Tights and Capes: How Superheroes Changed The World

To admit to liking superhero comics is akin to confessing a hideous social disease. They are the core of the geek’s domain, loved by spotty, greasy man-boys who live in their parent’s basement and masturbate to pictures of Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer (they’ve moved on from Sarah Michelle Gellar). These borderline autistic creatures spend all day on internet chatrooms or World of Warcrack, having no real-world social skills, and live for the day that they can dress up as their favourite superhero and cruise the halls of the local convention looking desperately for a woman who knows the difference between Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner.

If this is true, why are superhero films so popular at the moment? And why have they been a regular feature of cinemas for over a decade? Since Brian Singer’s version of X-Men in 2000, superheroes have been coming out of the closet and dusting off their capes for the big screen. Of course, X-Men wasn’t the first superhero movie. It wasn’t the first good superhero movie. But it was the first, good successful superhero movie since Batman Returns eight years previously. Since Singer’s triumph, superheroes have made over $150 million per film almost every year. Surely geeks don’t have that much disposable income, do they?

Well, no. Of course not. The real reason runs quite deeply into the human psyche. People like superheroes. They always have. From the Norse epics of Beowulf to the spandex-clad super-teams of Joss Whedon’s up-coming Avengers, people can’t get enough of them.

"Who do you think they could get to play you, Nick?"
"Why, Mister Samuel L Jackson, of course. That's not even open to debate, Doctor Pym."

What is it about the superhero that we love? Is it simply the ‘hero’ part? Of course, that is part of it. We like protagonists in stories – that’s what they’re for. We follow their struggles and conflicts, hoping that they will pull through while secretly knowing that they almost certainly will. Superheroes tickle something else in our brains. They tackle problems that normal people just can’t deal with, so the stories can be much wider in scope – literally anything can happen. They are bigger, brighter, better than the rest of us. They climb so much higher, and have so much further to fall. They have powers or skills beyond that which is possible for us normal folk. That’s why they’re super.

Finding the earliest superhero isn’t an easy task. Where do we draw the line? Was Jesus a superhero? He certainly had superhuman powers, tried to help people and had a mysterious origin story.

Probably not...

If we take a superhero to be a work of modern fiction (somewhat arbitrarily), we could point to Spring-Heeled Jack, the folkloric figure that was immortalized in a series of ‘penny dreadfuls’ in the 1860’s. He was a diabolic bogeyman in his original form, jumping out on young ladies and traumatizing them in unspecified (but probably fairly obvious) ways, before escaping by leaping over impossibly tall obstacles. He later became more of a crime-fighter, relying on his disguise and his gadgets to catch or kill criminals. Interestingly, sightings of a figure matching the description of Spring-Heeled Jack are still occurring today, some 175 years after he was first reported. He almost certainly inspired later characters, such as Russell Thorndike’s Reverend Doctor Syn from 1915’s A Tale of the Romney Marsh. Syn was a 18th century Oxford scholar whose wife ran away with his best friend, so he took up piracy and smuggling in order to get revenge on the cuckolding cad. He donned the disguise of the Scarecrow in order to rally other smugglers to him and defeat the Revenue men. Syn was undoubtedly an anti-hero, standing up against the perceived criminality of taxation on imports to areas of Kent and Sussex. Essentially, he was the Han Solo of 1700’s England.

In 1919, another masked vigilante appeared on the scene. Don Diego de la Vega buckled his swash across the pages of America’s All-Story Weekly, penned by Johnston McCulley, and was seen as recently as 2005. He was more popularly known by the Spanish word for ‘fox’: Zorro! Zorro fought against the corruption of the Spanish-controlled state of California with his lightning-quick rapier and his trusty steed, Tornado. He maintained Zorro as a secret identity, posing as the foppish Don Diego to allay suspicion and donning the cape and mask to combat injustice and protect the poor. Zorro became a template for later masked vigilantes such as Batman and V.

The 1930’s witnessed an explosion of superheroes and became known as the Golden Age. Radio serials like The Green Hornet and The Shadow appeared, pulp fiction novels and newspaper serials introduced Mandrake the Magician, The Phantom, Doc Savage: Man of Bronze. But it was comic books that really decided the future of the genre, with a plethora of titles springing up, including Action Comics, Detective Comics, Wonder Comics, Timely Comics and Marvel Comics (among many other, less well-known and shorter lived titles). Many long-standing heroes were born in this period, notably Superman, Batman, Namor the Sub-Mariner, the Blue Beetle and the Sandman.

Superman was the archetype, first appearing in 1938’s Action Comics #1, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Superman has become an icon of American values and culture, embodying “Truth, Justice and the American Way”, and his trademark outfit (Red and blue with underpants over his tights) created an enduring convention that influenced virtually every hero that came later. His origin story tells us that he is an immigrant, the supposed last survivor of the planet Krypton, sent to Earth by his father, Jor-El. His birth name is Kal-El, and his alter-ego, Clark Kent, is a bumbling and mild-mannered reporter for the Daily Planet newspaper, allowing him to keep an eye on breaking news of disasters and other situations that may need the hand of Superman. Superman is ridiculously over-powered, with flight, virtual invulnerability, heat vision, x-ray vision, super breath, super speed and super strength being the core of his powers, gifted him by the yellow sun of Earth. His main weakness is, of course, radioactive lumps of his home planet (Kryptonite), but he also suffers from the human side of his character and his desire to protect the people of his adopted world. He is highly moral, often attempting to persuade others to give up their villainous ways.

Superman’s main rival is the ‘mad scientist’ Lex Luthor. Luthor is bent on world domination but has no super powers. He is, however, incredibly intelligent and a technological genius. He, like his nemesis, has evolved over time, but he is still essentially the same evil and obsessed science geek. The conflict between him and Superman, based on their childhood friendship, is one of Science Vs Superpowers (or could be interpreted as Knowledge Vs Magic). He is easily the most well-known of Superman’s foes and definitely the most recognisable, with his bald head and evil grin.

