate rages over which movie is the better, Alien or Aliens, but since they are such different movies it’s really a moot point. But Aliens is that rare beast, a sequel that can stand on its own as a great movie in its own right.

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The Bourne Supremacy

In 2002, Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity came out of nowhere and single-handedly managed to revolutionise the espionage movie, leaving the James Bond franchise to play catch-up. Taking the title of Robert Ludlum’s book, a few characters, but little else, The Bourne Identity introduced an amnesiac government agent as far removed from 007 as possible. Where Bond was all swagger, playboy looks and total lack of remorse, Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne (same initials) was a dressed down blank page who could blend into a crowd, and felt shame and guilt as he came to realise who he was. The movie was a hit and we wanted more.

Liman, disinterested in making a sequel, stayed on as producer and handed the reins to British director, and one-time documentary maker, Paul Greengrass. The Bourne Supremacy surpassed its progenitor in every way, emerging as far more than simply a rerun of the same story. Ruthlessly killing off a major character in the first 10 minutes, introducing the excellent Joan Allen as CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy into the mix, and culminating in one of the best car chase sequences put on film, The Bourne Supremacy is a thrilling piece of cinema which never forgets it has a heart. Greengrass uses handheld cinematography expertly, putting us right in the middle of events, and Matt Damon anchors the movie with very human hero. It’s a credit to all concerned that the franchise ended on such a high note, with the equally accomplished The Bourne Ultimatum. Talk of a fourth instalment persists but it’s hard to see where it could go, The Bourne Ultimatum ending as perfectly as it did.

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The Empire Strikes Back

1980, and Star Wars 2 (or 5, whatever) is due for release. We were excited, but apprehensive. There was no way Star Wars could be bettered, right? The movie had been a phenomenon, had launched a thousand space ships. How could you top that?

Well, if you’re George Lucas, you simply step back and let someone else do the hard work. Having written and directed Star Wars, Lucas came up with the story, handed over scriptwriting duties to Leigh Brackett and (in the wake of Brackett’s death) Lawrence Kasdan, and gave the helm to veteran Director Irvin Kershner. As a result, The Empire Strikes Back is the most mature and accomplished movie of the series. For all his ideas and creativity, George Lucas simply cannot write dialogue. So why he didn’t repeat this method for his recent prequels is a mystery, especially since the dialogue is one of the latter trilogy’s greatest weaknesses. In the words of Harrison Ford, ‘You can write this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it’.

However, there is no such weakness in The Empire Strikes Back. And this is the film that gave us Yoda, Boba Fett, our first glance of the Emperor, and the immortal line, ‘I am your father’. And the AT-AT walkers are super cool.

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The Godfather Part II

The success of The Godfather in 1972 practically guaranteed a sequel. Ka-ching! However, Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo clearly took the task seriously, and rather than churn out a rerun of the original, they built upon it. What they delivered was a rich, layered epic, which contrasted Michael Corleone’s rise as Don of the family with his father’s rise, a generation earlier. Taking unused parts of the original novel, together with new material weaved around historical events in Cuba, The Godfather Part II is a masterpiece. Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are mesmerising, and carry their respective stories completely. Every bit the celebration of the Italian American family, and ruthless deconstruction of the American dream, as the original, The Godfather Part II is required viewing for any student of the cinematic arts.

The much maligned Godfather Part III followed 16 years later and, while not as good as the previous two films, is certainly a lot better than its reputation suggests.

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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

In the wake of the success of Star Wars, and with a huge following built up from re-runs of the TV show, Star Trek finally returned in 1979 with The Motion Picture. It received a critically lukewarm response because, while it carried the series’ themes of exploration and discovery, it had none of the humour and fun of the original show. As a result, series creator Gene Roddenberry was ousted from production of the follow-up, and Nicholas Meyer was brought on board to finish the script and direct.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was not only a sequel to the first movie, but a sequel to one of the original episodes, Space Seed. Ricardo Montalban returned as the deliciously hammy superhuman, Khan, seeking revenge on Admiral Kirk. Exploration was abandoned in preference to military engagement, which made for a far more exciting picture, and the chemistry between the lead characters was restored. To top it all off, a major character death at the end, although he was revived in the subsequent sequel, still stands as one of the most moving scenes in any of the Trek movies to date. With J.J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek movie counting as number 11 in the series, it still never got better than this.

