From Bread and Circuses to Popcorn and Superheroes

blackpantherimportantI’ve been watching the hysteria over populist fantasy cinema with building scepticism and bewilderment. The 21st Century has seen not just the rise of the sci-fi/superhero blockbuster franchise, but also culture wars conducted online and reflected in the media in which these fantasies are weaponised as vehicles for social justice. Hence the handwringing and triumphalism over the gender or racial make-up of the cast in the likes of the THOR or STAR WARS franchises – not films generally regarded as heavy with political subtext.

wonderwomanguardianThe release of WONDER WOMAN and THE BLACK PANTHER have kicked this into high gear, with excitement over the blows they struck for feminism and black rights respectively reaching hysterical proportions.


I certainly believe that films mean something, and that successful films mean something more. But aren’t they more of a barometer than a catalyst? One thing they tell us is that social justice causes, slickly presented, are very effective marketing tools. That geeks plus liberals equals a very profitable audience demographic. Because, believe it or not, at this level, film studios are thoroughly amoral entities. If the big bucks were in a reboot of BIRTH OF A NATION, that would be the next franchise on the schedules.

star warsOn the surface, a species of entertainment which is intrinsically based upon power fantasies would seem an improbable bedfellow for a social justice movement that fetishises victimhood. Yet it’s actually proven a very happy – and profitable – marriage. For, making the film’s hero a member of a demographic recognised as oppressed, filmmakers are freed of any pressure to justify a plot which hinges on violence as the preferred solution to a challenge. What’s more, nailing your blockbuster to a social issue almost guarantees plentiful free publicity. It only takes a few disgruntled fans to bitch online about the film’s play for social justice credentials, and the publicity department can just sit back and wait for the backlash to consume the liberal web and media.

rambo 2
And is it significant that these films are all unabashed fantasies? Stories where the heroes are all superpowered and the villains vanquished in predictably poetic fashion. There is a long tradition of America using Hollywood to revise things that didn’t play out the way Americans might’ve wished. The Western is an entire genre dedicated to ennobling the nation’s morally problematic nativity. The first RAMBO may have been a broadly anti-war film, but the sequels were all about refighting – and winning – American military humiliations.

Time-Cover-Black-PantherIs there a danger that lightweight fantasies like WONDER WOMAN and THE BLACK PANTHER are not representative of victories for social justice, but substitutes for such victories?

Because it’s easy to fight injustice if all that’s required is enjoying two hours of highly polished, undemanding entertainment while sat on your arse eating nachos.

I’m reminded of the recent campaign at awards ceremonies for glamorous actresses to show their opposition to sexual harassment by wearing black. Which is of course a very flattering shade. Might it have made more of a statement had the requirement have been to wear a shellsuit? And what, if anything, does this statement say? I would imagine most people, if asked, take an unspoken stand against sexual harassment. In practical terms, the stunt seemed more about raising profiles while condemning anyone who refused to play ball than anything more proactive.

Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic. At the very least these films illustrate that most people have no problem with a female hero or a black hero, which is cool. But maybe that’s broadly been the case for a long time, whatever the identity politics firebrands would have us believe.

day of the dead
I rewatched DAY OF THE DEAD recently. It’s my favourite zombie movie, and I’ve seen it numerous times. But this is the first time I’d really clocked that the hero was a tough woman, supported by a black man. Of course the film hadn’t changed, but our points of reference have, to where the race and gender of the characters are reflexively thrust front and centre.

And I’m not convinced that’s progress or even healthy.

Why I Won’t Read Your Damn Film Reviews…

[This is the second of my grave-robbing expeditions, whereby while looking for something else, I’ve stumbled across one of my old blogs, gifted to a site that’s subsequently been revamped – sans my contribution. I thought this one worth resurrecting from the void, if only because the subject remains one dear to my heart…]


I love films – particularly horror films – but I seldom bother with the reviews of upcoming attractions. Indeed, if I see a film coming up that appeals, beyond determining where and when I might be able to see it, I will actively avoid all coverage of the flick in question on page and screen. Why? Simple really: I can’t think of a single film journalist – pro, amateur, or anywhere inbetween – who I trust not to spoil the movie. Spoilers are nothing new – trailers have been giving away plot twists and action highlights for decades – but the Internet has certainly significantly exacerbated the issue in recent years. (In fairness, the web’s also promulgated the civility of the ‘spoiler alert’, though this is hardly a courtesy that can be relied upon.)

Frankly, writing that spoils whatever it purports to cover, is worse than no coverage at all – and what kind of fucking writing is that?

Part of the problem is that, even among those with the basic manners to wish to avoid them, there is little consensus on what constitutes a spoiler. Many writers evidently feel that they only apply in reviews of new films, published before the film is officially released. If it’s a film that’s been out for a while, or even more so a retro release, let alone discussion of the movie in the broader context of an analytic article, then many feel it’s open season in the spoiler department. Nope. You should never assume your reader has seen a film. We all have movies – even vintage classics – we haven’t yet watched but that we still intend to see. I don’t want you spoiling my film, whether it came out a week or a century ago.

Cigarette-Burns kierLet me put it this way. If I don’t want to see a film, I won’t give a shit about what happens. If I haven’t seen it but want to, I don’t want to be told what happens. If I have seen it, what’s the point in telling me what happens?

