Brraaiinns! Or How To Survive When The Zombies Arrive

So, let’s say that it has finally happened. The zombie apocalypse that we have all been secretly hoping for has arrived. The ravening hordes are shuffling slowly up your street, intent on feasting on the flesh of the living. What do you do?

PPPPP: Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance

Be prepared, like a good Boy Scout. I’m obviously not suggesting that you have a ‘Zombie Emergency Kit’ stashed in your garage, just plan ahead and make sure you have all the things you might need within easy reach when the inevitable happens. Make sure that the car has at least fifty miles of fuel in the tank and is in reasonable running order. Ensure that your wardrobe contains at least one suit of hard-wearing clothing that covers all areas (leather is good and tough – it’s also wipe clean and sexy as hell). Maintain a good few days worth of tinned food in the cupboard and keep a few clean plastic bottles to fill with drinking water. And a first aid kit is a total necessity, packed with bandages, needles, broad-spectrum antibiotics, painkillers and so on. Water purification kits are also a good idea, in case you get lost out in the wilderness, many miles from Starbucks.

Of course, if you are an American (or a similarly unhinged nationality), you will have relatively easy access to firearms. You should therefore ensure that you are well tooled up in terms of your projectile weapon of choice. May I suggest something in a fully automatic shotgun?

Some people really shouldn't have access to this kind of firepower.

On the other hand, if you live in a country that has slightly more rigorous gun control, the best you’re likely to get is a knackered old double-barrel, and even then only if you happen to live on or near a farm or gun shop (which are few and far between – gun shops that is; there are lots of farms). If you live in the city, you could wait for the armed response units or the military to rock up and get eaten, thus leaving lots of shiny, military-grade weapons and ammo lying around, but then you’ll have to deal with all the zombies enjoying the al fresco soldier buffet.

One thing we can be sure of: melee weapons are a bad idea. If you’re that close, you’re probably already dead, and no amount of stabbing or pummeling is going to make a difference.

Have An Exit Strategy

Ok, you’re all prepared to get the hell out of Dodge. But where are you going? If, like me, you live in a big city, you are surrounded by a couple of million other people, of which a large proportion will be trying to dine on the brains of the remaining few, while those few are trying to also flee the carnage. If we assume a 99% infection rate, that still leaves 78,000 people trying to leave London, 20,000 trying to leave Birmingham. New York? 82,000. Shanghai? 178,000.

That’s a lot of traffic. Panicking traffic.

Beep beep!

You think normal rush hour is bad? Wait until you’ve got zombies stumbling into the flow of traffic, beloved family members zombing out in the back seat of the Zafira and the antics of the kind of people who have been looking forward to a zombie apocalypse just so they could play Mad Max on the ring road.

May I recommend staying at home? At least for a day or two. The zombies are unlikely to target you if you draw no attention to yourself. Lock doors and windows, turn out all lights and make no loud noises. Let the terrified and unprepared draw the danger away. Make sure that there is at least one secure exit to your home, one that will cause difficulties for pursuing zombies; a route across rooftops, or a series of lockable doors (zombies have trouble with doorknobs anyway), just in case the zombies do figure out where you are.

Once the roads have cleared a little, get the hell out of the city and head for a safe place in the country. Which leads us to our next point…

Drive Carefully!

This may be a minor point, but I think it bears close examination. The roads will be filled with abandoned vehicles, discarded rubbish and corpses, both shambling and otherwise. These can be problematic when driving, as I’m sure you remember from your own driving tests. The natural reaction will be to wait until nightfall before making your move. DO NOT DO THIS! At night, you will need to use headlights to avoid the dangers in the road. You will therefore be more obvious than a transvestite at a Klan rally. Drive during the day, you’ll be less noticeable.

And as for running over the zombies, well, check out the windscreen on this car after it hit a pedestrian.

Imagine hitting more than two zombies. The third one’s going to be sat in the car with you.

And then you’re lunch. And talking of cars…

A Decent Set Of Wheels

What are you driving? Something quick? A big V8, maybe the last of the V8s? Probably not a lot of use, considering the state of the roads in the post-apocalyptic world (roads in the pre-apocalyptic world aren’t all that great). One fire will fuck up the tarmac so much that a low-slung muscle car just isn’t going to cut it. You want something with four-wheel drive, something rugged, something easy to fix. Basically, you want one of these:

 

Proper motor!

There’s a reason that the British Army have been using this baby for about sixty years. And that reason is that it’s virtually unbreakable. The bodywork is made of solid hardness and the chassis is constructed from girders and stiff-upper-lippedness. It can be fixed in the field by squaddies with sticks and it can be converted to run on just about anything that will burn. It can also be fitted with riot protection really easily, which means you can actually drive through a bunch of zombies without being eaten. They may be noisy, thus attracting zombies to your location, but they are tough, and can protect you while you make your escape.

Have A Place To Go

There is no point in running if you’re just running away. You need to have somewhere to run to. Somewhere safe, but where is that? What constitutes ‘safe’ in world mostly populated with wandering, hungry corpses? According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, food, water and sleep are right at the bottom, with property and bodily security right above them. So you want a good, solid and well-defended base, right? Somewhere with just one way in, so it’s easy to barricade, right?

Wrong.

One way in is one way out, and if it’s crawling with zombies, you’re not getting out that way. You’re trapped inside. Still, as long as it’s safe, right? Wrong again. You’re surrounded by zombies. Sooner or later, you’re going to need to get out for more food. How long does it take for a zombie to starve to death? Or get bored and wander off, especially if it knows there are tasty people inside? Want to risk it?

Your best bet is to have a number of bolt-holes scattered about the countryside. Look at what you need. Food and water easily accessible, so a river or lake with plenty of life in is a good start (unless the fish are zombies – I don’t recall any literature dealing with undead trout, but keep your eyes open just in case). An independent power supply, such as a petrol driven generator or effective renewable energy sources are essential – how else will you practise zombie slaying on the Xbox? Farms are good, especially if they are built on reasonably open ground, as are nice, large and fertile islands; this gives you multiple escape routes and lots of land for growing food and raising livestock in the long-term. Open ground also allows excellent sight-lines for picking off the odd wandering zombie.

So, you’ve got a place to hide out, without hordes of zombies, with good sight-lines for…

Neca Eos Omnes…

Ok, I mentioned guns earlier. This is the bit that all true zombie fans are really interested in. What’s the point in having a world over-run by zombies if you aren’t going to spray their internal organs all over the place with fully automatic weaponry? So let’s just assume that you have the pick of any firearms that you could possibly want: which ones do you carry?

"We need to get bigger guns. Big fucking guns!"

We need to remember that, despite what video games would have us believe, one man cannot carry that much in the way of guns. A typical handgun weighs a couple of pounds, fully loaded. A submachine gun weighs in at around eight pounds. An assault rifle, twelve. Shotgun, seven. Add in a reasonable amount of ammunition for the guns and you’re talking between three and ten pounds per hundred rounds. A soldier may carry up to ninety pounds into combat, including water, first-aid kits, GPS, radios, a belt of ammo for a squad support weapon and so on. And they are trained to do it.

Go to a mirror and take a long, hard look at yourself. Reckon you could manage it?

Thought not. Realistically, an average person could probably carry a pistol and an assault rifle or auto-shotgun, plus enough ammo to be useful, for any extended period of time. Of course, you can load up the 4X4 with extra weaponry, but each additional gun is a couple of days worth of food or water that you don’t have room for.

While we’re on the subject, how good a shot are you? Do you practise often? And I’m not sure how much Time Crisis counts. The point is, headshots (the traditional method of dispatching the zombie menace) are tricky, especially in a high stress situation. The good news is that you don’t need to kill them. Blowing their legs off would allow you to get away too. Ok, so you’ll be leaving an extremely pissed off zombie lying around with no legs, just waiting for the next poor sap to stumble past, but fuck him! At least you’ll get away. Don’t waste time and ammo on fancy shots. Take out chunks of zombie with some massive tissue damage and simple engineering principles will do the rest. It can’t run after you if its femurs are shattered. Of course, if you’ve got a safe, elevated position and a sniper rifle, then knock yourself out!

Mum! I got an ouchie!

As I mentioned earlier, melee weapons are asking for trouble, but explosives of various types can be useful. Molotov cocktails, if you have a plentiful supply of petrol, will crisp a zombie up nicely, but leave the more tricky ones to the experts. Grenades are fairly simple to use, but hard to get hold of unless you’re in the military, and homemade explosives are just a cheap way to blow your own arms off.

Old school defensive structures are surprisingly useful against zombies, because they don’t have the sense to spot them. Pit traps, log falls, even mechanical bear traps can all be used to keep zombies away from your perimeter.

Who’s With You?

The final part of this article deals with the people around you. How do you decide who you band together with? The obvious answer goes hand in hand with the ‘planning’ suggestion earlier; figure out before the apocalypse who is going to be a useful addition to the team. Mechanical skills, medical skills, survival skills are all useful, and don’t forget someone who can make tinned food not taste like week-old arse. Once you have a good idea where you are going, you can figure out whose skills will be most useful to you. The temptation will be to save family members and other loved ones, but you may not have the luxury of compassion in the zombified world.

Unless they are plump and slow-moving, in which case you might want to take them along in case you need a distraction. Working in groups is a good idea, though. Safety in numbers isn’t just a cliché, it could save lives. Ideally, contact other potential survivor cells before the apocalypse and arrange to meet up at a secret location and form a super-commune, to help repopulate the world.

But remember to invite some members of the opposite sex…

Bricking it…

Yesterday in the Daily Mail, a woman called Samantha Brick wrote an article bemoaning the cruel hand that fate has dealt her. She suffers from discrimination, the target of an orchestrated and institutionalized hate campaign. That’s right: Samantha Brick is hated by women, “for no other reason than my lovely looks”. That’s right. Samantha Brick has bravely opened the debate on the jealousy that women have for more attractive members of their own gender.

