Breaking the Rules: Roger Avary on ‘The Rules of Attraction’ (2003)

Out of all the reactions a director could wish for with a new movie, shocking Oliver Stone has to rank near the top of the list. “He couldn’t believe it,” says ex-Tarantino collaborator and Oscar-winning PULP FICTION co-writer Roger Avary, “He said to me ‘How did you do that? How did you get them to let you make that?!?'” The film that sent Stone’s head spinning is also the Canadian-born Avary’s first movie since making his directorial debut with 1995 Parisian heist thriller KILLING ZOE, and in the intervening time he’s learnt one vital lesson;- “I finally realised it’s easier on the eyes to look at lots of young beautiful kids than a bunch of French junkies!”

Adapted from AMERICAN PSYCHO author Bret Easton Ellis’ darkly satirical College saga, THE RULES OF ATTRACTION pushes the teen movie boundaries and nearly received the dreaded NC-17 rating in the U.S., thanks to some full-frontal nudity and a harrowing rape sequence. Familiar territory for Ellis and Avary- but the last actor you’d expect to be along for the ride is DAWSON’S CREEK star James Van Der Beek as dope-dealing man-slut Sean Bateman.

“When James’ name was first discussed,” says the 37 year-old Avary, “my reaction was the same as everybody’s- ‘Dawson?!?’ But when I met him, there was a moment when he took his sunglasses off and I could see his eyes had this capacity for looking totally cold and dead, like sharks eyes. I was sure he could do the role, but the moment I cast him, everything nearly collapsed. The studio wanted someone ‘edgier’, and plenty of other actors didn’t want to be in the ‘Dawson movie’, but we stuck to our guns, and just had to make it for less money.”

To capture the multi-viewpoint style of the novel, Avary used a barrage of techniques;- from backwards footage, to split-screen sequences that ‘fold’ together into a single shot (“Nobody understood that scene until we filmed it- you could literally hear this collective sigh from the crew of ‘Oh, that’s what he was trying to do'”), but his real challenge was filming the manic European tour of party animal Victor (Kip Pardue);- seventy hours of video edited into four mind-frazzling, adrenalised minutes.

He’s even started cutting the footage into a full-length feature entitled GLITTERATI, but looks back on the raucous two-week Euro-shoot as one of the hardest things he’s ever done. “I shot it all myself- sometimes 18 hours a day- and me and my producer would be following Kip around Europe with no idea where we’d end up next. Kip stayed in character as Victor the whole time, and I’d film him everywhere, whether he was taking a shit or making out with a girl;- and girls love it when you’re an asshole like Victor. Although, I guess having a camera following you around makes it seem much more glamorous…”

Say Hello, Wave Goodbye: The Greatest Movie Openings and Endings (2005)

If knowing when to start and finish is important in life, it’s even more vital in the world of Movies. The first five minutes of a film has to pull you in and introduce you to the characters, while the ending has the even harder job of resolving everything, tying up all the knots, or shocking you into disbelief. The job of both elements, above everything else, is to make certain the story sticks in our minds- so join us, as we explore what makes beginnings and endings tick by looking at fifty of the greatest examples cinema has to offer…



“The poor dope. He always wanted a pool- and in the end, he got himself a pool.” Not many movies can claim to be narrated by a corpse, but Billy Wilder’s blackly comic drama does it in style, opening with Joe Gillis (William Holden) stone-cold dead and floating in a luxurious Hollywood swimming pool. His premature death doesn’t, however, prevent him from explaining to the audience the events that led up to his unfortunate watery demise, and his beyond-the-grave voiceover is a perfect way to enter into the film’s pitch-black look at the highs and lows of life in the Movie world.


Paul Thomas Anderson’s ensemble drama breaks dozens of conventions in depicting the interconnections between its characters, and sets up the themes of fate, chance and ‘random’ events in a brilliantly stylized prologue. A self-contained set of tales, it veers from a silent movie-style depiction of a murder and hanging, to the weird story behind a scuba diver found dead in a tree after a forest fire, to- most memorable of all- a suicide that, thanks to a twist of fate, becomes a murder where the perpetrator is the victim’s own mother. And, as the Narrator (Ricky Jay) insists, “These strange things happen all the time.”


The first twenty minutes of Dario Argento’s hallucinatory horror masterwork features an unthinkably creative and lurid murder, but the viewer’s attention has already been hi-jacked by the first five minutes. As Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper) is driven to a remote German Ballet school in the middle of a rainstorm, the thunder roars, the lightning cracks and the pounding prog-rock score is augmented with screams of “Witch!!” Combine this with Argento’s full-throttle visual style, freaky colours and inexplicable shots of rushing water, and its an opening that welds your eyes open before you’re even aware there’s anything to be scared of.


He may be smug, ceaselessly lucky and convinced of his own brilliance, but it’s hard not to agree with Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) when he pulls off a performance as richly over-the-top as the one which opens John Hughes’ barnstorming teen comedy. Absolutely determined to spend the day anywhere but school, Ferris fakes illness with a shameless display of blank stares and sweating, winds up his disbelieving sister, acts like a cute puppy dog for his concerned parents, and then turns to the camera the moment they leave the room in order to exclaim: “They bought it!”


“I believe in America.” With these words, the legendary crime saga gets off to a quiet but utterly compelling start. A world away from the previous, slam-bang depictions of gangster life, Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning drama starts as it means to go on, in semi-darkness, as an undertaker asks for ‘justice’ to avenge his daughter, and crime lord Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) calmly takes the matter onboard, but not without delivering some harsh, important words on the subject of respect. A slow, graceful entrance for one of Brando’s pivotal roles, and a literate beginning for one of Cinema’s true classics.


It might feature blood, screaming, and a grotesque creature erupting from someone’s chest, but the first film in the Alien franchise has a beautifully restrained start. Heading through deep space, the commercial towing vehicle Nostromo receives a mysterious transmission, and we watch with almost documentary-style detatchment as the ship begins the slow process of waking both itself and its crew. From the activity of the computer reflected in space helmets on the bridge, to the quiet, bleary awakening of Kane (John Hurt) from suspended animation, space travel has never seemed so realistic and weirdly serene.


Green Lawns. White Picket Fences. Happy smiling faces. All images of classic Americana, but it’s David Lynch sitting in the director’s chair, so the calming montage set to Bobby Vinton’s classic title song doesn’t take long before it turns seriously weird. A man hosing his lawn suddenly clutches his chest and collapses in pain. As his dog leaps over-enthusiastically at him, the camera heads down into the grass, transforming it into a jungle, swooping through until it finds the gleaming shapes of insects violently fighting each other- the perfect visual metaphor for the film’s journey into the dark heart of suburbia.


Having spent the entirety of the original CGI classic Toy Story as a fish-out-of-water, there’s something truly satisfying about seeing square-jawed hero toy Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) where he belongs- zooming through the stars, and blasting the hell out of the minions of Emperor Zurg. Pixar’s animators pull out all the stops in this sequence, cramming in 2001 and Star Wars in-jokes, before Buzz is unexpectedly atomized, and the action pulls back to reveal that we’ve actually been watching neurotic plastic dinosaur Rex (Wallace Shawn) making a total hash of trying to complete the Buzz Lightyear videogame.


From the moment habitual re-offender Herbert “H.I.” McDonogh (Nicolas Cage) poses for his mug-shot and falls for policewoman Ed (Holly Hunter), the pre-credits sequence of the Coen Brothers’ madcap comedy barely pauses for breath. A blizzard of events rush past at a dizzying speed, and there’s plenty of whacked-out Looney Tunes-style humour as H.I. bounces in and out of prison, finally marries Ed, and faces tough problems in their quest for a baby. Featuring more gags than some comedies manage in their entire running time, it’s a blistering tour-de-force that pitches you straight into the movie’s lunatic headspace, leaving you wondering what could possibly happen next.


Driving through the night, Ray Liotta, Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci hear a noise from the boot of their car. They pull over, Pesci opens the boot, discovers the presumed corpse inside isn’t as dead as he thought, and instantly starts stabbing it to finish the job. As Ray Liotta watches impassively, his narration tells us- “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Cue the opening credits, and this sucker-punch of exquisitely timed violence ushers us instantly into the world of the gangster, with the aid of Martin Scorsese’s fiercely controlled direction.


A genuine shock to rank with Janet Leigh being killed halfway through Psycho, the beginning of Wes Craven’s satirical slasher flick cranks the fear factor up to maximum as the cute and resourceful Drew Barrymore comes under attack from a savage sicko with a liking for prank calls and movie references. After a series of devastating jolts, it seems Drew is destined to escape and become the heroine of the film- until, moments before her parents arrive home, she’s caught, stabbed and disemboweled, making it absolutely clear to the audience that anything can happen, and nobody is safe.


On the first viewing, the pre-credits sequence of music video director Michel Gondry’s romantic mindwarp can seem ridiculously low-key, taking almost seventeen minutes to chart the initial meeting and flowering romance of introverted cartoonist Jim Carrey and blue-haired free spirit Kate Winslet. It’s only when you reach the ending, and realize that Carrey and Winslet have actually already had a love affair but have both had their memories of each other erased, that the true genius of the opening sinks in. As with the rest of this Charlie Kaufmann-scripted weirdfest, it’ll leave your brain gently fizzing for weeks to come.


Proving that love really is all you need, this classic magical wartime fantasy from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starts with a view of the entire universe, before zooming towards planet Earth, and finally focusing in on the desperate conversation between an American radio operator (Kim Hunter) and a poetic English Bomber pilot (David Niven) who knows he’s minutes away from death. Over a few short exchanges, they start to fall in love, and it’s impossible not to be swept up in the film’s wonderfully English romanticism as Niven leaps to his doom, only to find a very different destiny waiting for him…


The first ten minutes of Peter Jackson’s take on Tolkien’s fantasy classic have an almost insurmountable job. How do you introduce an unfamiliar audience to the insanely complicated world of Middle Earth without burying them under a pile of mythical references and unpronounceable names? The answer turns out to be a brisk prologue that races through Middle Earth’s history in double time, tracking the tale of the One Ring and finding time for a truly mind-blowing battle sequence, a cameo from a pre-Andy Serkis design of Gollum, and even some genuine giant monster-style bashing from the spikily-armoured Sauron, all narrated by the dulcet tones of Cate Blanchett’s Galadirel.


A film doesn’t get called “the Greatest Movie ever made” without good reason, and Orson Welles’ groundbreaking directorial debut sets out its desire to dazzle in the stunning opening sequence. Using models, composite shots, surreal lenses and bizarre editing, it shows the last minutes of legendary newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane as he expires in his colossal, castle-like retreat of Xanadu. A pair of lips say the word “Rosebud”, a snow-globe showing a tiny house rolls and smashes on the ground, and the mystery that drives the film begins- who, or what is Rosebud, and why did it mean so much to a man like Kane?

