Even Better Than the Real Fin

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A celebration of shark horrors.

In the last seven years, Burbank-based production company the Asylum has introduced and developed the fantastical shark horror sub-genre.

Others have tried – Avalanche Sharks, DinoShark, Corman’s, Sharktopus but the Asylum remain the gold standard for shark-related horror fare.

So let’s take a look at their output, starting with:

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2009 Mega Shark versus Giant Octopus

 

The genre-defining original – who can forget the moment when ‘Megs’ leaps from the water and bites a passing aeroplane?

Boss Monster!

Our piscine hero is based on a real prehistoric ancestor of the Great White Shark, Carcharadon Megalodon. They may have taken some liberties with size – the Megalodon is estimate to have reached sixty feet in length compared to the considerably-larger size of the Mega Shark – but we can forgive them that.

Megs and his eight-tentacled sparring partner are freed from a glacial hibernation of millions of years by a combination of startled whales and a helicopter crash.

As you do.

After that it is for bizarrely-cast 80s pop tart Debbie Gibson, and her Japanese counterpart, Vic Chao, to deal with this pair of aquatic pugilists, as they proceed to run riot across the world’s oceans.

Gibson and Chao try some clever sciencey stuff with chemicals but that all goes tits up so they elect to get the pair in a fight instead.

And that works fine, with both monsters dying in the ensuing scrap……

 

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2010 Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus

…..except they don’t – surprise! – Megs survives for the 2010 sequel, and therefore needs a new adversary.

Step forward Crocosaurus, another ‘big lad in a number nine shirt’, specifically a 150-foot crocodile.

Gibson and Chao are gone – although Gibson is referenced in the name of the US Warship destroyed by Megs in his first appearance in the film – and are replaced by former boxer Gary Stretch, Jaleel White, Sarah Lieving, and Star Trek ‘Voyager’s Robert Picardo.

The US Navy gets involved where it shouldn’t, stealing Crocs’s eggs and that just leads to the two monsters having a dust-up the causes a tsunami in the Panama Canal.

Then we learn that Crocs has been playing the long game and left a load of eggs to hatch all along the Eastern seaboard. The hatchlings initially wreak havoc on the east coast of America before heading off to Hawaii – because the surf’s good, right? – to join their Mum in an epic confrontation with Megs.

The humans try all kinds of sciencey stuff again – you’d have thought they’d have learned that doesn’t work from last time – but the monsters are only finally finished off when an exploding volcano detonates a nuclear reactor which Megs had unwisely swallowed earlier.

So that was lucky.

 

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2012 2-Headed Shark Attack

 

Combining the acting talent of Carmen Electra and Brooke Hogan, 2012 gave us a new shark nemesis with twice the heads.

The film pits this new sea fiend against a Sea King – a research boat operating with a group of students.

Featuring a succession of twenty-one different victims and a tsunami – Asylum like its tsunami’s – 2-Headed Shark concludes with the titular shark unwisely deciding to munch on a motor leading to a spectacular death reminiscent of the end of Jaws.

 

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2013 Sharknado

 

The game-changing opus that started a horror dynasty.

Pitting hilariously-named hero Fin (do you see what they did there?), ex-wife April, and friends, against a shark-infested tornado, Sharknado was one of the surprise hits of the year.

It culminates in Fin destroying the sharknado with a bomb attached to his car and then cutting his way entirely through a falling shark with a chainsaw.

Epic.

Following its success, a representative of the US National Weather Service jokingly recommended what to do in case of a sharknado, saying: “As with any waterspout or tornado, the best advice is to be in an interior part of the lowest floor of a sturdy building – and not outside, whether sharks are raining down or not.”

 

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2014 Sharknado 2: The Second One

 

The sequel sees Fin and April promoting the book they wrote about the first sharknado…..only to run into a second sharknado whilst airborne over New York.

The action continues in the Big Apple with the sharknado blowing over a ball game, flooding the subway system before consolidating in an epic finale over the Empire State Building, in which Fin finally conquers the super-sharknado by freezing it with a huge tank of Freon.

Oh and he rides a Great White Shark down from the storm using chains and impales it on the Empire State Building’s antenna.

Natch.

 

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2014 Mega Shark Versus Mecha-Shark

 

Not content with the sequel to Sharknado, Asylum went back to their original icon and gave us the third instalment of the Mega Shark series, this time presenting him with a mechanical adversary.

Different shark but let’s still call him Megs.

He’s released from an iceberg off the coast of Egypt and starts off by decapitating the Sphinx. From there, its maritime chaos as usual and with the world’s ports on lockdown and the global economy teetering on the brink, rumours start to circulate about a United Nations weapon designed to defend against the threat.

It’s a shark-shaped submarine because, well, why not?

Piloting it are newcomers Christopher Judge and Elisabeth Rohm, joined by a returning Debbie Gibson.

After an initial skirmish, Megs evades the sub and attacks a massive oil platform off the Australian coast, causing an environmental disaster. Cue: Mecha Shark to the rescue; Megs is having none of it though and fin-slaps its mechanical rival from one side of the ocean to the other, damaging it to the extent that it ends up going on a rampage through the streets of Sydney.

Australia does pretty badly out of this one.

Mecha Shark ends up blasted back into the water by some fighter jets, where a final battle with Megs is resolved by a dislodged torpedo blowing up the pair of them.

