From The Vault: Richard Morgan Interview (2002)

(Another resurrected post from previous iterations of my website – this is an interview I did with SF author Richard Morgan back in 2002, shortly after the release of his first novel, the turbo-charged SF thriller ‘Altered Carbon’. The interview was for an online magazine set up by some friends of mine who worked at a bookshop, and I’m still proud of it – even though I’d only been professionally writing for two years, so I’ve still got plenty to learn here…)

There are certain things prospective book authors have to tell themselves in order to keep their sanity. Don’t expect huge acclaim first time around. It’ll take a long time to establish yourself. And don’t even bother thinking about the film rights…

For 35 year old Richard Morgan, things have worked out rather differently. With his funky, dark and razor-sharp debut novel Altered Carbon he’s gained the kind of widespread acclaim most self-respecting authors would commit mass murder for, while Hollywood has already come calling;- the film rights have been enthusiastically snapped up by Matrix producer Joel Silver for a seven figure sum.

Take a look at the novel, and it’s not difficult to see why so many people are getting excited. It’s a dark William Gibson-edged crime thriller set in San Francisco a few centuries from now, when the main difference in society is the ability to digitally record the soul and download personalities into new bodies after death. Dying is no longer an obstacle thanks to the “sleeving” technology (as long as you’re not Catholic and you have the right insurance policy) and prisons exist digitally, meaning that while you’re incarcerated for a minor crime, someone else can either rent or purchase your body. Crashing into this society comes Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-member of a UN sponsored gang of borderline psychotics called the Envoys, who is downloaded into an unfamiliar body and unwillingly hired by the wealthy and near-immortal Laurens Bancroft. His mission is to investigate Bancroft’s recent (but not final) death, a mystery that the Police are viewing as suicide but which Bancroft views as murder.

Naturally, this investigation soon spirals out of control and Kovacs finds himself caught between the police, the criminal underworld and a face from his past… but what’s most suprising about Altered Carbon is how effectively it manages to weld provocative and adventurous cyberpunk sci-fi onto a slick, gripping and page-turning crime thriller. Oozing the kind of attitude found in classic crime writers like James Ellroy or Jim Thompson, it’s an effortless read that, like the best noir, manages moments of profundity amidst suprising plot twists and some genuinely shocking violence. To find out more, here’s Richard Morgan himself, on life, brutality, karma, and that vaguely worrying interest in firearms…

How did the idea for Altered Carbon first develop?

It started out from an argument I was having with a Buddhist. The point of conflict was the karma system. He was arguing any suffering you undergo in this life is a direct result of something bad you did in a previous life, which sounds fair until you realise that you can’t actually remember any of your previous lives. Then, it suddenly starts to sound existentially pretty fucking unfair. After all, if you can’t remember a previous life then to all intents and purposes that life was lived by another person. And why should you be paying for someone else’s crimes?

Once I got hold of the idea, it fascinated me and I couldn’t let it go. I decided that I wanted to tell a crime story based around this injustice. And since I’m not in any way a religious man, the only way I could make it work was to go shopping for the hardware in the SF Mall of Fame. There are precedents for the kind of technology Altered Carbon describes all the way back to writers like Robert Sheckley and there’s even an episode of the original Star Trek that has the same basic premise. So I just ransacked the genre and made off with the goods. Later on, of course, I had to sit down and figure out how to make all this stuff work in a social and political context, and that was where the fun really started.

Where did you grow up, and when did you start writing?

I was born in London, bustled out in my crib to East Anglia aged 5 months and subsequently spent the next seventeen years of my life in and around Norwich. Not a bad place to grow up if you don’t count the total lack of bumps in the landscape – Norfolk looks as if Slartibartfast took a huge pair of scissors and cut out any geographical feature more than about ten metres above sea level. I grew up just outside Norwich in a semi rural dormitory village called Hethersett. It was a very restful, stress free upbringing, aided and abetted by incredibly supportive parents and a series of private schools old fashioned enough to try to hammer my natural idleness out of me. In 1983 I got into Queens’ College Cambridge where for the first time I found myself surrounded by people as smart or smarter than me – I never got over the shock and recoiled out of academia three years later with a very average degree in political history.

By that time I’d decided I only wanted two things out of life;- One, to be a writer and Two to travel as extensively as possible. As a result I didn’t really bother with things like earning a decent living until about a year later when it became apparent that my seminal short stories weren’t going to (a) make me famous, (b) pay the rent or (c) get published. I consoled myself by qualifying to teach EFL and pissing off forthwith to exotic locations (specifically Turkey, which back then was still pretty much untouristed). I’ve been an EFL teacher and trainer of one sort or another ever since. I lived mostly in London and Madrid with some extensive time out in North and Central America. Writing was a spare time thing until….today actually. September 20th 2002 is the official date of my leaving the teaching profession and becoming a full time SF writer. Timing´s good – after fourteen years in the classroom, I’m about ready for a change.

Kovacs is definitely an “old school” noir hero, and in no way afraid of inflicting serious damage on people. Was it difficult or therapeutic to have a borderline psychopath as the main character?

The latter, definitely. You need the patience of a saint and the outlook of a hippie to survive in TEFL. There are actually teacher training books with titles like “Caring and Sharing in the EFL Classroom” – and worse still, if you’re going to do the job well, you have to buy into that dynamic, at least to a certain extent.

You end up spending a lot of your time being kind and supportive to people who in some cases you’d really rather just punch out. I mean, what can you do when a student – a group of students actually – front you with something like “Ah, yes, Hitler – now he really knew how to handle the Jews.” That’s an extreme case, of course, but it did actually happen to a colleague of mine. And there are a host of less offensive but thoroughly unpleasant attitudes to be found in the heads of some of the people you teach. And for some reason these people seem to feel that the EFL classroom is the ideal place to just come out with all this shit. So Kovacs dripped out of me one corrosive drop at a time, as the side of my character I had to repress in order to do my job well.

How did you approach the extreme violence in the book- and were there ever any points where you thought you might have gone too far?

You can’t ever go too far with violence. You either write it or you don´t. If you choose to avoid it, that’s fine, but if not, you’ve got to do it justice. I’ve taken some stick for passages in Altered Carbon which people complained had sickened them, but then violence should be sickening. I have no time for the sanitised approach you find in so much contemporary literature and film – the gun battles where bullets make neat red holes and bad guys fall conveniently and quietly dead, the interrogations where people get slapped about a bit and then rescued. Or worse still the Lock, Stock brand of violence where it’s all seen as a bit of a giggle and as long as you’re enough of a cheeky geezer, it all comes out OK. It´s precisely because of this “light” approach that we misunderstand the subject of violence so badly. I´m not interested in pursuing that line. Where violence arises in my books, it is intended to shock, to horrify and to some extent to get the reader to face up to their own ambiguity on the subject. Because we all like seeing the bad guys taken down, but we don´t usually like it so much when the flesh and blood reality of that act is rubbed in our faces. That ambiguity is exactly what I´m after.

The image of the future is incredibly detailed- how much did you work out before hand, and how much came out of the process of writing the novel?

It’s been a process of marinating more than anything else. The basic ideas for Altered Carbon have been kicking around in my head since at least 1993, and before that I’d written a couple of short stories featuring Kovacs and variants on the Protectorate universe. So I already had a lot of the background detail to hand, carefully aged in casks of reflection and unpublished brooding. Obviously that made it very easy to throw out hints and references along the way, but the process of writing also generated a lot of circumstantial stuff.

In a lot of cases it´s hard to remember which is which. Kovac’s home planet Harlan’s World, the Martians and the general process of diaspora are all ten year old single malt, laid down back in the early nineties, but the Meths were invented on the spur of the moment to provide a realistic backdrop for the characters of Laurens and Miriam Bancroft. The Envoys were a bit of a blend – in an attenuated form they’ve been around as long as any other element in the story, but a lot of the finer detail was added later on. And to be honest, that accumulation of detail is an on-going process. There’s a lot of new stuff on the Envoys in the second novel, Broken Angels, as well as more about the Martians and the archaeologues. The third novel, which I’m working on now, goes back to Harlan’s World and takes a closer look at some of the cultural and historical influences that have made Kovacs who he is. The great thing about having invented a universe like this is that you then have a practically unlimited licence to explore it.

There’s a convincing edge to the drug sequences, as well as an amazing amount of detail about the various weapons (particularly when Kovacs goes shopping for guns). How much was research and how much was experience?

I must be a walking advertisement for the Nature Not Nuture argument, because I was brought up next best thing to a pacifist and still managed to develop the standard unhealthy male fascination with guns. I wouldn´t like to say what it is. Something about their functionality, something about the power to reach out over distance and do damage. In my teens I became quite the little expert on contemporary small arms, and though the phase seems to have passed – I don’t subscribe to Guns and Ammo or own any firearms of my own – the base knowledge has stood me in good stead. I find I acquire new arms-related data almost effortlessly – very often I’m hard put to remember where I read/watched/heard the information, but it´s there. This is confusing for me because, as I said, I’m not into weapons in any discernable way. Kovacs, of course, is. He’s a soldier after all, so he needs to be conversant with the technology of killing. I don´t know, maybe he’s just a distillation of my own repressed fascination with the area. Put it down to being incurably male, I suppose.

The drugs – well, that’s another story. I can hardly lay claim to a misspent youth, but I think I’ve taken my share of illicit recreational chemicals (not to mention the licit ones, which were probably more dangerous and damaging) and I’m at a complete loss to understand the current hysteria about (pounding drums) “THE DRUG PROBLEM”. (There isn’t one, of course – the PROBLEM is poverty and a whole stack of other issues that no-one wants to look closely at, but that´s another rant). So anyway, I had enough background experience to describe altered and altering states of consciousness without too much difficulty. For the rest, it was imagination and wishful thinking. Who wouldn´t want to score some Merge Nine if the stuff only existed.

Did you ever expect the film rights to be sold for so much money?

Basically – no. In fact, I didn´t really expect the film rights to be sold at all. It had never occurred to me that Altered Carbon would make good cinema, until I found myself being taken out to lunch by a London film company the day after the book was launched. Later on, I heard that a number of major studios had shown interest at the London Book Fair, and finally Gollancz told me that an agency in Los Angeles had taken Altered Carbon on. At that point I pretty much had to believe that if it sold, it would go for a good price, because those guys don’t mess about with pennies. Brutally speaking, they operate on commission, and it wouldn´t have been worth their while putting in the work unless they had high hopes of a high price.

Could you ever see yourself going all “Iain Banks/Iain M Banks” and writing either a modern day crime novel or something completely non-genre?

Right now I´ve got at least another three SF novels lined up, plus ideas for a revisionist sword and sorcery epic. I suppose I might come up with something non-genre at some point, but it isn´t on the horizon at the moment and to be honest, having just arrived on the SF scene, I´d like to just stick around and do some more work. The great thing about SF is that you’re free to do pretty much what you want (I’m not one of these respect-the-physics types) and then stand or fall by the limits you set yourself. That´s very much my temperament

What was the first story you ever wrote?

The first piece of fiction outside of my English Studies exercise book was an SF short called Process. I wrote it when I was about 13 or 14; it’s about an unfortunate collision between an alien, fauna-eating plant and a human criminal on the run in a wrecked spaceship. The human lands on the plant’s world, gets attacked by the plant in standard Quatermass-type fashion and…dies. Haha, shock twist! Unfortunately for the plant, Earth-derived bodily juices turn out to be rather stronger than those of the local fauna with the result that the usual osmosis goes into reverse and the human protagonist’s blood sucks the plant’s vital fluids out through its roots. So it dies as well. I had this pretty bleak world view, even at that tender age…

What’s next- will you be sticking with the Altered Carbon universe, or zooming off in a different direction?

The sequel to Altered Carbon, Broken Angels is done and comes out in March next year. It´s set in the same universe, though not on Earth, and is built around the same central character. The contexts are a little different – Kovacs is caught in the middle of a planetary war this time instead of just an unwelcome investigation, and his motivations are that much more desperate as a result. (So I guess I´ll be taking some more stick for the extreme violence, and here´s fair warning to those who couldn´t cope with it in Altered Carbon – you guys won´t like this one much either). I´m currently at work on a third Kovacs novel, the one set on his home world, and this is focused on issues of organised crime, weapons de-commissioning and revolutionary politics as evidenced by the Quellist movement. After that, I think I´m going to retire Kovacs for a while.

I´ve got something a little different waiting on the back burner, set ten minutes into the future – it´s a novel focused on an unpleasant corporate practice called Conflict Investment. Basically the corporate types in the novel make their living from putting money into various third world conflicts and gambling on the outcome. If their particular troop of revolutionaries win, they then have stakes and rights in the emergent economy. The toast at the quarterly do is “Small Wars – Long May They Smoulder”. Tenders and Promotions are decided in Mad Max style driving duels on motorways that are empty because no-one except the executive class can afford to run a car anymore. It´s intended to be very bleak and very unpleasant – the challenge will be making at least some of the characters sympathetic to the reader. I´m looking forward to that.

Finally- beyond the technology and the murder mystery, what would you say Altered Carbon is trying to say?