Something else that causes confusion regarding spoiler conventions is just what constitutes a spoiler in terms of length. Most folk seem to understand that you shouldn’t spoil the climax, but it’s depressingly common for critics to feel fine about detailing the plot development right up to that point. Well, fucking don’t! It goes without saying that you shouldn’t give away the ending, but why give away the middle, or indeed the start? Do you really think there are (sane) film fans out there who only like films where there’s a wild dog attack halfway in? Or will walk out unless it turns out that the relationship between the two lead characters slowly blossoms into an unlikely love affair?

ape spoilerWatching the plot unfold is part of the pleasure of watching a film, and it doesn’t just happen at the end. If there are sensational gore effects, you can say so without fucking explicitly describing each of them. Give the tone and atmosphere of the film – fine – but don’t detail events, the setting, or story. That’s the filmmaker’s job, not yours, and I’d thank you to leave them to it. So, if spoilers are so unpopular, why are they so common? In part because a lot of film writing’s pretty poor, and many hacks don’t know any better. But evidently talented and passionate journalists are also guilty of ruining the viewer’s journey of discovery by leavening their reviews with excess plot reveals, so what gives? I suspect one issue is of tradition…

hoh06Many of us grew up admiring film writers whose work was littered with plot synopses, and there is a temptation to emulate our idols. But that was a different age. When I was young, before the video revolution, the chances of actually seeing many of the films that gripped my morbid young imagination were minimal, so it was entirely legitimate to detail the story while discussing them in print. My favourite monthly magazine, HOUSE OF HAMMER, adapted horror films as comic strips which really only made sense in a world in which you were unlikely to be able to enjoy them in their intended format. In our digital age, when films I could only of dreamt of as a monster kid are now readily available at the touch of a button, there’s no need or excuse for such plot exposition, though I guess a few veteran critics might be forgiven for struggling to shake old habits.

cigarette burnsLess forgivable, but more common, are those who spoiler out of egotism. Sometimes it isn’t possible to discuss the minutiae of a movie without going into them at length. If so, then the correct judgement call is that – if you can’t have the same discussion using allusions – then you drop it, at least in a review. There is a caustic tendency in journalism to assume that the reader is chiefly interested in the writer, and that the piece’s subject is a medium at best, more often a potential distraction or obstacle to the reader’s appreciation of the writer’s wit, charm and erudition. If making some clever point might spoil the viewer’s enjoyment of the film, no matter, for we just want to bask in the reviewer’s genius. Only, take it from this reader, we don’t.

The final – and I suspect commonest – motive for spoilers is that old, demon writer’s block. Faced with a blank page – or screen – and with a deadline for a film review looming, just telling the story is an attractive option, an easy way to generate copy when inspiration stubbornly refuses to strike. After all, it’s tough discussing a film in a way that gives the reader a good idea of whether they’d like it or not, without imparting information that will detract from the elements of surprise and discovery that are integral to an ideal cinema experience. But maybe good film journalism is tough, and perhaps if you can’t write a review without spoilers, then it could be that you’re just not cut out for it.

[N.B. For those of my friends who review please forgive me for entering full rant mode I may have overstated my case somewhat in order to vent – I do read your reviews, though I often tend to wait until after I’ve seen the film!]

theatre-blood farewell

Blood, Thunder and Propaganda, Moscow Style

sophia titleWhile exploring the backwaters of Amazon Prime, I stumbled across the eight-part Russian series SOPHIA, detailing the life of the 15th Century Greek princess who married Ivan III, Grand Duke of Moscow. I’m a sucker for a good historical epic, so got stuck in

IvanpicMy weakness for these has led me to watch a fair bit of Russian TV and cinema in recent years. While nobody else seems to have noticed Vladimir Putin’s government appear to have been financing high budget historical epics as a deliberate policy of nationalist propaganda for some time now, some of which has made it over here in subtitled form, where I’ve been stumbling upon it piecemeal. These films and mini-series have captured my imagination, not just as old school blood and thunder historical epics, but also an insight into what the patriotic Russian thinks. Or, perhaps more accurately, is supposed to think.

TarasOther examples of these patriotic historical extravaganzas from Russia include IRON LORD (2010), 1612 (2007), and TARAS BULBA (2009). The latter’s propaganda credentials are particularly current bearing in mind recent conflicts in the region, as Taras Bulba was originally a 16th Century Ukrainian hero, created by the Russian author Nikolai Gogol in the mid-1800s. Gogol’s first version was criticised by some Russian nationalists at the time as too Ukrainian, and he revised his text to make it more overtly pro-Russian. It was this second version that the 2009 film adapts, its script echoing Putin’s sentiments that the Ukraine was a part of Russia, not a seperate nation. Ukrainian patriots were unsurprisingly seriously unimpressed (Poles weren’t best pleased as being portrayed as war criminals either).

sophiapicBack with SOPHIA, the series recounts the trials and tribulations of the grandmother of Russia’s first Tsar, Ivan the Terrible. (He has a cameo role – typically, while we Westerners characterise Ivan as a savage tyrant, to the Russians he was a formidable leader.) The series announces up front that it’s financed by both the Russian Culture Ministry (who also financed TARAS BULBA) and the Russian Defence Ministry. Official military involvement in a film usually assures impressive battle scenes, but the only major battle depicted in SOPHIA is the Great Stand on the River Ugra, wherein the Muscovites and Tatars face each other, then the Tatars think better of it and fall back, and involves precious little blood or thunder.

NevskyOf course, Russian filmmakers certainly can stage effective battle scenes, as most famously proven in Sergie Eisenstein’s 1938 masterpiece ALEXANDER NEVSKY, which climaxes with the clash between the titular prince and the Teutonic Knights at 1242’s famous Battle on the Ice. Cinema as propaganda is also nothing new, and the Soviet Regime that preceded Putin’s government were pioneers in the area. ALEXANDER NEVSKY came out just as tensions between the USSR and the Third Reich were heating up towards war, and Stalin made sure as many of his people saw the film as possible, with its overt parallels between the victory of the medieval Slavs over the Germanic crusaders and the building conflict on the horizon.

Henry_VRussians certainly aren’t alone in employing historical epics to project patriotic agendas – every country with a film industry has likely at least dabbled in employing popular cinema as propaganda. Laurence Olivier’s 1944 adaptation of Shakespeare’s HENRY V was funded by the British government and dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture’. Netflix is currently screening FIVE CAME BACK, a documentary that skillfully analyses how five of Hollywood’s greatest directors were drafted into the American war effort during the Second World War.