 

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2015 Mega Shark Versus Kolossus

 

Introducing Megs Version Three, and moving almost into Godzilla territory, this fourth instalment pits our finned hero against a giant Soviet robot, designed as a doomsday device during the Cold War.

 

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2015 Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!

 

The budget and the scale went up on this one and with the franchise’s star firmly on the rise we saw cameo’s from David Hasselhoff, Bo Derek, and Frankie Muniz.

We start in Washington DC, where our perennial hero, Fin, is to receive the medal of honour, when……wouldn’t you know it, a sharknado strikes the White House, only to be fought back by Fin and the POTUS.

Next stop is Florida and en route Fin encounters Nova, his employee from the first film, now transformed into a seasoned Sharknado fighter. There are sharknado’s forming all over the country this time around, so he needs all the help he can get.

We have cool sequences involving the Daytona 500 and Universal Orlando Resort, before things go out-of-this world.

Literally.

Realising that all the various Sharknado’s are going to combine into one super-storm that will destroy the East Coast (the ‘Feast Coast’!), Fin hatches a daring plot to destroy it from space, with the help of his estranged father, a NASA colonel play by the Hoff.

The initial plan to use the Space Shuttle’s External Tank as an explosive fails, forcing Fin to resort to Plan B – a satellite laser weapon.

The Sharknado is destroyed but its shark constituents are thrown into space in the process – luckily, Fin is equipped with an energy-beam chainsaw to fight them off.

He likes his chainsaws does Fin.

 

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2015 3-Headed Shark Attack

 

If two heads are better than one, logically three heads must be better than two, and later in 2015, Asylum made it so.

This time there’s an ecological aspect, as a mutated 3-Headed Great White Shark emerges from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and heads for an island research station.

Set against it are the epic pairing of cult Mexican actor Danny Trejo and American wrestling superstar Rob Van Dam.

Even for a 3-Headed mutant shark, this is stiff opposition.

Nonetheless, the plucky fish gives food account of itself, munching its way through almost seventy victims in total before it is finally slain.

 

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2016 Sharknado: The 4th Awakens

 

Almost certainly the best film ever made.

Five years after the previous film, tech mogul Aston Reynolds has developed a technology that is capable of using radio waves to defuse tornadoes, meaning no more sharknado’s.

He’s also built a shark-themed hotel in Las Vegas with a giant tank of sharks at the centre.

I mean, what could go wrong with that?

Yeah, that.

There is some plot but no reason to bother with that.

When the inevitable sharknado forms, the stakes are ratcheted up and up and up as various new elements are added to the storm.

Firstly the Grand Canyon contributes stones for form a bouldernado.

Next an oilnado which ignites and becomes a firenado

Then a hailnado

And a lavanado

And a cownado (really not sure about that one)

And a lightningnado.

And finally a nukenado, full of radioactive sharks.

So things are pretty serious by then.

Luckily, we have a trio of Fin (now in a cybernetic exoskeleton), Reynolds, and April (now a super-powered cyborg) to counter the nukenado at Niagara Falls in an epic finale.

But it’s not over, as evidenced by the Eiffel Tower falling from the sky, right at the end.

Roll on Sharknado 5…..

 

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The Wizard of Oz

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In praise of Mick Taylor.

It’s not an easy thing to create a horror icon.

Leatherface; Freddy; Jason; Pinhead; Michael Myers; Ghostface; Sadako….

Many films have aspired to add their villain to those illustrious ranks, but rarely have they succeeded.

But in 2005 Australian writer-director Greg McLean offered us just such a candidate, in the Outback horror, Wolf Creek (followed by a sequel in 2013).

Step forward Mick Taylor.

Both films were marketed as being, ‘based on true events’ which was somewhat spurious in that they were only very vaguely inspired by the, ‘backpacker murders’ of the 1990s, along with the abduction of British tourist Peter Falconio and the assault of his girlfriend Joanne Lees in 2001.

The first film throws two British tourists, Liz and Kristy, along with their Australian friend Ben, into the path of Mick Taylor, a rough Outbacker who initially appears to be their saviour when their vehicle breaks down and he offers to help them.

But his depraved nature quickly emerges and the trio awake from a drug-induced sleep to a nightmare of Taylor’s creation.

Liz is tortured and then paralysed; Kirsty is sexually assaulted and then murdered; Ben eventually escapes but only at the cost of terrible injuries and psychological damage.

The second film delivers a similar fate to German tourists Rutger and Katarina, and British tourist Paul.

Here are my thoughts then as to why Mick Taylor qualifies as a truly great horror villain:

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He is truly a serial killer

The first film gave strong hints as to how many victims Taylor may have had but the second makes it explicit; as Paul flees through Taylor’s underground dungeon complex, he comes across the bodies of numerous corpses and one emaciated woman, begging for her freedom.

Cleary Taylor has been plying his deadly trade for years, on countless innocents.

 

He doesn’t look like a monster

Pinhead, Leatherface, Sadako…..all look like monsters, they’re immediately recognisable as such. Part of what makes Mick Taylor so chillingly effective is that he looks….completely normal. He is as much a monster as any but that is concealed behind a mask of utter ordinariness.

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He has no code

Many horror villains have codes (especially Clive Barker’s), they have rules and boundaries which shape their behaviour.

Not Mick Taylor.