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And Five That Really Didn’t

Blues Brothers 2000

Why, oh why, oh why? The Blues Brothers was one of the greatest comedies of all time, successfully mixing music, action and laughs in a way that few others have ever managed. Its success hinged on many things, but one of the most important aspects was the presence of John Belushi. His death in 1982, two years after the release of The Blues Brothers, should have ruled out any thoughts of a sequel. It would be like making a sequel to Lethal Weapon without Mel Gibson. Worse, in fact. It just couldn’t work, right?

Right. It couldn’t and it didn’t. Writer Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis, unable to replace John Belushi with his brother, James, due to scheduling conflicts, decided to introduce a new character, played by John Goodman. It doesn’t work. There’s a convoluted plot involving a third ‘brother’, the Russian mafia and a new ‘mission from God’. Which doesn’t work. Most of the actors from the first film return. But it is all very desperate stuff, with none of the charm, wit, pace or fun of the original. Simply put, it doesn’t work. And the introduction of a precocious child into the mix doesn’t do it any favours either. Get him out of here! He’s annoying me!

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Jaws 2

According to Richard Dreyfuss in the untouchable Jaws, the great white shark ‘swims and eats and makes little sharks, and that’s all it does’. Well, according to Jaws 2, and the increasingly ludicrous series of sequels that followed, they also come looking for their mates, they hold grudges, and they manage to identify and hunt down family and friends of the people who kill their kids. Rubbish! Boo!

Director Jeannot Szwarc, who is no Spielberg, does the best he can with a lame script, which includes a laughable scene where the shark manages to drag a helicopter under the water, but Jaws 2 is severely lacking the chemistry between characters that so drove the original. With a very similar storyline, only with added annoying teenagers and no Dreyfuss or Robert Shaw, Jaws 2 is basically Jaws without any of the magic of Jaws. It leaves you with a montage of fat people in 70s bathing costumes and a crap looking shark. Funny how you can forgive those things when you watch the original.

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The Matrix Reloaded

When The Matrix arrived, in 1999, it was one of the most fresh and original science fiction movies for years. Like all good sci-fi it had brilliant ideas, which were well executed, and it stirred the brain cells as well as the adrenaline. Then The Matrix Reloaded arrived and the franchise promptly disappeared up its own asshole. And then some. If there was one thing the original suffered from, and apart from Keanu Reeves this was the only complaint, it was an overblown pomposity and a complete lack of humour. Reloaded took that malaise to the nth degree and crafted a triumph of plodding self-importance.

For all its grandeur, The Matrix Reloaded is ultimately a tedious exercise in style over content. Show without the tell. Everyone looks very swish in their long coats and cool sunglasses, but someone forgot to include a coherent plot. By the time the old guy in the white hat turns up to ‘explain’ what’s going on, you just want to put Star Wars on. Matrix Revolutions followed, and was a better stab at continuation, but when you look back at the ending of the original, what else was really needed?

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Ocean’s Twelve

Ocean’s Eleven, a remake of the 1960 Rat Pack movie of the same name, was a star-studded piece of entertaining fluff. It didn’t take itself too seriously, had a great chemistry between the big names onscreen, and remembered to allow the audience to have as much fun watching it as the cast clearly had making it. It was better than the Frank Sinatra original because it avoided the smug, self-indulgence which made that movie simply an exercise in Ol’ Blue Eyes and his mates having a lark.

However, the follow-up, Ocean’s Twelve, somehow manages to repeat the mistake of Sinatra’s movie, leaving us feeling as if we’ve been invited to someone else’s party, and no-one wants to talk to us. It’s like watching Clooney, Pitt, Damon, Roberts and their pals go to Europe for a holiday and send us their snaps. They all have as much fun working together as they did in the first film, but somehow they forget to include us. The story ambles, pretty much going nowhere, with none of the tension that the heist scenes of the original delivered, and the movie ends coming across as cynical, self-satisfied and inaccessible. Ocean’s Thirteen was an improvement, but the spark from the first outing never really returned.

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Speed 2: Cruise Control

Who would have thought that the absence of Keanu Reeves from a movie would be a bad thing? That’s how dreadful Speed 2: Cruise Control is.

There have been some sequels that were never intended as sequels at all, they were merely original scripts reworked as sequels. The ultimate cash-in. Speed 2 comes across as one of those movies. Without the lead character from the excellent Speed, played with wooden abandon by Keanu Reeves, Speed 2 simply has Sandra Bullock’s returning character Annie hitched up with someone else, Jason Patric’s cop. She looks hot, he looks hot, they go on holiday together on a big ship which is taken over by Willem Dafoe (who may or may not look hot) and the big ship goes really fast. That’s about it.