The Boy Scout

Less than a year after Superman’s debut, Detective Comics #27 introduced a different kind of hero, almost the polar opposite of Superman. Superman drew his power from the sun, but Bob Kane’s hero was far more comfortable in the darkness. The Batman wore black and grey, covered his face and had no super powers, relying on his fearsome intellect and honed physical skills (as well as a range of technological wizardry). He modeled his costume on the bat theme to strike fear into criminals, using psychological warfare to gain the upper hand, and was motivated by revenge for the murder of his parents when he was a small boy. Bruce Wayne, his alter-ego, is a slightly foppish billionaire playboy, similar to Zorro’s de la Vega, but he uses his vast wealth to fund his night-time excursions into the criminal underworld of Gotham City. Batman is deeply flawed in a way that Superman is not, and many commentators (and many of the writers) have explored this aspect of the character. For the first couple of years of the comic, Batman would happily use guns and kill criminals, but this soon changed and Batman became more moralistic.

Batman was the first hero to have a ‘Rogues Gallery’ of iconic, repeating villains. These were, like the Batman himself, larger than life and representative of some intense trauma. The most famous is, of course, the Clown Prince of Crime, the Joker, representing the ‘Trickster’ archetype of Jungian psychology. He is an unrepentant psychopath, gleefully leaving death and chaos in his wake and constantly taunting Batman for being as psychologically damaged as any inmate of Arkham Asylum (Gotham City’s fictional madhouse). Over the years since his introduction, the Joker has killed the second Robin (Jason Todd), paralysed Barbara Gordon (Batgirl and the daughter of Jim Gordon – went on to become Oracle), and murdered several hundred (if not more) residents of Gotham. He has corrupted several of his doctors in Arkham, including his psychiatrist Harleen Quinzel, who became his girlfriend/sidekick Harley Quinn. His relationship with Batman is complicated. On the one hand, he is the Batman’s archenemy, while on the other hand, the pair have more in common with each other than they do with those with whom they side. This idea has been explored by several writers, notably Grant Morrison in Batman: Arkham Asylum.

Batman represents the yin to Superman’s yang, embodying the darkness that is necessary to balance out the light.

Tights are for girls?
Really?

The titles which would eventually amalgamate into DC Comics (Detective Comics, Action Comics, All-Star comics and a host of others) kept churning out characters in the 1940’s, with only a few that would eventually become Marvel Comics characters appearing. DC characters born in this decade include Flash, Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Joker, Catwoman, The Atom, Black Canary, Robin the Boy Wonder and Wonder Woman.

Marvel managed Captain America and…um…

Perhaps the most interesting of DC’s output in the 40’s was Wonder Woman. Created by William Moulton Marston, inventor of the polygraph lie detector, Wonder Woman was intended to be a feminist icon, a reaction to the male-dominated superhero world. Although technically not the first female superhero (Sheena, Queen of the Jungle had debuted four years previously), she was the most iconic, able to hold her own in the male hero world. Her role was to “triumph not with fists or firepower, but with love”, according to Marston. Her powers of super strength, speed, agility, stamina and flight were augmented by her use of ‘magical’ devices including her Lasso of Truth (which forced those bound by it to tell the truth) and her indestructible bracelets which she used to deflect bullets. She is an unmatched military tactician, expert martial artist and god-like wisdom and compassion, although she is quite prepared to use lethal force if she deems it necessary, setting her apart from Superman and Batman.

Marston himself was a feminist, often writing about what he believed to be the inequalities of modern gender politics. He clearly loved women, as he lived in a polyamorous relationship with his wife, Elizabeth (also a psychologist and credited with being a co-creator of Wonder Woman), and Olive Byrne. These two women formed the basis of the character. Marston claimed that they represented the type of women that should rule the world, having temperaments far better suited to the role than men. He did not want to create a hero that was simply a masculinised woman, nor a stereotypical comic-book woman, suitable only for romantic or support roles (although Wonder Woman’s first job in the Justice Society of America was as their secretary).

Wonder Woman: Feminist Icon

The 1950’s introduced new versions of familiar heroes, with Hal Jordan taking over as Green Lantern and Barry Allen donning the Flash costume, as well as the introduction of Supergirl, Kal-El’s cousin Kara Zor-El, but it was the 1960’s that saw a true blossoming of the superhero, with DC’s rival, Marvel Comics, really coming into its own. Stan Lee helped created dozens of new heroes in the 60’s, including (but by no means limited to) Spider-Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Thor, Iron Man, Daredevil, The Silver Surfer and the X-Men. He worked with a range of collaborators, most famously Steve Ditko (who designed Spider-Man) and Jack Kirby (responsible for the looks of The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Hulk and a raft of others), but it was Stan’s creative mind that formed the basis for the heroes. Marvel took the idea of teams of heroes from DC’s Justice Society and ran with it, having a huge number of their characters join teams or partner with other heroes for an issue or two. Marvel’s stories also explored sociological issues in a way that DC didn’t at the time, dealing with racism, bullying, religion, high school, Communism and more. Marvel’s heroes weren’t all muscular and good-looking. The Fantastic Four’s Thing looked like a monster, as did the X-Men’s Beast and Nightcrawler, highlighting prejudice based on appearances. They also focused on ‘real world’ problems faced by their characters, making them easier to relate to than DC’s god-like creations.

Marvel’s rise has continued in the movie world. DC’s Superman had some success with Christopher Reeve in the late 70’s and early 80’s, but the attempted reboot, Superman Returns (2006) was a flop, largely due to the weak plot and gaping plot holes (he almost died from being stabbed with a splinter of kryptonite, but is then able to lift a mountain of the stuff and hurl it into space? Really?), but Man of Steel, written by David S Goyer and Christopher Nolan (the team responsible for DC’s successful Batman franchise, which has its final installment being released later this year), is due out in 2013 so that may change. Marvel, on the other hand, has just produced the third biggest opening day box office in UK cinema history (making £2.5 million, about £1 million behind Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix) with its new Joss Whedon-helmed ensemble movie Avengers Assemble. This follows a four year build up in the shape of two Iron Man movies, an Incredible Hulk movie, a Thor movie and a Captain America movie. In that four year period, but unrelated to the Avengers, Marvel have also released Punisher: War Zone, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, X-Men First Class, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and two animated Hulk features. They also have the Spider-Man reboot due out later this year and, of course, fifteen or so earlier movies based on their characters. DC have a handful of films based on their Vertigo label, including Constantine, A History of Violence and V for Vendetta, none of which made big box office, and their successful Christopher Nolan/Christian Bale Batman franchise, which did. They also produced the Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern which barely broke even, Watchmen which didn’t do much better, and Jonah Hex, which bombed.