Good question. Don’t visit Earth, perhaps? Seriously, I’d like to think that each individual reader takes away something different. You can read Altered Carbon as a simple future crime story and leave it at that, equally you can see it as a love story of sorts, or you can understand it as a social and political commentary on the uses and abuses of technology. Jon Courtenay Grimwood, reviewing for the Guardian, called it “a hypermodern vampire tale.” From my point of view, any interpretation is a compliment because it indicates a depth of engagement on the part of the reader, but I wouldn’t want to dictate what message that reader is supposed to take away.

What I personally see is Kovacs’ affirmation at the end of the book that society is, always has been and always will be a structure for the exploitation and oppression of the majority through systems of political force dictated by an elite, enforced by thugs, uniformed or not, and upheld by a wilful ignorance and stupidity on the part of the very majority whom the system oppresses. But that’s just me. Another reader might think Kovacs is a self destructive, pessimistic burn out and doesn´t know what he’s talking about. It all depends on where you stand and who your sympathies lie with, and it´s not for me to dictate those sympathies. I just write the stuff. It´s up to the reader to judge – if they can.


From The Vault: The Secret History of Monsters (2005)

A guide to the ups and downs of Cinema’s greatest Creatures…

(This is one of the articles I was most proud of, simply because the original comission was totally different. Done for Hotdog magazine in December 2005 to accompany the release of Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong, it was supposed to be a “Monster Deathmatch”, kind of a comedy wrestling-style face-off between different legendary screen monsters. One problem – I simply couldn’t get it to work, or be remotely funny. So, after a great deal of panic, I brainstormed a different idea that felt like my kind of lunacy, pitched it, and amazingly they accepted it. Due to complicated reasons I never actually got paid for it, but there are various bits in here that still bring a smile to my face (even if certain gags have dated – God, I’m not sure if anyone nowadays will even remember Dragonheart…))

Ever wondered what Kong was getting up to between his infrequent movie appearances? Wonder no longer, as we unearth the behind-the-scenes lives of cinema’s greatest (and not so greatest) monsters…

KONG (King Kong, 1933)

He may have initially struggled to match his 1933 success, but Kong finally found massive acclaim on the London Stage, particularly during his unbroken two-year run as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romantically linked with a string of screen beauties including Jean Harlow and Katherine Hepburn, Kong remained a committed bachelor, spending most of the Forties and Fifties as a representative of the World Wildlife Fund. Probably the most unexpected turn in his lengthy career was his Avant-Garde period in the Sixties, immortalised in the Andy Warhol film “Kongdom”- a four and a half hour single shot of the giant ape asleep in front of New York’s Carnegie Hall. Appearing in the unsuccesful1974 King Kong remake was an unwise move, resulting in Kong losing out on a role in Beyond The Poseidon Adventure, while his self-written sitcom “Who Brought The Ape?” was eventually cancelled after two seasons. He now lives in Northern California running his own vineyard, and is credited as an “Executive Consultant” on Peter Jackson’s remake.

GODZILLA (Godzilla, 1953)

Fondly referred to as ‘the hardest working Monster in show-business’, the 50-metre tall radioactive lizard and self-confessed ‘Renaissance Beast’ has barely stopped working between his 28 movies. Since 1964, he’s appeared regularly on Japanese television in the Sesame Street-style education show Gojira Chikara Kazu!! (Number Power Godzilla), where he teaches children to count how many buildings he’s just knocked down. The Eighties saw the start of the Big G’s infamous talk show Shiawasena Gojira (Godzilla Happy Chat), while he’s recently moved into directing with a series of highly acclaimed (and destruction-heavy) arthouse dramas.

T-REX (Jurassic Park, 1993)

The star of Jurassic Park started developing a substance abuse problem when his starring role in the mooted remake of One Million Years B.C. failed to materialise. After being overshadowed in Jurassic Park III by the supposedly scarier Spinosaurus, the T-Rex was arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct on the Universal Studios lot. In and out of rehab for the next few years, the T-Rex has now cleaned up its act, spending much of its time hanging out with Corey Feldman, and is strongly tipped for a comeback with a vital role in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards.

THE SCORPION KING (The Mummy Returns, 2001)

Widely mocked at the time for his unconvincing, CGI-like appearance, the Scorpion King made the move into professional wrestling, but was booted out of the sport for accidentally slicing the heads off some of his opponents. After an unwise attempt at shifting careers into Telemarketing, he was declared bankrupt in 2004, and is currently living as a derelict on the streets of Downtown L.A. According to reports, he can regularly be found flexing his claws outside the Bradbury Building wearing a cardboard sign that says “Will Raise Eyebrow For Food”.

THE BALROG (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001)

Already a legend on the Lord of the Rings set for his practical jokes involving banana skins and lava, the Balrog’s hard-drinking lifestyle was exposed after he publicly brawled with one of the Nazgul’s Fell Beasts at a 2003 post-Oscar party. Despite this, he remains friends with all the Rings cast members, and his cameo opposite Orlando Bloom in Elizabethtown will be re-instated on the forthcoming DVD release. He lives in a New Zealand volcano, and is currently suing Peter Jackson for a percentage of the profits from Fellowship of the Ring,

BRUCE THE SHARK (Jaws, 1975)

After many years trying to get out of the iron-clad contracts that forced him into the shoddy Jaws sequels, Bruce The Shark has finally left the world of Hollywood far behind. He now lives at an exclusive resort in the Cayman Islands, where he’s allowed to snack on any guests who don’t pay their bills on time, and is strongly rumoured to be writing a candid expose of his film career that will ‘set the record straight’ on the supposed rift between him and Steven Spielberg.

THE SKELETONS (Jason and the Argonauts, 1963)

The sword-wielding stars were an instant success in the early Sixties thanks to their novelty hit record version of “Dem Bones”. Sadly, the sextet soon split for artistic reasons, with one Skeleton recording a 3-volume concept album, and another launching a series of pop art “happenings” with fellow Argonauts star Talos. Thankfully, the group was re-united in the mid-Eighties as a result of the “We Are The World” Ethiopia charity single, and today can still be found performing their spectacular “Boneyard” theatrical extravaganza at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

DRACO (Dragonheart, 1996)

Despite Dragonheart’s lack of success, Draco the last dragon did, briefly, manage to carve out a successful career as a witty, urbane sidekick in TV shows like Dragon P.I. and Flaming Hell, but his flippant attitude soon stalled his film career when he got himself fired from As Good As It Gets, with his role being switftly rewritten to fit his replacement Greg Kinnear. Draco currently runs his own Flame Grilled Barbecue restaurant in the San Fernando Valley, as well as earning money on the side doing Sean Connery-impersonating prank calls.


Transmission, Interrupted: The 2007 Review (2008)


1: Fall Out (The 2007 Year in Review)


Your eyes are not deceiving you – Vector has acquired its own TV column. In an era where some of the best onscreen Science Fiction and Fantasy is regularly to be found on television channels rather than the cinema screen, Transmission, Interrupted is aiming to be entertaining trawl through these sometimes bewildering waters, and one that’ll hopefully throw light in some unexpected directions. I’ll be your guide on these trips – Saxon Bullock, curiously monickered freelance writer, regular contributor to SFX, and irregular blogger with a habit of kicking the hell out of Torchwood at the drop of a hat. The world of cult genre TV is one that I’ll be exploring for as long as Vector is foolish enough to allow me, and I’ll be looking at material from both sides of the Atlantic while – most important of all – I’ll also be dealing heavily in spoilers, so anyone not wanting to have any major surprises blown should probably look away right now…

But, before we advance forward into the future, it’s time to look back at the twelve months of 2007, a time during which the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres proved to once again be in robust health. They may go in peaks and troughs, but all throughout 2007, both genres have had their claws firmly into the TV zeitgeist, and show no signs of letting go. In a year of Weeping Angels, dinosaurs, unexpected flash-forwards, ageing pulp heroes getting seriously embarrassing makeovers and old-school Cylons, there was a ridiculous variety of highlights and lowlights to choose from, but if there’s one thing 2007 will be remembered for, it’ll be for the spectacular rise (and abrupt fall) of Heroes.

Over the last twelve months, Tim Kring’s comic-book inspired ensemble drama has gone from being the most promising newcomer of the US 2006-2007 TV season, to the kind of global smash that it’s alright for mainstream audiences to like. Of course, it’s also managed to screw everything up in record time with an underperforming and frankly dull second season, but even if you look at the 2007 run of Heroes’ first season (from episode 12 on), it’s a blend of storytelling that’s always had its problems. The show’s biggest advantages are its well-thought out and practical approach to X-Men style super powers, along with its fast, intertwined ensemble plot, and some of the most joyfully insane, ‘what-the-hell-just-happened’ cliffhangers under the sun.  Unfortunately, this isn’t always enough to disguise the major weaknesses, from the wheel-spinning plots (with the scene-stealing character Hiro spending massive sections of Season 1 running in circles), to the less impressive members of the cast, especially Ali Larter as angsty multiple-personality case Nikki, and the permanently gormless Milo Ventigmilia as power-sponge uber-hero Peter Petrelli.

When playing to its strengths, it was amazing how gripping the show could be, and even the creakier patches of episodes 12-16 could be forgiven when we were presented with crackerjack instalments like Episode 18: ‘Company Man’, where the ambiguous Horned-Rimmed Glasses-wearing Mr Bennet’s past history was finally exposed, or the shameless pastiche of the X-Men storyline “Days of Future Past” in ‘Five Years Gone’, which also delivered one of the most pointed twists on the legacy of 9-11 that’s yet been seen in a US mainstream show.

Unfortunately, it couldn’t last – like Babylon 5 before it, Heroes is marvelous at the build up but rarely good at the pay-off. It might reward its audience with frequent revelations rather than Lost‘s ever-expanding enigmas, but more often than not, the end result is an empty sugar rush, and a show that isn’t anywhere near as deep or well-written as it thinks it is. The rambling last three episodes of Season 1 dropped the ball, leading to a finale that was both badly staged (one thing Heroes is in desperate need of is a decent action director) and massively disappointing – and yet, hard as it was to believe, things actually got worse in Season 2. Despite the engaging nature of Season 1’s origin stories, Heroes only ever functioned once its plot arc built up momentum and things actually started happening – so why the production team though that slowing Season 2’s story to a crawl was a good idea frankly beggars the mind. Added to this, the show started hitting the reset button like it was going out of style, recycling massive swathes of plot that we’d already seen (Claire clashing with her father, a mysterious killer offing the Heroes), and plunging into new realms of absurdity.

At the least, it seems like US audiences haven’t swallowed it – the show plummeted to its lowest recorded ratings, reviews were bad, and even series creator Tim Kring came out and admitted that they’d messed up. However much we’re promised a ‘reboot’ for “Volume Three”, however, (a reboot now delayed by the Writer’s Strike), it’s hard not to think that Heroes is going to need serious help if it’s not going to end up simply treading water and running in circles to try and recapture the fresh, comic-strip entertainment of its first eleven episodes.

One of the biggest symptoms of Heroes’ success has, naturally, been the traditional “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” method by which a large proportion of the Autumn 2007 US Network pilots managed (by pure coincidence, of course) to revolve around the idea of ordinary people suddenly having extraordinary powers thrust upon them. The highest-profile of these was the heavily hyped update of Bionic Woman, but giving this particular Seventies cheese-fest a coating of New Galactica-style grit didn’t go as planned.

It didn’t help that while Michelle Ryan did a commendable job in the lead role, she was blown off the screen every time Galactica star Katee Sackhoff turned up as psycho bionic woman Sarah Corvus. However, what really sunk the series and resulted in a massive ratings dip was its incredibly muddled approach. The dark and serious outlook which worked so well for Galactica doesn’t play on what’s essentially a goofy feminist fairy tale, and in the absence of any self-deprecating humour, we got an ungainly amalgam of other, far superior shows (most notably Alias), and a production team that seemed to change their mind every week as to what the show’s tone should be. As with Heroes, a major reboot is rumoured once the Writers Strike is resolved – but with only eight below-par episodes under its belt, Bionic Woman’s future is looking distinctly shaky.

More conventional in execution was Journeyman, with Rome’s Kevin McKidd as a San Francisco journalist who suddenly finds himself bouncing across time to help people, a problem that plays merry havoc with his work and family life. Not quite the shameless Quantum Leap rip-off it appeared, Journeyman owed a far greater debt to Life on Mars and The Time Traveller’s Wife, with the deeply routine ‘missions’ McKidd carried out never carrying as much weight as the soapier yet weirdly engaging melodrama surrounding them. At times horribly sentimental and never escaping the feeling of nostalgia-laced televisual comfort food, the series did at least pull off some interesting and imaginative twists on the time travel theme (such as McKidd having to reverse-engineer the moment when he fell in love with his wife) but the lack of real inspiration meant the plug being pulled at episode 13 didn’t surprise anyone.