10: JAWS

Brutal economy is the name of the game in the movie that transformed Steven Spielberg from promising newcomer into a directorial superstar. Combining prowling underwater shots, suspenseful views of the ocean surface and John Williams’ infamous theme, the film gets off to a horrifying start as innocent hippie-chick Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) discovers it’s unwise for promiscuous, drink-loving teens to go skinny-dipping when there’s a hungry Great White Shark on the loose. It’s also the perfect showcase for the style forced upon Spielberg thanks to failure of his mechanical shark, with the ocean-bound killer not even showing a fin while chowing down on its helpless victim.


The pre-credits sequences in Bond films have evolved from mere teasers into fully-fledged stunt-heavy spectaculars that are often more memorable than the movies they’re introducing. Few of them, however, have reached the sheer exuberance of the opening of The Spy Who Loved Me, which sees Roger Moore’s debonair agent summoned away from a spot of rumpy-pumpy in a mountain cabin and suddenly encountering a gang of ski-bound KGB assassins. A high-octane chase follows, which ends with a charmingly ridiculous punchline as Bond skis off a cliff to escape, and then saves himself from a colossal drop by releasing a Union Jack-emblazoned parachute.


“Chapter One- He was as tough and romantic as the city he loved. Beneath his black-rimmed glasses was the coiled sexual power of a jungle cat. New York was his town, and it always would be.” With shimmering black-and-white widescreen photography and the sounds of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue, the opening of Woody Allen’s masterful comedy drama is a cinematic love-letter to his favourite city. The towers and skyscrapers of Manhattan have never looked so magnificent, and Allen’s traditionally nervy voiceover gives the whole sequence a brilliantly ironic edge that perfectly sets the scene for the realistic, complex and romantic events that follow.


The film that kick-started the American slasher movie genre is given a brilliantly eye-catching opening by director John Carpenter and his devious taste for suspense. We follow the point-of-view of Michael Myers in what looks like one unbroken shot (actually three separate shots cunningly cut together) as he spies on his teenage sister having sex, dons a Halloween mask, waits for her boyfriend to leave, and then brutally stabs her to death. As if the creepy voyeurism of the sequence wasn’t enough to disturb, Carpenter then tops this by revealing that the perpetrator is actually a cute, blonde and seemingly innocent child.


Sometimes, all you need is one gigantic, rolling boulder. Throwing the character of Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) straight into what he does best- dicing with death in ancient temples- Spielberg marshals an opening sequence that’s an absolute masterclass in adrenaline and well-timed shocks, with gruesome rotted corpses, tarantulas, spikes, pressure-activated poison darts, and the vital “collapsing building” factor. Add in a chase by natives, Paul Freeman’s villainous rival archaeologist Belloq, and a close encounter between Indy and his least-favourite breed of reptile, and you’ve got everything you need to know about our battle-scarred hero in one audaciously entertaining package.


From Citizen Kane onwards, Orson Welles was always looking for ways to rewrite the cinematic rulebook, and this 1958 thriller gave him another chance to shine. Originally only contracted as an actor, Welles ended up in the director’s chair, and used the same adventurous visual style as in Kane to create the breathtaking opening sequence. Following a bomb as it gets primed, placed in the boot of a car and driven across the Mexico/America border to be detonated, the unbroken three minute and twenty second tracking shot was like nothing that had ever been seen before, and raised the curtain on Welles’ last major Hollywood movie.


War is Hell, but Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic opens with a look at its weirder, darker and beautiful side. A lush jungle bursts into flames accompanied by “The End” by the Doors, and as helicopters zoom past the camera, the sight of Martin Sheen’s Colonel Willard lying in a hotel room starts mixing through the images of warfare. Showing the character’s mind still drifting back to his time in the Vietnam jungles, it’s a slow, graceful and utterly compelling mix of visuals, music and eerie sound design, which is then subtly mirrored at the film’s bizarre and disturbing climax.


Los Angeles, 2019, and as a tiny ‘spinner’ craft zooms across the sprawling landscape, audiences are thrown straight into one of the most detailed visions of tomorrow ever realized. Blade Runner’s stunning cityscapes are still the benchmark for the “fantasy metropolis” over two decades later, and following such a visually stunning opening, it does the sensible thing by shrinking the focus to two people- replicant-hunting Blade Runner Holden (Morgan Paull), and nervy Tyrell Corporation employee Leon (Brion James). One clammy suspense sequence later, Holden has been blasted through the nearest wall, and the audience is fully immersed in a classic dark future.


Hi-jacking the image of three criminals waiting for a train from 1952’s High Noon, the beginning of Sergio Leone’s epic Western turns into one of the longest (and quietest) credits sequences in cinema history. Over a near-wordless, muic-free ten minutes, three anonymous killers commandeer a ramshackle train station, and then spend their time cracking their knuckles, getting distracted by a drip in the ceiling, or trapping an irritating fly in the barrel of their gun. The silence is only broken by the arrival of the train, with Ennio Morricone’s creepy score heralding the appearance of Charles Bronson’s Harmonica, and the inevitable gunslingling showdown.


It’s 1977, and cinema audiences are sitting down to watch the latest film from the director of American Graffiti. Strangely enough, he’s gone from Fifties nostalgia to Sci-fi adventure, but nobody’s expecting anything remarkable. After the words “A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away” and a lengthy title crawl, the camera reveals a planet, and a pretty spectacular-looking spacecraft zooms into view, with laser blasts hitting it. Wow, think the audiences. That’s pretty good.

And then, the unstoppable, seemingly never-ending mass of the Imperial Star Destroyer slides into view over the camera, and an entire collective generations’ jaw hits the floor. In one single shot, for better or worse, a new era of Hollywood was ushered in, and the following ten minutes would rewrite the rules of Blockbuster Cinema.

With virtually all the story gaps filled by the Prequel trilogy, it’s hard to imagine exactly how daring the opening sequence of Star Wars was back in 1977. Not only did it introduce incredible new special effects, but it also dropped us into the centre of an intergalactic conflict with virtually no explanation, and made our only audience identification figures into a camp robotic butler and something that looked more like a dustbin than a person.

At the least, there was no doubting the white clad, feisty Leia was our damsel in distress, or that the heavy-breathing Vader was the black-hearted villain of the piece. The classically simple story was a fairy tale recast in different clothes, but the sharp editing, breathtaking images and bursts of humour from R2D2 and C3PO meant it didn’t matter that the real hero of the piece didn’t arrive until twenty minutes into the movie. There have been bigger films and better films, but no other movie has ever managed to open with such a concentrated burst of pure, magical storytelling.



The “It was all a dream” ending is the biggest cliché in storytelling, but Terry Gilliam makes it work like a charm in his fantasy masterpiece. Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) has been rescued from the Ministry of Information Retrieval, and reunited with Jill Layton (Kim Greist), the love of his life who he thought was dead. There’s just one problem- nothing we’ve seen has actually happened. Suddenly, we’re back in the torture chamber Sam was rescued from, and the film leaves him alone, insane and humming the title song ‘Brazil’, having found the only safe haven in Gilliam’s inhuman, soul-crushing bureaucracy.


The End of the World isn’t meant to be funny, but nobody told master filmmaker Stanley Kubrick. His pitch-black Nuclear comedy was originally to end with a custard pie fight between US Generals in the War Room, but instead has Peter Sellers’ crackpot scientist Dr. Strangelove battling his rebellious Nazi-saluting right arm and accidentally calling the President “Mein Fuerer”, while the other Generals are more worried about potential post-apocalyptic sex than the oncoming doomsday. Add Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” accompanied by a visual symphony of Atom Bomb explosions, and it’s one of the most beautifully lunatic endings in cinema history.


Rebellious psychiatric patient and convict Randall P. MacMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a force of nature, making it all the more tragic when he’s transformed into a slobbering vegetable. Finally ready to escape, the Chief (Will Sampson) can’t bear to see his friend like this and quietly suffocates him with a pillow. Then, he achieves what MacMurphy failed at earlier in the film, wrenching a sink unit from the floor and hurling it through the window to escape, and the howl of sheer joy that comes from fellow patient Taber (Christopher Lloyd) is a perfect expression of this finally uplifting, memorable climax.


The ultimate example of John Ford’s Western filmmaking style also gives one of his most distinctive endings. After spending years hunting the Indians who wiped out his relations and kidnapped his niece (Natalie Wood), embittered and racist Civil War veteran Ethan Edwardes (John Wayne) is moments away from killing her for “going native” and joining the tribe- but instead, reclaims his humanity and takes her home. The final shot sees her reunited with her family, but Ethan is left outside and has to turn and walk slowly away into the epic landscape of Monument Valley, destined to remain alone.


Gunfights don’t come more operatic than the final showdown in this Spaghetti Western classic, as Tuco (Eli Wallach), Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) and the Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) duel each other for a cache of Civil War gold. The extreme close-ups of the characters’ eyes, or their hands hovering at their guns boost the tension, Ennio Morricone’s score hits stunningly lurid heights- and then, with the fight over, there’s a fabulous twist as Tuco finds himself double crossed and forced to stand with his head in a noose, as ‘No Name’ recreates the scam they ran earlier in the story, but with potentially fatal consequences.


After the gleeful, energetic opening to this counter-culture classic, with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda gunning their Chopper motorcycles along the highway to the sounds of “Born To Be Wild” by Steppenwolf, there’s something deeply upsetting about watching things go spectacularly wrong for them. Encountering prejudice and closed-mindedness almost everywhere they go, their journey to ‘find America’ is brutally cut short when they are killed at random by a group of rednecks. The sight of their prized motorcycles exploding in flames is a powerful symbol for the death of the Sixties ideals, and a moving coda to a wildly experimental movie.


From Vader dropping the “I am your Father” bombshell to the final shot of Luke and Leia watching the Millenium Falcon speed off into Space, the climactic sequences of Episode V are Star Wars at its most propulsively exciting. John Williams’ score keeps the energy bubbling, while there’s a bumper crop of classic moments from Lando’s horrified reaction to the Lightspeed drive failure, to Luke and Vader’s eerie telepathic conversation, and R2-D2 finally saving the day. It’s also one of the first genuine serial-style movie cliffhangers, leaving audiences with questions that, at the time, wouldn’t be answered for another three years.


Film Noir thrillers have traditions when it comes to their endings- the case is solved, the criminals are punished, and the hero gets the girl- but Roman Polanski’s revisionist take on the genre upends this in one horrifying scene. Detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nichoson) looks on helplessly as a car crash kills his lover Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway), and he’s unable to stop her shell-shocked daughter being taken away by the man who is both her and Evelyn’s father, the incestuous industrialist Noah Cross (John Huston). A brutally downbeat ending to a thriller that isn’t afraid to look at the darker side of humanity.


Quentin Tarantino’s second film ties the narrative into a series of exciting loops, no more so in the finale, where Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) encounter the fun-loving criminals Pumpkin (Tim Roth) and Honeybunny (Amanda Plummer) from the film’s opening sequence during a brilliantly tense robbery. Despite Tarantino ratcheting up the unbearable suspense, the sequence becomes less about imminent violence, and more about Jules finding his way in life, and choosing not to kill. A weirdly moving and powerful scene, which gets added bonuses in the ‘Bad Mutha Fucker’ wallet gag and Jules and Vincent’s brilliantly nonchalant exit.