In the ratings war, Marvel are winning. But this has always been Marvel’s tactic: flood the market with hundreds of different titles, designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, while DC have usually focused on a smaller groups of titles and explored them in more depth. Except Superman, who is still pretty shallow. DC are certainly more ‘adult’ (whatever that means) than Marvel and have been more comfortable publishing ‘darker’ stories than Marvel. This is a result of the Comics Code Authority and their system of authorising works that submitted to their code of conduct. Both DC and Marvel released titles that were not submitted, DC under its Vertigo banner and Marvel’s Epic Comics, but DC has arguably produced the most famous titles. Vertigo printed titles from Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Jamie Delano, Mark Millar, Mike Carey and Warren Ellis, to name but a few. Many of these writers have been recognised for their excellent stories, especially Gaiman, Moore and Morrison.

Alan Moore: the most famous beard in comics

So who will win out in the end? Does there have to be a winner? I certainly hope not. With any luck, both of these companies, as well as the many small publishers who put out comic titles, will last for many years to come, thrilling and entertaining us with their spandex-clad muscle-men and partially clad pneumatic women. They are the epic poetry of our generation, our version of gods and monsters. They belong to each and every one of us and we have a responsibility to add to the canon and support these Cassandras for as long as we possibly can. The minds that gave us superheroes have shaped the world, with lie detectors, web-casting restraint guns, bullet-resistant materials and more.

Maybe one day, I’ll own my very own Batmobile…

Fear leads to Anger…

I have written before about my dislike of the intolerant, so this article will not come as much of a shock to those of you familiar with my way of expressing myself. To those of you unfamiliar with me, brace yourselves: this could be a bumpy ride.

I am a huge fan of the Star Wars universe (well, excluding The Phantom Menace, anyway) and I am also a believer in LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) rights, so when a bunch of right-wing, religious lunatics like the Florida Family Association attack EA Games for including the option for same-sex relationships in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I find my wrath beginning to surface. The Florida Family Association, a non-profit charity dedicated to “[educating] people on what they can do to defend, protect and promote traditional, biblical values”, wrote an article that accused Bioware, EA Games and Lucas Films of bowing to pressure from “LGBT activists” to include non-heterosexual characters in their games. They claim that “there were no LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) characters in any of the Star Wars movies”.

"I beg your pardon?"

Have they seen the films? C3P0 is about as fabulous as you can get! Anyway, they are suggesting that LGBT pressure groups are forcing EA and their subsidiary companies to include same-sex relationship choices in the game. Jeff Brown, EA’s Vice President of Corporate Communications (which, in fairness, sounds like an Imperial job title), denies that any pressure was placed on them and denounces criticism as “political harassment”. Good for him! The American Decency Association joined the fight, claiming that the inclusion of LGBT options was an “attack on the hearts and minds of children” and accused Bioware of “social engineering”. They also state that the films were “family fare”, which they were – especially if you include incest as “family fare”.

Family Fun?

Quite.

The American Decency Association is also accusing EA/Bioware of “censoring” comments by parents who are opposed to the move, by removing them from the website. However, EA’s Jeff Brown simply said “we don’t tolerate hate speech on our forums”, which rather suggests that the complaints were not worded in an acceptable way. A quick glance at the American Decency Association or the Florida Family Association websites would certainly support this. Both websites refer to LGBT characters as “social agenda characters”, rather than focusing on the simple fact that the player can CHOOSE to play a homosexual character. This is not being forced on anyone, although the Florida Family Association does point out that Bioware will not ” create game rules that would allow regular players to prohibit entry into their games by these social agenda characters.  That would be discrimination (sarcasm.) [sic]” Helpful of them to point out the sarcasm there, we might have missed it otherwise. On the plus side, they won’t force you to play “social agenda” characters either. Because that would also be discrimination. They allow you to choose. Which isn’t.

The ESRB (Entertainment Software Ratings Board) has classified SW:TOR as T for Teen, recommending that only players aged 13 or over have access to it. This is because it may contain elements unsuitable for younger children, such as ” violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling, and/or infrequent use of strong language”. Hmm. No mention of steamy, man-on-man action there. Maybe they didn’t notice it. Or maybe they don’t consider homosexual relationships to be something that children need protecting from.

Won't somebody please think of the children?!

Either way, if their children are playing these games, it means that they are bad parents. Simple.

This is, of course, a load of right-wing, extremist nonsense. Children don’t need to be protected from homosexuals, they need to be educated about them. They need to realise that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality so that those who are gay don’t grow up feeling the need to pretend to be someone else, with all the psychological pressure that entails. Groups like the American Decency Association and the Florida Family Association need to have the language that they use exposed for what it is: attempted brainwashing. They knowingly use phrases like “social agenda characters”, or “trying to capture the minds of our children”, or “force this offensive content on a captured audience of hundreds of thousands of children”, or “LGBT…activists”, or “radical homosexual extremists”… I could go on.

In fact, I think I will.

“Electronic Arts would shatter that family quality”, or “harassing the game community”, or “a lot of them expressing anger that their kids will be exposed to this Star Warped way of thinking”, or “propaganda”, or “these LGBT activists are pummeling Florida Family Association” (which does at least conjure up images suggesting the real reason behind their fears!).

"You got a real purdy mouth!"

While these comments are not in themselves openly homophobic, they do use the persuasive techniques and biased language in a blatant attempt to influence their audience. As their audience is largely comprised of (dare I say it) ill- or under-educated, right-wing, knee-jerk fundamentalist Christians, this kind of ‘subtle’ manipulation is often very effective. Political activists of all shades of opinion have been using these techniques for centuries – look at the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X, John F Kennedy, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara. It is particularly effective among those who traditionally do not ask questions, such as fundamentalist religious groups (and I’m not deliberately having a go at religion again, just those who abuse their power over those less well-educated, such as politically motivated religious leaders and pressure groups). Of course, the pro-gay side has the right to use such tactics as well, but they face an uphill struggle, as they are going against the ingrained teachings of generations of homophobic morons. The fact is that homosexuality hasn’t been seen as a bad thing for as long as most people think. Plato (424-328BC) wrote about the way that same-sex relationships were a healthy part of any young man’s love life, although he changed his views later in life, possibly as a result of changing societal norms. Roman rulers were almost all bisexual and openly took male lovers and it wasn’t until Emperor Theodosius I (a Christian ruler) that homosexuality was banned. East Asian countries have long accepted homosexuality and transgender as equal to heterosexuality, especially in Thailand (the famous ‘ladyboys’) and Japan, where samurai warriors would often engage openly in same-sex relationships.