You can read her article here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2124246/Samantha-Brick-downsides-looking-pretty-Why-women-hate-beautiful.html

This woman deserves your pity.

Twitter almost literally exploded. An outpouring of anger, hate and vitriol was aimed at this poor woman all day yesterday, just for having the courage to raise her beautiful, blonde head above the parapet. Some of the hateful rhetoric hurled at her is unforgivable, fueled entirely by base, petty jealousy. These hideous trolls should crawl back underneath their bridges and comb their matted beards. We don’t want to hear from these deformed gorgons, only pretty people should be allowed to voice their opinions.

The lovely Samantha assures us that “I’m not smug and I’m no flirt”, before going on to list occasions where female bosses have singled her out for her attractiveness or the clothes she wears. With male bosses it’s different, of course: “I have flirted to get ahead at work, something I’m sure many women do.”

So…she’s not a flirt, but has flirted to get ahead? I think we’re beginning to close in on the real reason that she has been treated badly. She appears to be a smug, self-centered hypocrite. She is claiming that anyone who doesn’t automatically like her is jealous of her looks. I’m not sure that is the case. In fact, I suspect that if you were to read the articles without seeing the (many) photographs of the “tall, slim, blonde and, so I’m often told…good-looking woman” you would form a distinct impression of her as being really quite objectionable. I’m sure many of us, as much as we would not like to admit it, do judge people on their appearance in the first instance, but I am also sure than many of us are also aware of this, and do our very best to move beyond this snap judgement and base our impressions of people on what they are like, not what they look like. Most of us understand the phrase “beauty is only skin deep”, even if we still like a pretty woman or attractive man. It’s why Hollywood doesn’t have that many ‘normal’ looking people in its films.

Ok, so there are exceptions to every rule.

Samantha Brick laid out her case in the Daily Mail and immediately found herself in the middle of a row, with celebrities and ‘ordinary folk’ alike throwing their hats into the arena. The MailOnline website received a veritable shitstorm of hits and comments (well over 4500 before they disabled the comments section of the web page), earning a nice pot of advertising revenue in the process. They were obviously so pleased with this result that they got Samantha to write a follow-up article, which, at time of writing, had already racked up over 600 comments before the option was again removed. So congratulations, Samantha. Over the last two days you have probably earned the Daily Mail the equivalent of the salaries of half a dozen NHS nurses. You must be very proud.

Her follow-up article can be found here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2124782/Samantha-Brick-says-backlash-bile-yesterdays-Daily-Mail-proves-shes-right.html

If one were feeling harsh, one could ask if a woman who was truly secure in her attractiveness would include thirteen photographs of herself in two articles. Seriously. Thirteen photographs spread across two articles totaling only three thousand words. That’s one photograph of herself every 230 words. That’s a level of narcissism that we mere mortals can only dream of. Way to raise the bar, Samantha.

Her follow-up article addresses the feedback she received on her first article, outlining the trending on Twitter, the responses of “women I know well enough to call friends” on Facebook, the “countless so-called comedians [that] have written unprintable things” about her. The comment printed from her ‘friends’ on Facebook is perhaps the most revealing: “What the hell does Sam think she’s on?” Yes, even her friends think she’s lost the plot. Far be it for me to denigrate someone’s looks (I’m no oil painting myself, believe it or not), but she isn’t actually all that stunning. Good looking, yes, in a slightly-above-average way, although that forced grin of hers does rather put me in mind of dour ex-PM Gordon Brown.

The demented smile of a child killer.
Possibly.

The majority of comments about Brick’s article seemed to focus on this point: why does she think she is so beautiful? Let’s be honest, beauty is a relatively subjective thing – what one person finds attractive isn’t necessarily the same as the next person. I, for one, believe that Cate Blanchett is a stunning woman, but Kim Kardashian* leaves me cold (and flaccid). Many would disagree, and that is their right. And confidence is an extremely attractive quality for anyone, male or female, to possess. But what Brick (and I must stop calling her that – it makes me think of the Fantastic Four’s strongman) is displaying isn’t confidence – it’s arrogance. It is the assumption that people dislike her because “women find nothing more annoying than someone else being the most attractive girl in a room”, pasting herself in the role of “the most attractive girl in the room”. Leaving aside the slightly disturbing connotations of a 41-year-old woman referring to herself as a ‘girl’, she is arrogantly assuming that everyone else is as shallow as her, that every problem she has faced in life – be it from co-workers, bosses, people on the street – is the result of the failings of others, the pure jealousy caused by her natural beauty. She suggests that if Brad Pitt referred to himself as good-looking, everyone would agree, but if Angelina Jolie did the same there would be a similar outcry as she has experienced.

No. Not true. I reckon that if Ms Jolie were to suggest that she was good-looking, most people would call her arrogant for saying so, but wouldn’t bother arguing that point with her because it is so self-evidently true. However, the point remains that Ms Jolie hasn’t said that, presumably because she knows it would be a hideously arrogant thing to say. Do you see my point here, Samantha? The same goes for many other women: Anne Hathaway, Aishwarya Rai, Charlize Theron, Monica Bellucci, Zoe Saldana, Sophie Dahl (before she lost the weight). None of these women have stood up and blamed everyone else’s jealousy for holding them back.

Compare Ms Dahl...

Or Ms Rai...

...with Ms Brick.

But she didn’t stop there. Oh no. The comments that she received after her initial article had one result: “my detractors have simply proved my point”. Wow! Chutzpah much? Yes, indeed. All you people who tried to point out that she was arrogant, or crazy, or misguided, no matter how rational and well formulated your response was, regardless of your level of intelligence or position in life, if you disagreed with her, you were jealous of her unmatched beauty. This really takes some balls. Samantha Brick singled out Lauren Laverne, BBC Radio DJ and presenter of Channel 4’s 10 O’Clock Live, for her Twitter comments about the article, including “Why do people WRITE articles like this? And why am I reading it?” The article suggests that Laverne was Tweeting about it all day, but as I follow her on Twitter, I can categorically say that this wasn’t the case at all. She certainly responded to the Tweets of others on the subject, but she seemed far more interested in the sex lives of the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo than Samantha Brick’s self-obsessed rantings (and who wouldn’t be? Pandas really are cute!)

To wrap up this little rant, I would like to say a few things. Firstly, I don’t care if Samantha Brick believes she is the most beautiful woman in the world. Seriously. Good on her for having that level of self-confidence in such an appearance-conscious age. But don’t assume that everybody shares this view. That’s just arrogance.

Secondly, don’t personally attack her looks if you are going to disagree. She isn’t ugly, let’s be fair. She may not be ‘your type’, but objectively speaking she’s closer to Angelina Jolie than Joseph Merrick. Call her arrogant, call her narcissistic, call her deluded, but don’t bother calling her ugly: you’re damaging your own argument.

Thirdly, I have included the links to the two MailOnline articles out of obligation, but I urge you not to visit them! Don’t give that fascist rag the satisfaction or the money. If you wish to check the quotations I have used, then on your own head be it!

That’s it. I’ll climb down from my soapbox now.

Have a nice day!

*I don’t even know who this person is!

A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet: Addendum

Further to my reflections on American TV shows over the last few days, someone pointed out that there is not much of a commentary included. I added a few thoughts to the end of the second post, but clearly that was not enough. So I thought I’d try to expand on that.

What effect did these shows have on me as an individual, and my generation?

This is going to be problematic. I can certainly try to explore the effect that they had on me, but beyond that it will have to be conjecture at best.

Firstly then, what is the nature of a hero? Traditionally, a hero was semi-divine, featuring in the mythology of ancient Greece. They were superhuman in some way, admired for their courage or other noble qualities, and often engaged in a feat of self-sacrifice. This definition has been modernised somewhat, taking into account literary heroes, which are simply (and slightly erroneously) seen as the main protagonist of a work of fiction, someone who is generally associated with positive qualities. Often a modern hero will be an everyman, an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation who rises to the challenge facing them. In the real world, of course, a hero is just someone who is respected for some kind of achievement, often showing bravery by risking their own life, but we aren’t interested in real life here!

John McClane: Not a real-life hero

Heroes are central to our emotional landscapes, meaning that we need heroes (either real or imaginary) in order to give us something to aspire to. They have the touch of perfection, but almost inevitably with enough of a flaw to be attainable by mere mortals. At least, that’s how it seems. Most of us are actually far too real, too normal, too boring, to ever achieve heroic status, however hard we may try. Besides, most of us look ridiculous in spandex. But we have invented heros ever since we started thinking, almost. The ancient Greeks had heroes, the Egyptians, the Scandinavians, the Celts. We have always needed someone with the physical and mental strength to stand up for the little people, to face down the tyrant, to win the day.

An action show, or movie, needs a hero (or possibly an antihero, but more of them in a bit), as well as a foil for them, a villain of some sort. This could be, in the case of some of the TV shows discussed before, a villain of the week, a one-off bad guy who is defeated before the hero moves on. Or it could be a recurring bad guy, or succession of essentially identical bad guys working for one uber-villain. Battlestar Galactica is a perfect example of the latter, with the Cylons repeatedly throwing themselves at the fleet, following the orders of the Imperious Leader, while an example of the former would be Knight Rider, where Michael Knight would drive around looking for desperate people that he could help. The A-Team, of course, would fall somewhere between the two, as they would often be fighting a villain of the week while simultaneously trying to avoid capture by the military police led by Colonel Decker. Heroes need someone to fight who represents the bad in the world. This could be repressive authority, the ‘tyranny of evil men’, corporate greed. It needs to be something that affects ordinary people, people who, for whatever reason, are powerless against it.