However, it’s difficult to imagine any serious contemporary Hollywood director getting away with the kind of nakedly propagandist films coming out of Putin’s Russia today. The watershed was probably the Vietnam War, and in its traumatic wake an era of cynical, jaded, maverick cinema began to emerge from Hollywood in the 1970s. Even RAMBO, the 1982 film often thought of as emblematic of Reaganite right-wing patriotism, was essentially an anti-war film, though its sequels did embrace macho American nationalism.

courtMeanwhile, back with SOPHIA, even if the battle scenes are somewhat underwhelming, the costumes and sets are commendably colourful and handsome, the intrigue intriguing, and the Russian attitudes and beliefs being promoted in the script fascinating. It being Putin, the series is very pro-Russian Orthodox Church (one of the show’s silliest scenes has Sophia floating about enjoying a vision of the cathedral she plans to build). Latins (Western Europeans) are beardless slimy types, all scheming to convert Russia to Catholicism. Only a few are allowed sympathetic portrayal. The Italian architects of Moscow’s cathedral and her artillery are given some reluctant credit. Plus Sophia herself of course – her value being her bloodline to the last Eastern Orthodox emperors of Byzantium. Even here, her virtues are underlined by her eagerness to adopt Russian ways and contempt for her former customs.

moldovapicThe Tartars are also shown begrudging respect – as hardy, ruthless warriors. Aside from that, foreigners are almost exclusively depicted as untrustworthy and decadent. King Casimir of Poland and Lithuania is a scheming traitor who cannot wait to ally with the heathen Golden Horde. This rather overlooks Ivan’s willingness to ally with the Crimean Khanate and even the Ottoman Turks. The Moldavians – who actually fought the Ottomans – are portrayed as louche and dissolute, their court accompanied by musicians and harlots wherever they go. Heading the court is Stephen the Great, a military hero in his Romanian homeland, but here portrayed as a spineless ditherer. Somewhat ominously, halfway through SOPHIA, the script introduces the Jews!…

Reflex racism aside, SOPHIA also promotes absolutist authority. Much of the plot is about Sophia’s husband the Grand Duke of Moscow imposing totalitarian rule on neighbouring realms, slowly transforming the Russian confederacy of city states into a kingdom under his personal control. In a depressingly familiar scenario, the Jews are introduced to the plot as fiendish conspirators, stirring up the middle classes to agitate for citizens rights. The vaguely Hebrew-inspired conspiracy that threatens Ivan’s court is a motley – and frankly improbable – alliance of the middle classes, witches, heretics, and advocates of modern scientific theory. One of the more strange and troubling undercurrents in SOPHIA is its support for the Orthodox Church, over not just Catholicism, Judaism and local heresies, but also the fledgling European Enlightenment. (By way of contrast Soviet-era Russian historical epics like ALEXANDER NEVSKY routinely portrayed Russian Orthodox clergy as villains.)

horsepicThe other values promoted alongside religion, nationalism and obedience to authority are family, military strength and tradition. In short, all of the authentic values of fascism, as opposed to the comicbook version – all monocles, jackboots and riding crops – of popular modern mythology. It has become a cliche to characterise President Trump as a fascist dictator. But as one perceptive historian observed, Trump is no fascist, because fascists have values, something the President wholly lacks. The kind of values underpinning these Putin-era historical epics, and I find it fascinating…

A Krampus is for Life…

The Alpine tradition of the Krampus – the Christmas devil who punishes naughty children – has been gaining ground internationally in recent years. Recently, I talked to the people responsible for bringing him to British shores, via the Whitby Krampus Run. Read the full feature here…WKR by Simon Blackwood 2

A Long Time Ago – STAR WARS Versus SUPERNATURAL – A Seventies Saga…

The following is something of blast from the past, revisiting something I wrote for a horror site exactly four years ago reviewing an ancient BBC TV series entitled SUPERNATURAL, just then released on DVD for the first time. The site’s rebranded since, and all of my contributions cast into oblivion in the process. But this piece came to mind today, so I excavated the depths of my old hard drives and found a copy. I can’t vouch for its quality – I’m a very poor judge of my own work – but it did seem pertinent again for some odd reasons.

SupernaturalcoverOne reason is that Christmas is almost upon us, and I’m keen to support the Yuletide ghost story tradition. Perhaps my favourite manifestation of this are the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS. At one point broadcast every year in the seventies, they have become increasingly intermittent. For those who’ve practically worn out their BBC GHOST STORY FOR CHRISTMAS discs, SUPERNATURAL offers a possible alternative, as another Gothic season from the BBC in the same era. But is it a worthy alternative?

force awakensAnother, less obvious, reason for resurrecting my SUPERNATURAL piece is STAR WARS. The new STAR WARS movie, THE LAST JEDI, is currently causing the now obligatory cycle of hype, hysteria, backlash, and backlash to the backlash. I can’t comment on the virtues of the film itself, having not seen it, but was curious enough to watch its predecessor THE FORCE AWAKENS when it surfaced on Netflix a couple of nights back. I think I’d characterise my reaction as underwhelmed. It wasn’t terrible, just seriously cheesy and predictable.

In fairness though, I’m not the target audience – it’s a family-friendly franchise and I’m only a lukewarn sci-fi fan – and am more interested in the fan phenomenon surrounding it. Because nothing about THE FORCE AWAKENS, or indeed any of the other films, seems to me to justify the frenzy of excitement – even obsession – they engender these days. And I don’t just mean among strangers, but friends and acquiantances whose opinions I generally value. But the STAR WARS hysteria genuinely baffles me.

star wars cardsHaving said which, I have very much enjoyed a STAR WARS film. That one being STAR WARS itself. I thought it was great. But I was ten. So this hysteria can’t just be a generational thing. Many of the STAR WARS obsessives weren’t even born when the franchise debuted in 1977. And I don’t remember being that struck by it. A good illustration of this is that I collected the set of STAR WARS bubblegum cards, then sold them to a friend to finance collecting a Hammer horror set instead. I clearly had my priorities right back then.

hammer cards And while STAR WARS faded from my imagination fairly fast, something else I watched that year which left an abiding mark on my young imagination. That was the BBC’s SUPERNATURAL. It probably helped that after being screened once, the series seemed to vanish. Only a tatty copy of the novelisation remained to confirm me to me that I hadn’t simply dreamed it. By comparison, of course, while STAR WARS may have faded from the spotlight for most of the eighties and nineties, it’s become absurdly ubiquitous in the twenty-first century.