Samurai: Well gay.

It is almost always religion that suppresses, criminalizes and persecutes those people who do not conform to their expectations or belief systems. This includes followers of other sects, ideologies or lifestyles. Religious institutions see themselves as the moral and spiritual guides to society, even if (especially if) that society does not want them to be. Homosexuality is illegal in most Muslim countries, and frowned upon by extremist Christian groups in the West. It is these extremists that are attempting to force their narrow view of loving, and sexual, relationships on the general populace once again. I am by no means tarring all Christians with the same brush. It is not my intention to attack any religion for its attitude to homosexuality. I know some Christians who support same-sex marriage. I even know at least one openly gay clergyman. It is the fringe groups, like the Florida Family Association, the American Decency Association, the Westboro Baptist Church, that are trying to force their petty, narrow-minded and bigoted ideologies on the rest of us. They accuse EA and Bioware of giving in to pro-gay pressure groups, a minority that was trying to prevent the First Amendment rights of the anti-gay movements, which obviously ignores the First Amendment rights of the pro-gays. It’s all a bit confusing, isn’t it!

Well, no. It shouldn’t be confusing. It’s a fairly simple situation. Let’s go through it step-by-step.

Step 1: If you are offended by homosexual content in a video game, don’t play the video game.

Step 2: There is no Step 2.

Oh, well, I guess it’s not that confusing after all!

So, if you find yourself complaining about something that isn’t being forced on you, there is a simple solution: Shut the fuck up. The LGBT community has had your bigotry and hate forced on them for years – they have a right to complain. You have noticed that you could choose to have a gay relationship in a video game – you have the right to silence, please exercise it.

 

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

A Rag-Tag Fugitive Fleet Part 1

I watched TV in the 80s. Lots of TV. In Britain, a lot of the TV that children watched (except for the stuff shown on children’s TV on weekday evenings between 3 and 6) was American. The stuff produced for kids in Britain was often quite… odd. I remember the obvious shows, the famous ones, like Bagpuss, Danger Mouse and Fraggle Rock, but I also remember some more obscure ones, like Jamie and the Magic Torch, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and The Adventure Game. Not to mention Noggin the Nog, Ivor the Engine, Chorlton and the Wheelies, Metal Mickey, Cheggers Plays Pop, King Rollo, Mr Benn, Rentaghost… the list goes on! Many of these titles I remember with fondness, some with a cringing horror and a couple with genuine confusion. Check out the opening titles to Jamie and the Magic Torch on youtube if you don’t understand why.

Look at this picture and tell me that someone wasn't on drugs

But these shows, rose-tinted though my recollection may be, are not the ones that were truly formative. These just formed a backdrop to my early years, when there were far more interesting things to do than watch telly (there were only three channels back then anyway, at least until 1982). Riding bikes and climbing trees were much more exciting! But then something changed. Friday and Saturday evenings, usually at the beginning of what they would term ‘Prime Time’, started being taken over by the Americans. A couple of names drifted across British televisions a lot in the 80s: Glen A Larson and Stephen J Cannell. Between them, they produced a huge percentage of the iconic TV shows that British children ended up watching: The Rockford Files, Alias Smith and Jones, The Six Million Dollar Man, Battlestar Galactica, The Greatest American Hero, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Knight Rider, Magnum P.I., The Fall Guy and The A-Team, as well as several less known and short-lived series (Manimal, Automan, The Highwayman). These two men, just names on a screen, shaped a generation of British kids with their heroes and villains. Yes, the shows were largely cheap crap, with recycled stock footage and the same four stunts shown from different angles, but that didn’t matter. They created an entirely fictional America, in which the sun always shone, convertibles were the coolest thing ever, everything was slightly too yellow, and every woman looked fantastic in a shiny jumpsuit.

Any excuse to show a picture of Wilma Deering (Erin Gray)

These shows were incredible to my young eyes, although if I watch them now I can see just how much television has moved on since the 80s. I genuinely believed in the formula that they were selling. I believed that the good guys would always win, even if my heart was in my mouth the whole way through each episode. I believed that facial hair often indicated a bad guy (and now I have a beard – what does THAT mean?), and women needed men to rescue them, unless they were Wilma Deering, in which case she’d kick a bit of ass (before needing to be rescued). There were other issues, ones which the child didn’t notice but the man can’t ignore. The shows were almost exclusively white (Mr T’s inclusion in The A-Team being the most obvious exception). Any racial minority was either a bad guy or a one-off supporting character at best, often appearing in a storyline about how racist everyone except the hero was. Remember that this was two decades after Sidney Poitier won his first Oscar, so black actors were not unknown, just unused. The black community shouldn’t feel alone though, because women were pretty poorly treated as well. Relegated to supporting characters, or more usually a bit of eye candy, they were invariably the love interest for the main hero, or a glorified secretary. Even the supposedly ‘strong’ characters, like the aforementioned Ms Deering, were always getting into trouble by being too impulsive or careless, and the hero would need to come and rescue them again. The 80s weren’t a great decade for female empowerment, it must be said.

Ok, now that the critique (such as it was) is out of the way, let’s have a look at what made some of these shows so great. We’ll start with an easy one: Battlestar Galactica. I won’t be talking about the new series, partly because it offends me, with its high production values and sets that don’t wobble, but mainly because I haven’t bothered watching it. I remember the original with too much fondness to watch a new version. If it’s bad, it will taint my memories of the original, but if it’s good, I’ll feel like I’m betraying the original! So we’ll stick with the original in this article.

Apparently, both cigars and shit-eating grins are in plentiful supply out in deep space.

Battlestar Galactica was pretty much a rip-off of earlier, and more succesful, science-fiction stories. Universal Studios were sued by 20th Century Fox, who claimed that they had plagiarised a large number of ideas from Star Wars (a slightly rude claim, considering how much Star Wars had stolen from earlier shows). Glen Larson was given the nickname Glen Larceny by Harlan Ellison for this very reason, and Galactica failed to make a huge impact on American television. It was a modest success in Britain, where it was repeated for a good few years. It never made it to a second season, although Larson certainly had plans for one, including bringing Isaac Asimov in as Science Consultant (which may have involved throwing pretty much everything about the first series out of the airlock!) and trying to bring in some female viewers by strengthening the characters of Athena and Cassiopeia. We’ll never know if this would have worked, obviously, but it’s worth noting that this plan did apparently introduce several elements that were picked up in the remake.

