Friday 21 December 2012

Eschatological problems

The suicidal, new-agers and Gozer worshippers alike, try not to be too downhearted. It's galling, I know, to still be alive and having now somehow survived the dual threat of both the year 2000 and 11.11 a.m. on December 21st 2012. Common sense dictates that at least one of them must have brought about the end of the world, surely? Does the planet not know what day it is? Nevertheless, be of good cheer: remember that all the governments of the world possess enough weapons of mass destruction to carry out the complete destruction of the planet hundreds of times over any time they fancied. And you might get hit by a bus while crossing the road. Nearer my God to thee, indeed.

However, for those of you having an existential crisis at the prospect of living out the next tens of thousands days of your life without any prospect of end times, I have provided a series of alternative dates and scenarios for those amongst us whose sole ambition is to die screaming to cling on to, like a pissy blanket. This is a free service and, as ever, you are most welcome.

24th December 2018
Father Christmas finds out the truth about his own existence during his annual delivery run, causing a terminal rift in the space-time continuum.

18th June 2026
The amount of cow farts in the atmosphere reaches critical mass as a friesian called Jessop cuts a particularly thick one and all the air on Earth boils.

2nd February 2029
Mars Attacks.

11th October 2037
The planet Earth is discovered to in fact to be subject to the same laws of physics as were depicted in Roadrunner cartoons with catastrophic, if hilarious, consequences.

30th November 2040

1st January 2050
A robot Judith Hann arrives from space to reveal that we should have heeded all her warnings from the prophetic Tomorrow's World, which is in fact revealed to have fallen under the remit of religious broadcasting.

16th September 2062
The sun tires of the continual repeats of some programmes but not others on ITV3 and decides to find another galaxy with better telly.

30th July 2066
Everybody in England kills themselves due to the horror of having not won any major international football competitions for exactly 100 years and everything else on Earth dies of grief at the loss.

5th July 2075
Everything just goes to tits.

14th April 2080
My 100th birthday.

20th April 2089
Adolf Hitler reappears from hiding in Argentina on his 200th birthday to fuck us all right up.

Now one of those has got to cover it.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

A child's Christmas ruined by marital infidelity

It's Christmas and so everyone's new favourite pastime is engaging in a ceaselessly circular and completely insoluble debate regarding the identity of the best Christmas film (it's It's A Wonderful Life). Fortunately, music has spared itself this fate by the release of A Christmas Gift For You in 1963. On 22nd November 1963 to be precise, the day of the Kennedy assassination. It is, was and ever shall be the ultimate festive selection and anybody who says otherwise is mistaken. It's as simple as that, for once.

Which is not to say that it is not without fault or should be immune from further analysis. For a start, the album's auteur is of course Phil Spector, one of the human race's most unassailable gitcaptains. A genuinely nasty piece of work, a hateful and spiteful man and one for whom pointing out he's a mole-faced bald-headed twat seems oddly unsatisfying when one considers all the deeper personality flaws that could be picked on instead.

Secondly, it is an album filled with songs which have unfortunately inviting lyrics for dirty minded people. Phil Spector's output is full of these. The Crystals' And Then He Kissed Me would be incomplete without the addition of "... on the tits", but drawing us in on a celebration of Christmas is particularly unseemly and unfortunate.

In fact, the worst offender is the song which I want to talk about in more detail. Thirdly and most damningly is the inconsistencies that run rife through I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by The Ronettes. Let's get it out of the way early: it is a particularly filthy song. I saw mommy sucking Santa off, underneath the mistletoe last night. I saw mommy tickle Santa's balls. I could go on. But these are small potatoes when compared to the bigger picture.

The song itself was not written by The Ronettes or Phil Spector but by Tommie Connor, a British songwriter who was operational during the middle of the 20th Century. The original recording of it was by Jimmy Boyd in 1952. Boyd was 13 years old at the time, and therein lies the whole problem with the song. It is a song written from the child's perspective. An excited child on Christmas Eve sneaks out of bed and down onto the stairs to see if they can catch a peek at some of the magic of the season happening. What he sees, of course, is made clear by the title of the song.

The problem is the lines, "oh what a laugh it would have been/ if Daddy had only seen/ Mommy kissing Santa Claus last night". I presume that these were put in as a knowing reference for any parents listening. Of course we all know that it is daddy dressed up as Santa Claus. Ho ho ho. However, it doesn't so much break the fourth wall as drive a reindeer-pulled sleigh through it. The child doesn't know this. What he sees is Father Christmas in flagrante with his mother, the filthy whore. So quite why he would think it would be such a big laugh I do not know. Had this happened to me during my childhood, it would have ruined my Christmas completely. Oh no, my parents are going to get a divorce. I'm going to be one of those children with a single parent and then spend the weekends with the other one walking round a goose park being told how much I'm loved. Fuck's sake.

Maybe he thinks it's a step in the right direction? Maybe his father is a rather staid and boring man, an office drone. Maybe he thinks having Father Christmas be his new dad would be a much more exciting and fulfilling life? Of course, it could be that his father is an abuser. Take that, dad! Mommy is kissing Santa Claus!

The other possibility is that the child hates Father Christmas and has secretly always wanted to watched him get decked. This child's bedroom is full of mouse traps and crossbows on a hair trigger. One way or another, Father Christmas is going to get fucked up tonight. He's not leaving this house in one piece, that's for damn sure. Whichever is the correct reading of it, what is undeniable is that this child is either deeply psychologically disturbed, or is about to be. Is that really what we want to be dwelling on at the festive season?

Father Christmas: who is your mother to resist, eh? The filthy harlot

Friday 14 December 2012

Music as oatmeal

I'm sorry to be the bringer of bad news but modern music is shit. It's the time of year when television channels are full of those adverts for the new albums of the year's TOP BEAT COMBOS, presumably with a view to seeing thousands of units sold to prop up Christmas trees up and down the land. You know the ones:

JO WHILEY (V/O): Mercury Prize nominees Atomic Lightsabre's monumental new album The Electronic Confusion is out now, featuring the singles Poetry and Balloons...


(V/O)... Intestate Death Race...