But there are parallels between the two beyond the coincidence of first airing on the same year. Specifically, relating to fan reaction. I had been sat in front of THE FORCE AWAKENS a couple of nights ago, one eyebrow raised smugly at its sundry shortcomings. The acting was largely adequate at best, the plot a confection of the absurdly improbable and cheesily predictable, glued together with clumsy winks to the gallery over laboured in-jokes. I just didn’t get it.

But that feeling was not unlike the one I experienced when watching THE SUPERNATURAL for the first time in nearly 40 years. But in this case I was a fan. Looking at it through the reviewer’s eye it was difficult to justify my deep affection for the series. If the script of THE FORCE AWAKENS had a surfeit of cheese, then the acting in THE SUPERNATURAL was a feast of ham. In terms of absurd improbability and predictability SUPERNATURAL certainly gives any of the STAR WARS films a good run for their money. I guess it all comes down to personal proclivities.

Which is hardly an earth-shattering notion, but one which I guess it’s easy for us all to forget. Which is part of what I explored in this fragment from the archives. That and how everyone should like SUPERNATURAL because it’s obviously way better than dreary old STAR WARS. So there!…


Watching the recent BFI release of the vintage BBC series SUPERNATURAL, and seeing
the widely varied reception it experienced from other reviewers, inspired a few
thoughts on broader topics. Hence I beg the indulgence of the Brutal as Hell faithful
as I open my review of this long-lost Gothic TV show with a few thoughts on the way
we all watch the genre screen entertainment we enjoy, and how even the most
scrupulous of reviewers can find their judgement swayed by ineffable bias. In the
noble quest for objectivity, it can be easy to forget how subjective an experience
watching a film or television episode can be.

We all know, of course, that assessing a film’s value is almost definitively a matter of
opinion. But I’m thinking here of other subtler, more ephemeral factors that can have
a heavy impact on our appreciation of something like a film, without us really
noticing. The mood you’re in, for example. A crabby mood can turn a good movie
into a piece of crap: a sunny demeanour transform a mediocre production into a
personal favourite. I’ve known genre devotees dismiss classics, then fall in love upon
rewatching them, before casting their memory back and recalling unrelated clouds on
their horizon which blighted the experience of viewing the innocent production first
time round.

All sorts of other external factors that have nothing to do with the film per se –
company, health, personal prejudice, etc., etc. – but can play a pivotal role in what
impression the production leaves upon you. The one I’m focusing on here is age.
Somebody once said something along the lines of ‘You never see your favourite film
over the age of 25’. While I fear the exact origin and wording of this quote eludes me,
I think there’s much virtue in the sentiment. That for a movie to really get under your
skin to the point where you adore it with that almost irrational fervour, it pays for it to
hit you young, when you still possess at least a little of that wide-eyed sense of
wonder that life conspires to slowly beat out of us.

It’s possible to see manifestations of this phenomenon in all manner of media. Only
the rosy-tinted spectacles of cherished childhood memory can explain the hold shows,
films and franchises originally aimed primarily at kids – such as Dr Who, Lego, or
Marvel superheroes – still exert over so many well into middle age. Indeed, if
anything, that grip gets stronger, as fans devote skills and resources accrued in
adulthood to analyse, criticise and obsess over works of fiction only ever designed to
withstand the less rigorous scrutiny of children. Part of the visceral hatred many fans
feel for the incessant stream of Hollywood remakes comes from a wholly reasonable
dismay at the turgid lack of imagination and vision they represent. But it also comes
from a more irrational, ineffable fear that remaking the treasured cultural artefacts of
our youth might somehow dilute or even destroy them.

supernatural-3To return to horror, there’s a monthly genre film night hosted in a nightclub near
where I live. It’s great fun, but I’ve noticed that everything screened has come from
the 1980s. When I drew the organisers’ attention to this and suggested they dig further
into the vaults, or considered more recent favourites, they were unenthusiastic,
explaining that they had to show ‘the classics’ in order to draw a crowd. It dawned on
me that it was a generational thing. They weren’t seriously suggesting that every
classic horror film was made between 1980 and 1990. But as thirty-somethings, never
thought to question the assumption that 80s horror films, as the ones that they grew up
with, were also the ones that automatically commanded the most affection among
fans, the movies which seem most magical, for which they’re most willing to forgive
failings and celebrate clichés.

The reason for this very lengthy, tangential preamble is that, as a somewhat more
vintage genre devotee, I feel much the same about 1970s horror. So, the past few
hundred words are in part my mea culpa, a confession that in reviewing THE SUPERNATURAL I am incapable of giving an opinion devoid of chronological baggage. This bias is further weighted by the obscurity of the series. I saw it as a child when it first
screened way back on BBC1, on eight successive Saturday nights in the summer of
1977. supernatural book SUPERNATURAL then, in true Gothic style, effectively disappeared without
trace. Soon, only the fact that I’d been sufficiently impressed to buy the paperback
novelisation remained as proof that it had been anything more than a childhood
nightmare. That, and a series of potent images that remained seared into my
impressionable imagination thereafter…

SUPERNATURAL was never screened again, didn’t appear on tape with the advent of the
video boom of the 1980s, and with the arrival of the internet revolution in the
following decade, remained elusive, early searches yielding little to confirm its
existence. In TEN YEARS OF TERROR, Harvey Fenton and David Flint’s exemplary and
exhaustive 2001 study of 70s Brit screen horror, SUPERNATURAL enjoys only the briefest
of coverage, illustrated by a scan from the cover of the same paperback tie-in I
possessed. Inevitably, perhaps, the show’s elusiveness leant it an almost mythic aura
among dedicated devotees of vintage horror. Some years back I finally tracked down a
copy of the show via grey dealers on eBay, some three decades after it first frightened
me, but the quality of the recordings were too poor to really give an accurate
assessment of the series.

Supernatural_pic_4Hence, it was with great excitement that I recently received the two SUPERNATURAL
DVDs. So, the big question – was it worth the wait? (Or, indeed, for you patient
reader, worth wading through such a protracted prelude?) The series consists of seven
tales on classic Gothic themes – ghosts, werewolves, doppelgangers, split
personalities, sentient mannequins, Frankenstein, vampires – in eight 50 minute
episodes (one story is in two parts). The cast boasts a cast of distinguished Brit
character actors – Robert Hardy, Billie Whitelaw, Jeremy Brett, Denholm Elliot – who
match the rich material with highly theatrical, even melodramatic performances which
often makes many of the tales feel more like stage plays than TV shows.