Fluffier series like spy romp Chuck and the near-identical (but fantasy-based) Reaper did better at carving out an audience, although while Chuck’s mix of silly espionage and heartfelt melodrama coasted entertainingly along thanks to a fine cast, Reaper’s Buffy-meets-Kevin-Smith vibe (a feeling increased by Smith directing the pilot) soon led to repetitive gags and diminished returns. For nostalgic Angel fans with an astoundingly low quality threshold, there was the hilariously creaky vampire detective saga Moonlight (a show that’s somehow escaped cancellation and built up an audience), but the finest drama of the new season came from Wonderfalls and Dead Like Me writer Bryan Fuller, who created a world so off-kilter and stylized it was like nothing else on television.

Mixing the Coen Brothers, Amelie, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton, Pushing Daisies is a wonderfully bizarre blend, a forensic fairy tale about a piemaker (Lee Pace) with the ability to bring the dead back to life, and his subsequent team-up with a private detective to quiz murder victims about how they were killed. It’s even built in a well-constructed example of the traditional ‘love story that can never be consummated’ between Pace and Anna Friel, the childhood sweetheart he resurrected but now can’t touch without killing her again, and for good. What’s most remarkable about the show, however, is the way in which its fast-paced, hyper-stylised and fluffy exterior acts as a cunning disguise for a tremendously dark and tragic story all about death, unrequited love, loneliness and abandonment. Without the fast-paced humour and the atmosphere of cute playfulness, it’d be almost too painful to watch, and while the sweetness level occasionally verges into diabetes-inducing levels, the first nine episodes of Pushing Daises have been masterful stuff – so hopefully the Writer’s Strike-enforced hiatus won’t prevent the show from at least getting to run out it’s initial 22-episode season order.

Elsewhere on the US airwaves, HBO once again flirted with the world of genre with John From Cincinnati, a truly offbeat mix of fantasy and drama overseen by Deadwood creator David Milch, which asked the question, “what would happen if an official, true-blue Messiah turned up in a South California surfing community?” The kind of drama that tetered on the razors edge between absorbing and frustrating, John From Cincinnati was too self-consciously bizarre and rambling to ever stand a chance of getting beyond its first ten episodes. And yet, for those patient enough to stick with pacing that made HBO’s legendarily slow Carnivalé seem like an action movie, there were fantastic performances, some rich, memorable dialogue, and some of 2007’s most bizarre and transcendent TV moments.

While John From Cincinnati reached a premature end, the inexplicably long-lived Stargate SG-1 also finally came to a halt at its tenth season, although its spin-off Stargate Atlantis shows no sign of running out of fanbase-driven momentum anytime soon. Both shows aired on the Sci-Fi channel, whose output varies massively from brilliant to near-unwatchable – and while the channel’s December mini-series Tin Man was a fitfully watchable but heavily flawed dark fantasy take on The Wizard of Oz (a take which somehow failed to feel as nightmarish or transgressive as 1984’s surreal film sequel Return to Oz), Sci-Fi really pulled out all the stops with its other re-invention of 2007, delivering possibly the worst piece of science fiction television to hit the screen in years.

It takes a certain talent to drain every ounce of pulp energy and style from a concept like Alex Raymond’s comic strip hero Flash Gordon – and considering how ingrained in the world of cult movies the ferociously camp 1980 version (and its accompanying Queen soundtrack) has now become, any TV show was going to have to try hard to compete. As it turns out, however, the producers of the Sci-Fi channel’s Flash Gordon didn’t even want to try, instead stripping out the rocket ships and the idea of Flash being stranded on an alien planet (the whole raison d’étre of the original’s pulp flavour) and substituting a Smallville-style set up, and a version of the planet Mongo that redefines the word drab. Cheap and nasty in the worst possible way, with a bland Ming, a henchman gliding around on casters, ‘Hawkmen’ running around in flappy cloaks, and execution-by-disco-lighting, the show doesn’t even qualify as a ‘so bad it’s good’ entertainment, instead showing exactly how low the quality threshold can go if people put some effort into being truly dreadful.

In comparison to this televisual agony, even the weaker moments of Battlestar Galactica’s third season on Sci-Fi were near-genius, but despite some fine moments, the show that was once the Great White Hope of SF TV is still showing some dangerous wobbles. The third season never seemed to recover from blowing most of its budget on the (admittedly spectacular) New Caprica storyline, and followed its 2006 run of impressive but heavily flawed episodes with yet another late-season slump, serving up some of the least interesting material they’ve yet explored. From the eternal boredom of the Kara/Lee/Anders/Dualla Love Quadrangle to the dreary medical drama of ‘The Woman King’ to the teeth-grindingly awful sequences featuring Adama’s imaginary chats with his ex-wife, the lion’s share of Galactica‘s 2007 run was shockingly dull stuff, taking the downbeat atmosphere of the show and applying a sledgehammer, until even dedicated viewers couldn’t help but wonder what the frak was going on.

Galactica’s Executive Producer Ronald D. Moore is refreshingly open and honest on the show’s podcast commentaries when it comes to episodes that didn’t work, and it’s been long known that the show really needs a wider canvas to function properly, with either heavily stranded standalones as in Season 1, or the full-scale serial that paid such fantastic dividends for the first seven episodes of Season 2. Nevertheless, a parade of bad decisions and unexpected rewrites hobbled most of episodes 11-20 of Season 3, with an entire subplot concerning the Sagittarons (the seeds of which were laid in ‘The Woman King’) that was supposed to impact on the finale being unceremoniously dumped, and other plotlines (such as the handling of the original Cylon version of Boomer) showing little of the thought and character that made the first two years of the show such a treat to watch.

Even the ‘death’ of Starbuck came as something of a relief, in that it actually meant significant traction in the plot, but thankfully the show managed a small recovery towards its finale. The class warfare and labour disputes in ‘Dirty Hands’ were far from perfect in their execution, but the episode harked back to the first season’s brief of taking realistic looks at the kind of problems you don’t normally see in SF shows. Then, while the ‘Trial of Baltar’ thread never escaped feeling desperately talky and theatrical, the monologue from Lee Adama in “Crossroads – Part 2” still managed to be one of the finest moments of the show, addressing themes that had been ignored for most of the season, and reviving the ‘anything-can-happen’ feeling that Galactica has at its best. On top of that, we also had the reveal of four of the Final Five Cylons, a Jimi Hendrix-driven plot twist that may have divided the audience between whether it was genius or heinous nonsense, but certainly earned Moore a salute for sheer, barmy audacity.
The lack of Cylon-mashing action in Season 3 was slightly made up for by November’s 90 minute special ‘Razor’, which packed in plenty of old-school adventure, spectacular special effects and effective character moments. Given that this was the most purely entertaining Galactica had been in a long time, ‘Razor’ was almost fast and energetic enough to make up for the fact that the much-vaunted flashbacks to Admiral Cain’s time on the Pegasus didn’t really tell us more than what we already knew. The kind of fill-in-the-blanks storytelling that sometimes blights Lost, it brought back some good memories of the pacier second season (as well as giving nostalgia freaks a chance to goggle in joy at Seventies-style Cylon fighters and centurions), but Ronald D. Moore and his writers are going to have to pull out something devastating for the fourth season if Galactica is going to shake itself out of what feels like a downward curve.

Speaking of Lost, the show that’s never quite been forgiven for being what it essentially advertised itself as – an ever-expanding, character-led mystery on an enigmatic island – also finished its third season in 2007. It’s interesting to contrast the reaction to the show’s evolution and the support it’s receiving from the ABC network with the similar ABC show Twin Peaks, where the creative team bowed to pressure to solve what was supposed to be an ever-evolving murder mystery (which, if co-creator David Lynch had his way, would never have been solved), and arguably killed the show in the process. Lost‘s sluggish and gloomy second season resulted in the departure of a lot of viewers, not without good reason, and Season 3 didn’t exactly get off to the best start, with a ‘mini-season’ of six episodes that focused too strongly on the Jack-Kate-Sawyer love triangle. Even the opening of the 2007 run was weak and badly focused – and yet, from episode 10 onwards, the show began to get its mojo back, remembering it was allowed to be entertaining as well as crammed to the brim with angst, and whirled through plots which could potentially have stretched for the entire season in a paltry handful of weeks.

The quality rollercoaster was still in play (especially in the misfiring fourteenth episode ‘Expose’), and the show has all but given up on trying to present the castaway’s life on the island as remotely realistic, but there was also a sense of momentum and progress, and an absence of easy reset buttons. Even previously dull storylines like the long-running saga of Sun and Jin’s unexpected pregnancy were suddenly feeding back into the main plotline in a way that harked back to the smart interconnections of the first season, and it all built up to a finale that was dangerously close to the best the show has ever been.

‘Through the Looking Glass’ was thrilling, violent and pitched Lost in some surprising directions, as well as pulling one of the most genuinely mind-warping twists of the year in the form of the flashback-that-turns-out-to-be-a-flashforward, showing that Jack’s desire to get off the Island is going to have major and negative repercussions. With the end-point of the show officially declared (in 48 episodes time), it only remains to be seen what the production team can pull off in the interim, but regaining the popularity of the first season seems very unlikely. A mystery like Lost was almost doomed to be a cult, rather than an all-out smash, with a structure that can only really lose viewers in the long run, and it’s also hard to tell exactly what effect the twist in ‘Through the Looking Glass’ will have on the show (although it’s alledged new episodes will mix flashbacks with flash-forwards). However, for now, Lost has pulled another major “what the hell just happenned?” moment, and when at its best, it’s reaching the kind of quality levels that Heroes can only dream of.

Meanwhile, despite all the effort from the US shows, if 2007 belonged to any other series on this side of the Atlantic, it was Doctor Who. In UK television, the influence of New Who can be felt everywhere – from BBC spin-off series The Sarah Jane Adventures, which managed the not-at-all-difficult task of being better than Torchwood (even if it never quite balanced the emotive storytelling with its action), to ITV’s silly but rather entertaining Saturday-night dinosaur romp Primeval (the first major genre success from the network for a very long time). After a first season climax that came out firmly in favour of time travel, Life on Mars’ finale did a virtual U-turn into more mystical, ambiguous territory, but still managed to maintain a sense of surreal freedom and adventurousness in what could easily have been a flat Seventies pastiche.  Even Jekyll, from New Who writer Steven Moffatt, felt like the kind of genre-hopping, daring drama that would have been impossible to imagine happening five years ago, and despite some major issues (wild tonal shifts, improbable American accents) found new angles and twists in some very familiar material, as well as showcasing Moffatt’s knack for adventurous story structures.

Who still ruled the roost, however, even if the show itself is still capable of suddenly veering from awesome highs to spectacular lows – and nothing showcased this quite as well as the return of the Master. For five minutes, at the end of ‘Utopia’, Derek Jacobi brought the Master to life and provided one of the finest ‘geek’ moments of the entire series, as well as the joyful feeling that – as with the Daleks in Season 1 – the production team were actually getting the character right. Of course, it only took seven days to go from one of the show’s finest moments, to a cackling and gurning John Simm leaping around like an over-hip geography teacher, and deciding that dance track “Voodoo Child” by Rogue Traders would be a great soundtrack for the end of the world.

Painfully disappointing doesn’t even cover it, but while Season 3 has arguably had more extreme highs and lows than previous seasons – the biggest culprit being the dull runaround that was the Dalek 2-parter, which answered the rarely asked question “Is a man with a prosthetic squid on his head scarier than a Dalek?” with a resounding “No” – when it peaked, it was arguably the strongest material the show has ever seen in its forty-four year history.

Top of the list was episodes 8-10, with Paul Cornell’s two-parter ‘Human Nature/The Family of Blood”) adapting his original Who novel into a tale that perfectly matched the emotion-based storytelling of New Who with the ‘anything-can-happen’ ethos of the traditional series, while also bringing the horrors of World War One to life in a timeslot that’s usually reserved for embarrassing talent shows. Following up this two-parter, Steven Moffatt’s ‘Blink’ was a dazzlingly constructed standalone story that flushed away all memories of the previous Doctor-lite episode ‘Love and Monsters’, being simultaneously smart, sexy and genuinely terrifying. A pilot episode for the finest Who spin-off we never had (and featuring possibly the greatest ever one-off companion in Carey Mulligan’s Sally Sparrow), it’s also one of the episodes this year that marked a small shift away from the slightly heightened reality that New Who often deals in. Unlike most of its predecessors (and virtually all of Torchwood), it was actually possible to believe that the characters in ‘Human Nature/Family of Blood’ and ‘Blink’ were real people, and it felt for the first time like the show was actually prepared to treat its audience like grown-ups, balancing the scares, fun and adventure with wit and intelligence, and not feeling the need to play to the cheap seats with weak slapstick.

Of course, it turns out we were only a couple of weeks away from yet another “Dimensional Rip opens up and billions of CGI monsters pour out” finale, along with an almost painfully unwatchable sequence that turned the Doctor (who’d already been transformed into a CGI House Elf) into a mythical amalgam of Jesus and Tinkerbell. It’s very easy to criticise the weaknesses in Russell T. Davies’ writing (especially the way that almost all of his villains end up sounding like bad boy character Stuart Jones from Davies’ Queer as Folk), and yet it also has to be admitted that a massive proportion of New Who‘s success is down to various decisions that he made – but the question has to be… “What now?”