This man is Satan's representative on Earth.
Possibly.

80s heroes embraced the anti-authority angle with gusto. The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard and Airwolf all feature heroes who work against the accepted face of government in some way, although all are sympathetic characters. Hannibal and co. are wrongly convicted of a crime, the Duke boys are charming rogues guilty of nothing more than a little illicit booze smuggling and Stringfellow Hawke was being blackmailed to work for a distinctly dubious and secretive arm of government. The audience is firmly on the side of the rebel, especially in America, where the rebel is part of their national history. The American nation was born out of rebellion (specifically rebellion against the British – just watch any Mel Gibson film of the last fifteen years), so it is fitting that their heroes should now take on that role. Quite often, various branches of Federal government are used as the villain, be it the CIA, the FBI, local law enforcement or whatever. This shows us that although Americans are fiercely proud of their rebellious beginnings, they do not necessarily trust the systems put in place for the protection of their nation. This was especially odd in the 80s, when America was deep in the Cold War, following a strong anti-communist policy. The idea of heroes going around helping people who were unable to help themselves was a deeply communistic one, totally at odds with the capitalist American dream. And yet these heroes flourished.

Yee-Haw, as I believe the phrase is.

The rebel is iconic, it runs through folklore and history. American history in particular is full of these men – and they are almost exclusively men: Patrick Henry; George Washington; Sam Houston. This carries through into television and film: Han Solo; Jim Stark; Tyler Durden. The 80s were more open to the idea of the rebel in television than earlier decades, partly because of the oppressive political climate, partly because of the decreasing cost of producing television shows combined with larger budgets, which made it easier to churn out action and science-fiction shows with reasonable (if not excellent) production values. Glen Larson and Stephen Cannell, among others, were used to capitalize on this situation with their huge outpouring of shows. But these shows were made by men, starred men and dealt with male relationships. The female roles were generally little more than eye candy, without any depth or importance to the plot, mostly there just to be kissed by the heroes and occasionally get kidnapped. The A-Team in particular was criticised for being sexist, and indeed some of the stars were openly hostile to the idea of including regular female cast members. It’s true that very few action shows from that period had female leads: in the late 70s, Wonder Woman, as portrayed by Lynda Carter, had pranced across the small screen in her satin tights, Lindsay Wagner was playing The Bionic Woman at around the same time, and the classic Charlie’s Angels kept karate kicking for a year or two longer. But as the 80s dawned, these shows disappeared, leaving women to fill the fluff roles, supporting the more traditionally ‘heroic’ men.

Good morning, Angels!

The depiction of violence is another area where these shows stand out. Famously, The A-Team never killed anyone, despite spraying bullets and explosives around like champagne on the winner’s podium. Michael Knight rarely (if ever) fired a gun, but did manage to run half a dozen cars off the road in every 45 minute episode (this may be an exaggeration). Airwolf launched missiles and rockets with wild abandon, Blue Thunder‘s cannon almost never stopped firing and even the Duke boys forced Hazzard County to spend the GDP of a medium-sized South American country on replacement police cars. And yet no-one ever died. No blood was ever spilt. The reason for this was obvious, of course: prime time television couldn’t allow it. The exceptions to this rule were Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, as they were only shooting aliens and robots, which was somehow more acceptable to the censor’s sensibilities. This violence, harmless as it may appear to a generation dulled by Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers, was problematic at the time. Networks worried that even this level of ‘cartoon’ violence would be disliked by parents, although relatively few complaints were received. It has been suggested that the over-the-top violence was the cause of the demise of these shows, as viewers eventually preferred less ‘masculine’ shows, turning instead to more family themed programming.

The 80s action style lived on for a few more years in the cinema, evolving eventually into the antihero movies of Leon and The Boondock Saints, characters who will do whatever it takes to do the right thing, even if that means shooting a whole bunch of people in the face. No A-Team style cartoon violence there, although the motives (help people who cannot help themselves) remain the same. The targets changed too, becoming more focused on organised crime rather than corrupt government or local criminals. Today, of course, we have a range of villains to shoot at. Our post-modern take on the action movie means that we can’t throw a brick into a crowd without hitting someone that we can call a villain: lawyers, capitalists, terrorists, gangers, activists, bent coppers, the list is virtually endless. But the reasons, and the rebellious nature of our heroes, remains. How many cop shows or movies haven’t featured a cop arguing with his or her superiors about the best way to deal with a criminal? How many shootouts don’t involve hundreds of bullets missing their targets? How many car chases don’t involve one of the chasing cars crashing into civilian traffic at an intersection? These shows have helped to shape the collective unconsciousness. We now expect to see these conventions acted out, even if we dismiss them as clichéd, and feel somehow cheated when they are ignored.

Chicks with guns: Sexy. And a little worrying.

The sexism angle is still with us. Strong female characters are more accepted, but still not common, and the argument remains that most of them are simply masculinised, rather than being strong in their own right. Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgement Day has lost the femininity and innocence of the first film and bulked up, becoming muscular, dressing in baggy, form-hiding combat trousers, and failing to be the mother-figure that young John Connor needs. Milla Jovovich in the Resident Evil series is a combat expert with some superhuman abilities, turning her into nothing more than a robotic killing machine. Some films are more effective, namely Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, which attempt to show women operating in a masculine society without losing their femininity. Crouching Tiger… presents the character of Yu Shu Lien as submissive to the masculine society but still able to operate as a warrior, maintaining both her masculine role and her feminine one.

But did the 80s shows change us? Did they make us see the world in a certain way? Judging by the recent run of 80s series being rebooted or made into Hollywood movies, I’d venture to suggest that they have made a lasting impression on my generation: The A-Team, The Dukes of Hazzard, Miami Vice, Charlie’s Angels, G.I. Joe, Battlestar Galactica. The rebel-as-hero archetype is still with us, as is the antihero, although both predate the 80s by hundreds of years, it was that decade that saw them truly come into their own. Heroes are not infallible, and we don’t want them to be. Superman is the least interesting of the mainstream superheroes, largely because he is too close to perfection. There is no way for us to relate to him. In the recent reboot of that franchise, the film-makers had to give him both a son (to give his enemies a new way to hurt him) and a literal mountain of Kryptonite! Batman, on the other hand, is really quite damaged and flawed. He is much darker and the audience likes him for it, recognising some of their own flaws behind that mask.

The 80s heroes were more innocent in many ways, hovering on the fringes of criminality without ever venturing in too deep. That would have been too disturbing for the young audience. Somewhere along the line, we lost that innocence. As a result, TV heroes have lost a lot of their power to thrill and excite us.

I think that’s a bad thing. What do you think?

A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 2

To start the second part of my nostalgic trip back to the 80s I would like to look at what we have seen so far: Science Fiction, in the form of Battlestar Galactica, in which friendship in the face of overwhelming odds will see you to success; Action, in the form of The A-Team, in which camaraderie in the face of corrupt, oppressive government will see you to success; Action/Science Fiction, in the form of Knight Rider, in which a refusal to use guns and a certain purity of heart (as well as a technologically advanced Pontiac) will see you to success; Action/Comedy, in the form of The Dukes of Hazzard, in which a strong family unit in the face of corrupt, if inept, law and government will see you to success.

I’m seeing a pattern develop…

So, moving on from these well-known shows, I thought I’d throw in a couple of lesser known ones that I have fond (if vague) memories of. I’ll kick off with Manimal and Automan. These were both very short-lived, with Manimal managing just eight episodes and Automan racking up twelve. Manimal starred Simon MacCorkindale as Dr Jonathan Chase, a rich traveller with the ‘mystical’ (i.e. unexplained) ability to turn into any animal. He used this remarkable talent to (yep, you’ve guessed it) fight crime! He would assist his friend, Detective Brooke MacKenzie, in solving crimes and bringing criminals to justice by turning into a hawk. Or a panther. Mainly those two. Honestly, it’s almost as if they blew their budget for transformation sequences pretty early on, and besides, they only had access to a hawk and a panther for much of the filming anyway. This was pretty much what had happened. Chase would sometimes turn into another animal in each episode, but they wouldn’t show it happening. Stan Winston (of Terminator, Predator and Aliens fame) created the transformation effects, but, if we’re being totally honest, it isn’t his best work. Not even close.

Stan was kind of phoning it in at this stage

Automan was perhaps even worse. Starring Desi Arnaz Jr (son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball) as Walter Nebicher, crappy cop but computer programmer extraordinaire, who creates an Artificial Intelligence programme capable of generating a solid, real-world body (played by Chuck Wagner, best known in Britain as ‘Who?’). Together, Walter and Automan would drive around the city in a computer generated Lamborghini Countach which could somehow make 90 degree turns (probably with the magic of computering), and solve crimes. One could be forgiven for suggesting that the show’s creators were trying to jump on the Tron bandwagon, because they totally were, even to the extent of hiring senior crew from the film. Visually, there were obvious similarities (although the movie used expensive hand painted animation for their suit effects, while the television series used reflective tape and spotlights), and thematically Automan was essentially an inversion of the Tron concept.

"Dude. This is a really crappy show."
"I know, man. I know."

On the slighty less shitty side, we have vehicles other than cars to entertain us. Firstly, a motorcycle. Street Hawk was another short-lived series starring Rex Smith as the unlikely sounding Jesse Mach, injured cop and dirt-bike rider, who is selected for a Secret Government Project (TM) involving a prototype motorbike. He becomes The Street Hawk, vigilante crime-fighter. Yeah, it’s basically Knight Rider with a much smaller budget and only two wheels. The bike had a ‘hyperthrust’ mode, which supposedly propelled it at speeds of three hundred miles per hour, but it was mainly used for jumping traffic at junctions. There was little in the way of uniqueness about the show, following as it did the same formula as the far more successful and iconic Knight Rider, and it folded after thirteen episodes. It wasn’t a bad show, as these things are measured. It was just eclipsed by a bigger budget and better concept.