The unifying thread that bookends each episode centres on the Club of the Damned,
an exclusive Victorian London gentleman’s institution. Perhaps the most exclusive, as
aspirant candidates must tell a tale of dread to established members – if it should fail
to terrify the assembled company, then they must pay the ultimate penalty, and are
never seen again. It’s an intriguing idea, and little details – such as a Satanic
baphomet symbol on a table – suggest an urbane infernal fellowship along the lines of
a latterday Hellfire Club. But it’s never really explored, the threat of extinction for
failed candidates not delved into, as what we see of the members hardly smacks of the
tension of the omnipresence of death. Indeed the Club members never really seem
frightened at the end of any of the stories, from which the viewer can only conclude
that all of the hopeful candidates got the chop once the final credits had rolled.

Supernatural_pic_5Of course, the Club of the Damned represents only the entrance and exit to the main
event, but the failure to exploit this tantalising angle is somewhat characteristic of
SUPERNATURAL overall, of promising ideas wasted and evocative paths uncovered but
not travelled. This is also, perhaps, the show’s strength. For – from its opening of
eerie organ music and gargoyles, to the peels of maniacal laughter that frequently
presage the final credits – SUPERNATURAL is full-on, industrial-strength Gothic. And
much pure Gothic is about unexplored roads and decayed ideologies, seldom fully
explained or resolved. Connoisseurs of the aesthetic will find a feast to relish in
SUPERNATURAL, from the lushly stifling Victoriana of the sets and costumes, to the florid
dialogue and overwrought acting.

Casual viewers will likely yawn at the verbose scripts and occasionally snigger at
some of the fruitier lines and camper delivery. Jeremy Brett’s descent into madness in
the episode ‘Mr Nightingale’ – complete with gurning at breakfast, black seagull
impersonations, and animated omelette debates – is hard to take seriously. Some DIY
standard visual effects don’t help either, suggesting a budget and level of
sophistication comparable with the less-than-special-effects of DR WHO of the day.
Though, just as some sci-fi devotees can see past the effects to enjoy the substance of
Pertwee/Baker era DR WHO, so aficionados of small screen Gothic should forgive
many of the more dated elements in SUPERNATURAL. In SUPERNATURAL’s stronger episodes, such as in the final part ‘Dorabella’ – a clever amalgam of CARMILLA and DRACULA – the subtler effects can be highly effective.

It was images from ‘Dorabella’ in particular – of a fly-flecked corpse, a monstrous
wedding ring, an eyeless curse – that stuck with me long after I’d watched the series
as a child, its atmosphere of dread and decay lingering strongly enough to keep me
looking for the series decades later. Despite my nostalgic enthusiasm for the show, in
all honesty, in the cold light of day, it’s not too hard to see why the BBC never
repeated or previously released SUPERNATURAL on other formats. It’s short on shocks,
and over-heavy on Freudian overtones, with little to titillate or terrify the typical
modern horror fan. It isn’t as satisfying or accessible as the BBC’s GHOST STORIES FOR CHRISTMAS – rightly still seen as setting the standard for vintage TV horror – but taken on its own merits, as a camp, creepy curio, SUPERNATURAL still has much to offer the authentic gourmet of Gothic entertainment.Supernatural_pic_7

Spaghetti and Splatter

lime What connects Harry Lime from THE THIRD MAN, the Etruscan death god Charun, and the murder of the Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro? If you’re curious to find out, then why not join me on my annual pilgrimage to the Abertoir Horror Festival in Aberystwyth, where I’ll be revealing all next Thursday (16th November) at a presentation entitled ‘Spaghetti & Splatter’? Of course, the six day event has plenty of other diversions to tempt horror aficionados, including talks and theatre performances, as well as a packed schedule of new genre films and retro classic screenings.

I hear that full passes may now have sold out, but tickets are still available for individual events. For further details, click here.


Hate the Living, Love the Dead: Thoughts on the Legacy of George A. Romero

Doctor Pretorius: Do you know who Henry Frankenstein is, and who you are?

The Monster: Yes, I know. Made me from dead. I love dead… hate living.

Doctor Pretorius: You are wise in your generation…


I was initially reluctant to write this. In the wake of the much-loved director’s recent death, I’m pretty confident the web currently has quite enough George A. Romero retrospectives to be getting along with. But once the dust had settled I figured the web could handle one more – and this was for me more than anybody else – about exploring something that had a profound impact on my inner life. Though obviously if anyone else is interested in my thoughts on the matter then I’m delighted and flattered to share them here. The following is a personal rumination, not a scholarly treatise but an opinionated take on Romero’s work and its place in horror history and modern mythology.

As I’ve already suggested, there is no shortage of other commentators memorialising Romero – some surely substantially better qualified to do so than myself, others perhaps rather less so… Among the former are numerous people lucky enough to have known the director personally. They provide ample testimony to what an intelligent, big-hearted and generous human being George was, particularly when approached by starstruck fans. (I suspect however this may have ultimately have proven a mixed blessing – something I touched on in a previous blog, which you can read here…) The latter, less illuminating eulogists, if nothing else, serving to underline Romero’s understated, yet monolithic cultural significance. His influence stretches well beyond the horror genre, leading to numerous mainstream journalists being obliged to pen rushed appreciations, pieces that rather too evidently took them far outside their comfort zones.

Few imaginary creations enjoy the same cult status on the cutting-edge of mainstream culture as Romero’s zombie world. Perhaps only H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos can compete for sheer contagious ubiquity across numerous formats and media. Though while Lovecraft’s mad gods and alien demons may have crossed as many media boundaries as Romero’s cannibal cadavers, they’ve never enjoyed the same high profile recognition factor. Within the realms of the horror genre, most of the monsters that haunt our collective subconscious – vampires, werewolves, and such – were drawn from arcane European folklore and Gothic literature, refracted through a Hollywood lens in the early Twentieth Century.