The kind of finale that leaves you both terrified and scratching your head in bewilderment, Nicolas Roeg’s multi-layered supernatural drama climaxes with Donald Sutherland pursuing what he thinks is the red-coated ghost of his daughter through the darkened streets of Venice. Unfortunately, he’s made a fatal mistake, and in a horrifying sequence discovers the figure is actually an ugly dwarf wielding a razor who then violently attacks him. As Sutherland’s throat is slashed, we see a blizzard of images depicting his memories as he dies, and it’s a devastating shock ending that lends this mournful drama a nightmarish quality.


Spielberg’s natural talent for creating a cinematic sense of wonder gets its ultimate expression in the majestic appearance of the alien Mothership at the climax of his UFO epic. A near-perfect blend of light and sound, the sequence takes us from a freeform jazz-style communication with the ship, to hundreds of returning ‘abductees’ emerging from the blinding light, and finally, Richard Dreyfuss’ everyman getting to meet the child-like aliens and journey to another world. The Special Edition revealed the interior of the mothership to less impressive effect, but Spielberg has since snipped the footage from the DVD, restoring it to its full magical glory.


A bizarre mix of Horror movie and Folk musical, this classic cult film saves the truly disturbing twists for its ending. After spending the film trying to prevent the pagan sacrifice of a young girl, policeman Edward Woodward suddenly finds out that he’s been manipulated, and it’s him who is the chosen sacrifice. Dragged into a colossal, menacing Wicker Man, he is finally burnt alive, screaming out prayers to God at the same time that his audience are singing lively harvest songs, which all adds up to a finale even more terrifying than the mustard-coloured roll-neck sweater sported by Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee).


After the delirious excess of the sequences where tragic, telekinetic Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) takes spectacular revenge on her classmates, director Brian DePalma needed something to give the audiences a final jolt in their seats. He did this with a weird, unsettling dream sequence where Sue (Amy Irving) lays flowers on Carrie’s grave- only for a hand to suddenly lunge out of the ground to grab her. One of the most memorable cinematic shocks became one of the most copied, with the “hand from grave” surprise ending up as one of the biggest Horror Movie clichés of the Eighties.


Legends always have to come to an end, and the partnership between outlaws Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance(Robert Redford) wouldn’t be as brilliantly mythic if they didn’t eventually fall in battle. It’s only a matter of when, and after escaping from various law enforcers and a seemingly unstoppable posse, our two heroes are finally cornered by the Bolivian Police. Bloodied, battered, and aware their number may be up, Newman and Redford’s star power maintains the winning humour, and charges the movie up for their final dash into a hail of bullets, and the brilliantly memorable freeze frame over the sounds of gunfire.


The Python team’s infamous take on organized religion and Biblical epics simply had to end with a crucifixion scene. As the hapless accidental messiah Brian (Graham Chapman) is raised onto his cross, there’s an unexpected emotional impact as he finds himself abandoned or rejected by everyone, even his mother Mandy (Terry Jones). It’s at this point, however, that fellow crucifixion victim Eric Idle reminds him to ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’, and the resulting cheery song is so infectiously toe-tapping that it ended up having a life as both a hit single and a football terrace chant many years later.


Proof that Horror can be as socially conscious as any other genre, George A. Romero’s microbudgeted Zombie masterpiece has a devilish final shock. The lone survivor of the besieged house, Ben (played by black actor Duane Jones) can see the local sherrif’s forces approaching, and it seems his nightmare is finally over. Instead, without being given a chance to react, he’s mistaken for a Zombie and shot through the head. The sequence of still images behind the end credits continues the chilling and mesmerizing impact, as Ben’s body is grabbed with meat-hooks, and dumped on a pile of corpses ready to be burned.


Having dodged the mob and made good their escape, runaway musicians Tony Curtis and Jack lemmon can finally abandon their disguise as women- but for Lemmon, this means coming clean with the ageing playboy (Joe E. Brown) he’s accidentally gotten engaged to. After trying every conceivable excuse why they can’t get married (“I can never have children!!” “We can adopt!”), Lemmon finally tears his wig off and exclaims “I’m a man!”, to which Brown, without even a hint of a reaction, replies- “Nobody’s perfect!” , rounding off Billy Wilder’s brilliant comedy with one of the single greatest closing lines in movies.


Stop-motion animation had already featured in movies like The Lost World (1927), but nothing prepared 1933 audiences for the climax of King Kong, where the titular gorilla takes New York by storm, hi-jacks his lady love Fay Wray, and then dies in combat with a flock of bi-planes at the Empire State Building’s summit. The animation from SFX pioneer Willis H. O’Brien is astonishingly expressive, adding an unexpected edge of pathos and tragedy to Kong’s final moments, while the line from Robert Newton’s daredevil filmmaker Carl Denham- ” It was beauty that killed the beast” is just the icing on the cake.


Manipulated by nameless killer Kevin Spacey into a journey into the desert, detectives Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman discover the hard way how sick their captor is when a package containing the head of Pitt’s pregnant wife Gwyneth Paltrow is delivered, all so Pitt can kill Spacey, becoming the last of his “seven deadly sin” murders by embodying Wrath. David Fincher’s dazzling direction spares us any gore, keeping the horror purely in the mind, and as Pitt is unable to stop himself from fulfilling Spacey’s plans and blowing the killers’ head off, the bleakly nihilistic message of this pitiless thriller is rammed home.


Benjamin Braddock’s (Dustin Hoffman) desperate race to the church to stop Elaine Robinson (Katherine Ross) from marrying someone else has been imitated and spoofed so many times, it’s easy to forget how iconic it is. As Ross and Hoffman battle their way through angry relations and finally leap to escape onto a bus, it seems like a classic feelgood ending- but then Simon and Garfunkel singing ‘The Sound of Silence’ appears on the soundtrack, and the film ends far more ambiguously, with both characters facing the future with unease, and trying to work out whether they’ve actually done the right thing.


Few shock endings have been blown quite as comprehensively as Planet of the Apes, with the image of a ruined Statue of Liberty even turning up on the film’s DVD cover art. That it still works, despite the secret being known, is a testament to the film’s clever satire, as the astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston), having gone from cynical misanthrope to passionate defender of humanity, is confronted with proof of mankind’s folly, and the true identity of the mysterious Ape Planet. Heston’s near-biblical anger at the revelation is powerful stuff, and makes the attempted twist ending of Tim Burton’s ‘re-imagining’ look ludicrous by comparison.


Sometimes, it’s all about what the audience isn’t being told. All throughout M. Night Shyamalan’s ghost story, the fact that Bruce Willis’ psychologist hasn’t talked to anyone, successfully opened a door or changed his clothes hardly seems important. It’s only when Willis discovers his estranged wife asleep in front of their wedding videos, and he sees she’s been holding onto his wedding ring- the ring he thinks he’s still wearing- that it falls into place, and he finally realises he’s been a ghost all this time. A brilliantly devious surprise ending, and one that Shyamalan seems unable to top no matter how hard he tries.


A showcase of Forties-style Hollywood moviemaking at its finest, Casablanca’s ending is a marvel of storytelling, and yet wasn’t even written until halfway through the film’s production. As the hard-boiled Rick (Humphrey Bogart) sacrifices his chance for happiness with Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) for the greater good, the mixture of doomed romance and heroism is a potent cocktail, and both stars turn in iconic performances. The mix wouldn’t be perfect without the sardonic and sarcastic presence of Claude Rains as Captain Renault, and his walk with Bogart into the darkness at the film’s close is the stuff of cinematic legend.


Five minutes before the credits roll, and Customs agent Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri) is convinced he’s gotten the truth about crime lord Keyser Soze from crippled con-man Verbal Kimt (Kevin Spacey). In fact, he couldn’t be more wrong, and the sequence that follows pulls the rug from under the audience in the most staggering way imaginable. Through Kujan’s perspective, we realize that everything we’ve seen in Verbal’s story has actually been invented using details displayed on a nearby noticeboard, and the shattering realization that Verbal is actually Keyser Soze is only narrowly matched by the fact that we’ve been comprehensively lied to for the entire movie.


A sentimental ending can be hugely important, and Frank Capra knew this more than anyone. One of the biggest filmmakers in Hollywood during the 1930s and 1940s, Capra was behind a whole slew of hits like Mr Smith Goes To Washington, Mr Deeds Goes To Town, and the 1938 Oscar-scooping classic It Happened One Night.

Despite his reputation for corny, crowd-pleasing sentiment, Capra also knew that sentiment needs to be earned, and doesn’t work without hardship. His 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life proves this more than anything, spending the majority of its running time heaping disaster after disaster on the head of George W. Bailey (James Stewart), a dreamer who’s desperate to escape the small town of Bedford Falls, but finds life always gets in his way.

The harsh disappointments build to the point where George is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve, and it’s only a helpful Angel giving him a nightmare glimpse of what life would have been like without him in Bedford Falls that finally persuades him to choose life. After some amazingly dark and intense scenes, and a genuinely disturbing performance from Stewart, Capra finally lets loose the sentiment, and the result is the working definition of “heartwarming.”

Returned from the flipside town of Pottersville, George is so full of life that he rushes home, barely caring about the policemen waiting there to arrest him for misappropriating bank funds, and it’s here Capra creates his greatest hymn to the community spirit of small-town America. Everyone in Bedford Falls arrives at George’s house having clubbed together with enough money to save him from his debt, George finds himself declared “the richest man in town”, they all start singing ‘Aud Lang Syne’, and not even the ear-piercing screech of nightmare ‘cute kid’ Zuzu Bailey can put a damper on the quintessential Hollywood feelgood ending.

Behind the Scenes: Make-up and Creature FX artist Stephen Bettles (2001)

He may have started off making fake vomit in his Mum’s kitchen, but Stephen “Stevie” Bettles (26) now transforms everyday actors into mutated monstrosities as a Make-Up and Creature Effects artist. Between major projects like LOST IN SPACE and SLEEPY HOLLOW, he works on everything from TV series like FARSCAPE to low-budget horror films and music videos for bands like Cradle of Filth.

How did you first get interested in SFX make-up?

I used to be terrified of horror films as a kid, but I never liked being scared so I handled it by finding out how the effects were done. The more I got into it, the more I enjoyed it… and when I was 15, my Mum saw an article in the newspaper about an apprenticeship at Universal Studios in Florida. She said “Hey, how about doing it there instead of in my kitchen?”, so I went for it, got it… and it all started rolling from there.

What kind of stuff does your company do?

We do any prosthetics make-ups, as well as full-scale creature effects;- demons, monsters, robots, you name it. Sometimes we’ll design and sculpt something from the ground up, and sometimes the production designer gives us a drawing and says “Build that!”- it varies from project to project, but it’s always very collaborative.

Is CGI affecting the amount of work you’re getting?