Bullock runs around doing very little, but makes a few referential jokes, to remind you this is a sequel. Poor Jason Patric, who is better than this tripe, is saddled with a dullard of an action role, which could have been filled by just about anyone, even Keanu Reeves. And everyone gets wet in thin clothes, making them all look a bit hotter. Speed 3 never arrived. Can’t imagine why.

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In Defence of Horror

When it comes to the world of respected cinema, horror movies tend to be the poor cousins. They are rarely showered with the awards and plaudits that rain down upon more ‘worthy’ genres, and remain firmly entrenched in their cult status. I can think of no horror movies that won the best picture Oscar, and few that were even nominated. The Exorcist was nominated in 1973, Jaws in 1975, and The Sixth Sense in 1999. That’s it, friends and neighbours, since the Academy Awards began in the Twenties. It’s a pretty pathetic haul for a genre that has been around as long as cinema and, in fact, as long as storytelling itself. People often hold up The Silence of the Lambs, which won the award in 1991, as an example to the contrary, but there is a case to be made that The Silence of the Lambs isn’t really a horror movie at all. It’s horrific, to be sure, but that doesn’t make it a horror movie. Anyway, don’t get me started because the topic of what makes a horror movie is a whole other blog.

I grew up with a love of all things horror. I was an avid reader of ghost stories (both fictional and factual), a keen researcher of paranormal phenomena, and of course, lover of horror movies. Little Richard Lamb was never happier than when he was scaring the bejesus out of himself with some true account of a spectral visitation, or a spine-chilling tale of the supernatural. Tales of the macabre fired my imagination like nothing else, because it was here where the most imagination, the most creativity, was to be mined. I’ve always found the horror genre itself to be a rich depository of ideas and inspiration, and it’s for this reason that I find the genre’s lowly standing in the eyes of many serious cineastes so perplexing.

There certainly seems to be a strange kind of snobbery toward horror movies. At best, they are treated as disposable, childish, and often unworthy of serious consideration. At worst, they are treated as disgraceful, dangerous triggers for all the violent crimes of the world. And yet, if you look a little closer at some of the best the genre has to offer, you will find as much pathos, drama, humour, emotional resonance, and intellectual stimulation as can be found in any number of cinema’s more acclaimed pictures. You will also find the same level of accomplished performances, technical artistry, and engaging writing.

Of course, this is not to say that every horror movie can boast these attributes. Far from it. Unfortunately, around 70% of the horror movies released these days are total shit. But this is not a problem with the genre, just a problem with current trends, and the quick buck philosophy that permeates the industry. After all, it’s much safer to finance yet another dreadful, but sure-fire, Saw sequel than it is to channel that money into a new and untested idea. Hollywood is a pretty gutless provider of entertainment, and you often have to look beyond the US to find the best horror movies. Hollywood often looks beyond its borders too, ironically, churning out an endless parade of inferior remakes for the subtitle shy.

Tales of the macabre have formed the backbone of storytelling since man could communicate beyond grunts. People gather round campfires to tell each other ghost stories, testing their mettle against mankind’s inherent fear of the dark. We tell our children fairy tales and fables which are riddled with horrific imagery; the old woman in the candy house who eats children, the ogre living under the bridge, the wolf who dresses as Grandma so he can eat Red Riding Hood.

So, look fondly on the horror movie. Recognise the genre for what it is; a valuable, vicarious, vent for all our fears and darkness. It’s okay to look through your fingers, it’s okay to peer above the cushion, and it’s okay to look over your shoulder from time to time. That’s all part of the fun. I guarantee you that early man, thousands of years ago, was doing the same thing after a night round the fire. Okay, maybe without the cushions, but you get the idea.

Now that I’ve (hopefully) got you in the mood for a good horror movie, here’s a selection of some of my favourites from around the world. Horror movies are like comedies; what gets to some just won’t get to others, but give these a go. They all scared me, and I’ve seen so many that this doesn’t happen very often. Watch them with the lights out and a cushion to hand.

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The Evil Dead

US – 1981

A group of vacationers go to stay in a run-down cabin. In the cellar they find an old tape recording, the research of a professor who was investigating supposed demons in the woods surrounding the cabin. The demons are inadvertently awoken and begin to possess the group, one by one.

The movie that put the fun back into horror, and introduced the world to the one and only Bruce Campbell. Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead is one of those examples of micro-budget filmmaking at its best. Armed with only five friends, a barrel of fake blood, and a 16mm camera, Raimi somehow produced a surprisingly innovative masterpiece. Often overlooked in favour of Evil Dead II, which was essentially the same film with money thrown at it, the original is still, for me, the superior of the two. The difference is simple; both movies are tongue-in-cheek affairs, but whereas Evil Dead II is a little too heavy on the slapstick, The Evil Dead is just plain scary. Sure, it’s over the top, ridiculously gory, and with appalling acting throughout, but it’s just so much damn fun, you can’t help but be pulled along for the ride.