And this is chillingly illustrated in Wolf Creek 2, wherein he makes a game of sorts with captured tourist Ben. He proposes to ask Ben ten questions about Australian history and if Ben does well enough, he’ll let him go. What Taylor doesn’t know is that Ben is a history major, and when he continues to answer the questions correctly, an annoyed Taylor goes back on his word and cuts off two of his fingers anyway.

Later in the film, Taylor seems to attempt to define his credo, saying to Paul that, ‘It’s up to my kind to wipe your kind out’. But he’s shown earlier that he’s equally as happy killing Australian policemen as he is killing foreign tourists.

There really are no rules nor reasons for him.

 

He is relentless

Taylor is like a force of nature – in the pursuit of his victims, he will kill random passers by, slaughter law enforcement agents, steal and crash trucks and more.

It is his implacable nature that makes him such a blood-chilling adversary.

And both films stress his unstoppableness by ending with Taylor calmly walking away, rifle, in hand, prepared to carry on his reign of carnage.

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He is master of his domain

Freddy has his dream realm, Pinhead the Labyrinth, Sadako her well – all have their lairs.

Mick Taylor has the unforgiving and vast expanse of the Western Australian out-back, and he rules over it like a lord.

 

He is a sadist

Slasher icons like Jason and Ghostface want to kill you, sure, but that’s not nearly enough for Mick Taylor.

He wants you to suffer, preferably for a long time.

And actually, he may not kill you at all if he thinks your suffering will be greater alive – hence him allowing Paul to escape at the end of the second film, albeit totally mentally broken.

Like some depraved predator hunting his prey, it is the chase and the terror that creates that is as important to Taylor as the eventual capture or killing of his victims.

And his most chilling sadistic moment? Probably the ‘head on a stick’ moment in the first film, where he cuts through Liz’s spine with a knife, paralysing her, and meaning that she will be helpless but conscious for the atrocities that follow.

 

It is a testament to writer / director McLean and actor John Jarratt – who apparently went to extremes in preparation for the role, spending significant time alone in the isolated outback and going for weeks without showering – that they have managed to create such a memorable and original horror icon.

Finally, it has been announced that there will be a six-part television series of Wolf Creek, set to screen later this month (August 2016).

Mick Taylor’s reign of terror is not yet over, it seems.

 

 

 

 

 

No Laughing Matter

Does combining horror and comedy ever work?

No, it doesn’t.

So there you go, I’ll give you my conclusion right from the off, rather than make you wait for it, so if you want, you can storm off, going, ‘What about Ghostbusters? What about An American Werewolf in London?’ (I’ll address those two, specifically, and others, later on).

Horror doesn’t combine well with comedy; there, I’ve said it.

I would caveat that by saying a horror comedy can be a great film….but the introduction of a comedy element will inevitably be to the detriment of the horror element.

Films are like emotional drugs; we watch to experience one or more emotions, artificially stimulated by the narrative. And this is the problem with horror and humour – they are essentially opposite emotions.

Horror derives from alarm; comedy derives from re-assurance

Horror works by creating tension and suspense; comedy works by releasing tension and suspension.

So you cannot illicit one without diminishing the other.

Still don’t agree? Let’s look at some examples.

Since the whole cross-genre thing in films really kicked in in the Eighties, I thought I’d look at some of the most popular horror comedies of the last forty years – with my respective horror / comedy rankings allocated to each- starting with:

 

The Evil Dead (1981)

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Horror 9 / Comedy 3

Let’s start with one of the greats.

The fact that the title page image for this blog comes from the sequel should indicate how fond I am of Ash and his adventures. So much to praise about the Evil Dead, not least of which Sam Raimi’s ingenuity in getting it made. Starting with a micro-budget of $1,600, Raimi made a short version, ‘Within the Woods’ in 1978, and that eventually led to the funding of, ‘The Evil Dead’ , three years later.

And it’s bloody brilliant.

So good that no one would ever try to re-make it. No they wouldn’t.

From the enduring image of the demon-possessed cellar zombie chanting, ‘dead by dawn’, to the iconic low-to-ground racing-through-the-woods shots, the Evil Dead is a marvellously atmospheric, original, and innovative horror film.

But is actually all that funny?

The comic moment most people probably remember is Ash containing his rebellious severed hand under a bucket and weighing it down with a copy of, ‘A Farewell to Arms.’

But aside from that, when you stop to think about it, there are not that many genuine laughs.

 

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

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Horror 7 / Comedy 3

Cracking film, not least of which for a werewolf transformation scene which still rates as one of the best ever (along with the subsequent, ‘Howling’).

The humour comes in three main forms:

Firstly, the ironic use of music- there are three versions of, ‘Blue Moon’, along with versions of, ‘Bad Moon Rising’, and, ‘Moondance.’

Secondly, there are a number of cameo’s, from Landis himself to Frank Oz and even a young Rik Mayall.

Lastly, there is a delicious thread of dark, gallows humour that runs through the movie, such as the deceased Goodman imploring his friend Kessler to commit suicide so that his spirit may rest.

Of all the variants of comedy, black humour like this clearly sits easiest with horror.

 

Ghostbusters (1984)

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Horror 1 / Comedy 8

That rare beast, a mainstream film that enjoys a cult status as well.

Just thinking about it, you’re now humming, ‘I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghost,’ right?

And you don’t have to tell me how funny it is – in my social group even now, the line, ‘dogs and cats living together…’ is used to indicate something undesirable and catastrophic.