Halloween_(1978)_theatrical_poster The past fifty years have arguably only seen two significant additions to our universally-recognised pantheon of pop culture monsters – both all-American and conspicuously modern. The first is the quasi-supernatural serial killer, introduced in films like HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980). The second, of course, is the flesh-eating ghoul Romero introduced in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), and developed in DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and DAY OF THE DEAD (1985). How many individuals can lay claim to have effectively given birth to a bona fide contemporary myth? For, make no mistake, modern congregations of cinema-goers look upon their idols in the modern cathedral of the multiplex in just the same way that our distant ancestors revered the likes of Wotan or Zeus in the temples of the pre-Christian world.

plantsvzombies George’s mythology of a world overrun by shambling ghouls has thrown a shadow that stretches way beyond his numerous cinematic imitators, and the record-breaking WALKING DEAD TV show, and indeed beyond the horror genre itself. Everyone under a certain age knows that zombies are rotting dead people that eat brains. In a surreal recent evolution, many affiliated products are now comical or even cuddly in tone, with an increasing number marketed to a younger demographic, typified perhaps by the hit PLANTS VERSUS ZOMBIES computer game and its numerous spin-offs – it’s also possible to buy zombie slippers, zombie candy, ad infinitum – as Romero’s zombies evolved from cult figures to corporate mascot.

While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, if there was one topic inclined to make the otherwise affable George spit blood in interview, it’s the way so many of his imitators have made so much exploiting something he created. He has a point. His legendary debut NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has been cited as the most profitable indie picture ever made, but after some dodgy dealing in distribution, Romero barely saw a cent. It set something of a pattern for George, whose career was cursed to be one where his colossal creative contribution to culture was never quite reflected in career or commercial terms. Some have even suggested that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD’s most important innovation wasn’t creative, but in demonstrating how much money a very modestly-budgeted horror picture could make.

Romero can surely be forgiven for some sour grapes at the number of people who profited in his creative wake, particularly those unwilling to even acknowledge their inspiration. One of the more interesting examples is RESIDENT EVIL. It began as a 1996 hit big budget horror computer game, featuring Romero-style zombies, which now boasts six sequels. The game’s success led to a 2002 film adaptation, followed by a franchise which currently has five sequels of its own under its belt. For once, it looked like George might actually enjoy a little of the lucrative action, as he was commissioned to helm a trailer for the second RESIDENT EVIL game, then approached to write and direct the movie version. He would later describe the experience as ‘the biggest damn shame’ of his career.

‘We busted balls writing drafts of that screenplay’, the director later reflected. ‘I’m talkin’ marathons, seventy-two hours straight. I really wanted this project… I was hooked. Deep in my heart, I felt that ResEv was a rip-off of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I had no legal case, but I was resentful. And torn… because I liked the video game. I wanted to do the film partly because I wanted to say, “Look here! This is how you do this shit!”’ The official version was that Romero was dropped because they didn’t like how he did that shit – specifically his script. Studio bosses favoured a version that focused on action rather than horror. Hollywood gossip had it that senior studio noses were out of joint over George being too frank in interviews about how much he thought RESIDENT EVIL owed to his own work.

Resident_evil_poster This is, of course, all history now. Romero’s script, now it’s become available, certainly reads far better than the Paul W. S. Anderson version the studio ultimately went with. Yet that doesn’t mean that studio heads were necessarily wrong. Even if the critics dismissed the Anderson film as a vapid turkey, it was a very popular turkey, and the resultant franchise continues to be a huge money-spinner. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD might’ve made a lot of money relative to its poverty row budget, but these were sums that would barely register on the balance sheets of Capcom and Sony, the corporations behind RESIDENT EVIL in its various incarnations. And they clearly concluded that Anderson’s action approach had a broader commercial appeal than Romero’s horror, whatever the critics might say.

Whether by accident, temperament or design – George’s lack of reverence for studio bigwigs was the stuff of legend – Romero was destined to spend most of his career outside of the Hollywood system, as a big fish in the cult cinema pond. A few of the obituaries bewailed this, wondering why he never troubled the Oscar selection committees, but I think they’re missing the point. Good horror is unsettling, troubling, and tests taboos – hence not inclined to please committees. It is a place for mavericks and misfits. Horror is all but alone as a genre in having so many of its landmark films being the product of independent filmmakers on low budgets. To return to the thread we abandoned a few paragraphs back, Romero’s Dead Trilogy isn’t unique, even within the horror genre, as a film made on a shoestring that went on to become a critical and cultural phenomenon, though it is a definitive example.

Perhaps it was the explicit, bloody brutality featured in Romero’s debut that made it so influential, or maybe its raw, almost documentary feel, or even employing an African American actor as its hero way back in the Sixties? Perhaps… Though there are other contenders for the majority of these innovations. Most notably director Herschell Gordon Lewis, who’d already been selling low-rent gore to cinema-goers for five years when NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD debuted. Surely the film’s most obvious invention is the likeliest contender, namely the zombies themselves. Certainly there had been zombie films before, but these had been the undead of Haitian voodoo tradition – effectively post mortem slave labour – not the cannibalistic cadavers Romero introduced in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Indeed, the word ‘zombie’ is conspicuous by its absence in the film (and largely used sparsely in Romero’s other ‘Dead’ films), with the more accurate term ‘ghoul’ being preferred. More accurate as ghouls, unlike zombies, did traditionally feast on human flesh.

vampirecinema (As an aside, the first time I remember reading anyone taking Romero remotely seriously was in David Pirie’s pioneering 1977 study THE VAMPIRE CINEMA. Interestingly, Pirie doesn’t foretell a new zombie (or ghoul) subgenre, instead predicting that NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD offered a new direction for future vampire films. I have some time for this off-target prediction, as in many respects Romero’s walking dead resemble the original vampires of medieval European folklore more closely than the cloaked cliché we are familiar with courtesy of Hollywood. Revenants, as historians often refer to our prototypical vampires, were not dapper aristocrats, but like Romero’s undead were malodorous and mindless walking corpses that menaced their former friends, family and neighbours.)

blood_feast_poster However you like to imagine them, though, the proliferation of vampires dating back to the dawn of horror cinema prove that our fear of the re-animated dead wasn’t what made George’s ghouls special. Similarly, the cannibalism taboo, while clearly key to the Romero recipe, was hardly anything new in 1968, featuring in numerous previous horror films. It’s central to the plot of the Sweeney Todd story, which was first filmed in 1926, for example, and figures in most werewolf films. Romero’s’ flesh-eating scenes were notably graphic, but no more so than Herschell Gordon Lewis’s debut gore film BLOOD FEAST, also a cannibal movie of sorts. Yet while BLOOD FEAST was camp and cartoonish in its gleeful ineptitude, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD exploited its minimal production values to attain a grim newsreel quality that contributed to its impact on unsuspecting audiences.