Davies has already stated that Season 3 was, in his opinion “too dark”, and the decision to bring Catherine Tate’s Donna back for a frankly unwelcome 13-week run as a companion suggests we’re in for less angst and more happy-go-lucky romps. And yet, the blockbuster approach to Who episodes is already starting to get repetitive, and over the last three years, the bigger, more OTT stories have usually turned out to be the disappointments. It’s the darker, quieter stories like ‘The Empty Child’, ‘The Girl in the Fireplace’, and ‘Human Nature’ that people will be talking about in ten years time. Yes, it can be argued that you need the blockbusters to grab the audiences so they’ll stick for the quieter episodes, but it doesn’t suggest what Davies is going to do when he runs out of recognisable London landmarks to blow up, or when even the casual viewers start thinking: “Oh, god- not another semi-industrial spaceship that conveniently looks just like a Power Station”?

The decision to put the show on hold for a year, with three ‘specials’ in 2009, might make sense from the perspective of keeping Davies and Tennant (who’s unconfirmed past Season 4) onboard, but the one thing that kept Doctor Who alive for so long was its capacity for change, and the fact that the show simply had to go on. The main reasons its popularity dwindled in the Eighties was that the production team got locked into a specific idea of what Doctor Who was, and didn’t try to significantly change it. Now that it’s back, and such an important part of the BBC schedules, there’s a different kind of fear involved – nobody wants to be the one who killed the goose that lays the golden eggs, and with Davies arguably having the biggest profile of any creative influence in the show’s history (at the moment, he’s almost at the same level of indispensable association with Who’s success that Tom Baker reached), it looks like the BBC will do everything within their power to keep Who the way it is.

In many ways this is a good thing – even after four years, Davies still has a huge passion for the series, and is arguably one of its finest salesmen – but it’s now inarguable that the man with the most control over the show (and averaging five episodes a season) delivers some of the weakest writing, and his desire for big, tabloid-style ideas is also being combined with a dangerously perfunctory “that’ll do” attitude to storytelling. New Who has already started to self-consume and develop a sense of sameness, an aspect full in force during the throwaway Christmas 2007 special ‘Voyage of the Damned’, which spent so long pastiching The Poseidon Adventure that it forgot to include anything truly memorable (beyond some utterly hilarious Michael Bay-style slow-motion).  The top-tier villains have all been done (with only Davros due for a rumoured and probably unavoidable comeback), and while the best episodes are forging a new identity for the show, too much of New Who is simply refining and improving what Davieslaid down in 2005.

For the moment, Who’s future has never been safer, and it’s arguable that SF TV has reached a point where it’s certainly more popular and accepted than it has been in years – but it would be wise for New Who, and for the rest of the SF TV firmament, not to rest on their laurels. It’s the capacity for change, for invention, and for sheer, out-of-nowhere wonder that keeps the genre going – and the minute you start taking your audience for granted, that’s when the downward slide begins. There’s no substitute for imagination, and whether the genre continues its climb in 2008 or does an almighty bellyflop, it’ll be the level of imagination t

DVD Collections: Rock Stars (2004)

The greatest movies featuring Rock Stars on DVD…


The Film: Possibly the greatest example of a rock star merging with an onscreen role, the man who’d made himself into interplanetary icon Ziggy Stardust was the perfect choice to play the alien lead role in Nicolas Roeg’s mind-blasting science fiction drama. As the enigmatic Thomas Jerome Newton, David Bowie comes to Earth in order to save his planet from extinction, but ends up falling prey to the eternal vices of drink, sex, and making impenetrable concept albums.

The Disc: The R2 disc has a documentary, trailer and publicity brochure- but the brand new R1 Criterion Collection edition is the one to go for, with commentaries from Roeg and Bowie, a ton of interviews, galleries and essays, as well as a reprint of the original novel.

Classic Moment: Newton reveals his true alien visage (including cat-like eyes and missing genitalia) to his girlfriend, who really doesn’t like what she sees…


The Film: Pop Cinema gets launched into the stratosphere thanks to the energetic misadventures of the Fab Four, and Richard Lester’s black-and-white marvel captures the birth of Beatlemania in all its glory. Following John, Paul, George and Ringo on their journey to a TV performance, the four stars dodge screaming girls, find time for verbal sparring with Steptoe and Son’s Wilfrid Bramble, and generally make playing themselves look deceptively easy.

The Disc: Miramax’s 2-disc edition gives a landmark film its dues, with a brace of interviews from cast and crew, vintage footage, plus original documentary “Things They Said Today.”

Classic Moment: On the run from their minders, the Fab Four go wild in a playing field to the sounds of “Can’t Buy Me Love”

The Film: The Material Girl’s quest for cinematic glory may have seen her sink to the depths of Swept Away, but Madonna has managed the occasional home run- and none more spectacular than Alan Parker’s gleefully OTT adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera. Following everybody’s favourite dictator’s wife Eva Peron on her rise from poverty to politics, it’s a riot of music and song, and Madonna holds it together with the kind of charisma and star power she’s rarely shown since.

The Disc: Interactive Menus? Scene Selection? Monsieur Entertainment In Video, with these special features, you are really spoiling us…

Classic Moment: Ms. Peron takes the microphone at the victory celebrations, and tells the Argentinians something about not crying for her…

4: 8 MILE

The Film: Banishing memories of Vanilla Ice into the hell where they belong, white bad-boy rapper Eminem made the leap into movies and stunned the hell out of everybody expecting him to fall flat on his face. Curtis Hanson handles the nuanced direction, while Mr M. Mathers is Rabbit, a wannabe rapper in the decaying suburbs of Detroit who’s searching for the right way out of the ghetto and into a better life.

The Disc: Hardly a bumper crop for the Slim Shady-appreciating gentleman about town, with only a pair of featurettes, music videos and a trailer to shake your thang to.

Classic Moment: At his lowest point, Rabbit faces off against his drunken mother (Kim Basinger) in a brutal argument.

The Film: Have a moment’s pity for poor Meat Loaf Aday. The portly singer of Bat Out of Hell finally slims down from his previous lard-heavy physique¬– and then, for his role in David Fincher’s psychomania masterpiece, he has to don a gigantic latex fat-suit with added cleavage-enhancing bitch-tits. Still, it did give him his finest cinematic moment as weepy, ex-bodybuilder turned Project Mayhem goon Robert “Bob” Paulson.

The Disc: One of the first (and best) two disc editions, this is packed with juicy extras- although discerning collectors should seek the R1 version which has three additional commentaries.

Classic Moment: Bob discovers his inner man-mountain while taking on the unnamed Narrator (Edward Norton) in the Fight Club ring.

The Film: The classic Brit tale of youth rebellion, street violence and haircuts, Franc Roddam’s punky Mods vs Rockers saga has no better icon than Sting as the strutting, cool-as-a-cucumber King Mod known as Ace Face. With a sharp suit and an even sharper hairstyle, Ace Face is the essence of Mod attitude on the streets of Brighton- even if he does turn out to be kow-towing to ‘The Man’ as a menial bellboy.

The Disc: 8 minutes of “production montage” and an ugly full-frame transfer will have you looking for a DVD executive to kick the hell out of.

Classic Moment: “Got a pen, your honour?” Presented with a seventy quid fine in court, Ace Face responds by whipping out his chequebook.

The Movie: Filmed between Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, Scorsese’s romantic drama is a world away from his usual grit, and gives country star Kris Kristoffersen a peach of a romantic role as David, the cowboy-style farmer who romances Ellen Burstyn’s widowed housewife turned singer. Will he be able to net her heart and win over her cocky ten year old son? No prizes for guessing the answer…

The Disc: It’s only available on R2 as part of a box-set- but you get a commentary with Scorsese, Kristofferson and Burstyn, a retrospective documentary, and three other Scorsese classics, including the Goodfellas special edition. Bargain!

Classic Moment: David shows off his no-nonsense attitude to parenting by spanking the hell out of Alice’s smart-talking son.

The Film: The working definition of “kooky”, Jim Jarmuch’s self-proclaimed neo-beat-noir-comedy uses a cramped jail cell to bring together an uptight pimp, an English-mangling Italian tourist, and raspy-voiced musical pioneer Tom Waits as Zack. He’s a failed DJ imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and the eccentric trio soon find themselves on the run from the law in the Louisiana wetlands, where sinking boats, hunger and alligators may be the least of their problems.

The Disc: You decide¬– the barebones R2 DVD, or the feature-packed Criterion Collection version that’s filled to bursting with interviews, photos, Q+As and music?

Classic Moment: Lost and alone in the swamp, Zack switches into Radio bulletin mode and starts his very own weather report.

The Film: Packing a fearsome punch, John Singleton’s debut tale of urban violence in South Central also kicked off the cinematic career of Mr O’Shea Jackson, a.k.a. Ice Cube. A long way from his current role as scowling (yet cuddly) comedy grump, the rapper once known as America’s Most Wanted plays the foul-mouthed Darin ‘Doughboy’ Baker, one of three young guys on their way to a potentially tragic end.

The Disc: A decently loaded special edition, with John Singleton in commentary mode, a selection of deleted scenes, music videos, and the “Friendly Fire” making of documentary.

Classic Moment: In a parking lot, Doughboy gets revenge for his brother’s death- but instead of triumph, it’s a moment of quiet horror.

The Movie: Ol’ Blue Eyes himself pushed the limits of Fifties censorship with this classic drama, playing a sharp card-dealer and ex-heroin addict who wants to re-invent himself as a big band drummer, but can’t get rid of that monkey on his back. A universe away from the silky-voiced Rat Pack crooner, Sinatra shows a real edge as his life falls apart and he plummets into the sweaty nightmare of ‘Cold Turkey’.

The Disc: A classic movie gets a decent package, with archive Sinatra interviews, a film historian’s commentary, and a documentary on legendary composer Elmer Bernstein.

Classic Moment: “The monkey never dies, dealer.” Giving in to his cravings at last, Frankie falls off the wagon and gets himself a fix.

Collector’s Additions: Mindwarp Cinema (2007)

The greatest head-melting movies on DVD…

1. No collection is complete without this

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) * * * * *

Cinema doesn’t come more head-scratchingly weird than legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi “visual poem”, a mind-boggling space saga with minimum dialogue and maximum classical music. “Explanations are for wimps” seems to have been Kubrick’s mantra, as an enigmatic black monolith inspires primitive man to start bashing people around the head with bones, before later luring humanity on a space-bound quest to Jupiter with tragic consequences. That’s nothing, however, compared to the final third of the movie, a brain-melting journey into another universe that ends with a time-accelerating hotel room, and a leap in mankind’s evolution. “If you understand 2001 completely, we failed. We wanted to raise far more questions than we answered” said co-writer and sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke at the time, and it looks like this particular space oddity will be stretching minds and confounding people for decades to come.

EXTRAS: Splash out extra dosh, and you can get the “deluxe edition” with a collectable booklet, film cel and the original soundtrack- otherwise, all you get in the standard version is a paltry theatrical trailer.

BEST BIT: In the middle of having his mind demolished by an annoyed astronaut, murderous supercomputer HAL 9000 regresses back to its ‘childhood’ and starts singing “Daisy, Daisy…” :

2. Essential Selections: The foundations of your collection

Brazil (1985) * * * * *

Ex-Python animator Terry Gilliam is your guide for this nightmare tour through the darker side of the modern world. In an endless city choked by paperwork and terrorist attacks, looking for your dream girl can be a dangerous thing– as meek bureaucrat Jonathan Pryce finds out to his cost. From SAS-style heating engineers to the terrifying corridors of the Ministry of Information Retrieval, Gilliam’s finest work redefines the onscreen ‘future city’, and plays like George Orwell’s 1984 on some seriously bad Acid.

EXTRAS: The R2 disc features a trailer and an illuminating half-hour making-of documentary, but seek out the 3-disc Criterion Collection edition for a whole lot more, including the “Love Conquers All” edit of the film that tacks on a happy ending.

BEST BIT: A gang of terrifying masked stormtroopers erupt into the flat of shoe repair man Harry Buttle with devastating force, all so that he can “help the Ministry with its enquiries.”

Fight Club (1999) * * * *

Pummelling you into submission and twisting your brain into knots for an encore, David Fincher’s psycho-mania marvel is one of the most demented Hollywood movies ever made. Edward Norton is the unnamed Narrator who befriends Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden, a freewheeling anarchist with plans for spiritual harmony that involve men beating each other up for the sheer hell of it. Only when Project Mayhem rears its head does Tyler’s true identity comes to light, and the result is a blisteringly strange masterpiece that leaves you bruised, battered, and desperate for another viewing.

EXTRAS: One of the funkiest original two-disc editions, Fight Club still stands up thanks to a huge selection of featurettes, and a truly unmissable commentary from Fincher, Pitt, Norton and co-star Helena Bonham Carter.

BEST BIT: Smashing down the “fourth wall”, the Narrator gives us a tour of Tyler Durden’s life as he sabotages restaurant meals and splices frames of pornography into family cartoons.

When the everyday world stops making sense…

Videodrome (1983)
It’s official: watching TV is bad for your health. Just ask Max Renn (James Woods), a television executive who views a violent pirate broadcast named “Videodrome”, and is soon neck-deep in a hallucinogenic conspiracy and inserting videotapes into a worrying vaginal slit in his chest. David Cronenberg’s fractured tale of horror throws the reality rulebook out of the window, and leaves us trapped in a world where even our own bodies can’t be trusted.