But it’s not a horror film is it? Which bits are genuinely scary? Some of the CGI ghosts are admittedly well-rendered and quite ominous….but the potential fear value of these spectres is immediately nullified by the over-the-top reactions of the Ghostbusters.

Ghostbusters is a great comedy film, but that’s all it is.

 

Fright Night (1985)

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Horror 7 / Comedy 1

‘Welcome to Fright Night…..for real.’

I had to start with Jerry Dandridge’s chilling taunt, I hope you understand.

First off, it’s worth saying that Fright Night is under-estimated as a horror film. It’s vision of vampires was unique and new, and has continued to influence subsequent films (such as Robert Rodriguez’s, ‘From Dusk Til Dawn.’)

Previously, vampires had usually been suave, sexy, seductive immortals (aside from the Nosferatu variants, like the Master in ‘Salem’s Lot.’). And indeed, Fright Night’s Jerry Dandridge starts out exactly like that.

Except before long, we get to see that Dandridge – like his offspring – are proper monsters.

When they transform, they do not reveal a set of enlarged incisors – their mouths break open into horrendous shark’s maws of jagged teeth.

This was a genuinely scary film in places, and the ending- wherein unlikely heroes Brewster and Vincent hunt down villain Dandridge inside his own house – is tense and effective.

But the comedy element is very limited, deriving almost entirely from Roddy McDowell’s comedy-cowardly portrayal of media vampire hunter Peter Vincent.

It’s not so much funny as…..mildly amusing.

 

Brain Dead (1992)

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Horror 8 / Comedy 2

Years before he made the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson was making brilliant gross-out gore films in his native New Zealand and none are better than Brain Dead.

An entirely ludicrous – and brilliantly entertaining – ‘plot’ that involves a rat-monkey infecting a small coastal town with a virus that makes them zombies, is mainly just a back-drop for a number of splendid blood and guts set pieces that culminates in our hero, Lionel, despatching a mob of zombies using a lawn mower.

There are laughs here, for sure, but they are more surreal than standardly funny. The two lines that stayed with me are:

  • Father Jon McGruder (the inexplicably Kung Fu skilled Priest) declaring, ‘I kick ass for the Lord!’ before launching himself at a horde of zombies, and
  • Heroine Paquita plaintively complaining to Lionel that, ‘Your mother….ate my dog,’ to which he replies, ‘Not all of it…’

Splendidly surreal, messily entertaining, and completely unlike anything else ever made.

 

Scream (1996)

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Horror 7 / Comedy 2

Never really understood why this is considered a horror comedy.

The humour – such as there is – derives entirely from constant references to the Slasher sub-genre. Indeed, the film manages to simultaneously be a kind of love letter to Slasher horrors whilst being a pretty decent Slasher horror itself, not that one would expect anything less from a director with Wes Craven’s CV.

He also managed to create an entirely new and distinct Slasher villain in Ghostface.

The knowing in-jokes and genre observations certainly illicit smirks but it’s not what I would call actual comedy.

 

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

 

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Horror 1 / Comedy 9

I love Simon Pegg and Simon Pegg loves zombie films and it shows.

He and long-term collaborator Edgar Wright are big fans of George Romero’s films and even managed to land cameos in, ‘Land of the Dead.’

It’s all classic Pegg / Wright stuff, fast-paced and slacker-centric, with the usual references to other movies, television series and video games.

And it’s extremely funny, but that’s just the point – this is a comedy film that uses a horror setting – it’s never scary and it’s not a horror film.

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2011)

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Horror 7 / Comedy 1

Joss Whedon  – who produced this film – described it as a ‘loving hate letter’ to the Slasher sub-genre and it is that and more.

It really is an extraordinary movie.

It manages to examine and dissect the elements of several different horror genres, while still being itself an exceptional and original horror film.

But as with Scream, the humour is subtle and sly, mostly arising from the recognition of the memes and conventions that are being illustrated then subverted throughout.

 

So in summary, we have no equal ratings in the above. You have to do one or the other to do either justice.

Horror and comedy just don’t play well together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Hellbound Heart or Why I Love Hellraiser

I didn’t see Hellraiser when it first came out in 1987; I remember it being on my radar, of course; the (eventually) iconic Pinhead staring out from the VHS cover but there was nothing about it that really appealed to me. At the time, the horror genre was dominated by slashers (the Halloweens; the Friday 13ths etc) and the monster-supernaturals (Day of the Dead; Evil Dead; American Werewolf; Nightmare on Elm Street etc).

Hellraiser wasn’t either of those but when I did eventually catch up with it in the early Nineties, it instantly became my favourite horror film, and to this day, possibly my favourite film. It also established Hellraiser’s creator, Clive Barker, as one of my favourite writers (his Books of Blood series are really unlike anything else written in the horror genre).

Hellraiser had an advertised budget of a million dollars (though it’s an open secret within the industry that budgets are routinely lied-up and lied-down). The inside gossip though is that the original budget was much lower and Barker tactically chose to blow a huge amount of it immediately when shooting started, on the Cenobites and their dark dimension (as created by effects designer Bob Keen). When the dailies went across to New World Pictures in the States they immediately saw the potential and agreed to expand the budget.

Even so, the budget was severely limited for a story that was so ambitious in scope, and the limitations show through in places (for example the sketchyanimation of the skeletal dragon at the end that hardcore fans will know to have been the fifth Cenobite, the Engineer.)