In 1983 a movie starring Roy Scheider was released, called Blue Thunder. It featured a high-tech stealth and combat helicopter (called Blue Thunder) being tested by a Viet Nam veteran with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder over the streets of LA. Yeah, good call. This film inspired a short-lived television series following pretty much the same format. James Farentino took over the Roy Scheider role, and was supported by Dana Carvey (better known as Garth from Wayne’s World) and Bubba Smith (better known as Hightower from the Police Academy movies). The helicopter itself was a modified Aérospatiale Gazelle, with a front end so ugly only its mother (or possibly a very drunk Apache Longbow) could love it. Although it had the moderate success of the movie to build on, it too only lasted for a disappointing eleven episodes. Why was that? Well, compare this:

To this:

That’s right: Airwolf. Airwolf thrashed Blue Thunder in the ratings war, and it’s not too hard to see why. Firstly, the helicopter itself looked so much more high-tech. Secondly, the actors were much better (insomuch as Ernest Borgnine and Jan-Michael Vincent can be considered ‘better actors’ than anyone). And thirdly, character names. Blue Thunder‘s hero revelled in the name Frank Chaney, while Airwolf blasted that into obscurity with the fabulous Stringfellow Hawke. Yeah, that’s right. Stringfellow Hawke: any name that conjured up a bird of prey and a lapdancing club couldn’t have been more masculine unless his middle names were Chuck and Norris.

The plot was slightly more complex than that of Blue Thunder, in that Stringfellow Hawke used to be a test pilot for the FIRM, a division of the CIA. His collection of artwork is stolen by the FIRM and he is tasked with retrieving the stolen helicopter from its inventor, Dr Moffet, and returning it to Archangel, Director of the FIRM. Except, rather predictably, Hawke doesn’t return it. He stashes it in the desert to use as leverage against Archangel for the return of his brother, who is missing in action. Archangel offers him protection from the other interested parties in government if Hawke agrees to fly covert missions for him. Cue much flying around the desert blowing shit up.

Series one was a serious examination of Cold War politics, with the FIRM (dressed in white) sending Hawke to deal with threats to the US Government, while always looking for an opportunity to reclaim Airwolf from him. But the studio decided that it was too dark, and from the second series toned it down into another action-adventure show, Knight Rider with rotor blades, with the FIRM and Hawke acting as partners in a crime-fighting organisation. This took something away from the show, removing the antagonism between Hawke and the ‘good guys’, and lowered the show to more standard fare. It struggled on for two more seasons with the original cast, and one season with an entirely new cast (and recycled shots of the helicopter flying), before finally being cancelled.

Flight is one of the themes of the next show on the list, albeit clumsily done. This Stephen J Cannell produced show starred William Katt as Ralph Hinkley (or Hanley), a high school teacher who is given a suit by alien beings which grants him superheroic abilities. The Greatest American Hero was a primarily a comedy show, centered around the premise that Ralph didn’t know how to use the suit properly (he lost the instruction manual) and had to learn its abilities by trial and error. Much hilarity ensued.

Would you really want to be rescued by this guy?

The Greatest American Hero ran for three seasons, making it one of the more successful shows on this list, but there were differences in opinion between Cannell and the series executives about the direction that the show would take. Cannell envisioned it as a way to explore realistic, normal, everyday problems, but the executives wanted a more mainstream, simplistic hero show. The executives won, for the most part, although Cannell did score a few points along the way. It remained an interesting show to watch, and it was genuinely funny in places, but it was always struggling to be better than it was allowed to be and eventually failed as a result.

Our final show has already been referenced, and since we started with a science-fiction show we might as well end on one. At the end of the 70s, Star Wars was busy shattering records and rewriting the sci-fi bible, so the studios cast around for a way to cash in. We have already seen how Battlestar Galactica was sued by 20th Century Fox, but despite this Universal Studios released a feature based on one of their old properties, one that had been knocking around in various forms since the 1920s. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was well-received, which prompted a TV series that survived for two seasons. It centred around an astronaut, Captain William ‘Buck’ Rogers, who was piloting a space shuttle that suffered a malfunction, freezing Rogers for over five centuries. He was rescued by the inhabitants of New Chicago and joined the Earth Defense.

Could this be much more of a Star Wars rip-off?
Or more obviously 80s?

Buck, played by Gil Gerard, was a truly heroic character. He was both a lover and a fighter, sweeping a succession of ladies off of their silver shoes while being chased by the beautiful but evil Princess Ardala (Pamela Hensley). His close companion was the beautiful Wilma Deering, a Colonel in the Earth Defense played by Erin Gray. Just in case you don’t know, she looked like this:

Any excuse...

Although sometimes she looked more like this:

Ok, I'll stop now...

Anyway, Buck and Wilma spent much of their time defending Earth from invasion, while trying to get Buck to fit in to 25th century society. They were helped in this by Twiki, the child-sized robot, and Dr Theopolis, the hyper-intelligent Speak & Spell. Buck Rogers… was highly camp space-opera. There was no depth, no social commentary, just space ships, spandex and robots. It was cheesy and fun, although the second season attempted a more serious tone, largely as a result of Gerard himself pressuring the producers. The character of Hawk, a member of a bird based alien race, was introduced, allowing the programme makers to explore religious and mythological themes, as well as ecological and racist themes and ideas on evolution. Unfortunately, the show stalled due to falling ratings and was cancelled after the second series.

So what have we learnt on our trawl through the American imports? Hopefully, we can see a formula developing. We know that a hero, or heroes, are often, in some way, rebellious or anti-authoritarian. This sits well with the American image, or at least with the image that Americans like to believe in. They are the rebellious country, after all, born from colonial oppression and the subsequent revolution. The A-Team were wrongly accused and imprisoned. Stringfellow Hawke was blackmailed into working for ‘The Man’. Michael Knight was fighting crime under a false identity. Starbuck and Apollo broke the rules to get the job done. The Duke Boys were petty criminals fighting government corruption. Even Buck Rogers was fighting royalist oppressors.

Next, we can assume that Americans like their heroes male. None of these shows have female leads, and none of the female stars are particularly strong. Except this one:

What?

Sorry.

Anyway, most of these shows were decidedly masculine, not only in casting but in attitude as well. On the set of The A-Team, George Peppard famously told supporting actress Marla Heasley (who played reporter Tawnia Baker on the show), “we don’t want you on the show…for some reason they think they need a girl”. This sentiment was echoed much later by Dirk Benedict, who called it “a guys show” and “the last truly masculine show”. This underlying sexism ran through most of the 80s shows, certainly the American ones that were shown on British TV. I suspect our homegrown shows were no better, although I do recall a lot of Miss Marple being watched in our house.

Did this affect us growing up? I believe it did. So many studies have shown what a profound influence television can have on a young mind that it seems impossible that it didn’t have an effect. But what? How were we changed by what we watched? Well, I suspect that our view of heroic activity was certainly influenced. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know what I think of when the words ‘action hero’ are mentioned, and it isn’t Mark Wahlberg. Am I sexist? No, I don’t think so, not in the way most people think of as being sexist, although I do subscribe to a reasonably old-fashioned ideal of manhood, whereby you hold doors open for women, let them go first, give up your seat on a bus or train and so on. These actions are sometimes considered sexist, which I think is a little harsh. After all, I also hold doors open for men.

Well, the point is that these shows are bound to have coloured our views of heroism. A real hero (a real man, if you like) is a bit of a rebel. He doesn’t bow down to ‘The Man’, doesn’t give in to the oppressor. He will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves and will risk his life for a righteous cause, all while wearing a flannel shirt and blue jeans (or possibly spandex or suede). Moustaches are heroic, goatees are evil. Any group will consist of people who are experts in their particular field, and whose skills compliment each other perfectly.

And if there is a woman in the group, she’ll probably look like this:

Last one, I promise

Psycho Killer, Qu’est Que C’est

SPOILER ALERT – I CAN TELL YOU WHAT HAPPENS IN THESE FILMS, BUT THEN I’LL HAVE TO KILL YOU!

Serial killers and psycho killers are a commonplace threat in horror movies. We like the idea of a human being with inhuman desires or tastes and no mercy. Someone human on the outside, but alien within. Historical figures that fit the bill fascinate us, from Vlad ‘The Impaler’ Tepes to Jack the Ripper to Ted Bundy, and we are just as interested in their celluloid representations. Some people suggest that the first true serial killer in movies appeared in Fritz Lang’s M’ in 1931. ‘M’ starred Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert, murderer of nine young girls in Berlin. The police are getting desperate to catch the murderer and the criminal underworld have decided to catch him themselves to stop the constant hassling from the police. Beckert is unambiguously presented as suffering from a mental illness, claiming that he hears voices that force him to kill.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1943 thriller Shadow of a Doubt, played by Joseph Cotten (who had previously been seen in the Orson Welles classic Citizen Kane, playing the titular character’s best friend Jedediah Leland). Hitchcock had been directing films for two decades by this time, but Shadow of a Doubt was only his sixth Hollywood movie. His previous films had mainly been whodunnits, spy thrillers and heist movies, so this was a departure, not just for him, but for the movie industry, and Hitchcock is often quoted as saying that Shadow of a Doubt was the favourite of all his films.

Shadow of a Doubt is not, strictly speaking, a serial killer movie, as it focuses on the niece of the killer finding out Uncle Charlie’s secret, rather than the killings themselves, but it was the first depiction of what came to be known as a serial killer. Serial killers had probably been active for centuries, but records seem to start recording them from the late 1800s (and the name ‘serial killer’ wasn’t even recorded until the 1970s).