(V/O)... and the brilliant new single Biliary Tree


I couldn't tell you for sure if I've heard any songs by any band from the last 15 years. They have all become one amorphous porridge of autotuning, neat perfection and identical sentiment. Whatever the genre, whatever the critical response, it's just cookie cutter. This is why I find myself turning increasingly to Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. For better or worse, whether you like it or hate it, there's no way you could not know whether you'd ever heard it or not.

There's not enough new things like that any more. Obviously, all the old stuff is still around too, which should be enough. But there's just this creeping feeling within me that it isn't.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

Disaster recognition protocols

The other day I wrote a post here about my favourite disaster movies and in the distance there was a faint sound of howling. It turned out that this was my friend 5olly, esteemed film blogger and vegetablist. For some time he'd been planning to make the top 100 disaster movies his next film blog project and was worried that I was about to ruin everything. I was, of course, but not in the way he'd expected. As ever, my plans for ruining everything were more broad.

The key problem, he explained, was that unlike many other shitter genres of films, it's very hard to come by a definitive list of the best disaster movies. Indeed, opinion is divided as to exactly what constitutes a disaster movie and what doesn't. In order to help society, then, we decided to try and come up with a definitive list of the criteria required for a movie to be a disaster. This is essentially the minutes of that meeting, only with less swearing. Or more. Who knows?

1. A disaster must happen in your disaster movie

This may seem fairly self-evident but it rules a lot of wannabe movies out. Post-apocalyptic films where the key is survival, for instance, fall at this first hurdle, unless there are a series of subsequent disasters depicted in the plot. Having a disaster is pretty much essential for a disaster movie, and the bigger the better. It's also best to not be too coy about your disaster. A bit of build-up adds to the dramatic tension but it's always a mistake to wait too long, because:

2. The disaster must be the only reason for making your movie into a movie

Life's mundanity must be to the fore in the early stages of your disaster movie. There should be no reason whatsoever for turning the stories we see unfold into a movie, other than a disaster happening. You shouldn't make an intriguing espionage thriller and then put a tornado in it, essentially.

3. In another set of circumstances, your disaster may not have happened

By this I mean that it is important that things could have gone another way. That plane could have landed and a merry Christmas been had by all. The tsunami could have missed your farmyard and not played havoc with your insurance premiums. The tantalising prospect of what might have been must hang heavily over your story. If possible, at least one of your characters should have been only days away from retirement.

This, of course, rules out completely monumental disasters where every single thing on the planet is destroyed. In the cases of films like that, the audience will always be left wondering if they story they'd been watching up to that point was really the most interesting thing happening that you could have showed them. SO:

4. Some characters must survive your disaster

A movie must have a beginning, a middle and an end. A disaster movie must have a beginning, a disaster and an aftermath. This aftermath will struggle to hold the audience's attention unless there are some characters walking around in it. It goes without saying that these characters probably ought to include some that we'd already met. What kind of state they are in is entirely up to you: teeth, no teeth, arms fallen off or fused to a passing cow. Go nuts.

5. Your disaster must be made-up but not fanciful

This is where a lot of aspiring disaster movies fall down. Science fiction walks a very fine line: if the film is based on a disaster which, given all we know, could possibly happen then OK. Asteroid strikes or nuclear wars have not yet afflicted us, at least not since the dawning of Sight and Sound Magazine, however, it is well-established that they could and boffins with lots of furrows on their brow and pens in their pockets have considered their outcomes and effects in serious scientific papers. But ones based on pseudoscience, alien invasions, zombie plagues or monsters are on rather shakier ground. It's not that they could not happen - anything COULD happen, I suppose - but it's hard to see them as anything other than sci-fi monster movies or horror films. Of course, come the day that the dead rise, aliens invade and they are particularly angry, or a load of Godzillas and Mothras make merry all over Tokyo, then generic reclassification will of course be the first order of business.

Case study: 1998, a good year for asteroids

Maybe it was a case of pre-millennium tension but in the years leading up to 2000 the summer blockbuster movie became increasingly fixated with the annihilation of all we hold dear. In 1998 the dish of the day was shit dropping out of space onto middle America's well-manicured lawns. In Armageddon, a rogue asteroid works its way through all the space junk to threaten Earth with inevitable extinction unless a ragtag group of scientists, miners and alcoholics can land a spaceship on the object and blow it to bits. In Deep Impact, meanwhile, a vast comet is discovered by an amateur astronomer and will invariably extinct us all right up unless NASA can pull a fast one. Two films released in the same year, dealing with a very similar problem and an almost identical solution. However, one of them is a disaster film and the other is not. This is not even due to the application of one of my more arcane and absurd points, but because of a more fundamental one. Namely, of the two films only one - Deep Impact - actually has a disaster in it. Armageddon sees the get out of jail card played successfully just in time, thus becoming what can only be described as a near-disaster movie. Which are better for biodiversity but much worse for people trying to make a list of disaster movies.

Which is what I have done. Collaborating with 5olly, we have come up with that rarest of beasts, a top 100 list of disaster movies. The tentative plan is to make this a project for 2013, watching and reviewing all these titles in order to document our twitching collapse into complete paranoid psychosis. And here it is, in order of their rating on - with sequels expunged as far as possible and in the case of movies based on real-life disasters, only the top-rated or best known one is included. Sorry, A Night To Remember. Any suggestions for any we might have missed will be welcome, because we don't want to have to watch Titanic. It is rubbish.