Watch out for: The ever changing haircuts.

May make you afraid of: Cellars.

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The Eye (Gin Gwai)

Hong Kong – 2002

Young violinist Wong Kar Mun has been blind since birth and is admitted for a cornea transplant. Following the procedure, she begins to experience bizarre visions and sees ghosts wherever she goes, some friendly and some otherwise. Together with her doctor, she determines to find out the identity of her eye donor.

Written and directed by two brothers, Danny and Oxide Pang, The Eye starts off as an effectively spooky ghost story, but deepens into something more heartbreaking as the mystery behind Wong Kar Mun’s new eyes is uncovered. The ghostly encounters make the hair stand up on the back of the neck, particularly a great scene in an elevator, and you’ll never look at the hanging food in Chinatown the same way again.  The film does suffer from a pretty cheesy soundtrack, but that’s really just a minor gripe. Angelica Lee is entirely sympathetic as the protagonist, finally finding her sight only to wish she were blind again, and just when you think the story is resolved, The Eye throws in a surprise ending.

Remade in the US as The Eye.

Watch out for: The reflection in the train window.

May make you afraid of: Elevators.

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Let the Right One In (Låt den Rätte Komma In)

Sweden – 2008

12-year-old Oskar lives with his mother in a run down estate in Stockholm. He’s a lonely figure, bullied at school and harbouring violent dreams of revenge. When a 12-year-old girl called Eli moves in next door, living with an ageing man, Oskar strikes up a tentative friendship with her. At the same time, a series of grisly murders begin befalling the residents of the estate. As Oskar’s feelings for Eli deepen, he learns the truth about who she really is and is faced with the question of how much you can forgive for love.

Let The Right One In, adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel and directed by Tomas Alfredson, eschews the recent trend for making vampires glamorous, placing the story in a setting that is cold, bleak and grey. Snowbound Stockholm is not glamorous and Eli is far from cool. Instead she is a lonely, sometimes heartbreaking figure. She’s not evil or good. She just is what she is; as trapped in herself as we all are. So, too, is Oskar. But together they form the dark, beating heart of this movie. Alfredson lets the story move along at a relaxed pace, but there are startling moments of violence, all the more effective for punctuating such a subtle mood. However, building throughout the picture is as touching a romance as you’re likely to see, blossoming and captivating in such dark surroundings.

Remade in the US as Let Me In.

Watch out for: Eli’s other face.

May make you afraid of: 12-year-olds.

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The Mist

US – 2007

A group of people become trapped in a supermarket when a strange mist descends on their small town. As it becomes clear that there are bizarre and deadly creatures lurking within the mist, the group slowly fragment into different ideological factions, and begin to turn on each other. Meanwhile, the monsters are trying to get in.

Frank Darabont’s third Stephen King adaptation (after The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile) is also his least known. The film performed poorly in the cinemas, which is a terrible shame because this is one of the most intelligent horror movies to be released in recent years. As the besieged group of characters begin to cave in to their fear, it becomes clear that the threat from inside the supermarket is just as great as the threat from outside. Both are given equal attention, so in addition to the timely depiction of human stupidity in the face of an unknown enemy, there are also a handful of very effective scenes involving the nightmarish creatures outside. The best of these scenes features a handful of survivors venturing out into the mist to retrieve medicines from the Pharmacy next door, only to find something gruesome waiting for them.

Then, on top of all this, there is that ending. Darabont accepted a significant reduction in budget to keep the ending he had written, and boy does it pay off. I’m a firm believer that horror movies should not have upbeat endings, but The Mist left even my jaw on the floor. Brilliant.

Watch out for: The homage to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series.

May make you afraid of: Spiders.

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Rec

Spain – 2007

Spanish late night TV presenter, Angela Vidal, and her cameraman, Pablo, are recording an episode of their show, While You Sleep, following a group of Barcelona firemen through a typical night’s work. When they are called out to an apartment building to rescue a trapped woman, Angela and Pablo go with them, camera running. On arrival, however, it becomes clear that something is infecting the tenants, turning them into crazed zombies. Finding themselves locked inside by the authorities outside, the group must try to survive as, one by one, they succumb to the disease.