Not really. It means we sometimes do bits of creatures rather than the whole thing, but people forget that CGI’s just a tool, not an instant solution. Actors prefer working with something real;- if they’re going to play an old person, they don’t want you to say “We’ll make you look old in post-production.” Like on LOST IN SPACE- Gary Oldman was against doing the Spider Smith character as CGI, because he felt it would just take his performance away and turn him into a cartoon.

Is he really as mad as he appears on screen?

The thing about Gary is he expects everyone around him to be as professional as he is. He’s not an actor who’ll throw a fit or stomp his feet, but he’ll speak his mind or point out problems, and if you haven’t done something about what he’s pointed his finger at, he gets a bit more emotional. He’s great to work with, though, 110% professional, and could switch on in an instant.

Ever had anything go seriously wrong?

There’s often something that doesn’t go as planned, but you just do your best to get it looking as good as you can. Prosthetics are re-made every day, so lots can go wrong- you could make the best one in the world, but if it’s lit or photographed badly, it can still look awful. What can be a bit frustrating is when something you’ve worked on isn’t used- it’s sometimes nearly three months work ending up on the cutting room floor.

How often does that happen?

It happens a lot, especially on big budget films. On LOST IN SPACE, for example, you were going to see the grown-up version of the little alien Blawp creature the Robinsons picked up. It was one of the first things I did on a big film, it got made and looked great… and they cut it from the final version. It’s a shame, because you want to sit at home with your mates watching it and go “I did that bit!!”… but, at the end of the day, you get paid and that’s the important thing.

What were you responsible for on SLEEPY HOLLOW?

Most of the stuff I did was on the decapitated bodies- getting the severed neck-pieces right, and weighting them so they looked convincing if they were carried. Also, the full-size animatronic horse that was built for Christopher Walken;- he has in his contract that he doesn’t ride live animals after a bad experience on a previous film. I puppeteered the horse while he was riding it, and he’s a brilliant character with a real “gangster” presence about him.

Wasn’t Ray “Darth Maul” Park one of the stuntmen?

Yeah- I remember, we were doing a cast of a part of his chest, and it was just before PHANTOM MENACE came out, so we were all “Ray, can you do some lightsabre stuff?” Eventually he went “Oh… alright then”, and ended up getting so into it that the guy I was working for, Gary Tunnicliffe, grabbed a broom and they ended up having this massive mock-up lightsabre fight in the workshop!

What have you got lined up next?

There’s THE FERRYMAN for Midsummer Films- it’s about the Grim Reaper, and there’ll be loads of fun creature stuff like Banshees. Also, we’re under consideration for work on a top-secret project later this year;- it’s for a major horror director, and we’ve got our fingers seriously crossed…

(Originally published in Hotdog, July 2001)

Five-Spot: Ray Harryhausen (2005)

Stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen takes a look back at his five favourite special effects movies.

Dante’s Inferno (Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe di Liguoro, 1911)
It’s an Italian adaptation of Dante’s epic poem, but what fascinated me was that it’s based on the work of Gustav Dore, an artist who’s a massive influence on me. I once thought about making Dante’s Inferno in stop-motion, but then I started thinking “will people want to sit through a whole movie of tormented souls?” so I abandoned it

The Lost World (Harry O. Hoyt, 1925)
My parents were great cinemagoers, and they always took me along, even when I was four. This was the first genuine stop-motion movie, but it didn’t have a huge effect on me- partly, I think, because there wasn’t any sound, just this tinkling piano accompaniement! It wasn’t as vivid, but seeing those dinosaurs definitely stayed at the back of my mind.

King Kong (Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)
I saw Kong when I was thirteen, and I haven’t been the same since. Nothing like it had ever been seen, and the sequence where Kong fights the Tyrannosaur was just so overpowering. It was the biggest honour of my life when I worked on Mighty Joe Young with Willis H. O’Brien, the man who did the Kong effects. I’m sure Peter Jackson’s remake will be good, but there’ll always only be one true Kong!.

Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
It wasn’t just special effects films I watched while growing up- the dramatic qualities and performances would also impress me, and Gone With The Wind was amazing stuff. The sequence where Atlanta burns is wonderfully convincing, and it’s actually part of the Wall set from Kong that’s burning, as they were made on the same backlot.

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
I get letters from fans who say they prefer my creatures to computer generated images, but I do have a lot of respect for what CGI can do, and Jurassic Park was truly astounding. Trouble is, then came the hype, and instead of the ‘dream quality’ stop-motion has, it’s all about making things photo-real. If you make fantasy too realistic, though, you bring it down to the mundane. It’s a difficult balance to maintain.

DVD Collections: Disaster Movies (2005)

The best Disaster movies on DVD

(Originally published in Hotdog, February 2005)


The Movie: The Everest of disaster movies, Irwin Allen’s classic tale of dodgy wiring and even dodgier fashions takes a gigantic roster of Seventies stars, and strands them in a flaming tower block with no hope of escape. Paul Newman is the architect looking to escape city life, Steve McQueen (who famously demanded equal billing, equal pay and an equal number of lines with Newman) is the tough talking fire chief out to quench the flames, while familiar faces like Richard Chamberlain, Fred Astaire and Robert Vaughan look concerned, panic, undergo major life changes or tumble flaming from the nearest window. A full-on, two-and-a-half hour disaster banquet of truly towering proportions.
The Extras: The theatrical trailer- and nowt else. We smell a two-disc anniversary edition on the horizon…
Classic Moment: “Did you leave a cigarette burning?” Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery discover the meaning of the word “understatement” shortly before their fiery demise.


The Movie: Nobody understood the true, delirious silliness of disaster movies as well as the Zucker Brothers and Jim Abrams, who took the script of 1959 airline flick Red Alert, and turned it into one of the loopiest comedies ever filmed. From the inflatable auto-pilot to the Saturday Night Fever-influenced flashback, it’s a non-stop explosion of off-the-wall nuttiness as semi-crazed war veteran Robert Hayes tries to save a passenger flight after an outbreak of fish-related food poisoning.
The Extras: The R2 has a directors commentary that’s fitfully entertaining, but the new R1 also includes a brace of deleted scenes and interviews.
Classic Moment: Air hostess Julie Haggerty tries to build confidence in her passengers, and then messes up by enquiring “Does anyone know how to fly a plane?”


The Movie: Led by Gene Hackman’s tough-talking preacher, a group of rag-tag survivors struggle their way through an upside-down cruise liner when a tidal wave causes it to capsize. Naturally, they’re soon dropping like flies, and the 1972 adventure that kicked off the disaster movie bandwagon keeps the grit level high and the death count at an impressive level, all while letting seasoned veterans like Hackman and Ernest Borgenine, do what they do best.
The Extras: Apart from cast profiles, all this disappointing disc has to offer is a 1972-made puff-piece featurette that spends most of its time saying how fantastic the film is.
Classic Moment: Showing her unlikely history as an ex-swimming champion, Shelly Winters saves Hackman from a watery fate– but perishes in the process. Blub!




The Movie: Determined to protect his bodily fluids from the evils of communism, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) takes the extreme route of ordering his bombers to nuke Russia. While Group Captain Mandrake, President Muffley and loopy ex-Nazi Dr. Strangelove (all played by Peter Sellers) try to find a way of stopping the countdown to doomsday, Stanley Kubrick’s pitch-black satirical comedy stares the impending nuclear holocaust in the face and laughs its head off in demented style.
The Extras: On top of the 90-minute making-of, there’s documentaries on Sellers, the Nuclear Threat, and the Production Design, as well as a selection of kooky interviews.
Classic Moment: Waving his cowboy hat and whooping his lungs out, Major Kong (Slim Pickens) rides a nuclear bomb down into cinema history.


The Movie: The first half of James Cameron’s epic romance may be like being slowly drowned in golden syrup, but once the iceberg hits and the supposedly ‘unsinkable’ ship proves to be anything but, the mayhem truly kicks into gear. With gigantic sets flooded with water and digital effects bringing the sinking to amazingly detailed life, it’s a thrilling and heart-pounding ride that almost makes up for having to sit through the ear-shredding torture of Celine Dion.
The Extras: After the initial vanilla disc, Fox have pulled out the stops with a 4-disc marathon that offers everything from multiple commentaries to a host of deleted scenes.
Classic Moment: Leonardo and Kate hang on as the rear section of the boat makes its final plunge into the icy depths.


The Movie: It may be an alien invasion flick, but in every other respect Roland Emmerich’s mighty B-movie follows the Irwin Allen disaster formula to the letter. There are families reunited, multi-ethnic bonding, an evil officious authority figure and the line “I picked a hell of a day to quit drinking!”, as President Bill Pullman leads the charge to wipe out the extra-terrestials, and Jeff Goldblum uses their foolish lack of antivirus software to deliver the killing blow.
The Extras: Featuring the theatrical and extended versions, as well as a documentary and commentaries, this 2-disc edition covers the movie in exemplary fashion.
Classic Moment: Pure disaster movie cheese in action, as a cute kid’s golden retriever makes a last-minute leap to safety from an all-consuming wall of fire.


The Movie: The peak of the big, dumb late 90’s Blockbuster, Michael Bay’s symphony of explosions and sheer goddammed macho bravado sees the world threatened by an asteroid the size of Texas, and the only men for the job are Bruce Willis and his gang of oil riggers. With enough testosterone to power a major city, they’re soon sent into space to blow the offending rock out of the sky, while Bay’s ballistic filmmaking style takes the OTT disaster movie into another dimension.
The Extras: After an intial ‘flipper’ release, Buena Vista finally came through with an edition loaded to the gills with commentaries and special effects info.
Classic Moment: A stray asteroid fragment crashes down into Paris, and transforms the city into a smoking crater.


The Movie: There have been plenty of “Nature turns against Man!” movies, but none with the delicious brutality and nastiness of Hitchcock’s quietly devastating classic. Rich girl Tippi Hedren chases after Rod Taylor in a quiet west coast town, but soon the local birds have mysteriously taken a psychotic dislike to her, and anyone else in the vicinity. Building to a series of fabulously violent avian assaults, this is smart and terrifying moviemaking at its finest.
The Extras: An impressive selection for a 1963 movie, with the “All About The Birds” featurette, Hedren’s screen test, an alternate ending and a heap of storyboards and photos.
Classic Moment: Trapped in a phone booth in the middle of an attack, Hedren finds herself dive-bombed by some seriously hacked-off seagulls.


The Movie: Not only did Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic invent the futuristic blockbuster, it also transforms into a prototype disaster movie in its final act. As the downtrodden workers are provoked into destroying the factories by the evil robot Maria (Bridgette Helm), suddenly their own city ends up flooded by waves of water. Cue hundreds of extras milling desperately about, some spectacular model shots, and some of the greatest H2O-aided property destruction you could ever wish to witness.
The Extras: A delicious two disc edition, with a documentary on early German cinema, a commentary, photo galleries and- most importantly- a beautifully remastered print.
Classic Moment: Freder (Gustav Frolich) and the real Maria are re-united in the middle of a seething crowd of half-drowned workers.