The 5ollymund Official Top 100 Disaster Movies

Special Bulletin
When The Wind Blows
Variola Vera
On The Beach
San Francisco
The Hurricane
The Andromeda Strain
The Day the Earth Caught Fire
Colossus: The Forbin Project
The Poseidon Adventure
By Dawn's Early Light
Perfect Sense
The World, the Flesh and the Devil
The Day After
Miracle Mile
The Towering Inferno
When Worlds Collide
Panic in Year Zero!
Zero Hour!
The Last Voyage
Where Have All the People Gone
The Perfect Storm
The Day After Tomorrow
Back from Eternity
The Devil at 4 O'Clock
The Cassandra Crossing
The Night the Bridge Fell Down
Night of the Comet
Right at Your Door
End of the World
The Hindenburg
Gray Lady Down
The Crowded Sky
Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea
Crack in the World
No Blade of Grass
St. Helens
Deep Impact
World Trade Center
The Peacemaker
Crash Landing
This Is Not a Test
Dante's Peak
Hard Rain
Tidal Wave
The Night the World Exploded
Japan Sinks
Night of the Twisters
The Big Bus
Chain Reaction
Cold Harvest
The Core
Krakatoa, East of Java
The Happening
Damnation Alley
Countdown: The Sky's on Fire
Atomic Train
When Time Ran Out...
The Day the Sky Exploded
The Swarm
Def-Con 4
A Sound of Thunder
Atomic Twister
The Last Patrol
City on Fire
Doomsday Machine

Friday 30 November 2012

Let's dine

Those of you wondering what you might like for an evening repast today may like to take some inspiration from the 1976 book Chinese Cooking For All. This was either published by Octopus or written by an octopus, the book doesn't specify. Either way, there are some delicious oriental treats for everyone to enjoy. Observe:

Full of eastern promise

Everyone's favourite meat: live, angry, bull

CHINESE CHILD: What's for dinner?
CHINESE PARENT: Cauliflower.
CHINESE CHILD: What, again?

Radioactive clouds from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continued
to affect Chinese pork farms for decades afterward

CHINESE CHILD: What's for dinner?
CHINESE PARENT: A bowl of diarrhoea.
CHINESE PARENT: Only if you finish your angry, glistening, sienna-coloured knackers.

CHINESE DINNER PARTY HOST: Under the "fleece" of deep-fried noodles is shit-braised lamb
and atomic carrots, oh wait, you've died.

Angry stools on a nest of uncooked noodles, with tapeworms

What lurks in the Yellow Sea and Pacific Ocean? No-one can say for sure, but it can't necessarily be killed by cooking alone.

Raw fish pickled in sherry with pineapple. Yummers.

CHINESE CHILD: What's for dinner? Lobster and beansprouts?

Dinner party treats. The Chinese like nothing more than a banquet, unless it's a banquet that glows orange with the energy of a thousand suns.

Almonds and celery, two noted tastes of Chinese cuisine

Glow in the dark, glow in the duck, glows coming out

Chinese people love eggs and vegetables, but being a mysterious and inscrutable bunch they don't like to give the West any idea as to why that might possibly be.

CHINESE DINNER PARTY HOST: How do you like your eggs?

Omelettes in a rich tincture of ebola virus

Sweet and sour cabbage: beware of aeroplanes landing on your dinner

But Chinese food is not the one-trick pony that many people whose only experience of it is Western-style restaurants and takeaways think it is. There are also an array of alluring desserts and sweet treats to cap your evening and cleanse your palate.

Cubes of wobbly jellied almond milk with terrifyingly crystallised things

Eight treasures rice: the eighth treasure is AIDS

Thursday 29 November 2012

Twitter shitters

Imagine the screaming hysterical horror that greeted the news in August that One Direction (who?)'s Zayn Malik (who?) had deleted his Twitter account, citing the slew of negative comments that he received. I'm not particularly surprised he found this, having seen the stream of invective, death-threats and shrieking insanity unleashed at Taylor Swift (no idea) last week when it was revealed that she is currently hanging out the back of Zayn's bandmate, Harry.

Celebrities are leaping off Twitter in ever-growing numbers at the moment. Trolling is increasingly blamed, to the point that even the jaded old colonels and concentration camp guards from the Boer War who make up the readership of The Daily Express are aware of what "trolling" is. But they're actually not. Calling wild, unfocused abuse "trolling" is like calling all cheese "cheddar". For older hands, trolling is a much more textured, varied and cultured activity.

It's just a sign of the times: as a previously niche activity becomes saturated with new participants, becoming da rigeur in the process, it changes in nature for everyone. It's a pity, too. For years, people discussing their favourite films, TV and music online were the butt of every joke going. Now the creatives have entered the forum, they are frequently chased away by negative comments and insults. What a wasted opportunity! The chance of a dialogue between the makers and the consumers spoilt for everyone.

But who is to blame? They are. You heard. It's them. For years, the internet was a great leveller, a field of anonymity and created persona, where people could choose to be who they wanted. The insatiable ego of the celebrity has meant that they are unable to enter into this barnyard without being the showiest, struttiest, most crowing rooster in the place. Look at me! Look at me! I was in Saved By The Bell! There is no reason that celebrities can't use Twitter, or any other online forum for that matter. But the onus is on them to play by the rules by which everybody else abides, not mince in and expect to be considered special simply on account of their name. Many of them do, of course. You can easily identify these people from the fact that they are still on Twitter. Good on them.

The internet is a true democracy. An egalitarian utopia of the kind that philosophers could previously only dream of. But equality demands that everyone enters without any preconceived notions of superiority. And thus, celebrities on Twitter are pricks. Luckily, all their Twitter accounts have almost invariably since been reactivated, so if you are that way inclined you can tell them.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Dog problems

I've become a dog owner by mistake. I'm looking after my girlfriend's dog for two-and-a-half weeks. He is a very nice dog and very well behaved. Naturally, then, he's driving me nuts. I've never had a pet dog before, so all of this is something of a voyage of discovery for me, although I was already aware of the fact that I was nuts.

I always thought that the whole concept of there being dog people and cat people was probably an over-simplification. But actually, it isn't. The demands of a pet dog and a pet cat are such polar opposites that it's surprising that there are any similarities at all. There are, of course. Both dogs and cats are cute and loveable and like a fuss and a play. Both dogs and cats eat food that stinks out of tin cans. And both of them watch you eat your food with an intensity that makes it clear that they kind of wish they didn't. However, after a week of looking after a mutt I now believe that people who prefer dogs to cats must have a chromosome missing.

A dog, yesterday

It is a truism emblazoned on a million bumper stickers that a dog has a master while a cat has a servant, and I think this is the root cause of the difficulties that I'm experiencing. I'm tending to deal with this canine interloper as if it is some kind of firefighting operation. My key concerns are to make sure he gets out to do his excretions and therefore doesn't park anything in the house, and that he doesn't bark because people as highly-strung as I am don't take very kindly to such malarky. It's fairly easy to see why I don't feel that I'm getting very much out of this experience other than a headache. Instead of enjoying it I am largely treating him as if scientists had finally managed to graft working legs onto a piping bag filled with turds.