As a child, Galactica was great. Even the brown suede jackets and guns that looked suspiciously like the Stormtrooper pistols from Star Wars. Even better were the Viper fighters. A poor man’s X-Wing, maybe, but undeniably awesome. They looked brutal, dirty and cool, like they would actually fly (even if they did only have three buttons), and had huge flaming jets out of the back when the pilot hit the Turbo! Oh, and the pilots were replaced by female shuttle pilots in one two-part episode, when Blue Squadron succumbed to a mystery disease. This gave the producers an excuse to show what the flight suits looked like under the suede and velveteen.

Damn, I love my job!

Sexist? Never! The Apollo/Starbuck friendship was the classic mix of straight-laced and easy-going, with Dirk Benedict schmoozing his way across the screen with his trademark cigar clamped between his (impossibly white) teeth. These were cookie-cutter hero templates, with righteousness oozing from every pore, and their only flaws being just too damn irresistable to the opposite sex. Oh sure, Starbuck would get into trouble by being too impulsive, and Apollo would disobey orders so he could ‘do the right thing’, but it would all be fine in the end. There wasn’t really any conflict, and even the Cylons weren’t that much of a threat – having forced the fleet to traverse the galaxy looking for a new home by destroying the colony worlds, the Cylons seemed incapable of blowing up a few ships and would constantly be foiled by a handful of ‘plucky Viper pilots’ (TM) despite having an overwhelming numerical advantage. But this is the Way of the TV Hero. No matter what, you will live to win another day.

This is very clear in what is arguably the most famous of the 80s TV action shows: Frank Lupo and Stephen J Cannell’s The A-Team. It told the story of four Viet Nam veteran ex-commandos who were “sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground”. The four men, Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, Lieutenant Templeton Peck – otherwise known as Face, Captain ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch and Sergeant B.A. ‘Bad Attitude’ Baracus, became mercenaries, hiring themselves out to any good cause that wanted help. There were a few subsidiary characters (notably reporters Amy Allen and Tawnia Baker – the only two recurring female characters who had both ‘left’ the show by the third season – and Frankie Santana in the fifth and final season), mainly made up of the military police officers assigned to hunt the A-Team down. The final important member of the team was big, black and made by GMC: the iconic A-Team van.

If you don't want to take this thing sideways on a dirt road, I don't even want to know what's wrong with you.

The A-Team spent a large proportion of their time firing fully automatic weapons at the bad guys, causing huge explosions and making jeeps spin out of control, leap a parked car and explode, yet somehow managed to avoid killing or even seriously wounding anyone! Helicopters would spiral into the ground, exploding in a ball of flame, and a few moments later the occupants would crawl out of the fire-blackened wreckage. This was a deliberate ploy on the part of the programme makers to ensure that the show was acceptable for early evening, prime-time broadcast. The violence was kept to exciting but safe levels, almost comic-book style, big explosions and wild gunfights, with no blood or death to disturb the young viewers (or the censors).

Each character filled a very specific niche, both in terms of their skills and their personality. Hannibal was the sensible leader, the man with the plans. Face was the smooth-talker, the fixer. Murdoch was the crazy one, the pilot who could fly anything. And B.A. was the strong man, the mechanic, who wouldn’t take no shit off fools! They would almost invariably get captured at some point in each episode, and end up inexplicably locked in a shed which just so happened to have all the parts and tools with which to construct an armoured, fire-breathing, racing tank (or similar). As a team, they had all the bases covered and had the righteous courage to stand up to any bully, and this was the core of the series: a group of comrades with no fear, as long as they worked together. They may not always have been friends (Murdoch was always deliberately winding B.A. up, for example), but they always pulled together like the battle-hardened soldiers that they were.

An iconic vehicle was the order of business for our next show: Knight Rider. The car in question was KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand), a truly pimped-out Pontiac Firebird Trans Am. It was fitted with pretty much anything it would need, most of which would only be used in one episode and then forgotten, but the usual gear included a turbo boost, flame-throwers, smoke-screens, ‘Super-Pursuit’ mode, impenetrable armour plating and, of course, an Artificial Intelligence Unit with Voice Synthesizer. KITT was capable of driving itself around, so quite why it needed the presence of that mop-haired buffoon, David Hasselhoff, is anyone’s guess.

No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you will never be as cool as this picture. FACT.

The story was that Michael Long, an LAPD officer played by Larry Anderson, was shot in the face while investigating the murder of his partner. Long was declared dead, but was actually transferred into the care of FLAG (the Foundation for Law And Government), a secret organisation set up by billionaire and philanthropist Wilton Knight. Long’s wounds were healed and he was given a new face (that of Wilton Knight’s presumed dead son) and a new identity (that of Michael Knight, played by The Hoff(TM), with The Hoff’s Hair(TM) in a supporting role) with which to go out and fight crime. Michael Knight had support, in the shape of Devon Miles, the Director of FLAG played by Edward Mulhare, and Dr Bonnie Barstow, FLAG’s chief engineer, played by Patricia MacPherson. Knight would drive around California (usually) as a high-tech knight-errant, fighting crime and solving mysteries. It was pretty formulaic, and eventually lost out to The A-Team in both the ratings war and the nostalgia war.

In another case of ‘The Car’s The Star’, a 1969 Dodge Charger, nicknamed the General Lee, with an orange paint job and welded-shut doors became an iconic piece of 80s action history. The Dukes of Hazzard was a highly enjoyable romp around Hazzard County in Georgia with the Duke Boys, Bo and Luke (played by John Schneider and Tom Wopat), as they drove like lunatics and annoyed the local law, portrayed as the incompetent redneck Roscoe P Coltrane (James Best), under the control of the corrupt Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke), the county commissioner. The Duke Boys were forever foiling Boss Hogg’s money-making scams by…well, by driving around mostly. I have to admit, I have only a tenuous grasp on the actual plot, beyond the fact that the Duke Boys were moonshine runners originally, and now had a thing about foiling Boss Hogg’s plans. Look, there was a lot of driving around, and skidding and jumping over things.

I was ten years old, leave me alone.

Ok, maybe there was another reason...

Yeah. Cousin Daisy, played by Catherine Bach and her two supporting co-stars. She drove around in her white Jeep spying on Boss Hogg for her cousins and generally kept Uncle Jesse company. There was basically a lot of driving and vehicular stunt work in the show, as Bo was supposedly an ex-stock car racer and the General Lee was modified for racing. There was also the famous ‘hood-slide’, where one of the Duke Boys (usually Luke) would slide across the bonnet of the General Lee in order to get around the other side of the car more quickly. I don’t really know why, because it didn’t really impart much of an advantage. It just looked awesome.