So, how do we define a serial killer? What makes a serial killer different from a mass murderer? Well, a serial killer needs to kill at least three people, in separate incidents, with some time in between. The victims are often (but not necessarily) connected by age, gender, race or some other attribute. There are almost as many motives suggested as there are serial killers, but most authorities agree that there will usually be a psychological trigger involved.

A year later, Franz Kapra released the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace, in which lovebirds Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) and Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) return to Mortimer’s family home to discover that his sweet old aunts are happily murdering lonely old men (as an act of charity). In addition, Mortimer’s brother Teddy believes he is Teddy Roosevelt and has been helping the aunts by burying the bodies in the cellar. Things are further confused by the return of the third brother, Jonathan, who looks like Boris Karloff due to his use of plastic surgery to escape his crimes. If you haven’t seen it, do so. It’s good fun.

Even Charlie Chaplin got in on the act, with the 1947 release Monsieur Verdoux. Chaplin plays Henri Verdoux, a Bluebeard inspired character that marries and murders wealthy widows, in order to provide for his real family after he unfairly loses his job. He sees no problem with the murders he carries out, judging them to be of far less importance than the large number of killings that occurred during the war.

The film was not well received on its release, especially in America, because of the relatively dark subject matter. This was an almost total reversal of his previous films, mostly featuring his trademark ‘Little Tramp’ character. Despite the poor reception, the film was nominated for an Academy Award and has become a classic example of Chaplin’s talents, eventually becoming a cult classic.

1955 brought the powerful and iconic Robert Mitchum film Night of the Hunter, in which Mitchum’s deranged and tattooed preacher, Harry Powell, tells the Lord all about his holy mission: to cleanse the world of the vain women who use sex as a weapon to ensnare men. After getting arrested for car theft, Powell is locked up with Ben Harper (Peter Graves) who has been sentenced to hang for murder. Harper confesses to Powell that he stole $10,000 and hid it with his wife and children. Powell decides to use this money to fund his mission. The rest of the film revolves around Powell’s attempt to persuade, trick, coerce and threaten Harper’s children. This does not work, so he marries their mother Willa (Shelley Winters), eventually murdering her because she wanted to sleep with him on their honeymoon. Powell’s eventual arrest frees the children from his evil influence and, although the money is lost, they find a new and loving home.

Night of the Hunter was director Charles Laughton’s final film and was not succesful, but, since its release, has been rightly raised to classic status. Mitchum’s diabolical preacher, with ‘LOVE’ and ‘HATE’ tattooed across his knuckles, has become a truly iconic villain of cinema, and the expressionist-inspired camerawork lends a disturbing and bizarre atmosphere. It invariably ranks in any classic film list worth its salt!

Jumping ahead to 1960, we find another Alfred Hitchcock classic: Psycho. This film has become the ultimate Hitchcock movie, throwing the audience a curveball by setting up Janet Leigh’s character, Marion Crane, as the lead before killing her off in the now famous ‘shower scene’. Anthony Perkins, playing Norman Bates with a disarming shyness that contains just enough menace to seriously disturb, is the ‘psycho’ of the title, suffering from a split personality since murdering his overbearing mother and her lover. The film was loosely based on the Robert Bloch novel, which was itself based on the real-life murderer Ed Gein. Gein’s two victims meant that he was not classed as a serial killer, but his body-snatching ways affected movie villains for decades. His father died when Ed was in his early thirties, followed over the next five years by the deaths of his brother and mother. There were suggestions that he had killed his brother, but the authorities ruled out any foul play. There were also suggestions that Gein’s mother was “his only friend and one true love” (according to his biographer, Harold Schechter). This clearly inspired the Norman Bates character, dominated by his mother’s personality even long after her death.

The shower scene, in which Janet Leigh is stabbed to death, has become possibly the most famous scene in Hollywood. The scene is only around three minutes long but contains nearly eighty separate camera angles, over fifty cuts and took a full week to shoot. The strange effect of this visually intense scene is what people see in it. Many people have claimed to see Janet Leigh’s breast in one frame, others claim that they see the knife pierce her skin. Neither of these is true. Everything, including the violence and nudity, is entirely in the mind of the observer. This was Hitchcock’s great skill. He famously said that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it”. He was a genius at making the audience fill in the gaps, simply through the power of suggestion. The combination of the rapidly changing visuals, Janet Leigh’s helpless screaming and the Bernard Hermann string instrument soundtrack (which has become one of cinema’s most famous audioscapes) create a brutally effective murder scene. The faceless killer, identifiable by the long dress and hair in a bun, is silent, mercilessly slashing and stabbing at Leigh’s naked frame. As she sinks into the tub, chocolate sauce blood swirling down the plug, the camera slowly tracks back from her dead, staring eye and pans across the room to the window, focusing on the Bates house as Norman’s voice rings out with “Mother! Oh God, mother! Blood!”. The murder itself only takes up around twenty seconds of this scene, reinforcing Hitchcock’s assertion that there is no tension in the violent act. The rest of the three minutes is pure, Hitchcockian atmosphere.

Some people would say that this film has no place in a discussion of serial killers, as Norman Bates does not fit into that category, but I would point out that at the end of the film, the psychiatrists explain that Janet Leigh’s character was Norman’s third victim: ‘Mother’ had killed two young women before her, both of whom Norman had been attracted to. Norman himself suffers from a psychological syndrome that affects his reasoning abilities, allowing him to ‘forget’ the murders committed by ‘Mother’ and disassociating himself from them by hiding behind the ‘Mother’ persona.

In 1963, French director Claude Chabrol released a film called Landru (released as Bluebeard in the US). This, like Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux, was based on the real-life serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, and featured an educated and respectable man conning and murdering a string of women in order to steal their money. However, in Chabrol’s version, the main character is getting money for his wife (as with Chaplin’s film) but also his four children and his mistress, making him a far less sympathetic character. Landru (portrayed by Charles Denner) is cold and calculating, believing that he is far too intelligent to be caught or convicted, and as such is a far more effective cinematic serial killer than Chaplin’s Verdoux. We like our serial killers to be evil, rather than have a genuine reason for their crimes. We need them to be unrepentant, gloating, either through being two-dimensionally evil or some mental defect that renders them unable to show pity or remorse. They are monsters, not truly people, and we don’t want that layer of complication. After all, we can class mass murderers like James Bond or Jason Bourne as heroes because they only kill ‘baddies’, a simple and clear distinction. A more ambiguous character, like Clint Eastwood’s William Munny, forces us to think about the on-screen violence and its effects. We don’t want that in a serial killer movie.

Usually.

Eastwood crops up in our next major serial killer movie, about a right-wing, loose-cannon cop chasing down the Scorpio killer in San Francisco in 1971. Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry is more famous for its title character and his “do I feel lucky?” catchphrase, but it is at heart a true serial killer movie. Scorpio plays the now traditional game of cat and mouse with the police, taunting them with demands for ransom, revealing himself before escaping again, building up to a large-scale operation. In Scorpio’s case, he also uses Harry Callahan’s loose-cannon status as something to hide behind, being released on technicalities (Harry searches his home without a warrant, so the evidence is inadmissible), paying someone to beat him up and blaming Harry. Harry eventually goes rogue and hunts down Scorpio against orders, killing him. This is an example of the cop being as cold and murderous as the serial killer, which is kind of the point of the film. Harry is a brutal cop, unafraid of breaking the law in order to protect it. His disgust with the system that protects killers like Scorpio, and cares more about the rights of the criminal than the rights of the victim, is evident when he throws away his badge. Dirty Harry spawned four sequels and a whole bunch  of cop movie stereotypes that are still relied on today.

Hitchcock returned to the serial killer genre in 1972, with his second to last feature film Frenzy. This British thriller focuses on killer Bob Rusk (played by Barry Foster), who rapes several young women before strangling them with his tie. Hitchcock cleverly builds tension by showing how evidence is piled up onto an innocent man, Richard Blaney (played by Jon Finch), the boyfriend of one of the murdered girls and ex-husband of a second. The murder scene (only one is shown in the film, the others are all implied) is brutal, utilising similar quick editing as the Psycho shower scene over a decade earlier. It is often classified as one of the most disturbing murder scenes in cinema history, and is undoubtedly far more effective than the gory slash-fests of more modern fare. Barry Foster’s Bob is chillingly friendly, especially as the audience is aware that he is the killer from the start. His cheery flirting with his victims makes one’s skin crawl, as he manages to make innocuous comments seem darkly threatening. His repeated catchphrase, “You’re my kind of woman”, is enough to seal the fate of his victims in the minds of the audience. Frenzy is a masterclass in the representation of the charismatic killer.

The 1970s weren’t a great time for the serial killer movie. There were a few attempts, such as the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force (not really a serial killer movie, instead focusing on a group of cops operating as a ‘death squad’ to take out criminals), and the first real ‘slasher’ movie, Halloween, which tells the story of teen-murdering lunatic Michael Myers. John Carpenter’s film established many of the conventions of the slasher flick that continued through the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, almost entirely replacing the true serial killer movie genre. Myers is dehumanized by the white mask he wears, turning him into a monster, rather than a man. This allows the audience to distance themselves, undoubtedly reducing the emotional intensity in favour of shock tactics.