This little gem from Spain was not the first horror movie to adopt the faux documentary style, but no other movie has utilised the format to such exhilarating, gut wrenching, and plain terrifying effect. From the second the hapless crew step into the apartment building, the pace hardly lets up. That it remains so believable is thanks largely to performances which are totally convincing, and a series of inspired little camera tricks and clever editing. There are some genuinely chilling moments, and shocks that you just do not see coming. And then, as the two remaining survivors reach the room at the top of the building, Rec changes gears completely, and delivers a closing scene that stays in your mind for days.

Remade in the US as Quarantine.

Watch out for: Falling Firemen.

May make you afraid of: Old ladies.

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Ring (Ringu)

Japan – 1998

Journalist Reiko Asakawa’s niece dies of a heart attack, one week after viewing a mysterious video tape with her friends. On discovering that the friends all died at exactly the same time, Reiko views the tape herself and is warned, by way of a phone call, that she now has only one week to live. After catching her son watching the tape, Reiko and her ex-husband, Ryuji, race against the clock to discover the secret behind the cursed video.

A hugely influential movie, which spawned many imitators, Ring is heavy on atmosphere from the outset. The grainy look of the movie lends it an unsettling mood, and its languid pacing gives it an almost dreamlike quality. Rather than subject the viewer to a series of shocks (although there are one or two) Ring slowly builds itself up to a single, extremely scary, moment. The cursed video itself is remarkably disturbing, especially in hindsight, and the DVD offers you the chance to watch it independently of the movie. You may not want to, however. Ring is that effective.

Ring spawned a series of sequels, of varying quality. Ring 2 was much less effective as a horror movie, but Ring 0 is much more interesting as a heartbreaking thriller in the mould of Carrie.

Remade in the US as The Ring.

Watch out for: Sadako!

May make you afraid of: The television.

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The Woman in Black

UK – 1989

A young solicitor, Arthur Kidd, is sent to the English coastal town of Crythin Gifford, to settle the estate of a recently deceased widow, Alice Drablow. Arthur discovers that Drablow was a recluse, living alone in the remote Eel Marsh House, and the locals are reluctant to discuss both her and the mysterious woman in black who appears in the town from time to time. Arthur decides to go alone to the house, in an attempt to unravel the truth behind the town’s fear. However, he has already attracted the attention of something malevolent and vengeful.

This little known, English television production is based on the Susan Hill novel of the same name, and is without a doubt one of the scariest things I have ever seen. I’ve always found ghost stories far more chilling than anything else, and The Woman in Black is the perfect ghost story. The atmosphere is potent from the outset, and the director uses everything available to generate this atmosphere, particularly the use of sound. The ghost herself is seen only a few times, and yet she is a constant presence, especially on the first viewing, as you sit wondering when she will appear next. When she does appear, particularly in a scene toward the end (which made my blood run cold), she is terrifying. If you enjoy an old fashioned, chilling ghost story, you won’t find anything better than this on film.

Unfortunately, The Woman in Black is a little hard to come by these days. No longer on release on DVD, the rights were bought up by Universal, who inexplicably announced that they have no plans to release it. Also, Hammer is planning a new version for release in 2012. In 3D, for fuck’s sake. I would urge you to seek out the original by any means necessary. You won’t regret it.

Watch out for: The stage version. Also worth a visit.

May make you afraid of: Your bed.

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Zombie Flesh Eaters (Gli Ultimi Zombie/Zombi 2)

Italy – 1979

A boat sails into New York harbour, apparently adrift. When the harbour patrol guards board and are attacked by a zombie, the daughter of the boat’s owner returns to the tropical island it came from to find her father. Joined by a reporter, and two others, she discovers the island is being overrun with zombies, and a reclusive doctor is desperately trying to find a cure to the disease.

This is definitely not a movie for the weak of stomach, and as with most of director Lucio Fulci’s work, hardly a subtle addition to the genre. Zombie Flesh Eaters is gruesome, gory and violent. Banned for a long time in the UK, then released with cuts, it wasn’t until 2005 that the full version became available. Fulci’s movies certainly aren’t to everyone’s taste, but beyond the buckets of fake blood and eye gouging, there is a fantastic atmosphere to his movies. Along with City of the Living Dead and The Beyond, Zombie Flesh Eaters manages to create an almost apocalyptic tone. You get the sense throughout that the world around the events onscreen is changing. The wind blows differently, the life goes out of the world, and the air feels heavy. It is quite an achievement. Plus, unlike the bulk of American zombie movies, Fulci’s zombies actually look like the walking dead. They are dirty, decomposed and revolting, and that’s pretty much what a walking corpse should be, wouldn’t you say? Just don’t watch it after dinner. Or before, come to think of it.

Watch out for: Zombie v shark!

May make you afraid of: Tropical islands.