This unsettling sense of reality – of a film that felt uncomfortably reminiscent of local news reports – has been cited as the factor that distinguished Romero’s debut feature. Maybe, though it isn’t true of the two succeeding sequels, without which his Dead World would never have become so iconic. In truth, an idea needs to work on several levels in order to burrow as deeply into our collective subconscious as this. Some of these will have a more profound resonance with some than others, and it is the ability to touch a lot of people in a lot of subtly different ways – on different levels and wavelengths – that transforms something from a cult favourite to a cultural phenomenon.

rhodes My own take on what makes the Romero Dead universe so powerful was most perfectly expressed in DAY OF THE DEAD, the most chillingly bleak of the Trilogy. It is the dread of being torn apart by idiots. If zombies ever gave me nightmares – and they did – it was this dread of being literally ripped asunder by countless grasping hands and teeth. If I analyse it, I think for me, zombies function as a political horror of sorts – a manifestation of the sense that we are surrounded by drones who look and behave much like us, but are slower, more instinct-driven, and destined to overwhelm us by sheer weight of numbers. It is the taboo fear that democracy is inherently-flawed, because most people are too stupid and self-interested to be trusted. In my subconscious, Romero’s dead were the mindless majority who refused to stay silent, the softly moaning mob driving us towards the precipice with their stubborn idiocy.

It’s a pessimism also manifest in the living characters of Romero’s dystopia – almost every disaster and fatality results from the selfishness and stupidity of the survivors themselves. Romero’s world gives plenty for pessimists to get their teeth into. If God isn’t dead, then He has abandoned humanity in disgust. You cannot trust the military, the media, medicine or politicians and scientists. Even family and lovers can no longer be relied upon. In this grim future, only a sense of honour, dogged determination, and the virtues of friendship offer any kind of support. It is, I believe, very much a Generation X dystopia, fed by those who saw the optimism of the Sixties swept away in a wave of building violence, replaced only by cynicism and world-weary misanthropy. In Romero’s world, humans are often little better than zombies, but we’re all we’ve got.

Of course there are numerous other interpretations of the subtexts that helped make George’s zombies so iconic. DAWN OF THE DEAD, for example, is easy to interpret as a gory parody of the rampant 80s consumerism on the horizon when the film debuted (many horror fans still hear the film’s classic Goblin soundtrack whenever they find themselves in a shopping mall). A lot of critics see the influence of the building violence of the civil rights clashes that began to dominate news bulletins in the Sixties as key to the tone and themes informing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. However, when VANITY FAIR’s Eric Spitznagel asked Romero about the symbolism of the living dead in 2010, the director was sceptical. ‘To paraphrase Freud’, began the journalist, ‘sometimes things have symbolism and sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Are the zombies in your movies always a metaphor, or are they sometimes just bloodthirsty walking corpses?’

‘To me, the zombies have always just been zombies,’ responded Romero. ‘They’ve always been a cigar. When I first made NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, it got analyzed and overanalyzed way out of proportion. The zombies were written about as if they represented Nixon’s Silent Majority or whatever. But I never thought about it that way. My stories are about humans and how they react, or fail to react, or react stupidly. I’m pointing the finger at us, not at the zombies. I try to respect and sympathize with the zombies as much as possible.’ George’s perspective appears to rather contradict my own interpretation of what makes his Dead films so effective. But, as I’ve emphasised before, this is a personal view, and, more importantly, perhaps the essence of the potency of his mythology is in its adaptability and origins in the subconscious. Romero was just going for what felt effective. Good horror comes from the subconscious – addresses contemporary fears obliquely – lending it that universal quality open to multiple interpretations.

shoppingmall On another minor tangent, I wonder if truly iconic horror also needs to mix a little guilty yearning in with the overt dread. The sexual overtones of the modern vampire are widely accepted, werewolves allow us to fantasise ourselves supernaturally powerful and unfettered by the dictates of law and morality, and so forth. But what faint silver lining can the zombie myth offer? One obvious fantasy explored in DAWN OF THE DEAD is the retail nirvana of a free shopping spree in a state-of-the-art mall. While many focus on the film’s undertone that suggests that the zombies are a metaphor for blind consumers, the sequences where the film’s protagonists enjoy the mall’s bounty gratis are the most tranquil – even happy – in a movie otherwise dominated by unrelenting stress and trauma. A world where law has broken down does have its advantages.

Which leads us onto an even more morally troubling wish-fulfilment fantasy which Romero’s dystopian future promises. Romero definitely encourages his audience to condemn rather than identify with the gun-happy red-neck vigilantes and nomadic biker gangs in his films that actually seem to be enjoying the lawless zombie apocalypse. But there’s no denying that much of the zombie media that’s followed in the wake of Romero’s Dead Trilogy panders to the adrenaline rush of hunting humans, a taboo pastime legitimised (and made easier) by the post mortem nature of the quarry. It’s a tempting but disturbing fantasy – that once dehumanised by death, we can simply kill the mindless hordes who frustrate and threaten us, without moral qualms or fear of legal repercussions. In light of the increasing number of mass shootings plaguing the USA, it isn’t difficult to see how this notion quickly takes us into very dark, contraversial territory. How you deal with that essentially pivots on whether you see horror cinema as a harmless pressure valve for forbidden fantasies, or a problematic trigger for taboo behaviour. (I, of course, am very much of the former opinion.)

landdead It’s probably worth addressing the undead elephant in the room right now. While I’ve been repeatedly referring to Romero’s Dead Trilogy, he’s actually made six zombie films – and most of the comments from the director I’ve referenced or quoted come from the period while he was making these three subsequent films. There’s a tendency to overlook these later movies among many horror veterans – mostly due to a conviction that they aren’t nearly as good as the first three. After a twenty year hiatus from directing the dead, Romero’s LAND OF THE DEAD debuted in 2005 to great anticipation (perhaps too much). It was a commercial and critical success, but alienated many diehard fans of the original Trilogy. Very much a studio picture, it felt too slick and commercial, too forced – as if Romero was self-consciously trying to cram the social satire into the script, which had once been a wholly organic component of his film-making. Most damningly, it wasn’t as good as the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake that had come out the year before.