Pi (1997)
Obsessed by patterns in nature, paranoid number-cruncher Max (Sean Gullette) is investigating the New York stock market when he discovers a new 216-digit number that causes his computer to melt, and soon has him hallucinating about abandoned brains on the subway. Has he found the secret 216-letter name of God, or is he simply going insane? Either way, Darren Aronofsky’s hyper-intense, black-and-white drama is hypnotic, dazzling stuff that refuses to give any easy answers.

Donnie Darko (2001)
Teenage life in Eighties America holds plenty of problems for the emotionally troubled Donnie (Jake Gylenhaal), and that’s before an imaginary six foot bunny rabbit starts telling him that the world is due to end in 28 days. A mind-bending tale of time travel, social satire and Tears for Fears songs, this cult classic has already had multiple DVD incarnations¬, including the Director’s Cut which adds new songs, new scenes and new questions into the mix.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
You’re a Vietnam veteran. You’re suffering from major flashbacks to the war. And then, horrific demons start looming out of nowhere to scare the living crap out of you. Fatal Attraction director Adrian Lynne’s tale of damnation and salvation keeps the audience guessing as to what’s really going on, leaping adeptly between realities and indulging in some truly horrifying visions. Tim Robbins also excels as the confused, shell-shocked Jacob, tortured by glimpses of Hell on earth.

Stories that don’t just go from A to B…

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Jim Carrey decides to hit the “delete” button and get his memories of kooky ex-girlfriend Kate Winslet erased– but halfway through the procedure, he changes his mind and tries to fight back. With half of the movie taking place inside Carrey’s head as he re-experiences the affair in reverse, the film uses plenty of surreal effects and visual tricks, but it’s the relationship between Carrey and Winslet that’s the heart of this beautiful, backwards love story.

Mulholland Drive (2002)
For 90 minutes, David Lynch’s thriller is a bizarrely compulsive tale of the dark side of Hollywood. Then, wannabe actress Naomi Watts and beautiful amnesiac Laura Elena Harring visit the reality-warping Club Silencio, and the whole movie turns inside out. Characters swap identities, time rolls back, and the audience gapes in complete confusion. Adding otherworldly tramps and minature OAPs is just the icing on the cake for one of the Sultan of Strange’s weirdest and most memorable movies.

Memento (2000)
Following Guy Pearce as he tries to hunt his wife’s killer and cope with a bizarre form of memory loss, this brilliant thriller tells its story in reverse, starting with a brutal murder and then working backwards to explore why it happened. The devious structure keeps us as disorientated as the hero, and the DVD itself features plenty of extras to help unlock the story- including the chance to watch the whole thing in chronological order.

21 Grams (2003)
In the hands of anyone else, this tale of three people (Sean Penn, Benicio Del Toro and Naomi Watts) united via a tragic car crash would be your average, run-of-the-mill drama. Instead, Amorres Perros director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu mixes up the order of events, delivering the story in a blizzard of initially confusing fragments. It’s a daring choice that forces you to pay attention¬¬, as well as perfectly mirroring the shattered lives and emotions of the main characters.

The lighter side of Strange.

Schizopolis (1996)
Oceans Eleven director Steven Soderbergh writes, directs and stars in this whacked-out comedy that sends the weird-ometer spinning off the chart. The tale of corporate drone Fletcher Munsen who swaps places with his identical duplicate– a dentist who also happens to be having an affair with Munsen’s wife–, Schizopolis is part sketch-show, part satire, part rumination on the nature of reality, and has “Kooky” written through it like a stick of rock.

Being John Malkovich (1999)
It doesn’t get much stranger than Spike Jonze’s directorial debut, as tangle-haired puppeteer John Cusack discovers a magical portal leading into the head of John Malkovich, and quickly starts charging entry, as well as using the unwitting Malkovich to spice up his sex life. Mixing up ideas of fame, identity and reality, the film achieves the seemingly impossible by making Cameron Diaz convincingly dowdy, and climaxes with an unforgettable chase through the landscape of Malkovich’s mind.

I Heart Huckabees (2004)
Philosophy meets slapstick in Three Kings director David O. Russell’s hilariously bonkers comedy, which turns modern day Los Angeles into a surreal playground for all manner of intellectual tomfoolery. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin are the existential detectives hired by Jason Schwartzman to investigate a set of coincidences, and Jude Law is a smug corporate oik with a neurotic supermodel girlfriend (Naomi Watts)– but it’s Mark Wahlberg as a petroleum-hating fireman who steals the show.

Collector’s Score

So… how many do you have?
0-4 Slightly strange. You sometimes wear dark glasses when it isn’t sunny.
5-10 Medium strange. Weird is your middle name (but you don’t like to talk about it…)
11-14 Ultra Strange. Life is a psychedelic carnival, and you’ve got a front row seat.

Falling Down: Tarsem Singh on ‘The Fall’ (2007)

Whatever happened to Tarsem Singh? The filmmaker behind countless adverts and music videos made an impression with his bonkers 2000 movie debut The Cell, and then vanished without trace. In fact, the Indian-born director (having shortened his ‘screen name’ to the Prince-like monicker of Tarsem) has spent the intervening time crafting an equally off-beat follow-up.

“When you tell a story to someone,” explains Tarsem, “The tale you tell them, the tale they imagine in their own head, and the tale they’ll remember in twenty years time are three completely different things. That’s what I wanted to explore, and it’s taken me over seventeen years of preparation to get there!”

The end result is The Fall, a bizarre blend of period drama and barmy fantasy that plays like The Princess Bride on very weird drugs. Starring Pushing Daisies’ Lee Pace, it’s the story of a paralysed stuntman in hospital, whose friendship with a very young girl (Catinca Untaru) takes some dark turns thanks to the epic fable he invents for her.

Crammed full of eye-popping imagery, it’s a lush, ambitious story that took nearly five years to shoot across twenty four countries. “For the fantasy sequences, I’d use adverts I was working on to get to particular locations. I’d look for an ad that would take me where I wanted, and once the ad was finished, we’d get the actors over and shoot for just two or three days at a time.”

As if this wasn’t hard enough, try letting a six-year-old girl shape your film’s storyline, or getting your lead actor to pretend to be genuinely disabled. “When I found Catinca, I knew she had something magical– but she’d misunderstood what the casting director told her, and thought she’d be making a documentary with an actual disabled guy! That was when I realised the best way of getting a performance from her would be to maintain that reality.”

“Lee was fantastic, and kept it up for the entire time. He was a complete unknown then, so nobody on the crew knew he could walk. When everybody found out, some were really angry, but it wasn’t a ‘method’ thing. It was all for Catinca, because her reactions would have been totally different. The scenes between them are very improvisational – she really shaped how the film developed, and sent us in directions we’d never have gone otherwise.”

While it’s been a rewarding process, it’s not one Tarsem is in any hurry to repeat. “This was a one-off situation, and crazy in lots of ways – but I had to get this film out of my head. It’s like when you’re falling in love with somebody that’s got a problem – you see the train wreck that’s coming, but you can’t stop yourself.”

DVD Collections: Documentaries (2005)

The best Documentaries available on DVD:

The Film: Spielberg’s Munich takes on the aftermath, but Kevin MacDonald’s Oscar-winning documentary focuses purely on the events of September 5th 1972 themselves. The story of how a group of Palestinian terrorists took nine Israeli athletes hostage at the Olympic Games in Germany, the film builds up a thriller-like atmosphere of escalating dread as it follows the crisis that unfolded on live global television, and the botched rescue attempt where five terrorists and all nine hostages died. A combination of razor-sharp editing, superb music and a fearless outlook, documentary filmmaking doesn’t get more important or necessary than this.
The Disc: Currently only available on R1, where all you get is talent files and a DVD Rom link for additional information on the Israel/Palestine conflict.
Classic Moment: As the hostage crisis enters its final, fatal minutes, MacDonald uses CG images and colour-coded figures to show exactly how the reaction of the German authorities was so spectacularly mishandled.

The Film: A close-up examination of a family buckling under pressure, this captivating film looks at the Friedmans, an ordinary Jewish family who suddenly find themselves at the centre of a horrific child abuse case. The question of who to believe gets more complex as the film progresses, while the extensive home movie footage shot by the family pitches you into the heart of the harrowing drama.
The Disc: The expansive Tartan DVD delves deeper into the unanswered questions, and includes a commentary, more home movie footage, and featurettes on the case.
Classic Moment: Goofing around outside the courtroom, the accused Friedmans are violently confronted by the parents of the children they allegedly abused, in a sequence all the more powerful for only being heard rather than seen.

3: SUPER-SIZE ME (2004)
The Film: A man with a mission, Morgan Spurlock sets out to test the true nature of fast food by eating nothing but McDonalds for thirty days. He’s soon experiencing waistline expansion and earning anxious looks from his doctors, but this gleefully insane experiment is just the hook for an energetic and wickedly funny expose of junk food culture and what it’s doing to the people who eat it.
The Disc: Not quite super-sized in the extras department, but there’s an enjoyable commentary from Spurlock and his girlfriend, Q+A sessions, interviews and a handful of interesting deleted scenes.
Classic Moment: If the statistics don’t put you off junk food, seeing Spurlock spew up a whole McDonalds meal on only the second day of his ‘quest’ should do the trick…

The Film: No sports personality has ever equalled the nuclear charisma of Muhammad Ali, and this gripping documentary captures him in full force during the run up to the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ fight against George Foreman in Zaire. A powerhouse of editing, it’s a fiercely gripping story of politics, culture and sport- but in the end, the film belongs to Ali, and he steals it time and again with jaw-dropping style.
The Disc: Aside from the trailer, we do get footage of two Ali fights- the ‘Rumble’ and the ‘Thrilla in Manilla’- uninterrupted and complete.
Classic Moment: “I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick! I’m so mean I make medicine sick!” Ali shows his poetic side at a pre-fight press conference.

5: PARADISE LOST 1 + 2 (1996, 2000)
The Film: A real-life horror story, these two films from Some Kind of Monster directors Joel Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky take an unblinking look at the ritual murder of three children in bible-belt Arkensas, and how three teenage heavy metal fans found themselves targeted as scapegoats. Following the story from initial investigations to the conviction and beyond, it’s a compelling tale of media panic that asks frightening questions about America’s judicial system.
The Disc: Two excellent documentaries for the price of one is all the extra value you’ll find here…
Classic Moment: Stepfather of one of the murdered children, and a likelier candidate for a culprit than any of the jailed teens, John Mark Byers performs a bizarre and creepy ceremony at the site of the killings.

The Film: Farenheit 9-11 made him more notorious, but this amazing look at America’s love affair with gun culture is the finest moment yet in the career of professional establishment-annoyer Michael Moore. From banks distributing rifles as free gifts, to the showdown between Moore and NRA president Charlton Heston, this is powerful filmmaking unafraid to make us laugh while explaining some horrifying truths.
The Disc: A fair (if unspectacular) special edition, with featurettes, a weird commentary from production interns, and a Marilyn Manson music video.
Classic Moment: In Moore’s best example of video activism, he accompanies two of the school kids wounded in the Columbine massacre to Kmart (where the teens responsible bought their ammo) and asks for a refund on the bullets still lodged in their bodies.

7: DIG! (2005)
The Film: Ego battles don’t come much bigger than the clash between rock band front-men Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Anton Newcombe in this hilarious, compulsive portrait of the Dandy Warhols, the Brian Jonestown Massacre, and their bizarre rivalry. There’s a delirious fascination in Newcombe’s quest to seemingly sabotage his own success, but it’s also an intelligent look at the modern music industry, and the difficult question of Art vs Commerce
The Disc: It’s your choice- the current R2 release with just film notes and a directors interview, or the upcoming 2-disc edition that promises commentaries, deleted footage, extra music and much more?
Classic Moment: Newcombe decides a showcase gig for the record industry would be a great time to start an on-stage punch-up with his band…

The Film: Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s fly-on-the-wall look at Terry Gilliam’s latest movie was supposed to be a traditional ‘making of’- but unfortunately, the movie in question was the infamous The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Capturing every aspect of how the production fell apart, this brutally honest ‘unmaking of’ is both tragic and fascinating, while using fragments of completed Quixote footage to give us glimpses of what might have been.
The Disc: Along with in-depth additional interviews with Gilliam and Depp, there’s deleted footage and more looks at Quixote via selected costume designs and storyboards.
Classic Moment: “Which is it, King Lear, or the Wizard of Oz?” As the storm destined to wash away most of his film equipment descends, Gilliam rails against the elements.

9: THE FOG OF WAR (2003)
The Film: The man at the heart of America’s participation in the Vietnam War, Robert MacNamara presents eleven vital lessons from his life as US Defence Secretary in Errol Morris’s brilliantly candid documentary. Mixing archive footage, graphics and lengthy interviews, it’s a measured and unbiased film that allows MacNamara to account for himself, and gives a sobering look into the world where bean-counters and bureaucrats decide how many people live or die.
The Disc: Twenty five additional scenes bolster up this slim disc, along with a breakdown of the eleven lessons.
Classic Moment: Step by step, MacNamara takes us through a meeting during the Cuban Missile Crisis where JFK’s interpretation of two different communications from the Russian government was the only thing that stopped full-scale war breaking out.