The Movie: This CGI-happy disaster fest hits all the right notes as nervous Vulcanologist Pierce Brosnan gets suspicious about the rumblings near the town of Dante’s Peak. Unfortunately, the locals don’t want to hear him cry “Volcano!” for fear of scaring away the tourists, and are soon wearing egg (and major amounts of ash) on their faces when the lava starts gushing forth. Loud and brilliantly shallow, it’s Hollywood cinema as a rollercoaster ride taken to its utmost extreme.
The Extras: Universal could at least have managed an educational featurette on Volcanoes- but instead, we’re “blessed” with production notes and a trailer.
Classic Moment: While escaping across a lake by boat, Brosnan realizes that the water has been turned to acid and is now eating through the hull…

Guillermo Del Toro’s Golden Rules of Horror (2006)

(Originally published in Hotdog, January 2006)

From the offbeat vampirism of his debut film Cronos to the comic-book action of Hellboy, there’s few directors alive as passionate about horror as Mexico’s own Guillermo Del Toro. Here, he explains his most important pointers for any wannabe horror filmmakers.

1: Make sure it’s not for everybody.
It’s important not to make a horror movie into wholesome entertainment, and one effect of this is that you’ll lose some of your audience. In almost everything I’ve done, I try to have at least one “walk-out” scene– like in Cronos, where the main character licks a puddle of blood from the bathroom floor. They’re scenes where anyone who’s not with the movie will probably leave the theatre, either physically or mentally. Shocking the audience may be dangerous, but sometimes, you’ve just got to take out a hostage and shoot them in the head, so they know you’re not kidding.

2: Know the Classics.
It’s currently hip to be post-modern and tongue-in-cheek about our genre, but I’m absolutely a romantic when it comes to horror. My movies, even when they’re reflections on the genre, are done with absolute respect and admiration for whatever preceded them. I love paying homage to the true masters of horror like Mario Bava, Terrence Fisher or James Whale, and even if you’re going to be iconoclastic about it, it’s important that you should know what preceeded you.

3: The biggest special effect in a movie is the Actors
If you watch any of the versions of King Kong, what’s most important is how the actors react to Kong. You can have the best special effects in the world, but if the actors aren’t convincing, the audience won’t buy it. When I’m casting, I try to look for a sense of vulnerability, even if it’s someone who’s tough physically like Ron Perlman- you need to believe their reactions, and be able to relate to them.

4: Be afraid of yourself
If something makes you queasy or if you’re afraid to show something onscreen– go ahead and show it. When your instinct is to be repelled or scared by it, there’ll be people who react just as strongly. It’s like writing comedy, where the first person you want to make laugh is yourself. Most of the “walk-out” scenes I’ve done were things that made me nervous, personally, and that was what made me want to do them. Films are about provoking an emotion- and if you feel something when you come up with the idea, than that emotion will go all the way through to the audience.

6: It’s not about the scares
People tend to be confounded by this, and they say, for example, “I saw Devil’s Backbone, it’s not that scary.” And I say, it doesn’t matter- you can watch a Woody Allen film and it doesn’t have to be laugh-out-loud funny. To me, it’s the difference between a wave and humidity. A shock moment is like a wave- it hits you frontally, and causes some damage, but it goes away quickly, and then you’re swimming along. The other type of horror, which I think is much more effective, is like humidity, where it’s all around you, almost undetectable at first. It seeps in very slowly, but it’s much more permanent.

7: Love your Monsters.
One of those easy sound-bites that people quote about horror is “Less is More”, and I always squirm at that. It really depends on the film, and there are a lot of horror movies which actually work by the rule that “Less is more– until you give them more”. Horror is like bluffing when you’re playing poker, and at some point you’ve got to have four aces. You can’t bluff the whole game, and part of that philosophy requires you to love your monsters. When you show them, the first person who’s got to be turned on and giggling about showing that creature has to be you.

8: Find the Beauty in Horror
At the end of the day, Horror is the offspring of fairy tales, and you need to find the fairy tale element in the horror story you’re trying to tell, that sense of almost child-like amazement, poetry and beauty. It’s all the same, even if you’re trying to do something like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is brutal, sordid and violent– and yet, there are moments of strange beauty in it. It’s what the French used to call “Graveyard Poetry”, and it’s something every horror movie should at least aspire to.

Toro! Toro! Toro! Gulliermo Del Toro on ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ (2006)

Originally published October 2006 in Hotdog magazine

“Horror’s about putting you in touch with mortality. It’s about reminding you of the perishable side of emotions and physicality, and the fact that you’re going to age, die, and eventually rot. When something like that confronts you, it can do it in a shocking way- and that’s the traditional scare- or it can confront you in a much more perverse and persuasive way- and that’s what I’m usually interested in!”

You don’t so much interview Guillermo Del Toro as run alongside the conversation trying to keep up. Hotdog is sitting with the director of Cronos, Blade 2 and Hellboy in a plush, tastefully decorated conference suite in the basement level of a London hotel, and while he might be jet-lagged thanks to flying into the country the night before, it hasn’t blunted his enthusiasm in the slightest.  Instead, dressed in dark, casual clothes and wearing round spectacles, Del Toro is hunched next to the table with a broad grin and an evangelical gleam in his eye, occasionally howling with laughter, and generally exuding a passion for horror and dark fantasy from every pore.

For the 42-year old Mexican director, making horror movies isn’t just a job- it’s a way of life, and his love for the genre has pushed him towards making what’s arguably his masterpiece. Shot in Spanish, and acting as a companion movie to his 2001 chiller The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth tells another story of childhood during the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s, but this time is pitched as a lush and pitilessly dark fairy tale.

The plot follows a young girl (Ivana Baquero) who tries to escape the brutal reality of her sadistic adoptive Army captain father (Sergi López) by taking refuge in a bizarre fantasy world, where she’s offered a chance to escape by a half-man, half-goat named Pan (Hellboy’s Abe Sapien himself, Doug Jones)- as long as she completes three difficult tasks. While all the ingredients of a traditional, child-friendly fairy tale are present and correct, there’s also blood, extreme violence, terrifying creatures, and a climax that will have even the most hard-hearted genre enthusiasts weeping into their popcorn. Harry Potter it most definitely isn’t…

“People don’t tend to remember that the original versions of tales like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella came out of a very harsh, difficult reality, and are usually about orphans in dire, Dickensian conditions,” explains Del Toro. “Like in Hansel and Gretel, where the parents leave their starving children in the woods to die of hunger- and that’s the set-up for the story!!” he laughs. “Of course, now it’s all cute and toned down- but fuck that, the context of the story was totally miserable conditions, and that’s what I wanted to do with this movie- make the Potato Famine version of Hansel and Gretel!”

The film’s dream-like world of pale creatures with blinking eyes in their hands, flittering bug-like fairies and horned fauns is an obvious stomping ground for Del Toro’s love of baroque and inventive monsters, but Pan’s Labyrinth also pays equal attention to the grim realities of Franco’s Spain, and it’s a world the director finds endlessly fascinating. “Imagine if I told you that Hitler died peacefully in his bed of pulmonary disease, with Eva Braun by his side, aged 74, and he got a royal funeral. You’d go ‘What?!?’, and yet that’s basically what happened in Spain, where you had a brutal fascist regime, headed by Franco, that was allowed and politically sanctioned to exist in a supposedly (at least back then) free world.”

“It was a harsh, violent time, and outside of Spain, not that many people know about it. Ask anyone in the street and they might mention Ernest Hemmingway and ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’, but they won’t think of Franco in the same way as they’ll think of other dictators like Hitler or Mussolini. There’s so much more to be told about that period, and I’ll go back, again and again.”

Unsurprisingly, considering their similarities, Pan’s Labyrinth began life as one part of the original, much more fantasy oriented version of The Devil’s Backbone, but went through many changes before Del Toro finally decided, after hitting box-office success with Hellboy in 2004, that the time was right to make this dark, personal movie.

What he didn’t realise at the time, however, was exactly how much trouble and heartache he’d end up having to go through. “Almost as soon as I arrived in Madrid- and I’d cashed everything I had in the world to get me and my family over there-,” says Del Toro, “I get a call from the film’s financier saying he’s changed his mind, and he’s out of the movie business. This was two weeks before pre-production was supposed to begin, I’m stuck without a job, and I had to choose whether to go back to Hollywood and obediently make another film, or stay and try and get this one done. I chose the second option, but I suffered like a motherfucker while doing it.”

What was supposed to be a relatively swift, eight-month production process ended up taking nearly two years, throwing a whole selection of tricky scenarios at Del Toro, and over which time the previously portly director managed to shed nearly 150 pounds in weight. “Half of that was almost purely thanks to the Pan’s shoot, because I was basically an insomniac for the first six weeks. It was a nightmare- we were trying to make a hugely ambitious story on a small amount of money, and stuff kept happening. We hit the driest season in Madrid’s history, on a movie that was supposed to look luscious and green, so we had to work around that- literally, on certain shots, if you moved the camera a millimetre to the right, you’d see that everything was dry as a fucking bagel.”

To make life even more complicated, a week or so before shooting began, Del Toro had a visit from the National Forest Guard who delivered some more unwelcome news. “Because they’d just had the biggest forest fire in Spain’s history, they said we couldn’t light a match, use a squib, use a blank, or create any sort of explosion. And there we were, trying to make a war movie! So, all the explosions you see in night-time, for instance, are done with light and steam- there’s not a single fire element. All the daytime explosions were done with mud, water and air, and while you can’t tell the difference, it took an incredible effort to get it right. In the end though, all the stress and difficulty meant that suddenly, six weeks in, heaven occurred. Everything we shot just became very emotionally powerful, so I think the movie was actually energised by all that dread and difficulty, and ended up better because of it.”

The film also sees Del Toro once again refusing to play the predictable casting game, and after choosing pretty-boy Luke Goss to play the funkily-jawed vampire villain in Blade 2, he’s turned confounding expectations into a habit. “Every producer in Spain told me I was making a mistake casting Sergi López as the villain. He’s had a few darker roles internationally, but in Spain, he’s best known as a romantic comedy lead. He does these Tom Hanks-style roles, and I was casting him as this psychotic Army officer, so I had all these producers saying ‘You’re going to fuck up the movie!’ And, it was almost the same with Maribel Verdú (from Y Tu Mamá También)- she usually plays hot, sexy chicks, and I wanted her to play a drab, introspective, bitter woman. Very few people said ‘Good choice,’ but I guess I just see actors in a different way. You can make risky decisions like that, but you’ve just got to be absolutely certain that’s what you wanted.”

Part of this certainty in Del Toro is something he learned from a seriously unexpected and traumatic source- the kidnapping of his father in the late 1990s. “It’s something the negotiator told us while we were dealing with the kidnappers- a process that lasted roughly three months. He told us one rule- ‘Any time you take a step, you have to be absolutely certain it’s what you want. Because if he lives or dies, you can’t question the decision you made.’ It’s something that’s been very useful in the rest of my life, and that includes filmmaking. Once you’ve make a decision, you should never torture yourself for making it, because your best judgement got you there.”