However, in 1986 a director called Michael Mann released a film based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon. The film was called Manhunter and the plot centred around a semi-retired FBI agent, Will Graham (played by William Petersen), called in to consult on the Tooth-Fairy killing, so called because of the bite marks left on the victims bodies. The film introduce the world to a character, here played by Brian Cox, who would enter the public consciousness as the embodiment of evil: Dr Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor). Lecter is a brilliant psychiatrist who also happens to have a penchant for murder and cannibalism. He appears in the later films, Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal and the remake of Red Dragon, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins with malicious glee. Manhunter was a flop on its release, but has since been rightly re-evaluated and its true value as a film recognised. It is seen now as a film released before its time, with a reliance on heavily stylised colour and sound design that borders on the expressionist in places. The later films in the series were directed in a far more straightforward manner, which has aged them, especially Silence of the Lambs from 1991. It is still an excellent serial killer movie, with a fabulous performance from Anthony Hopkins as the creepy doctor, but it has become a victim of its own success, almost a parody of itself. This is even more true of its sequels and the prequel, Hannibal Rising, which was pretty comprehensively panned by critics on its 2007 release.

Silence of the Lambs was the second novel by Thomas Harris that featured Hannibal Lecter. The film was directed by Jonathan Demme with only a slightly healthier budget than Manhunter‘s $15 million: Demme had just $19 million to play with. The film revolves around trainee FBI Agent Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) tasked with convincing Lecter to assist in the ‘Buffalo Bill’ serial killer case. Lecter uses the opportunity to enter into a game of wits with his captors, eventually escaping and disappearing. Starling’s conversations with Lecter reveal her traumatic childhood and the identity of the ‘Buffalo Bill’ killer, but really the point of the film is the interaction with Lecter. Bill’s presence is essentially a MacGuffin, a plot device to bring Lecter and Starling together. Lecter is the true menace in the film, even when safely ensconced within his plexiglass cage, and ‘Buffalo Bill’ is reduced merely a temporary physical threat at the end. Foster plays Starling with a naive nervousness that is entirely fitting, and compliments Hopkins masterful portrayal of Lecter. The psychotic doctor is erudite, charming and devastatingly intelligent, he just so happens to also be a cannibalistic murderer without mercy or empathy. this portrayal again uses the ‘intelligent killer’ archetype, just like Chaplin and Chabrol’s interpretations of Henri Désiré Landru.

A year before Silence of the Lambs was released, a small budget movie starring then-unknown actor Micheal Rooker (of TVs The Walking Dead) was unleashed on an unsuspecting public. The film had been shot in just 28 days, four years previously, but had sat unreleased because of problems with gaining a rating from the MPAA. It was an unusual serial killer movie, in that it was told from the killer’s perspective and followed his life over a few weeks, explaining how he operated, how he thought, how he evaded capture. The budget was just $110,000 and it made around six times that on its original theatrical release. The film was called Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and is regarded as a true classic of the genre. It is loosely based on the claims of a man called Henry Lee Lucas, who confessed to over six hundred murders committed over an eight year period. However, it has been proved that Lucas was a fantasist, unable to have performed the murders than he claimed, although he was found guilty of a handful. He died in prison in 2001 after having a death sentence converted into a life sentence. The film shows Henry as a man who is totally comfortable with killing. He alters his methods with each kill, so as not to tip the police off that they have a serial killer on their hands. He moves from city to city, so he doesn’t draw attention to himself by racking up too high a body count in any one place. His housemate, Otis (played by Tom Towles), joins him on some of his kills (the two met in prison) and Henry tries to teach him how to avoid capture. Otis’ younger sister, Becky (Tracy Arnold), falls in love with Henry, although he has no idea how to deal with this, but earns the displeasure of her brother who rapes her and tries to murder her. Henry stops him and kills him, later escaping the city with Becky before (probably) killing her too and disappearing.

In 1992, a dark Belgian comedy made waves when it portrayed a group of documentary film-makers following a serial killer around and recording his crimes for use in their film. Man Bites Dog was directed by and starred Benoît Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux and André Bonzel, and follows ‘Ben’ on his campaign of violence and sadism. Ben is not, strictly speaking, a serial killer – he is more of a mass murderer – but I include it here because the portrayal of this killer is also charismatic and intelligent. He has a series of guidelines that he uses, but as the film progresses, these fall by the wayside and it becomes a stark (if still tongue-in-cheek) vision of a psychopath mentally disintegrating. The film-makers (in the film) get drawn into the savagery and violence, and they all end up paying the price at the end.

Basic Instinct, starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone, was released in the same year, and is at the other end of the serial killer spectrum. For a start, our killer is a sexy and self-assured woman, rather than a man suffering complete mental collapse, and she does not face the consequences of her actions – rather she arranges that other people do that for her. This film is also a slick and expensive Hollywood creation, with a budget of around $50 million, compared to the tiny college budget of the black-and-white Man Bites Dog.Basic Instinct became one of the highest earning movies of the closing decade of the 20th century, and featured an excellently confident performance from Sharon Stone, although many people were drawn to the film purely on the promise of sexual imagery. To be fair, Ms Stone did not disappoint, flashing her…um…you-know-what at a room full of cops during her interrogation. Critics were divided on the film, with some praising the director, Paul Verhoeven, and even calling the film ‘Hitchcock-esque’, while others criticising the portrayal of homosexuals as evil and twisted in the film. Personally, I would say the film falls far below Hitchcock’s oeuvre, being too typically Hollywood (except maybe for the ending), but is still well worth watching for the well-developed acting and direction involved.

You know what's coming next...

1993 gave us Brad Pitt and Juliette Lewis in Kalifornia, Mike Myers in So I Married an Axe Murderer (notable mainly for the police chief trying desperately to act as though he is a tough, stereotyped, movie-style police chief), and Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland in The Vanishing (a poorly received remake of the far superior 1988 French/Dutch movie Spoorloos). These were just build-up to the main event – in 1994, Oliver Stone, famous for films like Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, released a movie satire on the way that the media glamorized violence (this may be the dictionary definition of irony): The film was called Natural Born Killers. It starred Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as Mickey and Mallory Knox, the psychotically romantic killer couple, with Tom Sizemore as Detective Jack Scagnetti, the violent and vengeful cop on their trail, Robert Downey Jr as Wayne Gale, journalist and presenter of the ‘American Maniacs’ TV show, and Tommy Lee Jones as Warden McClusky, the violent and corrupt prison warden. Virtually every character in this film is unpleasant, from the killers to strangers in diners, from cops to reporters. There is effectively no difference between the violence exhibited by Mickey and Mallory, and that shown by Scagnetti and McClusky, except that Mickey and Mallory don’t have a badge to hide behind and they do not excuse their behaviour as ‘keeping the peace’ or ‘upholding the law’. The pair are incarcerated and manage to start a riot before escaping, a riot in which McClusky is brutally murdered by rioting inmates and Scagnetti is killed by Mallory after he tries to rape her. Part of the modus operandi of the couple is that they always leave someone alive to tell the tale, to spread the legend. At the end of the film, this technique is extended. The reporter, Wayne Gale, uses this MO to try to convince Mickey and Mallory not to kill him. Their response? They don’t need him alive because they have his camera, neatly encapsulating the message that it is the media who encourage violent behaviour.

The film was always going to be problematic for censors and critics alike. By condemning the glorification of violence in the film, they would be proving Stone’s point. By not doing so, they would be tacitly glorifying it themselves, thus proving Stone’s point. In the end, they went for suggesting that the film was too focused on glorifying violence and not enough on the satire. It became just another violent movie in many people’s eyes, which really is missing the point.

A year later, a very different serial killer movie, and arguably one of the finest of modern times, was released. David Fincher – who would go on to direct Fight Club, The Social Network and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo – gave us a very dark and cerebral serial killer movie in Seven (or Se7en). With the double act of Morgan Freeman as mature, sensible and experienced cop William Somerset, and Brad Pitt as young, headstrong and impulsive cop David Mills, Seven follows the trail of a serial killer themed around the seven deadly sins – envy, gluttony, greed, lust, pride, sloth and wrath – while, in the background, Mills’ wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) tries to adjust to her lonely new life in the big city. The murderer (Kevin Spacey in an originally uncredited role) targets people that he sees as exhibiting the sins – for example, a grossly overweight man (who is forced at gunpoint to eat himself to death) for the gluttony killing, a vain young model (who has her face mutilated and has the choice to commit suicide or call 911) for the pride killing – before apparently turning himself in before the cycle is complete. The closing scenes are cleverly written and expertly handled by the actors.

The film is wonderfully shot, with moody shadows and almost omnipresent rain giving the city a dirty, oppressive feel. It is only in the final scenes that the rain eases off and the sun comes out, an ironic piece of pathetic fallacy. Freeman uses his elder-statesman-like charm as an effective counterpoint to Pitt’s frustrated and angry young man, while Paltrow portrays the nervous and lonely new wife excellently (unusually for her), but the film is stolen by Spacey’s wonderful serial killer. He is only in the film near the end, but he steals every scene with his creepy calm and total control of the situation he has put himself in. You know he is much, much smarter than the two policemen and whatever happens will be entirely according to his plan.

We need to jump forward to 1999 to find Spike Lee’s interpretation of the Son of Sam killings in New York in 1977. Summer of Sam focuses on the reactions of people living in the Bronx at the time of the killings, rather than on the killings themselves. It is therefore barely relevant to this article, despite being an interesting take on the serial killer movie. The following year, however, Mary Harron directed a film based on the Brett Easton Ellis novel American Psycho. This starred Christian Bale as Patrick Bateman, a yuppie in 1980s New York, who is so obsessed with the materialistic lifestyle that he and his associates aspire to, it drives him insane, and he embarks on a series of ever more violent murders of prostitutes and colleagues. Or does he? The film offers the possibility that the entire thing takes place inside Bateman’s head, going so far as to suggest that even the persona of Bateman is fake. The constant shallowness of Bateman’s respectable life holds some moments of humour, and the murders are suitably gruesome – and executed (no pun intended) with gloriously macabre joy and abandon by Bale – but the film itself is somehow unsatisfying. It does not deliver anything except more questions, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but the questions aren’t interesting enough to make one want to find the answers. It is as if the shallowness portrayed on screen has permeated even the meaning of the film, leaving it devoid of any point beyond visceral entertainment.