All I know is that it didn’t work so well on a 1983 Austin Ambassador.

END OF PART ONE

Crime and Politics…The Situation is Always Fluid.

Our once great nation is sick. It’s not been healthy for some time, but we’ve been able to kid ourselves that the situation was temporary, just a glitch, things would get better.

But it’s not.

There is a serious problem in Britain today, and it is only getting worse. The chancellor, George Osbourne, on behalf of the ConDem government, has recently revealed a budget that relieves tax burdens on the rich, while increasing tax burdens on the poor, disabled and elderly. The ConDem government has just passed a bill in which the NHS, the greatest health institution ever created, is being broken up and privatised with £5 billion worth of savings targeted for 2015 (paid for by selling bits and laying off staff, thus creating a less efficient system).  Cameron is currently trying to deflect blame for a scandal in which the co-treasurer of his Conservative Party, Peter Cruddas, was caught on camera offering access to the Prime Minister in return for donations to the party of £250,000.

In May 2011, a referendum was held on changes to the electoral system. The current system, known as First Past The Post or the plurality system, is inherently flawed and yet nearly 68% of voters chose not to change to the AV (Alternative Vote). Well, 68% of the 42% of voters that bothered to vote. This suggests that the general public are just as at fault as the politicians. After all, we live in a democracy, right?

Right?

Well, not quite. A democracy, from the Greek demokratia – ‘rule by the people’, implies that the ‘rulers’ should be selected from the population rather than putting themselves forward for election. Douglas Adams, in his Hitch-Hikers Guide series, stated that anyone who wanted to be in charge should automatically be eliminated from the running. This was meant as a wittily derogatory remark about politicians and their motivations, but there is some sense in what he says. A system whereby individuals are chosen from the voting register at random to fulfil government posts for a set time is one possibility, but is obviously deeply problematic. Members of the public are not necessarily capable of fulfilling the duties of political office, nor should they be expected to. The running of government should be in the hands of people who are trained to do it. Unfortunately, politicians aren’t trained to do it. David Cameron was educated at Eton, school of choice for the moneyed classes, and won a scholarship to Oxford University (ditto). Eton almost guarantees a place in a prestigious university as it is, undeniably, a very good school.  And so it should be, as it charges over £30,000 per year (not including additional fees for music lessons and so on). That pays for a lot of good grades.

You can almost smell the smug, self-satisfied bastards sweating money, can't you?

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the Conservatives see everything in terms of money. The NHS being privatised isn’t about providing a better service, it’s about making money. We know that privatisation doesn’t improve services. The Tories tried it in the 80s and it didn’t work too well then either. The banks and the big businesses (easy targets, I know) are making money hand over bastard fist, and yet they escape having to pay too much tax because they are in bed with the government (hopefully only metaphorically).

Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats (the other party in the current coalition government), has betrayed his party and his supporters. The Liberal Democrats are the opposite of the Conservatives. They should be progressive, socially responsible, instead Clegg has turned into Cameron’s lapdog, constantly agreeing with his boss’s ideas, regardless of their impact on the country. He saw the chance for a little bit of reflected glory and a whiff of power and went for it, damning the consequences and binning his principles (assuming he actually had some to begin with). He needs to do the right thing and dissolve the coalition, forcing a general election.

I should pause at this point and admit something. I don’t often talk in detail about politics, because I don’t really know that much about it (as anyone who does will no doubt have noticed). I know enough to bluff my way in pub conversations, but not enough to go on Newsnight, which is only one of many reasons that I’ve never been invited on. I am in no way the ‘voice of the average man on the street’ either, because I am fairly representative of the liberal middle-England (raised in Hampshire, father was an officer in the Royal Engineers, I’ve worked mainly in white-collar industries, I have a degree and I’m a teacher – you don’t get much more middle-class). I am a liberal and proud of it. I believe firmly in all of the good things that progressive governments have done for this country. Our education system used to be second to none, our healthcare was superlative, our benefits system was fair and genuinely helped some of the neediest people in our society. We used to have industries in this country, men and women working hard (albeit not always in the safest or healthiest environments) and making world class products: steel, ships, cars. What do we have now? Call centres. And even those are being outsourced.

Britain has become a nation of consumers, not producers. Creativity is not valued. Passion is not valued. Only money is valued. Success is measured by the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the house you own. We have no say in the running of our own country. Cameron’s government suppressed a report into the risks of the NHS bill, preventing it from being read by the very people who were supposed to be making an informed choice about it. If politicians in the Houses of bloody Parliament don’t have a fair say in the political arena of Britain, what chance do the rest of us have? Even when protesters take to the streets of our nation’s capital, they are almost invariably ignored.

"Go back to sleep, Britain! Your government is in control!"

Well, you could always become a religious spokesperson. That way you’ll be able to have your views listened to by government all the time. It was revealed today that three MPs have decided to try to force the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) to reverse its decision to ban a religious advert that suggests that prayer can heal illnesses. A Christian cult…sorry, Christian GROUP in Bath were banned from using advertising leaflets featuring these words:

NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY!… We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.

Apparently, those knee-jerk liberals at the ASA decided that this was misleading, and could potentially stop some people from seeking medical advice. I know, crazy fools! The clever and insightful MPs (Conservative Gary Streeter, Labour’s Gavin Shuker and Liberal Democrat Tim Farron – see? All three major parties represented These guys must represent the majority, right?) ask a very serious question of those facists at the ASA:

On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?

Excuse me, I just need some air. You may have noticed the slightest hint of sarcasm about that previous paragraph, but I swear that quote is genuine. These three fucking lunatics have genuinely asked for ‘scientific research’ and ’empirical evidence’ to prove that prayer doesn’t heal people. My initial response would be ‘oh, do fuck off’, but, on reflection, I think we can do better. How about the fact that we need medicine? Or doctors? Or the fact that people still die from illness? Or the fact that prayer DOESN’T FUCKING CURE SICKNESS?! The burden of proof in this case is quite clearly on those who claim that it has an effect, rather than on the people who claim it doesn’t. If you want prayer included in the list of acceptable and effective medical treatments, then you have to prove that it does work in a statistically significant number of cases.