“We got my father back, in the end- the experience left a hell of a dent, but it also brought my family closer together, and galvanised us. Really, I had two personal tragedies then, because my second film Mimic was happening very closely together with the kidnapping, and I had a lot of trouble on that film. Both those experiences were very traumatic, and they both made me realise that freedom is precious.”

Certainly, the fact that only two of the six films Del Toro has directed (Mimic and Blade 2) could be described as genuine, out-and-out Hollywood films is a testament to his determination to bring his personal vision to the genre, and he feels, if nothing else, that at least he’s learned the art of saying ‘no’. “At one point, I was developing a faithful, traditional version of the children’s book Wind in the Willows for Disney, and when they said ‘We think Mr. Toad should have a skateboard’, I just said “That’s great- why don’t you do that yourselves, I’m out of this joint.” As a director, you’ve got to be secure about saying ‘No thank you’, and know when to pull out of a game, and when to say ‘Fuck you.’ I also trust my craft more than I did when I started out, and I think essentially, once you’ve reached a point when you’ve done six movies, the secret is to try and stay as hungry and as fucked up as you were on the first one.”

As for what film number seven might be, the odds are looking healthy for Hellboy 2, even if the budget isn’t as promising as Del Toro would like. “We’re as green-lit as we can be,” he says, “and we’re currently getting the budget approved, but we’re trying to do a story that, ideally, we’d need $140 million dollars to make, and we’re doing it for roughly the same price as the original- $60 million. It’s a point of pride that I always try and make the films look bigger than they actually cost, but sometimes it’s frustrating- like on Blade 2, when lots of reviews said ‘it benefits from a much larger budget than the original’ and it actually only cost $17,000 more than the first film, which is not much in movie terms!”

Ask him about the state of horror movies in general, and he declares the genre to be currently in a fairly robust shape. However, he does feel the world of modern-day scare-fests is lacking one particular type of movie, and if he can ever get his long-gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s mind-warping horror classic At The Mountains of Madness out of development hell, he might be able to do something about this. “Nobody at the moment is doing high-visibility, high-profile, tent-pole horror. Everybody in Hollywood keeps thinking Blair Witch Project, Hostel, Cabin Fever, Saw- which means you do them for about $5 million maximum, and they gross $80 to $100 million. Fine, that’s one model- but the other, which nobody is attempting, is big-budget, no-holds barred, serious horror, in the way films like The Exorcist or The Shining were. What we need is an R-rated, $80 million, tent-pole horror movie to come out, and kick everybody’s fucking ass. And no pussyfooting, PG-13 shit!”

Message to Hollywood- Guillermo Del Toro needs $80 million for a bleak, full-on horror film, and he needs it right now. You know it makes sense…

Originally published in Hotdog magazine

Batman: The Vehicles (A User’s Guide) (2005)


A User’s Guide

(Originally published in Hotdog, July 2005)

Vehicle: The “Classic” Batmobile
(Batman: The Movie (1967))

Sales Pitch: For the lycra-clad crime fighter who has everything… A sleek, atomic-battery-powered super-vehicle, this comes complete with parachute brakes, onboard tracking system and a Bat-phone for taking those all-important calls from Comissioner Gordon.
Special Weapons: Rear-mounted Oil Squirters and Nail Spreaders, a front-mounted Chain-slicer, and a pair of handy ejector seats to dispose of anyone foolish enough to try stealing it.
Bat-Strengths: The combination of Bat-logos and Retro-chic strikes fear (and confusion) into the heart of criminals.
Bat-Weaknesses: The side doors refuse to open, meaning unfit costumed vigilantes need not apply.
Under the Hood: Originally created for the Batman TV series, the original Batmobile was assembled by “Custom Car King” and designer George Barris. Working on a budget of $30,000 dollars, Barris converted an experimental 1954 Lincoln Futura concept car that had already featured in the 1959 movie It Started With A Kiss. He also worked in echoes of Batman creator Bob Kane’s Batmobile designs from the comics, and the end result went on to become probably the most iconic super-vehicle ever created.

Vehicle: The “Movie” Batmobile
(Batman (1989), Batman Returns (1992), Batman Forever (1995), Batman and Robin (1997)

Sales Pitch: Question: What is the stylish, fetish-inclined vigilante-around-town driving this season? Answer: A vehicle with sexy curves, bullet-proof armour, and the traditional “big-ass flaming rear booster”. 100% guaranteed to net you Kim Basinger’s personal number or your money back.
Special Weapons: Grappling hooks for 90 degree turns, a pair of high-powered machine guns, and a large spherical explosive charge that always drops out at the least convenient moment for criminals.
Bat-Strengths: It’s manoeuvrable, remote-controlled, and- as Batman himself later admits- “Chicks dig the car.”
Bat-Weaknesses: The Security System could use an upgrade, with the Penguin hacking the car and giving Bruce Wayne an unexpected road trip in Batman Returns.
Under the Hood: The updated Batmobile was dreamed up by designer Anton Furst, and purpose-built by special effects man John Evans as a fibreglass body wrapped around a chunky jet turbine. A major redesign was threatened when Joel Shumacher came onboard for Batman Forever, with Alien designer and all-round nutcase H.R. Giger submitting a radically organic, X-shaped version of the Batmobile. Instead, all we got was an upgrade of the original design with some incredibly camp spikes, which proceeded to get even camper once Batman and Robin hit in 1997.

Vehicle: The Batboat
(Batman: The Movie (1967), Batman Forever (1995))

Sales Pitch: Soar across the ocean waves in the patented Batboat. Whether you’re tackling sea-based foes, evading torpedoes or simply investigating a mysterious Navigation buoy, the Batboat offers speed, reliability and a very large fin.
Special Weapons: An onboard Bat-Charge Launcher, for firing Bat-Charges at nefarious underwater villains.
Bat-Strengths: It’s the perfect weapon for the Dynamic Duo to foil the evil “United Underworld” and their camp penguin-esque submarine.
Bat-Weaknesses: That rear fin is, to be honest, incredibly silly…
Under the Hood: The original Batboat was a specially constructed speedboat built for the movie by the Glastron boat corporation, in exchange for the film’s World Premiere being held at Glastron’s headquarters in Austin, Texas. The Batboat was briefly resurrected in a toned-down, darker style for Batman Forever, but, as with most Nineties Batman vehicles, got blown up after about two minutes.

Vehicle: The Batwing
(Batman (1989), Batman Forever (1995))

Sales Pitch: Take to the skies in the ultimate in slick and sexy crime-fighting aircraft- the perfect choice for the airborne vigilante, whether you’re out to battle evil or just wreck the local Giant Balloon parade.
Special Weapons: Onboard missile systems with appalling aim, and an exciting combination of grappling hook and scissors for slicing balloon wires.
Bat-Strengths: It’s the funkiest aircraft on Earth, and it’s great for making impromptu Bat-signals against a full moon.
Bat-Weaknesses: Unfortunately, it’s not actually bulletproof…
Under the Hood: Another addition from Anton Furst, the Batwing plane was realised with the help of model-making supremo and Bond movie veteran Derek Meddings. It played a significant role in the brilliantly stylised 1990s Batman Animated series, and was briefly resurrected for Batman Forever in 1995, lasting even less screen time than its first appearance before being unceremoniously shot down.

Vehicle: The Batcycle
(Batman: The Movie (1967))

Sales Pitch: For those with a desire to really impress the local biker chicks, the Batcycle offers speed, mobility, and the ability to send your crime-fighting partner off on the detachable sidecar. Be the envy of Gotham City!
Special Weapons: None, save for it’s truly insane appearance.
Bat-Strengths: It conceals itself magnificently behind clumps of foliage.
Bat-Weaknesses: The detachable sidecar may be cool, but it’s also almost impossible to control.
Under the Hood: The Bat-Cycle originally turned up in the TV series as an everyday Harley Davison with Sidecar for one episode, but received a major upgrade for the movie. Dan Dempski, one of the mechanics working for Batmobile creator George Barris, was the creator of the Batcycle along with designer Tom Daniel, and converted it from a Yamaha Catalina 250 motorcycle.

Vehicle: The Batcopter
(Batman: The Movie (1967))

Sales Pitch: Who hasn’t dreamed of owning a Helicopter that resembles a Bat? Now, your superheroic arsenal of vehicles can be complete with this dashing Bat-Copter that comes complete with handy canisters of Shark Repellant Bat-Spray for tackling hungry sea-creatures.
Special Weapons: None, but it does feature a Bat-Ladder (with handy “Bat-Ladder” sign for easy identification).
Bat-Strengths: It’s great for tracking criminals and attempting to board non-existent boats.
Bat-Weaknesses: Unfortunately, it gets knocked out of the sky by a Polaris missile, and only landing in a nearby foam-rubber convention saves the Dynamic Duo.
Under the Hood: The only onscreen Batman vehicle to not be custom-built or extensively converted, the Bat-Copter was a 1964 model Bell Helicopter painted red for the occasion. The “Bat-wings” were formed from a tubular frame covered in canvas, but they also reduced the helicopter’s power by 40-50%, making it incredibly difficult to fly, and meaning the 1967 movie remained the Bat-Copter’s sole screen flight.

Originally published in Hotdog Magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2005

Bat to Basics – The history of Tim Burton’s Batman (2003)

(Originally published in Hotdog, July 2003)

Event Movies- they’re big, they’re dumb, and Hollywood wouldn’t be able to survive without them. The financial landmarks that major film companies arrange their schedules around, they arrive each summer with a deafening level of hype, promising the latest blockbuster thrill-ride will be bigger, faster, sexier, and louder than ever before.

Sadly, in an age where trailers are frequently more entertaining than the movies they’re selling, we often end up paying our money only to complain afterwards how it should have been so much better. Tweedy highbrow film critics point accusing fingers at event movies for causing the end of Intelligent Cinema as we know it- but while they’ll blame the original STAR WARS trilogy or JURASSIC PARK, to find the real birth of the modern blockbuster, you have to look in the shadows for a bat-costumed vigilante with a suprising taste in rubber.

First swooping into popular culture back in 1939, millionaire Bruce Wayne’s superheroic alter-ego Batman has always seemed an eye-catching choice for big screen adventures. Unfortunately, his only major pre-1980s appearance was the jaw-droppingly camp 1960s BATMAN television show, meaning that for two decades the word “Superhero” conjured up images of Adam West sprinting around a day-glo Gotham City in grey tights.

Only after Christopher Reeve’s first crimson-knickered flight in 1978’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE did Studio big-wigs at Warner Bros start considering a less campy, more action-packed version of Batman. Pre-production rumblings started in 1979, but the project stalled for several years, searching for a decent script and the right director.

In the end, the man for the job turned out to be a tangle-haired 29 year old ex-animator with a stunningly gothic imagination. Tim Burton was never likely to fit in at Disney, particularly after his animation designs for FOX AND THE HOUND were described as “looking like roadkill”, but outside the grip of Mickey Mouse, he grabbed Hollywood’s attention with two mind-boggling movies;- the utterly demented PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, and twisted afterlife comedy BEETLEJUICE.