We have such sights to show you!

There’s no denying that a lot of the power of the film comes from the visuals. The production design of their home dimension – explored more extensively in the sequel – is a master-class in creating powerful imagery on a low budget – creaking rotating columns, decorated with strips of skin, blood spattered everywhere, body parts scattered on the floor, ominous chains hanging in the blue-black gloom. But it is the Cenobites who are the real visual hook of the film. A mixture of punks, fetishists (the film’s working title was, ‘ Sadomasochists From Beyond The Grave’), bikers and torture victims, each is depicted with injuries that would cause extreme pain if they were alive.

But of course they’re not.

Interestingly, none of the names by which they have become known – Pinhead,Butterball, Chatterer, and the less imaginatively-named Female Cenobite – derive from the source material; all are the creations of fans , subsequent to the release of the film.

The iconic Pinhead is played by Barker’s childhood friend and long-time collaborator, Doug Bradley, and it is his mesmeric performance and curiously-idiosyncratic voice characterisation that gives the character the eerie gravitas he needs. The origins of the character were laid in an improvised performance of a South American despot that Bradley created while he and Barker were in a travelling theatre company in the early Eighties.

But the real genius of the Cenobites is not in their appearance or their performance, it is in their concept. Like all Barker’s ‘monsters’ (Candyman, even Rawhead Rex), the Cenobites are creatures with a rationale, a raison d’etre, a perspective. They are not evil for evil’s sake, they are, as Pinhead says, ‘explorers in the further regions of experience -demons to some; angels to others’. They offer enlightenment through agony and crucially only to those who seek them out (in the sequel, when a mute girl is tricked into summoning them, Pinhead leaves her alone because she didn’t want them to come).

And a consideration of what sort of person would want to contact the Cenobites leads us to consider the rest of the cast……

No tears, please. It’s a waste of good suffering 

Much of the power of a horror film is in how strong the human characters are. How much do you care if Janey the Cheerleader gets chopped up by Lenny the Lunatic if she seems vacuous, one-dimensional and uninteresting? And Barker presents us with a deliciously rich supporting cast here: Kirsty Cotton, our heroine, is for me one of cinema’s great, and under-rated, female leads. She is by turns feisty, moody, sexually-assertive, resourceful, loyal, spirited, and brave. When first confronted by the Cenobites (having accidentally summoned them in hospital), despite being terrified, and traumatised by the experience of having her fleshless Uncle Frank make a pass at her, she has the wit not only to work out that they have a connection to her uncle but also to bargain with them for her own release. A true survivor!

Then we have the duo of villains – for me, it is Frank and Julia who occupy this position, rather than the Cenobites. Frank Cotton, experience-junkie, a man for whom no experience, neither of the flesh nor the mind, can ever be enough. His insatiable desire for sensation leads him to the Cenobites, but his subsequent actions prove him to be far more of a monster than they. Deprived of the majority of his flesh (which has presumably been flayed off him by the Cenobites) he has no qualms about recruiting his brother’s wife, Julia, to murder a series of men to provide him with the materials to remake his body. And ultimately even his own brother makes an acceptable sacrifice to his needs. He’s not bothered much when he accidentally kills Julia either. And Julia herself makes for a refreshing villain, particularly in her motivation: lust. She has nothing to gain from betraying her husband and murdering innocent men, other than Frank himself. And her sheer desire for him blinds her to what a monster he is. Lust is a really unusual motivation, especially for a female antagonist and kudos go to Barker for deploying it.

We’ll tear your soul apart!

The finale of the film sees Kirsty’s Faustian pact with the Cenobites starting to fall apart: Frank is returned to Hell – ‘Jesus wept’ he says, partly smiling, as chains rend him apart – and Hell starts to leak into the real world. Again showing her resourcefulness, Kirsty works out that the Lament Configuration (the iconic box that both starts and finishes the film) is a device capable of dismissing, as well as summoning, the Cenobites. But Barker offers us no happy ending: Kirsty survives (though with what memories!) but her father is still dead. And when she seeks to destroy the box, it is reclaimed from the fire by a tramp-like figure who transforms into a skeletal dragon and flies off. Clearly the Cenobites will continue to perform their dark work!

Your suffering will be legendary, even in Hell

It is perhaps disappointing that none of the material that followed Hell-Raiser quite lived up to the initial film’s potential (though I was quite fond of HellBoundand some of the stories in the comic series). But for me, the original remains aclassic, one of the best horror films ever made. Barker is currently involved in a re-working, so we will shortly see if he can improve on his own masterpiece: personally I doubt he can.

At the time of Hellraiser’s release, Stephen King hailed Barker, saying ‘I have seen the future of horror and his name is Clive Barker’.

For me, he still is.

 

Article originally published at https://www.tumblr.com/blog/earthworksmovie

How I Made A Horror

Or how I produced an award-winning sixty-eight minute horror film on a budget of three hundred pounds in 1994.

Firstly, the above is mostly lies.

*          I didn’t produce it, well not all by myself; I did it with a cast and crew of around forty who worked tirelessly, at weekends and in the evenings, for around five months, all for no money.  Credit goes to them, both technically and morally.

*          Foremost amongst them was my co-producer, Chris Denton, who also covered the functions of cinematographer, camera-man, lighting, sound recordist, oh, and editor. He was quite busy.