In 2003 came the last of the true serial killer movies that I will include here, and it is a fictionalised biopic of real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos, played by an unrecognisable Charlize Theron. Monster was directed by Patty Jenkins and also starred Christina Ricci as Selby Wall (a character based on Aileen’s real lover, Tyria Moore). Wuornos was a prostitute who killed and robbed several of her clients after being raped by one of them, and there is some suggestion that she suffered from a serious mental illness, although she was judged mentally fit to be executed by the state of Florida. The real Wuornos spent her life in and out of correctional facilities after accusing her grandfather and one of his friends of raping her. She also had sex with her own brother. She became a prostitute at age 15. The film deals with some of these issues and shows Wuornos in a generally sympathetic light. It is a challenging film, mainly because the real-life killer’s personality shadows everything on screen. It is certainly worth watching, but it is a harrowing film.

Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos

Since the early years of the 21st century, serial killer movies have once again devolved into simple slasher flicks, gory depictions of torture with little or no depth to them. The obvious examples are the Saw films, of which there are seven, all based on a ten minute short film, about a killer known as ‘Jigsaw’ who contrives elaborate traps to torture his victims. There are also the Scream films, which are satires of slasher flicks, combining horror with comedy (very successfully in the case of the first film).

So the serial killer seems to be in hiding again, sneaking through the back rooms, waiting his chance to step back onto the big screen. I don’t think he’ll be gone very long. We need him too much. We like having him around – his inhumanity reaffirms our own while simultaneously providing us with blood-soaked entertainment. His ability to inspire fear comes from the very simple face that he could be anybody, anywhere. If he wears a mask, he just takes it off and he disappears. If he doesn’t wear a mask, it’s because he looks so…normal.

The danger of the serial killer is that the evil isn’t written on his face: it lies hidden behind the eyes.

It Came From The …Wait, What?

SPOILER ALERT – ARTICLE MAY INCLUDE SPOILERS, BUT SINCE I’LL BE MAINLY TALKING ABOUT FILMS FROM THE 50s IT’S YOUR OWN FAULT IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THEM!

A series on monsters wouldn’t be complete without a quick look at an often overlooked side road. So this article will examine the wild animal and the alien as monster. The obvious examples are films such as the Jaws series, about some seriously pissed off Great White sharks, but it is in fact a venerable sub-genre with many precedents.

"Um...Maybe we should go the other way."

The first proper creature-feature (as they came to be known), and an iconic moment in cinematic history, was 1933s King Kong. This was a ground-breaking film, with stunning (for the time) stop-motion animation by Willis O’Brien and secured Fay Wray’s reputation as the original ‘scream queen’. Many people forget that Kong was a sympathetic creature, who took Wray’s character back to his lair instead of killing her (as was intended by the villagers). Once he was captured and taken to New York, he was chained and mistreated, before breaking free and again seeking out the object of his love. As Robert Armstrong’s character observes in the closing moments of the film, “it wasn’t the airplanes, it was Beauty killed the Beast”. Merian Cooper’s film is rightly seen as a classic, despite Kong’s reputation as a mindless monster.

King Kong spawned a rash of sequels, spin-offs and imitations, but the creature-feature explosion was interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Monster movies in this period were more reliant on tried and tested supernatural horrors that could be tied in to the Nazi menace: vampires, werewolves and mummies. But at the end of the war, something happened that changed the monster movie: America dropped two A-bombs on Japan, and the Atomic Age began.

"Is nobody thinking of the ants?"

In the 1950s, a new trend emerged with the testing of the hideously powerful H-Bomb, with over a thousand times the destructive capability of the A-Bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a new understanding of the horrors of radiation sickness. Movies were suddenly infested with creatures mutated by atomic radiation, somehow growing huge and developing a taste for human flesh, rather than growing tumours and developing weeping sores. These movies are fairly well represented by 1954s Them!, in which the evils of nukes cause giant ants, that’s GIANT ANTS, to rampage through a New Mexico town, eating people called ‘Gramps’ Johnson and Alan Crotty. It’s actually nowhere near as appalling as it sounds. It contains some genuinely tense moments and some good performances, including some seriously moving death scenes. Gordon Douglas’ direction is solid and his storytelling is well-balanced, as one would expect from the man who would go on to direct They call me MISTER Tibbs! in the 1970s. It was well received on its release and has been referenced and copied many times, with such ’50s classics as It Came From Beneath The Sea (which starred a giant, radioactive octopus and Howard Hughes’ one time lover, Faith Domergue), Attack Of The Crab Monsters (an early Roger Corman attempt with some frankly appalling rubber ‘crab monsters’), and Tarantula (starring Leo G Carroll and a really big spider).

Up from the depths!
Thirty stories high!!

The Japanese, certainly no strangers to the horrifying effects of the Atomic Age, came up with a long-running series of films centred around a man in a dodgy rubber suit stomping through a cardboard Tokyo. Released in the same year as Them! (1954), Godzilla (or more properly Gojira) was a landmark in Japanese cinema that led to nearly thirty sequels, remakes, a pair of cartoon series (one by Hanna-Barbera in the late ’70s, the other a Fox TV anime in the late ’90s), a poorly received American movie remake and a planned reboot! This makes it arguably one of the most successful film franchises ever. Godzilla is a classic example of the monster as a representation of atomic destruction. He is released by atomic testing, is radioactive, has ‘Atomic breath’ and is effectively immune to conventional weaponry. In fact, an early design of the suit gave him a mushroom-cloud shaped head. A huge number of the monster films of the 1950s and 1960s use the monster as allegories for a variety of real or perceived dangers: nuclear weapons and Communism are typical, although underage sex, alcohol, ‘un-American activities’ and other immoral behaviours are also targeted. The Godzilla franchise flourished in the 60’s, dominating cinema with films depicting the titular monster as a (kind of) defender of Tokyo against an ever-increasing horde of rubber suited stuntmen.

Other giant monsters crawled from the woodwork in the ’50s and 60s. We had scorpions (The Black Scorpion), locusts (Beginning of the End), man-eating slugs (The Monster That Challenged The World), venomous shrews (The Killer Shrews – Hollywood was really running low on ideas at this stage), large scorned ladies (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman) and even jelly – or Jell-O to our transatlantic cousins (The Blob). Basically, anything that film-makers could recreate with some foam rubber suits, trick photography or the talents of Ray Harryhausen, would walk, stalk, slither or ooze across cinema screens for a couple of decades. Even plants got a look-in, in the shape of British sci-fi/horror The Day of the Triffids, adapted from the book by John Wyndham. The Triffids of the title were (in the film at least) semi-sentient alien invaders, ambulatory sticks of killer celery that were, rather conveniently, allergic to sea-water (which rather begs the question “Why did they choose to invade a planet whose surface is about 70% covered in the stuff?”).

Aliens were also a common feature of monster movies. The development of rocket technology had nations looking spaceward once again, and a rise in tensions between the political ideologies of East and West gave film-makers the perfect excuse to make a large number of alien themed movies with cookie-cutter communism-inspired antagonists. The Red Menace was sneakily inserted into a range of movies including The Flying Saucer (1950), Invaders From Mars (1952) and, of course, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). These films show the insidious nature of the Communist threat, how it can sneak unnoticed into your neighbourhood, brainwash and indoctrinate people you have known for years. One film that specifically targets the insanity of Cold-War paranoia is the timeless classic The Day The Earth Stood Still. This amazing 1951 film explores how a defensive and paranoid humanity reacts to an other-worldly visitor, who is quite clearly a stand-in for Christ, with his amazing powers, resurrection and message of peace.

Om nom nom!

In 1975, the movie monster changed. An adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws was unleashed on the public. Directed by Stephen Spielberg, the movie has a number of completely iconic touches: the triangular fin cutting the water, the shark’s haunting tuba-based leitmotif, the boat-based camaraderie of the three male leads, Brody’s warnings being ignored by those in power. It is an almost perfect monster movie, let down a little by the fairly poor (even by the standard of the 1970s) rubber shark. I first saw this film at a very young age and loved it, apart from the very end, when Quint (played to perfection with grizzled, Hemingway-esque machismo by Robert Shaw) slides helplessly down the deck of the listing boat and into the shark’s waiting maw. His desperate struggle against a force of nature sum up the film in that brief moment: man vs fish, and the fish is winning. It is a creature perfectly designed to survive in its environment, an environment that humans are playing around in. Jaws spawned a handful of sequels, none of which managed to match the intensity and excellence of the original, but it also changed the way that the average cinema-goer and critic thought about monster movies. They were no longer B-movies; they could be blockbusters.

Not all films lived up to this benchmark of course. A large number of cheap creature-features continued to be churned out by Hollywood studios, such as the largely unknown Joan Collins vehicle Empire of the Ants (which is worth digging up, if only for the hilariously bad special effects). Rather better known, as well as better production and better acting, is the Burt Lancaster and Michael York version of The Island of Dr Moreau in 1977. Although by no means flawless, it is a solid adaptation of the H.G.Wells classic, with a truly creepy Lancaster as the disturbing (and disturbed) doctor. It attempts to turn the genre on its head, in suggesting that the hideous ‘man-beasts’, the results of Moreau’s twisted experiments, are less monstrous than the dark soul of humanity, represented by the doctor. It is only by shedding their humanity and embracing the animalistic side of their natures that York and his love interest, Barbara Carrera, manage to escape.