Enlisted for BATMAN, his eventual concept turned out far more radical than the straight action-adventure the studio intended- Burton wanted to capture the style of the 1940s comics, and explore the psychological weirdness of a man dressing up as a giant bat. It was the era of the “graphic novel” craze, and Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS had already proved successful superhero stories could be challenging, edgy and crammed full of creative violence- so it didn’t take much persuasion for the studio to give a potentially trailblazing blockbuster the thumbs-up.

Burton quickly set about building Gotham City with the aid of acclaimed production designer Anton Furst, the man who transformed the Docklands into Vietnam for Stanley Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET. Together, they re-vamped Gotham as an art-deco BLADE RUNNER-style nightmare, created a new, sleeker Batmobile, and dressed Batman in a suit of rubber body-armour that’d help the Caped Crusader easily fit in down at the local Fetish club.

Casting the film was trickier- Jack Nicholson was everybody’s favourite choice for cackling bat-villain the Joker, but the legendary reprobate wasn’t interested, only signing after a ludicrously tempting offer- $6 million and a cut of the merchandising- was slammed on the table by BATMAN producing team Jon Peters and Peter Guber.

While favoured female lead Sean Young suffered a riding accident and was replaced as Vicki Vale by Kim Basinger, the big debate was over who’d get the keys to the Batmobile. The Studio wanted a dynamic action star- but Burton had set his sights on the wiry, distinctly un-macho Michael Keaton.

“I wanted to steer away from that square-jawed look in comic books where everybody is a hulking brute,” explained Burton in 1989, “The whole point is that Batman’s not Arnold Schwarzenegger, because if he was, why would he need to put on a Bat-suit? He’s like the Phantom of the Opera, but instead of physical scars he’s hiding emotional ones.”

Going for the star of comedies like NIGHT SHIFT, MR. MOM and Burton’s BEETLEJUICE caused some Studio jitters- but finally the bat-cape was officially handed to Keaton, the decision was announced to the world… and the world replied by going spectacularly apeshit.

First off the starting post were the comics fans. Always ready to howl in protest at the slightest deviation from the original sacred texts, they responded to the idea of Keaton as if Warners had just invaded Poland. “Casting Keaton as BATMAN is like the Brady Bunch going porno!!” exploded one of fifty thousand angry letters which poured into the Studio offices, while outraged fans tore down pre-publicity for the film at comics conventions.

Even Adam West leapt on the chat-show circuit to proclaim himself a far better Batman than Keaton, and soon industry insiders were sombrely shaking their heads at the outcry. PREMIERE and the L.A. TIMES wrote that Keaton was the wrong choice, while Warner Bros chairman Steve Ross was told by one of the most powerful men in Hollywood that casting Keaton was “a horrible idea, and would bring the Studio to it’s knees.”

The Keaton furore even wiped several points off Warner Bros’ share price- a worrying sign, especially as Warners was moving towards a merger with the Time Corporation. They needed BATMAN to be a major hit, and a flop could fatally damage the deal. Suddenly, the potential for a Studio-busting, HEAVEN’S GATE-style bomb looked too large for comfort…

While Bat-fans across the world were sharpening pitchforks and preparing to storm the gates of Castle Warners, Burton was at Pinewood Studios, discovering that shooting a big-budget blockbuster was stressful enough without creatively-minded producers breathing down his neck.

Peters and Guber were constantly tweaking and changing the script, desperate to make the story appeal to the widest possible audience, and they urged Burton to inject less gothic psychology and more sex-appeal into Batman’s character, complaining “He’s supposed to be Batman, not Wuss-man!”

This was hugely frustrating for Burton;- “There were so many changes and fixes that it was like unravelling a ball of yarn. It gets to the point where you’re not helping anymore”;- and to make matters worse, Peters abruptly decided to dump the film’s original ending. Possibly influenced by the affair he’d been having with Kim Basinger throughout the shoot, Peters jettisoned the idea of Vicki Vale being killed off, instead conceiving the operatic pursuit through Gotham Cathedral.

Burton was horrified by the changes but ended up having to shoot the scenes, frequently without a completed script;- “We were shooting a scene leading up to the Bell-Tower, and Jack’s dragging Kim up the steps, and he says to me ‘Why am I walking up these steps? Where am I going?’ All I could say was ‘I don’t know- we’ll talk about it when you get to the top…'”

While the shoot was winding down, the complaints of furious comics fans were still echoing across the world, and the WALL STREET JOURNAL ran a piece declaring the new movie was in serious trouble. “That story just deflated everybody,” said Jon Peters at the time, and he fought back against the bad publicity by releasing an early teaser trailer and coming up with the first promo posters, setting the tone for the groundbreaking press campaign.

Instead of highlighting the stars, the only focus would be Anton Furst’s evocative Bat-Logo illustration, and soon the logo was everywhere, as Warners merchandised the film as aggressively as possible- it screamed from album covers, computer games, action figures, and 1001 other pieces of movie merchandise.

By the time the tidal wave of maketing hit Europe, it was impossible to open a magazine without seeing Nicholson’s red-lipped grin or Keaton sheathed in the rubber bat-suit, and even Burton felt the inescapable hype had gone too far. “I saw with BATMAN a level of greed I’d never seen before in my life” said Burton in 1991. “If I was a normal person, I’d have gone ‘Shut the fuck up, I’m sick of hearing about this thing.'”

Despite Burton’s fears and mediocre reviews, the film smashed every Box-Office record imaginable, grabbing nearly half a billion dollars worldwide- although an estimated $60 million vanished into the show-stealing Nicholson’s pockets thanks to his lucrative merchandising cut.

The gamble had paid off;- Keaton’s effective performance silenced the fan-boy critics, while Burton’s Hollywood future was secure, and the Time-Warner merger could proceed as planned. Everybody seemed to have the happy ending they wanted- except Anton Furst. Despite having scooped massive acclaim and an Oscar for his work on the film, the troubled designer committed suicide in 1991.

Fourteen years after it’s release, BATMAN may show it’s age with some arthritic action sequences, but it’s the first genuine example of Event Movie filmmaking- where the marketing drives the movie, and it doesn’t matter if the story’s non-existent, as long as there are vivid characters and brain-dazzling visuals. Burton’s gothic landmark has also been massively influential, taking over from the Adam West TV show to become the standard perception of what superheroes are all about. From flops like THE SHADOW to smash hits like BLADE, it’s rare to find a comic book movie that doesn’t owe BATMAN a serious debt.

As for the Bat-franchise itself- Joel Shumacher may have crashed it into hibernation with the shriekingly camp BATMAN AND ROBIN, but as long as cinematic superheroes are beating the crap out of the forces of evil, don’t count the Dark Knight out yet…

Originally published in Hotdog Magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2003

When Titans Clash! – Marvel vs DC (2004)

The Superhero battle between Mighty Marvel and Dazzling DC Comics- and how it hit the world of Movies…

(Originally published in DVD Review, April 2004)

“It’s the fight of the year, the conflict of the century, the battle of the millennium! It’s the ultimate smackdown between two opposing forces, locked in mortal combat for over four decades! In the red corner, there’s Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman and the Flash! In the blue corner- it’s the Amazing Spider-Man, the Hulk, Daredevil and the X-Men! So, before the fight truly begins, just ask yourself one question- whose side are you on? More precisely… are you with DC, or are you with Marvel?”

For the past forty years, comic book fans have had to regularly ask themselves that very question. The world of Superheroes may be crammed with spandex-clad costumed avengers, but the majority of them hail from just two separate companies- DC Comics, and their bitter rival Marvel. Ever since the early Sixties, they’ve been battling for the attentions of comics fans across the world- and this frenzied conflict has also crashed its way onto cinema screens, thanks to the strange and wonderful world of Superhero Movies.


To the untrained eye, however, it’s not the easiest task in the world to even tell Marvel and DC Superheroes apart. Both groups are traditional “brightly dressed crime-fighters protecting the innocent”- but they also possess fundamental differences that lie at the heart of the DC/Marvel divide. Batman and Superman are DC’s big guns;- grand pulp heroes born in America’s late 1930s atmosphere of optimistic idealism, with world-beating superpowers or convenient fortunes to fall back on when things get tough.

On the flip side of this coin, the 1960s-born Marvel heroes are far more fallible and everyday characters, usually finding superpowers foisted upon them. Having to cope with domestic problems while fighting evil, they’re more believable and empathetic- and it was the decision to put the human back into superhuman characters that kicked off the Marvel Comics revolution in the first place, all thanks to classic creator and Superhero genius Stan Lee.

It was Lee who, back in 1961, bucked the trend for simplistic comic stories by inventing a brand new, more realistic and family-structured team of superheroes. “They were the kind of team I had been longing to write about,” said Lee, “Heroes who were less than perfect. Heroes who didn’t always get on with each other, but could be counted on when the chips were down.”

Despite going against the status quo of the time, from the moment the first issue hit the shelves, THE FANTASTIC FOUR was an outright smash hit, and Lee’s further creations such as SPIDER-MAN and THE HULK kicked off an unstoppable wave of ground breaking Marvel superheroes that stretched throughout the 1960s. Suddenly it was Marvel setting the trends instead of DC- but a number of years had to pass for this competition to leap onto the big screen.

The biggest reason for this was Special Effects. With comic book superheroes regularly deflecting bullets or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, the cheesy effects showcased by earlier efforts such as the dazzlingly camp 1960s BATMAN TV show simply weren’t going to be enough to convince cinema audiences. All that could be done was to wait for a quantum leap- one that a certain Mr George Lucas was more than happy to provide…


STAR WARS not only kick-started the blockbuster revolution in 1977, it also brought the standard of special effects up to a new eye-opening level. Suddenly, superheroes were no longer as impossible to depict as before, and Hollywood producers could pounce on the massive, ready-to-exploit storylines of comic books. Marvel swiftly flogged the film rights to SPIDER-MAN, hoping for a swift big-screen debut for the webbed wonder- but DC beat them to the punch, enlisting parent company Warner Bros and scoring a major coup in 1978 with SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE.

Without a trace of the camp of the Sixties BATMAN show, SUPERMAN tackled the source material faithfully, cracking the thorny problem of the flying effects and delivering thrills and action- as well as a hilariously overpaid Marlon Brando, netting $3.5 million for ten minutes screen time. For the next few years, the SUPERMAN films were everything that pop cinema was supposed to be, and whether he was freezing an entire lake, rescuing a school bus or having the crap beaten out of him by Terrence Stamp, Christopher Reeve was Superman- heroic, honourable and bizarrely stylish at the same time.

As the 1980s arrived, the only success Marvel had achieved was the INCREDIBLE HULK television series, and while DC suffered occasional misfires like Wes Craven’s dreadful version of gothic horror character SWAMP THING, the SUPERMAN franchise was going strong- until quality took a sudden nosedive.