*          The budget was, technically, three hundred pounds, but that obscures the fact that Chris, as part of his job as a videographer, had secured private access to a couple of hundred thousand pounds of filming and editing equipment. Had we had to hire all that, the budget would have been a wee bit higher.

*          It was award-winning  – the film won the International Award at 1995’s BIAFF (IAC) Awards:

http://www.theiac.org.uk/iac/video_library/BIAFF-1995-awards2.html

But, to be honest, and grateful as we were, there are so many different film awards in the world that almost everyone has won an award of some sort or other.

It did happen in 1994, though.

The genesis of the film that would become, ‘Blood Hunt’ was conceived during a very drunken Christmas Day meal in 1993. Spurred on by ignorant idealism, and intrigued by the prospect of a project that could involve all the various creatives I knew – actors, musicians, live-action role-players, writers, and photographers – I proposed we make a horror film. Two friends – both actors – said they would be director and cast respectively.

I’d been writing in one form or another all my life, but had no idea about writing screenplays. Seriously. Worse than nothing, because I didn’t even know what I didn’t know (and more on the consequences of that later).

Nonetheless, three weeks later I had produced a 17,000 word script.

At the time I wrote it, and subsequently, I had in mind that I wanted to make a B movie. This wasn’t a slur for me, it was a deliberate aim, based on having enjoyed many a decent B movie. I wanted a good solid, low-brow rollercoaster action-horror movie. The people around me, who would provide the cast and crew, were all into similar things and we were all young and full of beans, so it seemed a good match.

And actually having that conceptual definition proved a much wiser decision than I could have realised at the time. It allowed me to quickly pass on the vision, the vibe, the tone of the piece to others. So when the actors went away to work on the finished script; when the composer started working on the score; when Chris and I started scouting locations; we all knew the kind of thing we were looking to create.

So that’s something I got right, by pure fluke.

What I got wrong:

*          Pacing. Forget three-act structure, forget any-act structure, I knew nothing about any of it. As it happened, given my familiarity with horrors, I got the structure and pacing roughly right, partly from luck, and partly from the fact that I kept the pace break-neck throughout (because it was a B movie).

*          Formatting. Didn’t know anything about industry script formats – 12 point Courier; line indents and spacing etc – nor did I know that if you followed those formats you could pretty much guarantee that your finished film would be as many minutes long as your script was pages long. I wrote it in Garamond (my favourite type-face, but more concise than Courier) and when my finished 72 page script came out as a 68 minute film, it was a complete surprise.

*          Exposition. No one had ever taught me the old filmic axiom that you show don’t tell and so I wrote loads of dialogue wherein characters explained everything in excruciating detail. Oh dear.

*          Dialogue. Loads of it. I said that above, didn’t I? Tarantino and Shakespeare can make that cool, but not many others can.

*          Diversity. This one totally slipped by me until I started to listen to some feedback from viewers. I had made a film with my friends, who were all, predictably, a similar age to me and in doing so, I unconsciously created a world populated only by twenty-somethings. Now if you’re making a piece that is consciously concerned with a particular age group (e.g. Breakfast Club) fair enough, but our film was ostensibly set in the standard world and the absence of anyone outside their twenties was noticeable. I also under-wrote female parts (an easy mistake for a male writer): as my female lead pointed out to me, she was virtually the only speaking female part in the film and her role was mainly to be narky with the protagonist, get pregnant, and scream a lot. In fairness to myself, I took all this onboard and my second script featured a range of ages in characters and not only strong female characters, but a solid female protagonist.

*          Complexity. I didn’t want to do traditional vampires – where would the fun be in that? – so this is what I went for instead: my vampires  – the Drell Vorgora –  would not be supernatural entities but instead a different kind of human being, a splinter species to mankind that evolved alongside it. They would be physically stronger and faster than normal humans, more long-lived and evolved to subsist solely on blood. They would display powers that seemed supernatural – such as the ability to hunt an individual psychically, based on their psychic scent, or beat – and would be uncomfortable with daylight but not harmed by it. They would be subject to some of the common limitations of traditional vampires – inability to enter private residences without permission – but not others, such as daylight and crosses. Oh, and following persecution from mankind, starting with the Inquisition, they had retreated from civilisation and now lived in the South American Andes.

Got all that? Well quite. Massive complexity can work quite nicely in thrillers, but horror works best with fairly simple concepts, the stalker sub-genre displaying that most clearly. Actually, I think I brought off my odd  vampire-variants fairly well, but it was a lot to ask an audience to take in during sixty-eight minutes and probably not optimal.

*          Re-writes. I didn’t do any. Script-writing guru Robert McKee always says Thou Shalt Rewrite should be a cardinal commandment for screen-writers. Not for me though; we pretty much put my first draft up on screen. And the result? Based on a lot of feedback from a lot of people, it’s not too bad, but it is clunky in places and baggy in others.

So, script finished, I moved on to funding. We had the use of the filming equipment but I knew we’d need some cash, for props and for the specific visual effects make-up for the three vampires. None of us had any money ourselves, so I hit on the idea of going to a local cinema entrepreneur and saying, ‘We’re a small local group making a horror film – if you give us the budget, we’ll plaster your name over everything and mention you in all the press interviews.’

And he did (perhaps surprisingly, since we had zero track record). So that was our thumping budget of three hundred pounds secured.