Although prepared for a few dog things, I'd not factored in quite how much talking in the street dog ownership entails. I spend half of the day in a dialogue with this dog, for at least an hour of which I am in public. They like it, need it and want it. I speak to cats, too, but I've never found it met with anything other than thinly-veiled contempt. I kind of miss that.

And there's the rub: ultimately, cats hate you. They want you to feed them and then leave them be, which is a mission statement not dissimilar to my own. Dogs love you unconditionally all day long, and that freaks me out. But though I am a grouchy bastard with a heart of stone, I am also a creature of logic and reason and logic and reason tell me that this unconditional love means that the dog has no intention of ruining my day. He'd not even have dreamt of it, nor could he even conceive of a way he might go about doing so (dogs are thick). Therefore, if he has ruined my day it can only because I have allowed him to. So the onus is on him to adapt to a new pace of day-to-day life, and on me to be less of a fanny.

There is no prize for guessing which of these is likely to happen first, by the way. Shut up.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

There goes the neighbourhood

Some people may tell you that the best zombie film ever made is not Night of the Living Dead but I'm afraid that these people are deeply misguided. While Living Dead is not the first film that deals with the problems of the undead (many people sing the praises of I Walked With A Zombie but don't be taken in, it is interminable), it is undeniably the one which set the agenda for all the films that followed it. Night of the Living Dead is so responsible for the creation of its genre, in fact, that it's almost sacrilegious when any of the hundreds of films that have followed deviate too far from its basic tenets.

Just in case you are currently saving up all your loose change and stockpiling liver in a bin bag in order to make your own zombie film, Night of the Living Keith, here are what I consider to be its most fundamental teachings.

1. Undead ratio is important

The fact of the matter is, no matter how many of your friends you can get to dress up like Zandra Rhodes, zombies don't carry a story. For that you need your un-undead characters. Night of the Living Dead gets this key area right. Whilst the entire premise of the body of the film is that the protagonists are stuck in a house completely surrounded by zombies, it is within the house that we stay. It creates an atmosphere incomparable to those zombie films which are just a non-stop slew of zombie action. Those films thrive on terror, sudden acts of unexpected horror. Suspense is a lot more sophisticated. Whilst it relies on terror, it adds to it and makes it mean something. So consider that before you start pouring corn syrup on your mum's church slacks.

2. Pace yourselves

Suspense is the key to a good horror film. So take your time. There's no need to kill off all of your cast immediately because we all know that they will be eventually. So let's get to find out about some of the hopes and dreams that will be quashed as a result first. The other pacing note is, and I can't stress this enough, zombies should never run. Slow, grinding, inevitability and the building of layers of claustrophobia and hysteria is the key to a successful zombie film, not a load of people legging it about with their chin off.

3. Social commentary is always welcome

The zombie films of George A. Romero are notable for the wider points about society and social problems that they make, in amongst the Hell's Angels being eaten. Sometimes these were even done accidentally: the pioneering casting decision to make the leading protagonist in Night of the Living Dead black was taken for strictly meritocratic reasons: Duane Jones gave the best audition for the part. But ever since it has been looked upon by commentators and critics as one of the best film exploration of the civil rights struggle in 1960s America. Zombie zombie zombie teeth jugular blood spurt murder zombie films are all very well and good for a brief frightener, but they are unlikely to stay with you. And it's the ones that stay with you that will help you remember all of the handy survival hints that could come in so handy one day.

4. Punch hysterical women in the face

It's the only way they'll learn.

5. Children are little shits and will be the death of you

True dat.

Monday 19 November 2012

It can't happen here: on the power of disaster movies

Bees! Terrorists! Floods! SARS! Monsters! The elderly! Life is a dangerous place to be but what makes it preferable to the alternative is disaster movies.

Disaster is one of those film genres which can be distinguished thus: there has never been a disaster film, there are only disaster movies. But each is such a finely crafted opera of hysteria and catastrophe that not even Sight and Sound magazine could complain. Normally, cinema works on a very strict moral code. Bad things never befall good people and children and people with dogs. But in the disaster movie, all bets are off. Fred Astaire can be burned alive in a tower block, Steve Gutenberg's hair can fall out and Olivia De Havilland can be stung to death by bees. Nothing you do can save you from the wrathful vengeance of nature, or greed, or the worst excesses of humanity, or bees. In some of my favourite disaster movies, no-one is left alive at all and the Earth left to adjust to this cataclysmic event as best it can, but how it goes about doing so is not addressed. It's a sobering prospect for anyone familiar with the basic tenets of narrative structure, with Steve Gutenberg or the behavioural patterns of bees.

Disaster movies are interesting, too, because there's no guarantee that the events that take place can't ultimately conspire to smite your ass. Most days we all get up and try and stave off indigestion, death and bees long enough to make it to bedtime: it's all very humdrum and routine. But some days there are people who find themselves on fire, or in the wrong place at the wrong time during a terrorist attack or a natural disaster, or as collateral during the final climactic battle in the war between atomic bees and space wasps. There's no guarantees that, just by watching a film where a monstrous pre-historic sloth rampages through downtown Pittsburgh, you have achieved any kind of immunity.

So, I suppose there are two main reasons to relish disaster movies. Firstly, you never feel more alive than you do when you're watching someone else have their face chewed off by a doberman or falling out of a cable car in forlorn pursuit of their last Rolo. But secondly, it's a useful place to pick up tips. Do you know where you'd go during a zombie plague, tsunami or beetastrophe? That's right: upstairs. And I learnt all of that from watching disaster movies. Being someone who finds it difficult to learn any new skill without doing, disaster movies are as close as I can get without there being a snake biting my glans at 30,000 feet.

Today, then, I'm going to look at the main types of disaster movie and share some of the key lessons that they have taught me. You might want to print this post out later and then paste it to the wall of your inner sanctuary. Next to the bucket for shitting in.