10: ETRE ET AVOIR (2002)

The Film: Over the course of a year, teacher George Lopez patiently runs a single-classroom school in the French countryside, teaching kids from 4 to 10, and carefully helping them through the trials of growing up. Steering clear of any patronising “Aren’t kids just great?” moments, this gentle documentary instead turns out as a quietly absorbing and poetic study of learning as the hugely important experience it should always be.
The Disc: Aside from the excellent transfer, all you’ll find here are film notes and a short but interesting interview with director Nicolas Philibert.
Classic Moment: At the end of the film, Lopez says goodbye to his class for the last time before he retires, and only the stone-hearted won’t be wiping away a tear.

The Ultimate Horror All-Nighter (2004)

Twenty one hours and twenty six minutes of the best of Movie Horror…

Break out the popcorn, nail a crucifix to the wall and make absolutely certain the door is locked;- it’s time to spend Halloween the only sensible way, in the company of the greatest horror movies known to man. They’ve defined our nightmares for decades- so join us, as we cower behind the sofa, dispense important trivia and do our best to survive the ultimate Horror DVD All-nighter….

12.00pm: NOSFERATU
Cheerfully ripping off DRACULA by Bram Stoker without asking permission (and almost getting sued into the Stone Age by Stoker’s widow), German Expressionist director F.W. Murnau decided horror was the way to go- and jump started a genre in the process. With daft fast-motion sequences and over-expressive acting, this classic 1922 silent chiller may have moments of unintentional comedy- but it’s also got a haunting, lyrical atmosphere, and one of Horror’s most impossibly spooky villains in the rat-like, taloned bloodsucker Count Orlok (Max Schreck).

1.34pm: Practice walking up and down the stairs with your hands outstretched in funky NOSFERATU-style talons.

1.43pm: Realise you’re being rather silly, and go start the next movie.

Stalk-and-Slash thrillers have been big business for decades- and it’s all thanks to director John Carpenter, an unforgettable theme tune and a spray-painted William Shatner mask. The original (and best) appearance of silent psychotic Michael Myers, Carpenter’s classic is all the more remarkable for spending its first half quietly building up atmosphere before unleashing a nerve-shredding barrage of scares. It made a “Scream Queen” out of Jamie Lee Curtis, and an appearance from Donald Pleasence was just the icing on the cake…

“To a new world of gods and monsters!” One of the first horror sequels, this follow up to the 1931 classic is also one of the most jaw-droppingly camp horror movies ever made. Dripping with surreal double-entendres and sly humour (mainly thanks to director James Whale’s background as a closeted homosexual in Hollywood), it’s both hilarious and genuinely haunting. Boris Karloff delivers another soulful turn as the Creature- and Elsa Lanchester’s fright-wigged Bride steals the attention in one of Cinematic Horror’s classic moments.

4.40pm: Attempt to order a pizza over the phone in the manner of Karloff’s Monster. Get as far as “Anchovies, BAD!! Stuffed Crust, GOOD!!” and then give up…

Proving there’s nothing like possessed young girls spewing gallons of pea soup for getting people upset, director William Friedkin broke new cinematic ground while making his actors feel as uncomfortable as possible in this brilliantly harrowing 1973 horror classic. The tale of a twelve-year old girl and the decidedly potty-mouthed demon inhabiting her body, the full-on performances and dazzling mechanical effects mean that this landmark chiller is still as devastating as ever. Just remember- the power of Christ compels you!!

7.00pm: DRACULA 
For sheer style and gentlemanly vampire panache, you still can’t top Christopher Lee. Terrence Fisher’s 1958 movie injected heaving bosoms and lashings of blood into the previously starchy English Horror film, while turning his two stars into icons. Peter Cushing’s righteous, monster-bashing Van Helsing makes Hugh Jackman look like a big girls blouse in need of a haircut- but all the focus is on Lee, who steps into Horror legend, going from devilishly sexy to monstrous in the blink of an eye.

The plot of Tobe Hooper’s transgressive masterpiece might sound like a SCOOBY DOO episode- a group of kids in a van investigate a creepy house, and then there’s lots of running and screaming- but despite never showing the titular piece of garden machinery slicing or dicing human flesh, it’s still a ferocious cinematic nightmare. Pitching hippie-style flower children against the monstrous chainsaw-wielding Leatherface and his nightmarish cannibal in-laws, this is full-blooded, screaming horror turned up to eleven.

9.53pm: You realise that choosing a non-vegetarian pizza may have been a mistake- and the side order of tomato soup was definitely unwise…

Forget about the twist. Even ignoring the now long-blown surprise ending, M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough movie as a director is a perfectly pitched exercise in subtle scares, building up a shatteringly terrifying atmosphere at its own gentle pace. It’s also one of the few films to feature a genuine performance from Bruce Willis, playing a troubled psychologist trying to help Haley Joel Osment cope with the fact that he sees dead people- and they’re not going away…

11.52pm: Take at least five minutes to work out how THE SIXTH SENSE’s final twist works. And then write “Punch M. Night Shyamalan” on your list of priorities…

Stephen King disliked Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his novel so intensely, he had it remade as a dull TV miniseries- proving there’s no accounting for taste. In everywhere but the King household, Kubrick’s blankly terrifying odyssey into one man’s fractured mind is a masterclass in sustained dread, featuring possibly the most OTT Jack Nicholson performance in history, as a hotel caretaker going stark, staring mad. Is it due to ghosts? Is it all just his demented subconscious? Who cares? “Heeeeeeeeeeres Johnny!!!”

For kids in the 1980s, a haunted house story co-written (and allegedly co-directed) by Steven Spielberg sounded like an unthreatening choice. Instead, this barnstorming supernatural terror-thon helmed by TEXAS CHAINSAW director Tobe Hooper features all manner of brown-trouser experiences;- a demonic living tree, a swimming pool full of rotting corpses and a man pulling his own face off. As the Freeling family battle the evil forces infesting their home, Spielberg’s dark side turns out to be somewhere you want to steer clear of…

4.04am: There’s a scratching outside your door. Spend ten minutes convinced that it’s a demonic creature of the night, before realising it’s actually the neighbour’s cat.

4.15am: RING
The Naomi Watts-starring US remix of RING might have been more audience-friendly and lacked subtitles, but the Asian original has one small advantage- it’s pant-wettingly scary. The tale of a journalist racing to unlock the secrets of a cursed videotape before it’s mysterious powers claim the lives of her family, it’s an ambiguous, atmospheric experience that mixes folklore with technology, and turns something as simple as picking up the phone or switching on the TV into a potentially lethal experience.

5.51am: Spend the next five minutes hiding in the bathroom. Once you’ve convinced yourself that no long-haired Japanese women are going to climb out of the TV screen to steal your soul, sit back down and break out the Twiglets.

6.00am: SUSPIRIA
With the help of a pounding prog-rock score (augmented with occasional shouts of “WITCH!!”), SUSPIRIA is a blistering assault on the senses, and about as demented as the horror movie can get. A tale of supernatural shenanigans at a Ballet school, the nonsensical plot is just an excuse for director Dario Argento to indulge in audacious, full-on violence. From a guide dog hungrily turning on its owner, to a young woman encountering a room full of barbed wire, this is dark, dream-like and beautifully scary.

The low-budget horror classic that gave birth to a groaning, shambling sub-genre, George A. Romero’s 1968 Black-and-White debut movie pushed the envelope with ground-breaking gore (most of which involved lots of butchers left-overs and chocolate sauce) and an adventurously bleak tone. Showing that being trapped in a house under attack from Zombie hordes isn’t a healthy lifestyle to consider, this hugely influential horror flick laid the groundwork for the edgier chillers of the Seventies, as well as delivering one of the bleakest ever movie endings.

9.26am: Congratulations. You’ve made it through the Ultimate Horror All-Nighter intact- but whether you’re now up to scaling the heights of the Ultimate Olsen Twins All-Nighter remains to be seen…


Cinema arrived in the 1890s- and audiences didn’t have to wait long for the chance to be scared. The world’s first horror movie was a three-minute production in 1896 by legendary cinema fantasist George Melies, called THE DEVIL’S CASTLE- but it took a little longer for filmmakers to truly catch on. The next phase came in 1919, with the spectacularly eerie German expressionist classic THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI telling of a sleepwalking killer prowling a small town- and soon movies like NOSFERATU and THE GOLEM were showing exactly what horror could do. In 1926, Horror’s first superstar arrived in the form of actor Lon Chaney Sr. and his unforgettable appearance as the villain in the epic 1926 version of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. Scary movies were an official sensation- and with Universal Studios producing versions of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, the age of the Movie Monster had truly begun…

They’re quiet, they’re restrained, and they’re here to scare the living crap out of you. Thanks to RING opening the floodgates, there’s an onslaught of Asian-made horror waiting to shatter nerves, and any upcoming Hollywood remakes are unlikely to equal the terrifying originals. Coming from a culture where vengeful spirits and ghosts are counted as part of everyday life, Asian Horror shows the otherworldly carefully insinuating its way into the ordinary world, often in the form of a long-haired female spectre with payback in mind. It’s also a genre prepared to ignore US horror film conventions and head in unexpected directions, killing off innocent characters and throwing in horribly disturbing plot twists or downbeat endings. The genre’s been around ever since creepy anthology KWAIDAN in 1968, and recently the number of Asian shockers has skyrocketed- with titles like THE PHONE, AUDITION and THE GRUDGE finding all new ways of freaking out international audiences.

Some filmmakers believe in the power of the imagination- but then others will cheerfully show you your worst nightmare in extreme close-up. Blood and gore was the realm of B-movies and exploitation flicks until the massive independent success of George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, who went onto even bloodier heights with 1978 sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD. Ever since then, gore has been an extra ingredient in the horror film mix- whether it’s the body-wrenching transformations of THE THING, the full-on comedy splatter of THE EVIL DEAD or the low-budget ketchup-fest of CABIN FEVER. However, when it comes to gory body horror, nobody can beat David Cronenberg, the Canadian filmmaker behind chilling masterworks like THE BROOD, THE FLY and VIDEODROME. With films that are devastating, intelligent and stomach-churning, Cronenberg is the crown prince of modern Horror- and nobody’s likely to challenge him for a long time…

Horror has had a rocky relationship with the Ratings Boards, ever since Hammer movies started getting British censors hot under the collar- but it was during the 1960s, as cinematic taboos were shattered at regular intervals, that Horror started breaking rules and treading on dangerous ground. New “X” ratings were created to handle the latest ultra-gory Horror movies, and protests to ban films like THE EXORCIST became more common- but the problems didn’t truly explode until the arrival of Home Video. Suddenly, Italian splatterfests and hyperviolent slasher flicks were easily available for viewing- sparking off a moral panic about “Video Nasties” that only quietened down with the 1984 Video Recordings Act, introducing tougher classifications and banning many films altogether (Many of which were later de-restricted and are currently available on DVD…). Even now, Horror films are just as likely to inflame the “moral majority” as they are to scare their audience…

A world where black-gloved killers stalk attractive, badly dubbed women and zombies wander the landscape tearing peoples arms off, Italian Horror is a paradise for those seeking the kind of taboo-busting movies Hollywood doesn’t have the nerve to make. The greatest examples are those helmed by director Dario Argento- and before making gleefully insane masterpieces like SUSPIRIA and OPERA, he invented the modern slasher movie with a set of classic “Giallo” mysteries including DEEP RED and THE BIRD WITH CRYSTAL PLUMAGE. An Italian word meaning Yellow, “Giallo” films are usually pulp whodunnits concerned with mysterious psychopaths on a trail of murder- often involving beautiful women meeting messy ends. The other Italian horror favourite is pushing the Zombie sub-genre in an insanely gory direction, and Lucio Fulci is the name to pay close attention to, thanks to his hilariously bloodthirsty carnage-epics such as THE HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY and ZOMBIE FLESH EATERS.

For all the gore, violence and gallons of blood that horror movies throw at the screen… sometimes what’s most scary is what you can’t see. Back in the 1940s, a set of cheaply made B-movies supervised by producer Val Lewton laid down the blueprint, making the most of their resources by concentrating on unseen terrors- and movies like CAT PEOPLE and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE managed some truly insidious scares. From the original 1958 version of THE HAUNTING to Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, the Unseen in Horror Films has generated some of our worst fears- and after a long time in stasis, it made a colossal comeback in 1998’s THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT. A zero-budget production, all BLAIR WITCH’s scares were in the shadows- and Hollywood soon cottoned on when quiet, subtle horror movies like THE SIXTH SENSE beat the more spectacular, bombastic fright flicks at their own game.