Next, we needed to secure locations. In this we were aided by an intangible factor that I hadn’t really considered when we started out. We were based in Guernsey -it’s a little island in the English Channel between England and France, in case you didn’t know. So unlike a comparable group operating in, say, New York, or London, or Paris…..we were pretty much big news. Hey, there wasn’t a lot else going on!

What that meant is that we got interviews in the local papers and in local radio, and also that when we approached places for filming permission, they were more likely to say yes.

We were an exciting novelty, basically.

Now for the most part, our locations were quite mundane; flats – we all lived in flats, so that was easy; offices – most of us worked in offices, so that too was achievable; streets – we had easy access to streets, because it never even occurred to us that we should get filming permission before launching into chase scenes involving up to ten people….

But there were two locations that were potentially tricky.

One was a church and the other was the Peruvian Andes.

Yeah, the script started with a mountaineering scene in the Peruvian Andes. Chris always used to say I put things like that in my scripts just to stress him. I used to see it as wearing two different hats: so with my writer hat on, I would deliberately not think about what would be possible when I put my producer hat on: it would force us to come up with imaginative solutions.

And so it proved to be with the opening scenes of BloodHunt. What we did was to use the cliffs around Guernsey and shoot up at them, to make them look mountainous. When we added a night filter, music and sound effects, the illusion was so successful that we even had local people asking where we’d shot it!

The church was equally tricky for different reasons – firstly, we needed a disused church (we estimated about four solid days of filming), secondly, we didn’t have any money to offer, and thirdly, there were some elements of the script that were not exactly complimentary towards Christianity.

Nothing blasphemous, just the vampires saying that their kind had been persecuted by Christians but still,  I wasn’t sure how that would go down with Church authorities so when we did actually find a disused Methodist Church who were amenable to us using it, I sent off the script with a due sense of unease.

But they were fine with it, as it turns out and even gave us the keys to the church, so we could film when we wanted.

And so, after a couple of months of rehearsal and preparations, on the 1st May 1994 the embryonic film unit that was 3DF Films – named after the initials of the Director, Composer, and two Co-Producers – Duquemin; Davison; Denton; Feely – gathered for the first day of actual photography.

Part two of this article will deal with that shooting process, and also, the post-production phase.

L’Horreur

An examination and celebration of the French New Wave of Horror

In case it needs saying, horror films are not a uniquely English-language phenomenon (and for a historic perspective, Mark Gatiss’ excellent, Horror Europa series is a worthwhile watch).

At the moment, for me, the nations punching above their weight in terms of horror fare would include Britain (note, not just England; in recent years alone, we have seen Ireland’s excellent The Inside, Scotland’s Outcast, and Wales’ Splintered), Japan, and those inventors-of-cinema themselves, the French.

Since its inception in the early twenty-first century, the French New Wave(growing out of the broader French New Extremity movement) has provided some of the best, most imaginative and ground-breaking horror ever made. Whilst ostensibly paying tribute to existing horror sub-genres like slasher,revenge films, home invasion, and particularly body horror, and showing clear influences from classic directors like Cronenberg and Hooper, New Wave has gone wildly off in its own direction, and produced some extra-ordinarily original and challenging stories. It’s also provided some of the strongest female leads in recent cinema; and they need to be strong because boy, do they suffer!

Needless to say, in touring my personal favourites, spoilers will be included….

2003 gave us Haute Tension (High Tension for the US market, Switchblade Romance for the UK market), which tricks us into thinking we’re watching a classic slasher flick (albeit a very well-made one), but we’re not. Well we sort of are. I’ll explain: we begin by following female besties Alex and Marie on a journey into the idyllic rural French countryside to stay with the former’s parents.

It’s all very nice and pleasant – so that’s obviously not going to last – and indeed when a stranger comes knocking at the door in the middle of the night, we head into fairly classic home invasion / slasher territory, with the hidden-faced killer being exceptionally gory and violent in his murderin’.

Marie manages to hide initially but when Le Killer drags her friend Alex off to his van, she goes off in pursuit of them. We think we know what film we’re watching from there on in, as the violence and gore escalates, but we don’t, as is nicely revealed in the film’s denouement.

There is no killer: it’s been Marie all along; mad, bad, psychopathic, delusional Marie, and she did it all because she’s secretly infatuated with her friend, Alex.

The things young people do for love.

Haute Tension made Time Magazine‘s ten most ridiculously violent films list so that in itself is a commendation.

In 2006, the succinctly-named Ils (Them) was released. Mon Dieu, this is tense, tense tense!

A mother-and-daughter are murdered after their car breaks down in rural Romania: the perpetrators are unseen, but when we cut to Clementine and her boyfriend Lucas (recently emigrated from France) you can’t help feeling the two parties are going to get acquainted in the worst possible way…..

And so it goes: our young French couple are awoken from a cosy night in by the sounds of their car being broken into.

Then off we go into some highly-taut home-invasion, chase-through-the-woods and stumble-through-the-sewers stuff, pursued by an unknown pack of savage opponents.

What’s interesting here, though, is that the film chooses feral youths as its antagonists (in common with later British horrors, F and Eden Lake). These homicidal hoodies, it emerges, are motivated not by greed nor revenge, but by a kind of sociopathic boredom.

When both Clementine and Lucas have been brutally dispatched (you’d guessed that was going to happen, right?), we follow the residual group who emerge from the woodland and hop on the bus home.