Human beings are a bunch of idiots. They are greedy, self-serving and beholden to contrary ideologies. Even when they try to be helpful, they drop a load of water onto sodium metal and accidentally destroy half of Denver. The majority of man-made disaster films revolve around these topics, usually involving transportation or buildings. Terrorism is also a popular subject, although after September 11th 2001, American film producers decided that it was actually quite a serious subject after all and started to use it more sparingly.

Atomic Train: Rob Lowe saves the world, then doesn't

And how does one go about making any situation worse? Put an atomic bomb in it! A prime example here is the monumental TV movie Atomic Train, which touches on most of the classic man-made disaster film staples: greed, corruption, cutting corners, transportation gone awry, human relationship problems being put into sharp perspective and atomic bombs. Bees, mercifully, were absent but even so most of Denver copped one right in the flue, despite the best efforts of Rob Lowe.

So what can we learn from man-made disaster movies? Well, first, regulations exist for a reason. You may save yourselves a few thousand dollars in fees but if you sneak a decommissioned Soviet nuke onto a locomotive disguised as chemicals, half of Denver will be blown up. Secondly, things can always be worse in your life, so even if you are stuck in a disastrous marriage or demeaning career, just suck it up you loser. You'll be looking back to these days with enormous fondness once the atom bees arrive.


Biological includes animals, monsters and their perky but microscopic cousins, diseases. Some disaster movies successfully combine both: Outbreak, for instance, features a gruesome pandemic sparked by a manky monkey which leaves even Renee Russo unable to keep her insides from coming outside. Bees and birds and other swarming things also feature heavily, although we are still awaiting a disaster movie featuring a particularly malicious shoal of fish.

Biological disaster movies have also given the world the most important and best (i.e worst) disaster movie ever made: The Swarm, in which a deluge of African killer bees lay siege to an all-star cast, leading to some magnificently hysterical acting from Michael Caine, hallucinatory huge bees haunting everyone's nightmares and the large-scale destruction of Houston.

JIM LOVELL: Houston, we have a problem.
NASA MISSION CONTROL: Is it bees? Because frankly we've got a problem and it's bees.

The Swarm: believe it or not, this film is EVEN BETTER than this looks

What we can learn from biological disaster movies is that human beings are all idiots. Human concerns are all to blame for massing bees, rage-filled birds or drug-resistant strains of monkey rot. No good can come of it and all we can do is give thanks to the people who do their best to save us from ourselves, then rail against their voice being ignored but then do their best to save us all anyway. Or stay on shift even though people are hocking up bits of their lung on your shoe, as in Plague City: SARS in Toronto.


Natural disaster films are always popular: earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires and tidal waves can all really ruin your day and fling your cows about the joint. These are particularly beloved of anyone making really apocalyptic disaster films, such as 2012 or The Day After Tomorrow.

The Day After Tomorrow: the dreariest apocalypse ever imagined by man

But even notwithstanding the fact that human beings are largely powerless to contain the fury of nature anyway, these films like to really rub it in by blaming us anyway. Environmentalism is usually the leading boot that gets stuck in when we're down and on fire, but greed and corruption can also be covered - often with a karmic alignment bent. So if there's anything you can learn from natural disaster movies it is that you should always recycle, turn your TV off and not just leave it on standby and don't touch up kids.


Science fiction is something of a misnomer here, as these films actually deal with science FACT. However, the incidents of cosmic madness that these films depict unfolding are almost exclusively so cataclysmic that they haven't happened yet, or at least not for a sufficiently long time that humans have evolved sufficiently to make films about it with kick-ass special effects.

Deep Impact: possibly Morgan Freeman's fault

One particular device popular here is to make the President of the United States black. It gives films an other-worldly feel. It teaches us all that, while this can happen, it's statistically rare enough that it would be deeply counter-productive to invest too much emotional energy in worrying about it in your day-to-day life. However, then the damn fool Americans elected Barack Obama, which had the duel effects of effectively halving Morgan Freeman's earning power and also emphasising the fact that all bets are off.

What we can learn from these films is that when your number's up, you've had it. So keep smiling, carry an umbrella and come election day, always vote for middle class white males.

Now please, don't have nightmares. I almost invariably will, but there's no need for you to as well.

Friday 16 November 2012

Watching horror with a dog

This week I have begun a two-and-a-half week stint looking after my girlfriend's dog. This dog is a dog and therefore he is quite difficult to explain things to, or to reason with. As a result, he has been somewhat clingy. He is currently sitting on my leg. When he isn't he dogs my footsteps. Probably because, as I have mentioned previously, he is a dog.

The problem is, it's making my life rather difficult as a number of my best laid plans have had to be abandoned. All I have to show for the last two days is a blog post about Jack the Ripper films which only 42 people have so far read and a cold. Also, my leg smells a bit like dog. Today, then, I thought I'd make a virtue of this situation and at least get another post out of it. This will represent a 200% increase in my productivity since Wednesday and is a step in the right direction. A dog.

My plan is, I'm going to watch three British horror films from the 1960s and 1970s, which I have never seen before, with the dog and see what happens. I am very aware that it is this kind of hard-hitting journalism that keeps you all coming back.


Much like this dog, this film has a good pedigree: directed by Freddie Francis, starring Peter Cushing and written by Anthony Hinds, it's a Hammer Horror Holy Trinity. The plot summary on Wikipedia, too, is irresistible:
"A boy that has been raised by wolves is displayed as a circus freak. Then he grows up, becomes a zookeeper and falls in love with a prostitute. His jealousy brings out his wolf side, changing him into a werewolf so that he can kill her clients."
But this film is a risk. This dog does not take kindly to other furry things. On Wednesday night he spacked out at the sight of a camel on QI. And that was a camel. It is very possibly a portent of worse things to come, much like letting a man raised by wolves be the keeper at your zoo.

I needn't have worried, though. The dog had no interest in this film whatsoever. He was more taken by the soluble paracetamol that I was taking for a sinus headache, which some genius had made aniseed flavour in order to send dogs wild with jealous yearning. But I quite liked the film. I liked the magnificently smarmy filthy old head zookeeper (played by Ron Moody) and I particularly enjoyed the innovative WEREWOLF VISION. Otherwise known as sticking a red filter over the camera. I enjoyed, too, Peter Cushing's role as the forensic pathologist. In his determination to look past the easy solutions in order to find the truth, his character put me in mind of my beloved Quincy - if you can imagine that instead of fucking a string of airline stewardesses on a boat in Los Angeles, Quincy hung around 19th Century Parisian knocking shops looking for werewolves.