From the moment Boris Karloff first shambled onscreen as the Monster in 1931’s FRANKENSTEIN, there’s always been a place in Horror films for iconic performers. Make-up effects may play their part in creating classic creatures- but they always require a haunting performance behind the mask, and the actors behind Frankenstein’s Monster, Dracula, the Wolfman and the Phantom of the Opera have entered into cinematic legend. Every phase of cinema has had its horror icons- from Lon Chaney Sr. to Max Schrek, from Vincent Price to Christopher Lee, from Gunnar Hanson to Robert Englund- but it’s a burden that can also lead to excessive typecasting and a tragic end. For the best example, there’s Bela Lugosi, who shot to fame in 1931’s DRACULA thanks to his suave vamp style and diamond-eyed stare, but ended his career as a penniless drug addict, making hysterically awful films for legendary Z-grade director Ed Wood.

The most famous name in British Movie Horror started life as a quiet little production company making mysteries and war movies in the late 1930s and 1940s. It wasn’t until 1955, and their massively successful remake of classic TV sci-fi series THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT that Hammer Films started thinking that moving into Horror might be a good idea- and their mix of gothic melodrama and lurid colour turned out to be an ideal combination. New takes on classic horror with DRACULA and THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN turned Hammer into the ultimate scare factory, generating a slate of hugely successful horror and fantasy movies throughout the Sixties and Early Seventies. Their colourful, slightly camp style might now seem dated- but the truly great Hammer films like THE DEVIL RIDES OUT or CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF have a sense of dream-like lyricism that most right-thinking horror directors would kill for.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004

Take Two – The Art of Movie Remakes (2004)

Déjà vu;- it’s the sensation of feeling like you’ve seen something before, and it’s getting difficult to look at the world of movies without experiencing it somewhere. Whether it’s crazed killer Leatherface powering up his chainsaw, mother Jamie Lee Curtis and daughter Lindsay Lohan exchanging bodies for the day, or George Clooney limbering up to “take down” another Casino as Danny Ocean, the art of the Movie Remake is all around us, often taking historic points in cinema and transforming them into something wholly different.

The process of using a previously successful movie as a template for further success (either financial or artistic) might feel like a recent invention, a symptom of Hollywood running short of ideas- but it’s actually been around for almost as long as Cinema itself, with the first recorded remake happening as early as 1898. Since then, the Remake has turned up in many different guises across the decades, with Silent movies being reworked as “Talkies”, Foreign language cinema being tailored for the international market, and classic Hollywood comedies being remixed for modern audiences.

But why do films get re-made in the first place? Directors will often talk about “updating a story for a new generation”, or giving an old classic an “exciting new twist!!”, but the fact of the matter is that it’s mainly down to a combination of fear and money. Movies are a tremendously expensive and risky business, so in Hollywood where, as screenwriter William Goldman once famously observed, “nobody knows anything”, film studio executives don’t want to bet their careers on green-lighting a costly film production unless they’ve got some assurances it’s going to work. As a result, it’s often easier to ransack the past than gamble on an untested screenplay- and remakes are theoretically a safe bet, with a previously successful movie to work from, as well as a familiar title to help with the marketing.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple, and there’s a whole selection of problems that can strike a remake dead in its tracks- like updating the story to fit with modern attitudes, or recasting roles made famous by previous actors. Even selecting a little-known foreign film to rework doesn’t always mean that success will follow- but with the current appetite for Remakes on the steady increase, it can’t be too long before even today’s movie hits are being fed back to us in new and bizarre combinations…


In the world of remakes, sometimes a healthy disrespect for the movie you’re updating is the best policy. Take director Steven Soderbergh’s opinion of the Rat Pack’s 1960 version of OCEAN’S ELEVEN:- “It’s the kind of film that gets remembered fondly by those who haven’t seen it- a wonderful document to have of those guys, but watch it for entertainment, and it’s excruciating.”

When setting out to remake the film in 2001, Soderbergh deliberately avoided duplicating the original, throwing out everything except the title, the basic plot and the character of Danny Ocean. The end result was a funky, slick heist movie that outstripped the original by a wide margin;- one of a number of remakes that reap large rewards by daring to remix, rewire or completely ignore their predecessors.

Often this happens because of a shift in attitudes, such as 2003’s lively remake of 1976 body-swap comedy FREAKY FRIDAY, which dumped the original’s chauvinistic portrayal of motherhood as being a “good little homemaker”. Or there’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR from 1999, which took advantage of relaxed attitudes about on-screen sex to replace the 1968 original’s suggestive “pawn-stroking” chess match with a genuinely saucy bout of rumpy-pumpy between stars Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo.

John Singleton’s loose 2000 remake of 1971’s SHAFT was sensible enough not to tamper with the basic set-up or Issac Hayes’ classic theme tune, but toned down the sexism and daft dialogue, while Martin Scorsese added intriguing levels to his 1991 remake of Fifties thriller CAPE FEAR by turning the whiter-than-white lawyer originally played by Gregory Peck into the morally flawed Nick Nolte.

Even additional gore helps when used in the correct manner- horror classics THE FLY and THE THING were both spawned from 1950s fright flicks, but transformed into genuine skin-crawling nightmares for the 1980s thanks to spectacular make-up effects, and directors David Cronenberg and John Carpenter working at full tilt.

In short- the remake game is a difficult one to play, but one that holds unexpected rewards- and stuffy film critics who blame the Decline Of Modern Cinema™ on remakes aren’t always speaking the truth…


The original was a low-fi, almost plotless exercise in barnstorming terror. The remake was produced by the man behind PEARL HARBOUR and ARMAGEDDON. Horror fans were understandably spooked by the idea of Michael Bay masterminding a TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE remake, particularly when all he seemed to care about was having a recognisable title, saying;- “Everybody’s heard it so many times, it’s in the horror lore and lots of people think it was true!”

Despite all these fears, the final product was a surprisingly respectable remake- but couldn’t match the sheer random terror of the 1974 movie, even with a bigger budget and better performances. It’s a problem the majority of remakes end up suffering from;- no matter how watchable the new version might be, you’ll often be better off hunting down the original.

Take the bizarre case of MANHUNTER and RED DRAGON- both adapted from the Thomas Harris’ novel that introduced Hannibal Lecter, but MANHUNTER came first in 1986, helmed by MIAMI VICE creator Michael Mann with a brief appearance from Brian Cox as Lecter. Naturally, when Anthony Hopkins turned the character into a horror superstar, the aim was to “correct” the original movie with a more faithful adaptation- but despite boosting the size of Lecter’s role and being much closer to the original novel, 2002’s RED DRAGON still isn’t as interesting or scary as the subtle, chilly original.

Remakes may sometimes surpass what’s gone before- but for every OCEAN’S ELEVEN there’s an ITALIAN JOB, replacing a well-loved original with a fun but forgettable action movie that just happens to have the same title. Other remakes can easily follow the same pattern- even unofficial ones like 1987 psycho-thriller FATAL ATTRACTION, closely recycling the “vengeful ex” plotline that was done first and better by Clint Eastwood in the edgy 1971 movie PLAY MISTY FOR ME.

From Disney’s pointless live-action take on 101 DALMATIONS, to Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan going through the motions in YOU’VE GOT MAIL, an internet-enhanced reworking of the 1940 James Stewart movie THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, below-par and average remakes are all around. The best way of coping with these is to remember- “New” doesn’t automatically equal “Improved”…


You don’t mess with a classic. It’s a well known rule when it comes to Remakes- but apparently, nobody told this to Sylvester Stallone. Urgently wanting to reclaim action star credibility after a long time out of the spotlight, in early 2000 Stallone chose to update 1971’s brutal Michael Caine gangster thriller GET CARTER for the new millennium.

Unfortunately, the faded star was so hungry for a hit, he decided the original’s ultra-dark climax wouldn’t play in today’s climate. “I’m a big sucker for redemption,” said Stallone at the time. “What we’ve done is take the character and try to move it into a year 2000 sensibility.” With a tacked-on happy ending, the new version of GET CARTER dumped classic Brit fatalism for dull action, and flopped so spectacularly that it limped straight onto video in the UK.

It’s a big risk with remakes- changes intended to update sensibilities or increase commercial potential can easily blow up in the filmmaker’s face, and tweaking the ending can be the biggest risk of all. Tim Burton found this out to his cost on 2001’s PLANET OF THE APES, when his attempt to out-do the original 1968 movie’s classic “Statue of Liberty” twist ending resulted in one of the most ludicrous climaxes in cinema history, an incomprehensible scene that pushed an already unremarkable remake into the realms of brain-bending disaster.

Whether it’s Jan De Bont turning previously creepy 1963 chiller THE HAUNTING into an overblown CGI-fest, or John McTiernan tripping himself up doing a teen remake of 1975 sci-fi thriller ROLLERBALL, remakes can make you wonder if anyone involved even watched the original- but sometimes, being too faithful can be just as dangerous. Gus Van Sant’s exact, shot-by-shot 1998 remake of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO might have looked great inside an art gallery, but was as a film was a pointless exercise that somehow looked even more dated than the original.

The pitfalls of the remake won’t be turning filmmakers away any time soon;- and choosing a flawed original is no guarantee of success. Just ask Guy Ritchie or Madonna, who must both be wishing that they’d never looked at the original 1974 version of SWEPT AWAY and thought “Hey, we could do that!!”…


“I didn’t even know it had already been done until I finished the movie.” admits actor Brian Cox about his appearance in 2003 fright flick THE RING. “It didn’t strike me as a Japanese film- I just thought it was a very exciting thriller.” The horrifying tale of a cursed videotape, RINGU (1998) and its respectable US remake are just the latest in the long history of Foreign Language movies being given a Hollywood makeover.

No matter how many break-out hits like AMELIE or CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON might rake in cash at the multiplexes, mainstream cinema audiences feel that reading subtitles is way too much effort. They far prefer watching the story remade with English dialogue and familiar actors- a process that’s been happening for a surprisingly long time, including classic 1960 western THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN plundering the plotline of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterwork THE SEVEN SAMURAI.

It was, however, the success of frothy comedy THREE MEN AND A BABY (adapted from French hit TROIS HOMME ET UN COUFFIN) in 1987 that really got Hollywood’s attention, and soon producers were rooting through the output of other countries for the latest sensation to rework. Luc Besson’s LA FEMME NIKITA was spun into the Bridget Fonda vehicle THE ASSASSIN and then into a TV series, while even James Cameron got in on the action, with his 1994 Arnold Schwarzenegger spy comedy TRUE LIES being a close remake of the French comedy LA TOTALE!

More recently, we’ve had Adrian Lynne’s 2002 erotic drama UNFAITHFUL directly updating 1969’s LA FEMME INFIDELE, and Steven Soderbergh treading the remake trail again in 2003 with his stunning take on the 1972 Russian sci-fi movie SOLARIS.

As with all remakes, however, there’s still the potential for filmmakers to be brought down to earth with a bump. Hugh Grant failed to twitter his way through NINE MONTHS, the appalling 1995 retread of French comedy NEUF MOIS; the dreary Sharon Stone update DIABOLIQUE ruined one of Cinema’s nastiest twist endings; and- funniest of all- VANILLA SKY fumbled it’s reworking of Spanish drama ABRE LOS OJOS, giving us the priceless sight of Tom Cruise looking like Quasimodo and shrieking “Tech Support!” for no apparent reason…


So, you’ve got a prospective bridegroom meeting his in-laws for the first time- and making a serious mess of things. What you haven’t got is either Robert DeNiro or Ben Stiller playing the lead roles, as low-budget 1992 American comedy MEET THE PARENTS and its 2000 big-league reworking are a great example of the Stealth Remake- choosing an obscure original movie, and then keeping extremely quiet that you’re doing a full-scale update.

The original MEET THE PARENTS was an American independent comedy that only got a minimal cinema release, but it shares the title and plot as well as enough gags in the big-budget remake for the original’s screenwriters to get an official story credit. It’s a strategy that gives filmmakers all the advantages of a Remake without worrying about annoying fans of the original- and it’s more common than you might realise.

Long-forgotten B movies can be a gold-mine for quick and easy updates, as THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS proved, stealing the 1954 original’s title and a few aspects of the storyline. GONE IN 60 SECONDS performed a similar act of thievery on a low-budget 1974 thriller- while, on supposedly classier terrain, 1998’s MEET JOE BLACK took the basic premise of the 1934 movie DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY- which only lasted 79 minutes- and stretched it over a mind-numbing three hours.

Easier to cope with was Mel Gibson’s 1996 kidnap thriller RANSOM, which took it’s storyline from a dimly remembered 1956 movie starring Glen Ford, while even the Michael Caine and Steve Martin romp DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS had its roots elsewhere, being a reworking of the 1964 David Niven comedy BEDTIME STORY.