Survival_of_the_Dead If it had one undoubted virtue, then it was at least better than his 2007 follow-up DIARY OF THE DEAD. DIARY… felt as if George was reacting to fan criticism of LAND… by returning to his roots with a low budget picture that referenced cutting-edge culture. The result – stuffed with awkward nods to social media and found footage style filming – was embarrassingly close to watching your ageing uncle trying to get hip with the kids. In 2009 he released SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD, a film which in turn had little in its favour beyond making DIARY OF THE DEAD seem good by comparison. Just prior to his death, Romero announced that he was preparing a script entitled ROAD OF THE DEAD (the announcement prompted me to wonder if CAR CRASH OF THE DEAD might be more apt) inspired by one of the worst ideas from his worst film (zombies driving cars in SURVIVAL OF THE DEAD). It seemed depressingly plausible that Romero had seen how George Miller had revamped his 80s MAD MAX trilogy with FURY ROAD in 2015, and wondered if he could follow suit.

It’s painful to see somebody you admire so much struggle to rediscover their creative mojo, but there’s no denying that the final decade of George Romero’s career saw him make a succession of films that made many dedicated admirers wince. He’s certainly created the Dead World which the likes of THE WALKING DEAD and Brad Pitt’s 2013 big-budget blockbuster WORLD WAR Z exploited so lucratively and, in some views, mined to extinction. ‘Because of WORLD WAR Z and THE WALKING DEAD, I can’t pitch a modest little zombie film, which is meant to be sociopolitical,’ he told Indiewire in 2016. ‘I used to be able to pitch them on the basis of the zombie action, and I could hide the message inside that. Now, you can’t. The moment you mention the word “zombie,” it’s got to be, “Hey, Brad Pitt paid $400 million to do that.”’

Yet George’s conviction that there was still life in the zombie movie may have been a triumph of nostalgia over experience. While zombie films can still be made cheaply enough to practically guarantee a profit regardless of quality, most serious horror fans greet the advent of a new zombie movie with a mixture of suspicion and dismay. There are good zombie films being released, but increasingly it has become the subject of preference for lazy film-makers with little imagination, a tiny budget, and an even more scant respect for their audience. It is to Romero’s credit that, before horror started to enjoy some degree of critical respect (due in no small part to his own efforts), he didn’t disown the genre, but remained faithful to the zombies that had made his career, though his loyalty may have blinded him to the rot setting in to the subgenre he’d created.

martin poster
It’s probably worth noting at this stage that, though he will always be remembered as ‘the Father of the Zombie film’, that George also directed ten other films, all of which are worth seeing, and most of which share that distinctive Generation X pessimism that characterises his Dead World. THE CRAZIES (1973) takes his dystopian view of a world menaced by apocalyptic plague and arguably makes it even darker by removing the undead. MARTIN (1978) is a pitch-perfect blend of Gothic horror and post-modern arthouse cinema that revives vampirism for a cynical age. KNIGHTRIDERS (1981) reinvents Arthurian mythology in Romero’s own unique style. CREEPSHOW (1982) proved George could do lurid old-school scares aimed at the monster kid generation…

trump dead Perhaps George Romero should have tried to revisit one of these projects in order to rediscover his mojo? Or, better still, have chanced his arm on something wholly original? Of course, it’s possible that if he was struggling to raise the finance for a Dead picture with his name attached, finding the funds for anything else would’ve been impossible. Regardless, even if you share my scepticism over his recent output, Romero has left cinema – and hence modern mythology – with a unique and powerful legacy. And even if zombie movies are increasingly passé, the idea behind them seems more relevant to me every year. If, as I suggest, that zombies are the democratic nightmare – of humanity dragged down by a morass of lumpen selfishness and raw stupidity – then could there be a better metaphor for a world menaced by Trump and Brexit?…

Visit the Undead Kingdom in the Fens

08 lithograph While this is the very definition of last minute, I thought it would be remiss of me not to give a heads up of a talk I’ll be giving this weekend. It’s for the second annual Fear in the Fens festival in the quaint Norfolk town of Downham Market on Sunday (1st October). Last year, I held forth on ‘The Mid-Life Crisis of Dracula’, while this year’s talk also has a vampiric theme. It’s entitled ‘The Undead Kingdom’, and in it, I’ll be exploring ‘The Unnatural History of the British Vampire’.

psychoThere are of course numerous other events at this year’s festival to delight horror devotees. Other talks include Robert Lloyd Parry on ‘M.R. James and the East Anglian Landscape’, Michael Clarke giving ‘An introduction to Jewish Folk Magick and the Qabalah’, and Jim Peters with an introduction to folk horror. The days screenings include NIGHT OF THE DEMON, DER GOLEM, and PSYCHOMANIA, complimented by a selection of locally made horror shorts. Rounding things out is the Frightful Things market, where specialist stalls will be purveying a selection of macabre treasures and trinkets.

For further details, check out the Fear in the Fens site here. While it is now too late to book tickets online, I’m assured there are still a few available on the door. Hope to see some of you there…fens

Invest in Weirdness!

Those poor lost souls that frequent this blog may remember a piece I wrote last year about one of the coolest emporiums that stocks my books – a York shop named Pandora’s Box – click here if you missed it. The big news is that they’re expanding, opening up the back of the shop into what they’re describing as a Micro Museum and Sideshow. In order to do fully realise their vision, Pandora’s Box need to raise more capital for the display cases and other equipment necessary, so have started a Kickstarter campaign, offering a range of suitably weird and wonderful rewards for investors. For more details of how to get involved in this exciting project, including a video giving a glimpse behind the scenes of York’s strangest attraction, check out their Kickstarter page here.