The letter to the ASA also includes some anecdotal evidence. Sorry. Not good enough. You were the ones that mentioned ‘scientific research’ so you can go away and perform clinical trials with control groups and placebos and all the rest, to try and prove that prayer can heal. At the very least, it will shut you up long enough for doctors to actually heal some more people, rather than mumbling in Latin at them before demanding their cash to pay for more shiny hats.

Now THAT'S a shiny fucking hat!

These so-called Christians In Parliament should not be bringing religion into politics. There needs to be a complete divide between the church and the state. We are not a Christian nation. It is difficult to accurately measure the number of religious people in the UK, as was proven by the Humanist Society. When people were asked “What is your religion?” over 53% responded ‘Christian’. Fairly easy to measure, I hear you say. Well, hold on, because when those SAME people were asked “Are you religious?” 65% said no. More interestingly, it was found that less than 10% of the population attend a place of worship regularly. And that 10% includes all religions in the UK, not just Christians.

From this we can deduce that Christian churches represent the views of about 6% of the population of the country, or about half the population of Greater London. From that, we can further deduce that they have ABSOLUTELY NO SAY IN THE RUNNING OF THE COUNTRY! They do not get to dictate morals or laws any more.

But who does? We have already seen that Cameron’s government is morally bankrupt, willing to take under-the-table ‘donations’ in order to gain access to the Prime Minister. Why would someone want to do that? Well, access to the PM allows an individual, or a representative of a ‘group of concerned citizens’, or a pressure group, to make suggestions to the leader of our country. These suggestions will come from someone who is clearly a supporter of what Cameron stands for, right? Otherwise they wouldn’t have such privileged access… You see? It is clearly an unacceptable and corrupt way of doing things, which is why Cameron was so quick to damn his treasurer when the news came out, quick to condemn his actions, quick to distance himself from a situation that he, in all probability, was entirely aware of.

We need to take the power back.

We need to refuse to have our voices ignored any longer.

We need to demand transparency and involvement in the politics of our country.

Maybe then we can make Britain great once again.

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!

Blood-sucking Parasites!

[WARNING – CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS – And a mention or two of Twilight. Sorry.]

For the second in my series on monsters, I’ve decided to look at what is arguably the most popular of all of them: Vampires. Unlike zombies, who are still basically the same as they have always been (aside from speeding up a bit, and different ways of creating them), vampires have undergone a succession of major transformations over the centuries. Legends of blood-sucking demons have existed in almost every country and culture, from ancient Assyria, through India, Africa, the Americas, Greece, Rome, and all the way to the Eastern European legends that most of us associate with ‘modern’ vampires.

Vampires get people in a flap

Modern vampires really get their wings in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This followed a couple of centuries of increased belief in vampires, occasionally flaring up into bouts of mass hysteria, with corpses being dug up and staked or beheaded, police and government officials filling in reports specifically naming vampires as the cause of deaths, and entire villages swearing that a dead neighbour has returned from the grave to drink the blood of the living. With the creatures of the night so firmly in the public consciousness, vampires began to infiltrate literature in the form of the writings of Stagg, Shelley and, of course, John Polidori. Polidori was an associate of the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, novelist and all-round degenerate Lord Byron, and it is assumed that he based the main character of his novel The Vampyre (1819), Lord Ruthven, on Byron himself.

The Vampyre is the first appearance of the suave and charismatic vampire in literature, so is arguably the birthplace of the modern vampire myth. This fusing of the romantic and the macabre became known as Gothic literature, famous for such classics as Frankenstein (1818) – written as part of the contest between Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Mary’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, that also produced Polidori’s The VampyreThe Fall of the House of Usher (1839), by Edgar Allen Poe, and, obviously, Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker, probably the most famous of all vampire novels.

Gary Oldman pimpin' it as Dracula

Soon after the release of Dracula, vampires began crawling onto the silver screen. The most notable of these early vampire films (if not the first) was Nosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s rip-off of the Bram Stoker classic that somehow became a completely different take on vampirism. Max Schreck’s portrayal of Count Orlok is monstrous, a twisted, inhuman predator (the film is often accused of anti-Semitism due to Orlok’s appearance being so similar to the stereotyped look of the Jew), although the character clearly has strong sexual overtones, being destroyed by feasting sensuously on the virginal Ellen Hutter until the sun rises.

The 1930s gave us the Universal Studios version of Dracula (1931) with the iconic performance of Bela Lugosi as the opera-cloak wearing vampire gentleman. His ‘Transylvanian’ accent would slip into the collective unconscious as shorthand for ‘vampire’ for decades to come. Again, Dracula is portrayed as a sexual predator, suave and handsome, albeit with some monstrous features and habits!

Later still, Britain’s Hammer House of Horrors version of Dracula (1958) introduced the world to another iconic performance, that of the great Christopher Lee. His imposing six foot five frame created a physically powerful vampire, as well as sexy, despite his supernatural powers being reduced to immortality: he could effectively resurrect himself endlessly – handy for a run of sequels. Again, this vampire was a strong sexual predator, feasting on a succession of scantily clad and buxom wenches.

This subtext of sex has run through the vampire legend since those early Romantic versions, surfacing again and again. The original vampires were monsters, attacking and killing, feasting on the blood of the living to sustain their damned half-life. When Polidori used Byron as a model, sex couldn’t have been far behind. After all, Byron famously had affairs with Lady Caroline Lamb (wife of the 2nd Viscount Melbourne), Jane Harley (wife of the Earl of Oxford), and Augusta Leigh (his own half-sister, although this affair was only a rumour, possibly spread by the obsessed Caroline Lamb). Vampires feed by biting their victims, the most vicious and primitive sort of attack, but the mouth is also sensuous. Love bites and kisses, especially on the neck, are hugely intimate and sexy. In addition to this, we have the penetrative aspect of those fangs, and the passion (not to mention the menstrual connection) of blood.

Vampires are creatures that we love. But why? What is it about them that we find fascinating? Dr Belisa Vranich, clinical psychologist, suggests a number of reasons, including the simple fact that vampires are loners. According to modern sources, vampires either live alone or in hierarchical packs, led by a single, powerful vampire. Dracula had his vampettes, Max had his punk son and his friends, Jesse had his crew. They are outsiders, unaffected by human values, morals or laws. Often, things fall apart for them when they accept a new human into their ranks – Dracula fell for Mina and was killed as a result, Max told David to ‘turn’ Michael so he could get his fangs into Lucy and was killed as a result, Mae ‘turned’ Caleb and the whole crew died as a result. The outsider archetype is a strong one, especially in American literature and film. The outsider is strong, self-reliant, driven by their own code. They typify the ideal of the American West, of the outlaw. Near Dark (1987) was pretty explicit in this regard, having Jesse (Lance Henrikson) played as a veteran of the American War of Independence, in which he “fought for the South…We lost”.