In 1978, another creature attacked humanity, or rather lots of creatures. But these were not giant, irradiated creatures. No, these were slightly more everyday: bees. Or, to be more specific, a swarm of African killer bees. The Swarm stars Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia De Havilland, Slim Pickens and Henry Fonda. Oh, and a shitload of bees. It was directed by Irwin Allen, producer of such classic TV serials as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Time Tunnel, Lost in Space and Land of the Giants, and the film was adapted from a novel by well-known (at the time) science-fiction author Arthur Herzog. An impressive pedigree, wouldn’t you agree? Apparently not. The film bombed. Badly. It was pulled from cinemas after a pathetically short run (in some places as little as two days) and was unable to even make half its $21 million budget back at the box office. Michael Caine is not alone when he describes it as one of the worst films he has ever made.

Bees. Apparently not that scary.

The next true landmark in the monster movie did not arrive until 1979, with Ridley Scott’s science-fiction horror masterpiece, Alien. Sold to the studios as “Jaws in space”, the movie brews a heady blend of tension, shocks and gore, with genre-defining visual effects courtesy of the deeply disturbing and undeniably sexual artwork of H.R.Giger. The alien is a shadowy menace, truly an unknown quantity, with a (pretty unlikely) life cycle of egg-crab/spider-chest bursting penis-huge shiny black cock with teeth. The sexual subtext of the movie has been commented upon before (many, many times), but if you are unconvinced, take a long hard look at this concept art for the xenomorph:

Um, yeah.
I've got nothing for this one.

If you can’t see that this is a picture af a massive penis, there’s something wrong with you. Add that to the fact that Kane (played by John Hurt) is orally impregnated by the face-hugger and ‘gives birth’ in a terminal shower of gore from his ribcage. The writer of the screenplay, Dan O’Bannon, has explicitly stated that the Kane scenes are a metaphor for male fears about pregnancy and childbirth, and has explained the alien as embodying elements of male rape, payback for the countless female victims of horror movie monsters and serial killers. The only survivor is Ripley (Sigourney Weaver in the role that launched her career and one that she would return to three more times so far), a woman who is in a masculine, industrial environment. She is not refered to by her first name, only her surname, which has the effect of clouding her gender. The film is about sex, but it is also an excellent horror movie, dark and moody with a perfect, iconic and terrifying antagonist.

Alien also signaled a turning point in the creature feature. Films moved away from ordinary animals turned evil (either by radiation or otherwise) and focused instead on extraterrestrial or supernatural horrors. Dream monsters (A Nightmare on Elm Street), alien hunters (Predator), ghosts (Ghostbusters 1 & 2) and gremlins (Gremlins 1 & 2) were the order of the 80s, and things didn’t improve much in the following decade, with only such paltry offerings as Mosquito and Anaconda (I really wouldn’t recommend either, but if you must, go for Mosquito, if only for its knowing nods towards its B-Movie roots).

The new millennium gave film-makers the chance to make ironically bad B-movies (following from the cult success of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead), and this gave audiences such wonders as Eight-Legged Freaks, featuring some toxically mutated spiders and a lot of screaming. It is a mixed bag of B-movie tropes and tongue in cheek dialogue, but the basic premise (monsters attacking a small American town) has been done before and done better, notably in Tremors six years earlier. Other 21st century offerings include a couple of Anaconda sequels (somehow worse than that first one), the fabulously titled (and apparently gloriously awful) Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus and its sequel Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, Sharktopus and Mega Python Versus Gatoroid. These films revel in their B-movie credentials, deliberately using exaggerated monsters and over-the-top violence to titillate their audience.

Heads or tails?

Cloverfield, directed by Matt Reeves, was hailed as a new breed of monster movie and is told through the use of ‘found footage’, home-video style film of events of a monster-induced disaster. From a relatively tiny budget of $25 million, it made a massive $171 million at the box office. Its suggestions of terrorist attacks (the subtle reminders of 9/11 run right through the movie) gave it an intensity that most creature-features lack and it was met with high praise from critics and movie-goers alike. Again, the choice to show little of the creature served the film well, heightening the tension and creating the faceless menace to support the subtext.

Is the creature-feature dead? Replaced with endless movies about aliens destroying our cities? Or is this just a phase, and, like the changes in the 50s, we are due a new revolution? A new way of looking at the world around us? Maybe this has already started. Contagion attempted to tap into our collective fears of infectious diseases, following on from the real-life scares of SARS, Bird Flu and Swine Flu. The film didn’t capitalise on its own premise, but the portrayal of the emergency protocols and procedures slowly grinding into motion was interesting: in the world of Contagion there is no quick fix. So maybe the creature we will be scared of next are the ones that we really can’t see, rather than the ones that the film-makers keep hidden.

Sleep tight. Don’t let the bed bugs bite…

Sweet dreams!

Looking on the Bright Side…

Yesterday I wrote an article in which I discussed a couple of things that piss me off. I realised that i had rather ‘gone off on one’ so called it a day after only talking about three things. Believe me, I could still be writing that list. I’ll probably go back to it at some point and add more bits and pieces, but today i thought I’d try and balance the scales a little by writing about things that make me happy.

As you’d expect from a depressive, this isn’t going to be as long a list. In fact, I suspect it will be much, much harder to write, but hopefully some of the things that give me pleasure will bring a smile to your faces as well. So let’s start with a picture:

Seth Casteel's awesome underwater dog photography

I challenge anyone with a soul to look into that dog’s eyes and not feel just a little happier. You can see lots more of Seth Casteel’s amazing photography at www.littlefriendsphoto.com. Seriously, if you’re down, go and have a look. You will be smiling by the end of it. Dogs in general make me happy anyway, especially when they are displaying that special joy of just being alive. A dog running about, or playing with a ball, actually lifts my cynical, calloused soul into something approaching happiness. I freely admit to being a totally soppy bastard when it comes to dogs, although bigger dogs are much nicer than little rat-type things in my opinion.

Next on the list are lizards. I know, lizards aren’t necessarily what you’d call cute, but they are kind of cool. Take a look at what I mean:

"I'm watching you."

It is difficult not to anthropomorphise animals at the best of times, but a photo like this makes it next to impossible. That lizard is clearly smiling! Why is he happy? What does he know? And why does it make me smile when I see it? I’m a rational man in his mid-thirties, there is no way I should be swayed by an image like this, but if this was an advert I’d definitely be buying that product. Silly, isn’t it? Whenever I go into a pet shop (which is more often than you’d think, considering that I don’t have any pets) I always make a bee-line for the lizards. I have been considering buying one for a long time, but my fiancée really isn’t keen! So it remains an unfulfilled dream.

Next up, reading. Well, obviously. I love getting lost in a good story. It doesn’t even have to be that well written, just a good story is enough to keep me happy. Currently at the top of my list are The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, the Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, the Sandman graphic novels by Neil Gaiman (as well as American Gods, Anansi Boys and Neverwhere by the same author), the Space Captain Smith series by Toby Frost (and if ubermunchkin is reading this, I want them back, damn you! ;)), the Dexter novels by Jeff Lindsay and others too numerous to mention. I tend to have several books on the go at any one time and chew through them at a slightly annoying rate. It costs a fortune…

Ok, moving on, I also get happiness from intelligent comedy. My all-time favourite television programme is the BBCs QI, hosted by Stephen Fry. If you haven’t seen the show, check it out on youtube. It’s brilliant. The concept is that of a quiz show, except that the questions are insanely difficult, because they generally appear to be things that everyone knows. However, the show hinges on the fact that what everyone knows is usually wrong.

QI host Stephen Fry with regular panellist Alan Davies

Points are awarded for correct answers (obviously) but more often for just being interesting or funny, and obvious answers are penalised. That’s the theory anyway. In reality, the scoring system is so arcane and (possibly) random, not even the guests understand how they achieved the scores that they did. It is fairly common for every panellist to end the show with a negative score, and not unheard of for an episode to be won by the audience! The other thing about QI is that it turns you into the most annoying pedant in the world. You become the sort of person who points out that people used to believe that Saturn’s rings were formed from Jesus’ foreskin, or Henry VIII technically only had two wives (or possibly three. Maybe four. But definitely not six), or that the sun has already set when the bottom of it touches the horizon (because of the light-bending properties of the atmosphere). I can watch it over and over again, and frequently do.

Because I enjoy science-fiction, the idea of concept vehicles fascinate me. It is slightly depressing that none of these incredible machines ever make it into production, but it is fun to look through a bunch of photos of them. Here are a couple for your delectation:

A Moto-Guzzi concept bike

A Cadillac concept car

I like cars and bikes. Not in a ‘This model produces nearly 500bhp per tonne and a top speed of blah blah blah’, but more in a ‘Wow, that looks really cool’ kind of a way. Yep, I really am that shallow! I watch Top Gear mainly for the outrageous challenges and Clarkson’s latest bout of racist/sexist/anythingelseist logorrhea, but I do like admiring the shape of the vehicles on display. I just couldn’t care less about lap times and so on.

Finally, the thing that gives me most happiness is simply this: Friends and family. A little cheesy, perhaps, but true. I, like most people, enjoy spending time with people that I respect. I don’t have to agree with them all the time, in fact friendly arguments can be hugely entertaining (one argument concerning the veracity of claims that Deckard from Blade Runner is a replicant [SPOILER: HE IS!] has been running for a good fifteen years). Just taking time to chat and relax with friends is a source of proper joy.

Most of all, though, my fiancée makes me happy. She is loving and caring (probably far more so than I deserve!), with all the common sense and forward planning that I lack. She is gorgeous and I love her very much. She makes me happy and I want to make her happy in return.

So on that rather soppy note, I’ll finish up with a question: What makes you happy?