When later interrogated regarding the murders, the youngest of the children (they were aged ten to fifteen, so we’re told) simply comments that they (Clementine and Lucas), ‘wouldn’t play with us.’

Kids today, huh?

A year later we got Frontieres (Frontiers), again, like Haute Tension, fromEuropaCorp (thanks, Jean-Luc Besson!)

Starting off with the election of a far-right politician to the French presidency (cleverly mirroring the nature of the film’s eventual antagonists), we follow a bunch of compadres – Alex, Tom, Farid, Sami, and the pregnant Yasmine – hoping to pull off a robbery under cover of the riots that have kicked off in protest against the new President.

Predictably, all does not go well.

When Sami gets shot, Alex and Yasmine take him to hospital while Tom and Farid head off with their ill-gotten gains to a family-run inn on the border, to wait for them.

Innkeepers Gilberte and Klaudia seem like friendly types, but when they declare that the room is free and even get a bit flirty with the two men, you just know things are going downhill.

It emerges that Gilberte and Klaudia are part of a large and distinctly homicidal extended family (we also meet Goetz, Hans, Karl, and patriarch Von Eisler)and as events turn spectacularly bloody, we might initially have thought these were French cousins of Leatherface and family (from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre).

But no, Von Eisler is a former, and practising, Nazi, and when Yasmine (and Alex) turn up, it looks like she will get the chance to join the French Family Fascist, as breeding stock, natch.

Lucky girl.

The guys get butchered in a variety of unpleasant ways (top marks probably going to Farid who ends up getting cooked alive in a boiler), leaving just Yasmine (with newly-recruited ally Eva, one of the children the family keep in the mine below the inn) to fight back.

And fight back she does, in epic fashion, using knives, axes, and even a table saw in her struggle for survival, before finally getting away and stumbling across a police blockade, the only survivor of the incident.

Did I mention this was one for the gore-lovers only?

And finally, I’ve saved the best for last – for me, the defining masterpiece of French New Wave is 2008’s Martyrs. Threads of the other films run through it, but it transcends them, becoming something truly unique: simply, there is no other film like Martyrs.

It’s powerfully shocking right from the start with a little girl, Lucie, escaping from a life of torture – there is no back-story to her situation and this approach of showing-without-explaining continues throughout the film. We have a few tasters of the next fifteen years of her life, as the deeply-damaged Lucie forms a deep friendship with another girl, Anna.

But director Pascal Laugier decides we’ve been having it way too easy and the next thing we get is Lucie and Anna breaking into a (seemingly) ordinary family’s home and massacring everyone.

Around now, we become aware that something is pursuing Lucie – a horribly-scarred female figure intent on brutalising her – and it catches up with her in the massacre-house; chasing, then attacking her.

Except there is no pursuer – we see from Anna’s point of view that Lucie is injuring herself and that the pursuer is a manifestation of the guilt she feels for leaving another girl behind, when she escaped from her torturers as a little girl.

When she realises this, and that there can never be any peace for her, Lucie slits her own throat and dies in Anna’s arms.

That’s about twenty minutes in, and what’s interesting is that that would usually have been the full film; nice little revenge tale (albeit we still don’t know revenge for what!), a twist in that the monster doesn’t really exist and a tragic end for one of our heroines.

Martyrs is barely getting started though, and is about to take us off in a whole new direction.

Cleaning up the house the day after Lucie’s death, Anna uncovers a secret basement complex and a hideously-scarred, disfigured woman imprisoned there. As she tries to help her escape, a group of strangers turns up and kills the woman. The group’s leader (never identified as anything more than Mademoiselle) calmly explains that she is part a secret society attempting to discover the secrets of the afterlife through the creation of martyrs.

Specifically, they expose their test subjects to extreme, systematic pain in the belief that this will eventually create a transcendental state, with insights into the world beyond this one (for me, this theme of enlightenment-through-pain is very reminiscent of Hellraiser).

Guess who their next subject is?

Again, this is an odd decision narratively, in that Martyrs has given us its final ‘twist‘ about halfway through. What, then, is it keeping in reserve?

What follows is a disturbing montage of Anna’s suffering, in which she goes through a series of reactions, from fear to defiance to rage to frustration. Eventually, the awfulness of her situation overwhelms her and in a hallucinated conversation with Lucie she resolves to ‘let it go’, to abandon hope and identity.

Is this the beginning of the transition into the transcendental state that her captors desire to see?

Mademoiselle certainly thinks so, and delighted with Anna’s ‘progress’, she orders her flayed alive, a procedure that leads her to enter a state described as euphoric.

Hurrying to hear her revelations, Mademoiselle bends down next to the flayed Anna and the receives some whispered words from her.

The secrets of the afterlife?

We never get to find out because whatever she is told is so profoundly terrible that in the very next scene, at the point she was supposed to reveal all to her organisation, Mademoiselle instead chooses to blow her brains out.

If there is a thread of bleakness and a fascination with body horror flowing through all the French New Wave – and there is, for me – then Martyrs takes those aspects to the most extreme places imaginable.

It’s sometimes been grouped – inaccurately in my opinion – with torture porn flicks(such as Eli Roth’s Hostel films) but tellingly, Laugier has pointed out that Martyrs is not about torture nor suffering, but pain.

Nobody does horror quite like the French New Wave – vive la difference!

French flag by Gabriel Oliveira

Article originally published at https://www.tumblr.com/blog/earthworksmovie