Near Dark: Rebels without a pulse

Near Dark also used sex as a weapon of the vampires. Vulnerable and elfin vamp Mae seduces and ‘turns’ farm boy Caleb, inducting him into their psychotic road crew of killer vamps, including the aforementioned Jesse, his squeeze Diamondback, leather-jacketed, fun-loving crazy Severen and old-man-in-young-boy’s-body Homer. They are played as anarchic serial killers, driving the endless highways in a series of stolen vehicles and feasting from losers in roadside bars. Love ultimately wins out over sex, and the vampires go out in a blaze of glory (literally).

The Lost Boys (1987) also presented the vampires as rebels, this time apparently led by the superb blond mullet of a young Keifer Sutherland. It echoes the ideas of half-vampires suggested in Near Dark, and runs with the ideas of juvenile delinquency. Michael (Jason Patric) and Sam (Corey Haim) move to Santa Carla, the ‘Murder Capital of the World’ and soon find it under the sway of David’s (Keifer Sutherland) gang of teenage vampires. Less sex, although Michael is attracted to the gang by Star (Jami Gertz), and more drugs and rock-and-roll, The Lost Boys is a cult classic for good reason. It isn’t hugely innovative in terms of the vampire mythos, but it does add a heavy dose of cool, which, like Near Dark, made the vampire something that a certain breed of movie-goer would relate to.

A film that took the myth in a different direction was Tony ‘brother of Ridley’ Scott’s The Hunger (1983). Although it features a sex scene between the vampire Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) and Sarah (Susan Sarandon), the film approaches vampirism as an addiction. Miriam feeds on clubbers, extending their life span as a result, only to leave them to rapidly age and die when she moves on. David Bowie gives a surprisingly strong performance as John, Miriam’s dying ex-lover, suffering the painful symptoms of withdrawal. The sensuousness of the film is almost an expression of a drug-induced ecstasy, rather than the fulfilment of sexual contact.

In 1976, Anne Rice published the first in a series of vampire novels, in which she explored the curse of longevity. Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Interview With The Vampire (1994) introduced the world to Tom Cruise’s Lestat and Brad Pitt’s Louis, as Louis wandered around New Orleans bemoaning his fate, while Lestat (for some bizarre reason) refused to let him leave. It ignored many of the traditional vampiric weaknesses (garlic and religious symbols) although sunlight could kill them. The ‘Vampire Chronicles’, as the books became known, sold very well and influenced a large section of the Goth community. They also had an influence on the role-playing scene as well; White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade owes a great deal to Rice’s portrayal of vampiric society.

"Look me in the eye, Tom, and tell me you aren't standing on a box."

There is no way I can talk about vampires in pop culture without at least a passing reference to the long-running (six years) television series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. What began as a tongue-in-cheek tale of an air-headed valley girl being chosen to fight the forces of evil developed into a surprisingly detailed world of monsters (both human and otherwise), love, sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, death, rebirth, family, friendship, school, life and on and on and on! Originally created by Joss Whedon, it was written with wit and a deep understanding of the trauma of high school. The characters were engaging and the storylines solid. It gave us the evil vamp forced to turn good (Spike), the evil vamp turned good by love (Angel), and every type of truly evil vamp you can think of, from the one shot monsters to the sneaky evil geniuses. It was a cool update to the mythos, and introduced a whole new generation to vampires and the supernatural.

Vampires became rich and powerful in the last years of the 20th century, but were hunted down by the brutal martial-arts stylings of the Daywalker. Blade (1999) featured Wesley Snipes as the titular half-vampire, high-kicking his way through the ranks of Stephen Dorff’s minions. The film takes a pseudo-scientific approach to vampirism, seeing it as a disease, although the pounding soundtrack, sick moves and black leather detract from that somewhat. It’s an action movie that spawned a handful of less successful sequels, but the original is worth a watch. The vamps here represent a kind of neo-Roman decadence that the uptight Blade fights against as he struggles to rebel – but this time the rebellion is against his own vampiric nature.

"I really hate that Stephen Dorff. Oh crap. He's right behind me, isn't he?"

In recent years, we have seen a slight return to the animalistic predator form of vampire in movies like 30 Days of Night and I Am Legend (although the source novel presents them in a very different light), but we have also seen the sexual type flourish. I am loathe to mention the Twilight series, but feel my hand is somewhat forced. The popularity of this teeny-goth best-seller is all about the sex. It’s the longing for the sensitive and moody emo type, represented here by concave-faced Robert Pattinson. However, it’s about NOT having sex. Oh yes, Stephanie Meyer’s first book showed a clear Christian message, with family values and their strength coming from what they believe in (some sources suggest a veiled metaphor for Mormonism – not having read them or seen the films I’m not sure how accurate these accusations are. Please tell us in the comments if you know!). This is a direct contrast to the savagery of the 30 Days of Night/I Am Legend style vamp. These are inhuman looking, with super quick reflexes and little in the way of social skills. These are the monsters under the bed; no sexual subtext here, just the innate fear of being eaten alive. Television shows like Ultraviolet (sadly short-lived) presented vampires as secretive, trying to live within human society and manipulate us, controlling the way we think in subtle ways. If nobody believes in vampires, surely that just makes it easier for them to move among us, undetected.

So the vampire presents us with a dichotomy. On the one hand, they are virtually unkillable predators, repelled only by the glory of God (holy water, consecrated earth, sunlight), out to drain our life’s blood to sustain their night-time half-lives. On the other, they are sexy, strong, charismatic and eternal. They ooze sensuality, leave you begging for more, turn you into a desperate addict. They are cool, turning their backs on a repressive human society and living by their own rules, taking no shit off anybody and killing anyone who pisses them off. Or they are the elite, sitting at the top of human society, breeding us to be ignorant of their existence, like cattle, ripe for the taking.

Which is it? Well, maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s all a matter of perspective. We like them for all the same reasons we fear them. We created them millennia ago as blood-drinking demons that came in the night. We have turned them into the beautiful, sensitive loner, powerful and magical.

But they still don’t bloody sparkle.