Stealth remakes can turn up anywhere- and can even be used by directors as a cunning way of “upgrading” a previously made film. Michael Mann’s epic 1995 crime drama HEAT scooped major acclaim- but Mann was remarkably quiet at the time about the whole film being an expanded version of LA TAKEDOWN, a TV movie he’d written and directed in 1989. Whatever happens, keep your eyes peeled- you never know from what direction the next Stealth remake might appear…


Cary Grant. Michael Caine. Charlton Heston. Any actor would be nervous about stepping into the shoes of these Hollywood Titans- but you have to wonder how the most recent replacement for all three of these icons ended up being the Artist Formerly Known As “Marky Mark”…

He gained acting credibility playing Dirk Diggler in 1997’s BOOGIE NIGHTS, but ex-pop star and Calvin Klein model Mark Wahlberg has since been seemingly determined to be crowned “King of the Remakes” in a clutch of toweringly unimpressive roles. PLANET OF THE APES saw him lost amongst the monkey make-up effects, proving exactly how important Chuck Heston’s biblical performance was in the groundbreaking original, while THE TRUTH ABOUT CHARLIE (a 2002 rerun of the 1956 thriller CHARADE) saw him mistakenly trying to be as suave and sophisticated as Cary Grant while simultaneously wearing a Frank Spencer-style beret.

Only 2003’s THE ITALIAN JOB is in any way forgivable- and while it’s bizarre to think of Wahlberg instead of Michael Caine as Charlie Croker, the sight of Noel Coward’s Mr Bridger being replaced by Donald Sutherland is a lot more brain-taxing. It also shows how difficult it is to recast such an iconic role when remaking a film;- assembling a movie cast is difficult enough under normal circumstances- for example, only a small twist of fate prevented first choice Ronald Reagan from playing Rick in CASABLANCA- but trying to correctly cast an already famous role can be like trying to bottle lightning.

Many remakes have stumbled thanks to this problem- you only have to think of a bleach-blonde Bruce Willis in the bland remake of classic thriller DAY OF THE JACKAL; Harrison Ford looking uncomfortable standing in for Humphrey Bogart in light comedy SABRINA; or butcher-than-butch Wesley Snipes trying to camp it up as a transvestite in TO WONG FOO, THANKS FOR EVERYTHING, JULIE NEWMAR, the lame US take on Australian hit THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT.

It’s a simple fact that as long as there are remakes, there’ll be miscast actors taking on completely unsuitable roles- and in a world where the ideal replacement for Peter Cook in the 2000 remake of BEDAZZLED is Elizabeth Hurley, it seems that anything could be possible…



Anyone thinking that Hollywood has it easy ripping off other countries’ movies can take comfort in the fact that payback exists, thanks to the dazzlingly colourful world of Bollywood cinema. The Indian film industry actually beats Hollywood by sheer volume, producing an incredible 800 movies a year- but in order to keep up with demand for their brand of extravagant drama, Bollywood producers often have to hi-jack their plots from some very familiar sources.

Adding the traditional Bollywood ingredients like daft sentiment and immense song-and-dance routines to light comedies like SOME LIKE IT HOT ( and MRS DOUBTFIRE (AUNTIE NUMBER 1) isn’t straining credulity too much- but a three-hour musical version of THE EXORCIST (JADU TONA) takes some beating… Alongside this, there’s been rewrites of RESERVOIR DOGS (KAANTE), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (KHOTEY SIKKEY), THE ROCK (QUAYAMAT), DEAD POETS SOCIETY (MOHABBATEIN) and THE GODFATHER (DHARMATMA), amongst many others.

Naturally, Bollywood’s habit of never bothering to ask permission to remake has attracted some legal wrangling from the US, so they now have to be a little less blatant in their plundering- but it’s difficult to imagine how they could have been less outrageously blatant than with the amazing Bollywood take on SUPERMAN.

Cunningly retitled SUPERMAN, the 1987 production actually hi-jacks huge chunks of special effects footage and music from the original 1978 Christopher Reeve movie, as well as throwing plenty of new romantic subplots and knockabout comedy into an overstuffed storyline. With a baggy-suited Superman battling his evil Elvis-quiffed childhood nemesis, it’s a jaw-dropping combination of superhero action and dancing girls, and one of the most deliciously insane remakes you’re ever likely to see…

The Five Greatest Remakes currently available on DVD…

One of the oldest remakes, and still the best;- this lightning-paced 1946 comedy from director Howard Hawks rewires newspaper satire THE FRONT PAGE with a female twist, pitching devilishly cunning editor Cary Grant against his top reporter (and ex-wife) Rosalind Russell.

George Clooney and director Steven Soderbergh get in a Las Vegas state of mind along with Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon in this superior reworking of the Rat Pack’s flawed 1954 original. A state-of-the-art heist movie, this smash hit oozes style and confidence from every pore.

The film that invented Clint Eastwood also took its plot from Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 samurai movie YOJIMBO. Playing two gangs off against each other, Clint’s nameless gunslinger is in control from the start, while Sergio Leone’s operatic direction rewrote the rulebook on Westerns.

The original was a genial 1950s horror flick. The remake had those not terrified out of their wits reaching for the sickbag, as David Cronenberg’s body-horror sensibilities cranked up the fear, and Jeff Goldblume’s teleportation-obsessed scientist found himself mutating into a monstrous insect.

A sassy, sexy crime caper for grown-ups, this update of the 1968 original swaps Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway for Pierce Brosnan and Renee Russo, and cranks up the heat between the billionaire gentleman thief and the female insurance investigator out to snare him in more ways than one…

The Re-makes We Don’t Want To See

It might only be a matter of time- but if we’re lucky, there’ll be a while before the remake craze plumbs these murky depths…

Giving the wigged-out 1971 original an urgently needed touch of BritPop, Robbie Williams is the cheeky reclusive musician and Jason Statham is the gangster who hides out in his dilapidated mansion. Soon they’re swapping identities, while singing songs about how terrible it is to be rich and famous.

Relocated to a near-future Beverly Hills, this teen-comedy update of the Kubrick classic stars Frankie Muniz as Alex, the wacky skateboarding tearaway who just can’t help indulging in ridiculous ultraviolence. Wrongly jailed and reprogrammed to behave himself by mad scientist Nicolas Cage, will Alex make it to the Prom on time?

The GIGLI reunion everyone’s been craving!!! Ben Affleck is Rick, and Jennifer Lopez is Ilsa in this latino-pop musical take on the mysteriously song-free 1942 original. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays up a storm as Sam, while Ralph Fiennes mugs shamelessly as Victor Laszlo.

Catherine Zeta Jones is Scarlett O’Hara, Michael Douglas is Rhett Butler, and Gary Oldman is the head of the Martian Fleet sent to eradicate humanity, in INDEPENDENCE DAY director Dean Devlin’s adventurous sci-fi “re-imagining” of the classic Hollywood romance.

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005

Light at the End of the Tunnel? – The Summer Blockbuster Season Review (2005)

It was the summer when Anakin embraced the dark side, the Caped Crusader returned to Gotham City, and Tom Cruise just wouldn’t shut up about Katie Holmes. As far as unique experiences go, however, Summer 2005 may be most notable for Michael Bay greeting the release of his latest full-tilt, maximum volume blockbuster The Island by exclaiming “It’s a debacle! It’s the worst opening weekend I’ve ever had!”

It has, in short, been a long, weird and baffling summer. Mega-budget productions touted as cast-iron hits have seriously underperformed, and the whiff of disappointment has remained in the air despite plenty of films raking in hundreds of millions of dollars. Stranger still is the fact that, in terms of quality, it’s been one of the strongest summers we’ve seen in years. Movie standards have generally been higher, the bigger films have been getting better reviews, and even box-office underperformers like Kingdom of Heaven and Sahara turned out as flawed but genuinely interesting and entertaining movies rather than simply rubbish that deserved its fate.

When it comes to the winners, of course, there’s no surprise in who came out on top. George Lucas’ traditional bizarre pessimism proved again to be completely unfounded, as Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith overcame a higher certificate and some of the creakiest dialogue known to man, conquering the box-office to the tune of $800 million in worldwide grosses. Cranking up the violence level and featuring kiddie-unfriendly footage of a crispy-fried Jedi, Episode III’s tone of doomy betrayal did little to slow its success, and also sparked off something in other filmmakers, resulting in a surprisingly provocative shift towards darker Summer movies with harsh, downbeat edges.

Who could have predicted that Steven Spielberg would deliberately traumatise Dakota Fanning with quite so much gusto in his gritty take on War of the Worlds? Or that Christopher Nolan’s sharply made Batman Begins would turn a bloke in a bat costume into the kind of multi-layered character you’d normally find in an arthouse flick? Taken separately, these were all daring films that amazingly managed to triumph financially- but arriving together over a two-month period, they stamped a level of darkness onto Summer 2005 that’s been more of a curse than a blessing.

The trouble is that when three of the top films of the summer are all at the extreme end of the 12A certificate, there’s little around for one of the biggest sections of the audience- the family. “Blockbusters by their nature are pitched mainly at adolescent boys” says Screen International’s Box-office analyst Robert Mitchell, “but the batch we’ve had this summer haven’t been so good at crossing over to the general family audience, and that’s where the big money is. Combine that with the fact that there’s been fewer genuine family films, only one Summer CGI animation, and no big sequels like Shrek 2, and it’s certainly been a contributing factor to the slump.”

Proving this firmly are the strong showings of the few family films that have been around during the Summer. There’s been big success for CG cartoon Madagascar, and also for superhero romp Fantastic Four, whose $53 million US opening weekend raised Marvel’s fortunes and managed to briefly turn the tide of the slump. Nobody could claim that FF is anything but a weak entry in the recent batch of superhero movies (especially compared to the storming Batman Begins)- and yet, it won through thanks to being family-friendly popcorn entertainment in a summer where the competition was virtually non-existant.

Tim Burton’s candy-coloured Charlie and the Chocolate Factory also scored big-time, reaching nearly $150 million after just 17 days in the US alone, while Johnny Depp’s charmingly bonkers performance proved that while Hollywood may be struck with doubt and uncertainty, it can still rely on good old-fashioned star power to bring home the money.

Earlier in the year, things had not seemed quite so certain, with rumours of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s alleged marriage-wrecking affair on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith casting the unwelcome spectre of the Ben Affleck/J.Lo disaster over the movie’s chances. And then, there was everybody’s favourite diminutive Scientologist, as Tom Cruise turned into a publicity hungry lunatic in record time and found it impossible to restrain himself from leaping onto sofas, getting engaged to women he’d only just met, and lecturing talk-show hosts on the insidious evils of psychiatry.

A major celebrity backlash was expected, and yet what we got was a surprisingly happy ending, with the frothy cocktail of Mr and Mrs Smith scoring over $300 million worldwide, and the re-teaming of Minority Report’s Spielberg and Cruise proving even more profitable, with the combined gross of War of the Worlds smashing the $500 million barrier. Will Smith showed that his usual charming streetwise shtick hadn’t yet worn out its welcome in Hitch, while even the lower-level stars have shown staying power, with frat-pack regulars Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan propelling sleeper hit Wedding Crashers over the $100 million mark in the US.

Of course, these ‘talent’-heavy successes can’t always be guaranteed, as proved by the weak US showings of Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man or Nicole Kidman in Bewitched. It’s worth remembering, though, that two of the most recent flops- The Island and Stealth- are movies where the concept was supposed to be the star, instead of less-known performers like Scarlett Johansen or Josh Lucas. The consecutive failure of both films could be a sign that the appetite for the patented Big Dumb Blockbuster(tm) with low-level actors and high-level special effects may be dying out after a decade of prosperity. On the other hand, it could simply be that both were misconceived from the get-go, and they’ve helped define the biggest Studio losers of the season, with Sony and Dreamworks’ live-action division fighting it out for the wooden spoon award.

So, with the Summer all but over, what does the near-unbroken slump and the poor showings of so many movies mean for the future? In practice, if you look at the big picture, all it really means is that 2004 was a bonanza year for cinema that 2005 was always going to find nearly impossible to beat. “Last year,” explains Robert Mitchell, “you still had a Lord of the Rings movie in January and February- and then, of course, there was Passion of the Christ. A foreign language movie opening in March and earning $370 million- that’s a completely unrepeatable fluke, and it’s meant that 2005’s been lagging behind almost from the start.”

The one lesson that should be learned from Summer 2005, however, is don’t underestimate family audiences, and try not to put all your eggs in one basket. “We’ve ended up with a weird situation this year where two of what should be the biggest movies of 2005- the new Harry Pottter, and King Kong- aren’t opening till November and December,” says Mitchell. “That’s a gigantic chunk of this year’s cinema-going that hasn’t happened yet, and despite the slump, that could well put the industry back on track. Yes, the summer blockbuster season is always supposed to be the biggest earner in theory, but it’s often the other parts of the year that are the deciding factor. You can lose the summer, and still win the year – it’s only a battle, not the whole war.”

What Summer 2005 has taught us…

Evil aliens who’ve been planning to invade Earth for millions of years will still forget their vaccination shots.

Be nice to that pouty, grumpy Jedi Knight- otherwise, it’ll come back to bite you in the end…

Angelina Jolie couldn’t look unsexy if she tried. Very hard.

Having your body transformed into an unconvincing (and decidedly bendy) mass of orange rock will play merry havoc with your sex life.

Knocking a helicopter out of the sky with a vintage 19th century cannon is surprisingly easy.

A family-friendly Will Ferrell is a bland Will Ferrell.

Nobody, but nobody, wanted to see another XXX movie.

An underdog team with no chance of winning will, amazingly, make it all the way to the finals and triumph over adversity. Who’d have thought it?.