The werewolf: responsible for more Paris deaths than emphysema and syphilis combined

Where it perhaps fell down is that I suspect it aims at making a commentary on the destructiveness of male sexual jealousy. But it's hard to take things much past face value, having already suspended enough disbelief to buy into the main protagonist being a wolf boy found and displayed by circus Gypsies, eventually becoming urbane and socialised enough to get a job at a Paris zoo, albeit Paris' mankiest, most sordid, Albert Steptoe zoo ever. The overall effect, then, is merely a tale of the damaging effect of lycanthropy on the rumpy-pumpy sector of the free market economy, normally an area of sustained growth.

The dog, meanwhile, just wanted to play with his ball. It was a handy reminder to carry a rubber ball with you at all time, with one eye to being able to fend off any werewolf attacks as and when they occur.


At this stage I took the dog for a walk but, not finding any werewolves, it was time for another film. This time, Judy Gleeson plays a woman who gets a job working at a boarding school, only to start to be terrorised by a one-armed man. This film was immediately more up the dog's street and he happily barked along with the opening title sequence, which featured a schoolboy choir singing.

The dog was not particularly interested in this perilous scenario, however. He went to sleep once and then barked at a carpet van.  Maybe it was the effect of the walk. I suggest it's more likely to be the effect of the film, which drags on a bit. When there's a one-armed maniac on the loose, the simple fact of the matter is I want him to be more prevalent in the overall narrative of the film.

Peter Cushing in Fear in the Night: having a variety of problems

Nevertheless, it did have Peter Cushing in it, who couldn't have been unwatchable if he tried. If there were only one reason why I find British horror films of the 1960s and 1970s so compelling (there isn't), it would be because the likelihood of an appearance by Peter Cushing is very high. The dog, seemingly, is less impressed by such things and went off into the kitchen to find something to sniff.


Handsome young men everywhere are being sucked dry of their juices by a cryptozoological demon which has overtones of case of The Owlman of Mawnan, only less shit. Peter Cushing is again in attendance, making everyone wonder if perhaps it's more than a coincidence that all this death, terror and mutilation should follow him about. And whilst it may not have captured the imagination of the dog, any film whose opening titles read "Guest star: Roy Hudd" is a force to be reckoned with.

The Blood Beast Terror, hushed up by the mainstream press

The actual explanation for all of these goings on is more straightforward. Etymologist Dr. Mallinger's daughter Claire turns into a blood-sucking weremoth during a full moon and preys on the village males, whilst her father tries to genetically engineer her a mate. As any father would, and does. It's something of a far-fetched premise and I suspect a lot of it was designed merely with one eye on creating set pieces filled with gore and monsters. Although this may be a cynical view. This film could have more to say than The Battleship Potemkin. Which would make this film better than The Battleship Potemkin because The Battleship Potemkin has ZERO weremoths. Most things do. Weremoths don't actually exist. If they did, lightbulb sales would plummet as fast as blackout curtain sales would soar. Weremoths. Ultimately, this film isn't better than The Battleship Potemkin, which I think says it all. The dog didn't like it much, either.

So, as with yesterday, what have we learned? Nothing. Except that werewolves are better than weremoths and Joan Collins is a cow.

Thursday 15 November 2012

Jack the Ripper's identity revealed

Who was Jack the Ripper? History has made him (N.B. for the sake of ease, common sense and overwhelming statistical probability, I will be referring to the perpetrator of the 1888 Whitechapel murders as a male throughout, although I am in full agreement with all feminists that women can be psychotic prostitute-killing maniacs too) into a monster, but the simple fact is that he was made of skin and bone and regularly visited by the all-too-human desire to eviscerate whores like everyone else. He had a face, he had hopes and dreams, he had at least one knee and maybe more. Putting a name to that man eluded the police at the time. It was only in the 20th Century and the birth of the silver screen that the greatest mystery in the annals of crime could begin to be solved.

Five Jack the Rippers, yesterday

Because the Jack the Ripper case has spawned countless film adaptations, almost all of them helpfully providing us with a definitive answer as to his identity. For some reason, so-called "serious" historians have ignored this vital resource, but I am not a "serious" historian so I do not. We all know that films can teach us a great deal. Forrest Gump, for example, taught me a lot about the nature of the self, of anger and whether or not Tom Hanks is a bag of shite.

Today, I look at some of these crucial pieces of evidence in order to be able to exclusively reveal to you, my long-suffering readers, the name of the most notorious murderer of them all.


The Lodger (1927): "Good evening, madam, may I please use your shitter?"

Most Jack the Ripper films are based around a handful of stories. The most common of these is The Lodger by Marie Belloc Lowndes. This story was itself inspired by a number of urban legends that circulated around the time of the Whitechapel murders regarding the unusual and unsanitary habits of the tenants of any number of paranoid, curtain-twitching, nosey old moo east-end landladies.

Jack the Ripper's Bedroom by W.R. Sickert,
a striking confession of guilt made by an
innocent party
One of them, the Finsbury Street lodger, was identified as G. Wenworth Bell Smith, a knock-kneed Canadian gent with an unfortunate habit of turning up after murders had taken place with blood on his shirt. Another, the Batty Street lodger, is suspected of being the deeply eccentric American quack doctor, determined pickler of wombs and red hot Ripper-suspect Francis Tumblety. A third was a veterinary student in Mornington Crescent, whose landlady told the next occupant of the room - the impressionist painter Walter Sickert - was definitely the culprit. It inspired the Ripper-obsessed Sickert to paint Jack the Ripper's Bedroom, which itself later helped the dazzlingly misguided American crime novelist Patricia Cornwell to finger Sickert as Jack the Ripper in the early part of this century.