1984’s attempt to broaden the franchise with SUPERGIRL was bad enough, with shamefully hammy performances from Peter O’Toole and Faye Dunaway, and a dreary lead in Helen Slater- but worse was to come in 1987’s SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE. With a slashed budget and an offensively awful script, this dreadful plea for nuclear disarmament was a classic exercise in bad moviemaking, and the sight of the once-magnificent Christopher Reeve slogging it out with a cheesy “Nuclear Man” villain was nothing short of depressing.


The failure of SUPERMAN IV killed the franchise stone-dead, and would have been the ideal time for Marvel to counter-attack with a big-scale blockbuster of their own. Unfortunately, most of the producers they’d sold their character rights to seemed completely unable to get a movie off the ground- and after watching their satirical comic HOWARD THE DUCK being transformed into a celluloid turkey by George Lucas in 1986, Marvel teamed with independent film company New World Pictures to finally get their superheroes onto cinema screens.

The one vital ingredient missing from this equation was large pots of money- meaning that while movie versions of patriotic hero CAPTAIN AMERICA and vengeful vigilante THE PUNISHER eventually made it into multiplexes, the former was a horribly low budget production- while the latter had the deep misfortune to star muscleman Dolph Lundgren.

Neither were going to be the epoch-defining hit that Marvel needed to kick start their movie fortunes, and when DC bounced back from SUPERMAN IV’s failure with a revitalised and darkly gothic remix of BATMAN in 1989, it seemed unlikely Marvel would ever strike it lucky. Taking its inspiration from the late eighties craze for Graphic Novels, including Frank Miller’s Bat-classic THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, the 1989 film was violent, stylish, and crammed full of enough of Tim Burton’s twisted imagination and Jack Nicholson’s gleeful overacting to disguise the absence of any kind of decent plot. The event movie had officially arrived, and suddenly everyone wanted a piece of the Superhero action…


The one true glimmer of hope for Marvel fans arrived three years later in 1992 when James “King of the World” Cameron, fresh from the cyborg-crunching success of TERMINATOR 2, started showing serious interest in helming a SPIDER-MAN movie. The idea of the man behind ALIENS bringing the Webbed Wonder to the screen was enough to get fans salivating with anticipation- but even Cameron wasn’t powerful enough to defeat the combined forces of Hollywood Lawyers.

Having been sold back in 1975, the SPIDER-MAN rights were tied up with several different producers, and the battle for control of the project took so long that Cameron eventually gave up, opting to spend $180 million sinking the TITANIC instead. As if seeing their biggest character trapped in a legal mire wasn’t enough for Marvel to deal with, the company was suddenly sent into Bankruptcy by a series of catastrophic business deals, and spent the next few years trying to fight off corporate take-overs.

Everything seemed to be wrapped up- DC was ruling the roost with two more BATMAN sequels, while also warming up a new Tim Burton-directed take on SUPERMAN to star Nicolas Cage, while Marvel was perpetually stuck being the underdog. Unfortunately, nobody had considered the idea that the fabled Bat-franchise might be moments away from self-destructing…


On paper, BATMAN AND ROBIN was the perfect blockbuster;- plenty of action, gorgeous stars, and the weighty prescence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, playing the nefarious Mr Freeze. There seemed no reason for the film not to outdo its predecessors- except that director Joel Schumacher managed to crank the camp level a degree too far. Suddenly, the barrage of shriekingly colourful production design and groan-worthy puns wasn’t just annoying the dedicated Bat-fans- everyday audience members were steering clear, and atrocious word-of-mouth soon killed the movie at the box-office.

Finally, there was proof that audiences wouldn’t simply accept any old rubbish with a superhero name stamped across it- and despite many critics claiming the comic-book movie had met its Waterloo, the time was right for Marvel to stage a quiet comeback. Having finally worked through the legal minefields and settled some of its business problems, Marvel started looking at getting some of its lesser known properties out into the world while the battles over SPIDER-MAN were still being resolved.

It’s this reason why Marvel’s first major blockbuster was based on a character nobody outside the world of comics had ever even heard of. Blade was the superhero equivalent of a 70s Blaxploitation character, a human/vampire halfbreed battling bloodsuckers while looking like a refugee from the set of SHAFT. A bizarre choice for an update, but one that mixed high-octane comic book action with bloodthirsty horror- and after adding Wesley Snipes, funky weapons and gallons of gore, 1998’s BLADE turned out to be a surprise hit, proving the existence of an audience for non-campy superhero movies as well as spawning a 2002 sequel.

While Marvel were toasting their first success, DC and Warner Bros were desperately trying to figure out new directions for their fabled franchises. After many false starts, Tim Burton’s SUPERMAN project finally collapsed, while the mouth-watering prospect of REQUIEM FOR A DREAM director Darren Aronofsky tackling classic graphic novel BATMAN: YEAR ONE also failed to get off the drawing board. Leaping from a solo CATWOMAN project to a future-set Batman story with Keanu Reeves, Warner Bros was dithering in panic and seemed unable to make up its mind.


Marvel’s next step on the road to recovery was higher profile, and considerably riskier. One of their biggest titles, THE UNCANNY X-MEN had been running in various forms for the past thirty years, telling the saga of a group of superpowered “mutants” protecting the world that hates and despises them. For once, this was a superhero movie daring to tackle dark topics in a serious manner- but this was also the main attraction for USUAL SUSPECTS director Bryan Singer.

“Beneath the spectacle and the fun and the fights,” said Singer, “there’s an underlying philosophy about prejudice, fear of the unknown and trying to find your place in the world;- they’re all very universal concepts.” With its edgy Concentration Camp opening sequence and heavy duty thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian Mckellan, 2000’s X-MEN proved that superhero movies could handle dark subject matters while still delivering full-tilt boogie head-smacking action.

And if that wasn’t enough to get audiences excited, suddenly Warner Bros declared they’d got their act together, and the next DC superhero movie would be BATMAN VS SUPERMAN, a titanic team-up to be directed by PERFECT STORM helmer Wolfgang Petersen. Potential casting ideas flew thick and fast, with everyone from Colin Farrel to Josh Hartnett being mentioned in connection with the two superheroic leads, and it seemed that a DC film project was finally guaranteed to reach production- until Petersen jumped ship to make historical war epic TROY, and the entire project collapsed as suddenly as it appeared.

Meanwhile, Marvel’s bold choices continued in 2002 with SPIDER-MAN, finally pulled from the legal void and handed to EVIL DEAD director Sam Raimi. Despite pressure from the studio to cast a handsome hunk of Hollywood beefcake in the lead, Raimi went for acting talent with the distinctly left-field choice of Tobey Maguire, bringing the correct level of heroism and geeky insecurity to the awkward Peter Parker. Not even the hopelessly dodgy Green Goblin costume could stop SPIDER-MAN from turning into a box-office juggernaut, outstripping X-MEN by an amazing margin and netting an incredible $800 million at the worldwide box office.

Barely stopping for breath, Marvel followed this up with a packed 2003- kicking off with Ben Aflleck as blind avenger Matt Murdock in the massively successful and refreshingly edgy DAREDEVIL. Brilliant sequel X-MEN 2 managed the rare feat of completely out-doing the original in every respect, while Marvel also delivered the long-promised cinema version of THE HULK. Helmed by arthouse director Ang Lee, this mixture of highbrow characterisation and rubbery CGI was never going to have mass appeal- but fully confirmed Marvel was prepared to let filmmakers take risks with their properties, and redefine what could be achieved in the humble superhero flick.


While Marvel have been virtually claiming the Superhero genre as their own, the only DC comic-based project to appear during the whole of 2003 has been the deeply lacklustre LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. The two biggest superhero franchises of all time may belong to DC and Warner Bros, but they seem completely at a loss as to what to do with them.

After the BATMAN VS SUPERMAN farrago, they pushed ahead with a solo SUPERMAN film, aiming to be in Cinemas for late 2004- but the production has transformed into the Hollywood equivalent of Musical Chairs. From CHARLIES ANGELS helmer McG to Michael Bay, to Brett Ratner, and then back to McG, the merry-go-round of possible directors shows no sign of stopping. Only BATMAN seems a possibility, with the prestigious director of mind-twister MEMENTO Christopher Nolan attached to direct- but until filming actually begins, it’s wisest for Bat-fans not to be holding their breath in anticipation.

Whatever happens, there’ll be plenty of catching up to do- 2004 already promises a bumper selection of Marvel action, with Tobey Maguire’s second web-slinging outing as Peter Parker in SPIDER-MAN 2, as well as a brand new Lundgren-free version of THE PUNISHER. There’s also a third instalment of X-MEN action due within a few years, while everything from ELEKTRA (a spin-off for Jennifer Garner’s DAREDEVIL character) to NAMOR: THE SUB MARINER, THE FANTASTIC FOUR and IRON MAN is currently being developed.

Fortune may have swung in Marvel’s direction so far- but it’d be unwise to count the Man of Steel or the Dark Knight out of the contest yet. The conflict has only taken a short breather- and like all the best superheroes facing off against their arch-nemesis, no matter how high the success or miserable the failure, the fight between Marvel and DC is going to happily stretch on for many years to come…

Originally published in DVD Review magazine
© Highbury Entertainment 2004


Think BATMAN, and the chances are you’ll still picture Adam West sprinting around a day-glo Gotham in grey tights. Think THE INCREDIBLE HULK, and it won’t be epic CGI you’ll imagine- but muscleman Lou Ferringo painted a dazzling shade of green. Whether they’re slick modern-day action adventures or hilariously camp relics from a bygone age, Superhero TV shows exert a power over popular culture that even the most awesomely expensive Hollywood blockbusters find difficult to match.

The modestly budgeted world of TV drama should, theoretically speaking, make special-effects intensive Superheroes a no-go area- but they’ve been a regular part of the TV landscape, ever since the first brilliantly wooden SUPERMAN show with George Reeves back in 1953. One of the genre’s biggest strengths is that, like comic books, TV is superb at handling long-running storylines, and without having to compress everything into a movie’s typical two hour running time, the most epic comic plots can be given the correct room to breathe.

Marvel’s various cartoon series are the best examples of these long-form stories, with the X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN shows being surprisingly faithful adaptations of the complexity of the original comics, as well as influencing the more serious-minded tone of the eventual big-budget movie versions. In fact, while both BATMAN and SUPERMAN have been struggling in movie terms for the last decade, they’ve been prospering in surprising ways on the world of Television.

First aired in 1992, the dazzlingly stylised BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES is one of the most accurate adaptations of the Caped Crusader ever managed, capturing the energy and darkness of the original stories- while SUPERMAN has survived a number of TV incarnations, from various cartoons, to the 1990’s romantic remix LOIS AND CLARK, and DC’s one true success in the last decade- SMALLVILLE. The DAWSON’S CREEK-influenced tale of Clark Kent’s early years might occasionally spread the treacly sentiment on with a trowel, but it’s also a surprisingly adventurous re-interpretation of the Superman mythos and throws plenty of unexpected curveballs into the mix.

Whatever the future holds, one thing is certain- Superhero blockbusters may have the spectacle and the brain-expanding effects, but the TV shows will be winning hearts and minds for years after their competitors have been forgotten…