These two films are both based on Lowndes' rendering of this tale, although the two have different endings. Lowndes' lodger is a idiosyncratic young gentleman of peculiar habits who keeps rather odd hours, largely thanks to his "research", and who has no great love of the paintings of young women on the walls of his room.

The Lodger is a silent film made by Alfred Hitchcock which is now justifiably considered the first true example of Hitchcockian cinema. Alas, the first feature-length telling of a story based on Jack the Ripper does not reveal the killer's identity: the titular lodger (played by the actual real-life Ivor Novello) in fact being the brother of The Avenger's first victim, his absences from the house at the time of the murders explained by the fact he is out walking the streets trying to capture the culprit. Man in the Attic, however, is much more forthcoming with the truth, THE TRUTH. Here, the titular Man in the Attic's (played, in an unlikely twist, by Western stalwart Jack Palance on horseback with a six-shooter) absences at suspicious times and the fact he frequently burns his clothing in the kitchen sink are explained by his job as a medical researcher and also all those prostitutes and showgirls that he is killing. Jack the Ripper was Jack Palance. We should have guessed, the clue was that they had the same name: Jack.

FROM HELL (2001)

The second-most popular avenue for Jack the Ripper fiction is the avenging aristocrat story. Here, a libertine member of a family of high social standing - usually, but not always, royalty - will have married a prostitute, presumably with a view to getting a discount. The crazed defenders of the family name will then carry out a series of retributive ritualised murders in order to protect their legacy. Masonic plots are common here, as are top hats.

A Study in Terror is the film which finally gets Sherlock Holmes on the case. It was about time, too. It is also my favourite film adaptation of the Jack the Ripper case, for a number of excellent reasons. Firstly, it's got Jack the Ripper AND Sherlock Holmes in it which frankly should be enough on its own. But it keeps on giving: secondly it is shot in magnificently lush British horror film of the 1960s style, all gaudy technicolour, period costume, high-camp acting and gleefully nasty make-up and special effects. Thirdly, it is perhaps the Jack the Ripper film which keeps closest to the actual facts of the case.

The greatest loss yet to Western culture
But fourthly and most importantly, it features Barbara Windsor as Annie Chapman, the second canonical (but third in this particular incidence) victim of The Rip. This is a monumental piece of casting, principally as it comes heavy with ideas of the greatest film never made, Carry On Ripping.

The cast list of Carry On Ripping would have been as follows:

SIR CHARLES WARREN: Kenneth Williams
GEORGE LUSK: Peter Butterworth
POLLY NICHOLS: Angela Douglas
ANNIE CHAPMAN: Hattie Jacques
ELIZABETH STRIDE: Fenella Fielding
MARY KELLY: Barbara Windsor
QUEEN VICTORIA: Bernard Bresslaw

It's best that you don't think about this too hard, I find: the poignancy of the fact that it will never be almost too much to bear.

In A Study in Terror, Jack the Ripper is finally revealed to be Lord Carfax, the avenging younger brother of an aristocratic family. He decided to eliminate prostitutes one at a time until the his offending sister-in-law finally felt his wrath. But, after Carfax's demise, Holmes reveals that no public good would be served by the revelation of his identity. If all of this still isn't selling the film to you, just take a look at the poster. BIFF! BANG! AIEEE! Are any three other words in the English language more evocative of the Autumn of Terror?

From Hell, based on the graphic novel written by Alan Moore, focuses on the traditional royal plot: the son of the Prince of Wales catches syph off of a manky old brass - as well as marrying her in secret and fathering a child - so the Queen's private physician Sir William Gull sets out to dispatch all the witnesses according to Masonic rites. This is probably the glossiest and most Hollywood of all the Ripper-based films, starring Johnny Depp as the skagged-up-to-the-gills Inspector George Abberline and Heather Graham (or Ivver Gruyumm, as she would have pronounced it in the film) as his love interest Mary Kelly. A prostitute. Do these people never learn?

From Hell reveals Jack the Ripper to be the Tony Award-winning actor Sir Ian Holm. This seems fundamentally more unlikely than John Fraser's Lord Carfax. Perhaps it even explains why Mr. Fraser has never been made a knight of the realm.

The Venn diagram of these two films meets in Murder by Decree, a 1979 film where the royal/Masonic plot is investigated by Holmes and Watson. The film itself lacks the excitement of the other two, but the cast is arguably far superior. Holmes and Watson are played by Christopher Plummer and James "James Mason" Mason, with John Gielgud, Donald Sutherland and Genevieve Bujold also featuring. The Holmesian role of Police Inspector Lestrade is essayed in both films by Frank Finlay. Two films, thirteen years apart, one set of facial expressions.


Thankfully, there is still room in the Jack the Ripper film canon for another type of storyline: batshit crazy crazy shit. This is perhaps the most exciting and compelling area of them all. They deviate from the traditional scripts and explanations to explore more dark, illogical and shit crazy bats areas of the case and of the human psyche.

Johannes der Rippenhausen
Jack the Ripper is a German-Swiss film of 1976 where a general practitioner, haunted by his mother's vaginal indiscretions when he was a child, makes amends by killing prostitutes. There is considerable sexual content to this film, Doctor Orloff (played by Klaus Kinski who, by virtue of being the leading man in a film called Jack the Ripper, is Jack the Ripper) usually choosing to undress and hump the tits off (literally, in one case) his quarry before dispatching them to the beyond. For the purposes of body disposal, the criminal uses the botanical gardens and river, an unusual choice and one that proves to be his downfall when it turns out that his knackers are allergic to root powder.

But it is the attendant cast of characters which really give this film the edge in the preposterousness stakes: an old blind man with a sense of smell that would put a bloodhound to shame, a griping old fishwife and a mercenary fisherman with a big hooter (played by the splendidly-named Herbert Fux) being the standouts amongst them.

Hands of the Ripper, meanwhile, is Hammer Studios foray into the subject and it takes a typically daft, camp and wonderful approach as the Ripper's daughter, Angharad Rees, sets about her father's old beat with gusto having witnessed him murder her mother as a child. With Rees getting all wide-eyed and murdery every time she is kissed, can Freudian psychoanalysis save London in time? It's not quite as magnificent a premise as the title promises - Hammer, after all, have frequently thought nothing of having actual disembodied hands roam around the place to really mess up someone's day - but it's not half bad. It is particularly blessed to have Eric Porter cast as the psychiatrist, Porter being a man who distinguishes any batshit crazy film with a certain pointy-bearded, bulging-eyed gravitas. A selection of immaculate period sets, bright orange-red baked bean juice blood, gristly special effects, seances and dazzling overacting across the board make for eighty minutes of superior entertainment.

The hands of the Hands of the Ripper's hands, ripping

As an extra twist, the Ripper's daughter - a deeply traumatised young woman - has ended up as a prostitute herself, which makes her deep-seated psychological loathing of whores fraught with complications, but none that can't be solved by impailing Dora Bryan to a door with a fire poker. Her possession by the spirit of her father provides her with great strength, although whether or not her hands take on the other physical properties of man hands - hair, anchor tattoos, etc - is not directly addressed aside from a brief glimpse of some Ripping stigmata, also present on her father's hand on the fateful night and which look not dissimilar to spilt ketchup.

It's a film that, arguably like psychoanalysis itself, offers more questions than answers. Could Jack the Ripper himself have been under psychic possession when he committed his crimes? Could Jack the Ripper have been in Poldark? Like so much in this mysterious case, we may never know. The fun, as always, is in the speculation.

Meanwhile, in 1979's Time After Time, Jack the Ripper has used a time machine to transport himself to modern-day San Francisco. The time machine was the must-have gadget for Victorian gentlemen. It is also a continuation of the ongoing theme in film representations of Jack the Ripper: that the killer was upper crust, or at the very least a man of means. Means sufficient to acquire himself a time machine, at least. Everyone back then had one, to such an extent that it was a wonder there were any men in Victorian Britain at all. However, as a result, it's not all plain sailing for the Ripper, who has H.G.Wells hot on his heels. It's one of those marvellous things: a completely preposterous idea, done well. In many ways, it's what cinema should be about. Cinema should certainly have Jack the Ripper in the future, as frequently as possible. The only problem is their casting - David Warner as Jack the Ripper feels strangely off. I'm willing to suspect Ivor Novello or point the finger at Angharad Rees, but David Warner? I'm still reeling from his decapitation in The Omen and there's only so much that time travel can do.

David Warner in Time After Time - not fooling anyone

So, in conclusion, what have we learned? Nothing. Nothing at all. But it's probably safe to leave your wife with David Warner.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

Dude over there, got two heads

I've been watching a programme called Abby and Brittany recently. Abby and Brittany Hensel are 22-year old conjoined twins from Minnesota and are followed around by a documentary crew as they live their lives. The thrust of the programme is that these lives are fairly typical lives for that of 22-year old women. They went to university, now they have graduated and are looking for their first job. In the meantime, they are living it up with their college friends, travelling around the United States and visiting Europe before settling down to their career.

Being conjoined twins, then, presents them with no obstacles to living normal, humdrum, mundane lives. Their friends are interviewed at cattle prod-point throughout to tell us all how they admire the way they are able to live such normal lives.

But here's the thing: I think it's a bit condescending and offensive. In emphasising how normal their lives are and yet slavishly filming it the whole way, the programme is doing exactly what it is trying to avoid, raising the twins up and making everyone go OH NOW HOLD ON LOOK AT THAT. Abby and Brittany Hensel are fascinating people because they are conjoined. There's no point pretending otherwise. Because without that aspect, they'd just be two very normal 22-year old women doing brain-meltingly ordinary things.

It's a good reminder that it's always good to celebrate our differences. Pointing out that conjoined twins are conjoined is hardly offensive stuff, after all. For one thing, they already know. For a second, being a conjoined twin is not an offensive thing to be. Conjoined twins who are the subject of mockery and ridicule by idiots are equally able to mock the idiots back for not being conjoined. It's a plain of reference thing: for Abby and Brittany, they don't know what it's like to not be joined to one another any more than we one-heads know what it must be like to have your twin sharing your anus.

But the huge majority of people are not conjoined, and so have created almost indefinite amounts of documentation - art, literature and music to name just three - about that experience. Abby and Brittany will, I'm sure, be able to understand, and empathise with, my predicament more easily than I can understand their situation. This is why Abby and Brittany is such a missed opportunity. There's so much that we can all learn from each other if we embrace and celebrate what makes us different, rather than focus on the fact that we all like eating ice cream or looking at fountains.

In the latest episode I watched, Abby and Brittany went on holiday to Italy. They first went to Venice and then visited Rome. The public reaction to them was predictably understated. When someone sees conjoined twins, they don't scream, set fire to their children and then jump in the Po. Instead, the following happens:

BEPPE: Oh look, there's some conjoined twins.
MARCO: Where?
BEPPE: Over there, by the fountain. Dude with two heads.
MARCO: Oh yeah. I wonder how they shit?

These are the basic questions that I want answered! I don't care what Abby and Brittany are going to do with their lives. They are two otherwise unremarkable 22-year old women making their way in the world. I have no interest in what anyone I don't know personally is up to, unless it has some impact on me. What IS interesting, however, is the experience of being conjoined. I'd like to know how they sleep, how they poo, how they go about having a crafty wank, what they do if one is watching a TV show that makes the other one bored as shit but unable to wander off, what they do if one of them decides to join a gym. Basic, nuts and bolts of life stuff. You might argue it is prurient, but then so is filming the largely typical lives of two conjoined twins and then ignoring the real meat of the issue.

To that end, I have designed the twins AN INVENTION. It is called The Pillow Helmet. It is, as the name suggests, a helmet made from pillows. Essentially, it's a boxing helmet but with more goose down filling. The Pillow Helmet serves a double purpose: firstly, if either of the twins is someone who likes to sleep on their side, it allows them to do so without using their sibling's face as a support (which is just rude). Secondly, it acts as a buffer and a baffle so that neither girl need see the other's Doing A Poo face when they're sat on the toilet.

And the thing is, I reckon that the Hensels could find lots of other uses for it that I'd never have thought of. Because they have a lot they could teach we one-headed folk. We have a lot we could teach them. It's time the world as one realises that tolerance, acceptance and equality is not about pretending everyone is the same.


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