Monday 23 December 2013


This is the cover to The Dark of the Forest, one of my recent books.


That shot on the cover is a tribute to a panel from the Mad Magazine slasher parody Arbor Day. I'm not sure that I read it in the original issue (227), I probably saw it in the 1988 Gross-Outs special. Anyway, here's the whole story (Click to make it bigger. Oooh matron!):

Saturday 30 November 2013

30 - Final Post, Final Girls

Well, I say final post. It's just the final post of my 30 Days of Horror series. There will be blog posts in future, but they won't be anywhere near as frequent as this.

Today, we're looking at the final girl. What is a final girl?

Let's start with one of the best - Amy Steel as Ginny. When I think of final girls, this image is what comes to mind:

A defiant woman standing alone against the monster (human or otherwise) that has killed all her friends - that's a final girl to me. All that stuff about virginity/innocence and names that aren't gender-specific is irrelevant and muddies the issue. Ginny certainly isn't an innocent in the way final girls are usually categorized - she's got a boyfriend and doesn't appear to be a virgin, she heads off to the bar with the others - and her name is pretty damn feminine. She outlives the others through intelligence, courage and responsibility. 

So, what does all that virginity and innocence stuff actually mean? A lot less than the mythic weight it has accrued through repetition and misunderstanding. To understand it, we need to look at the final girl archetype, as embodied by Laurie Strode.

Laurie has a gender-neutral name, but she's not a tomboy - she's very maternal with the kids, wears skirts and is definitely interested in boys. As I noted back in my Halloween entry:

She’s less sexually active than her friends because she has trouble attracting men, but she has her eye on a guy so the thoughts are definitely there. Also, while she coughs on the joint she doesn’t seem surprised at the offer or unwilling to accept it.

Is Laurie a virgin? Probably, but I don't think that's necessarily through choice. If she'd had the chance, she'd probably go for it. She's not opposed to a sly spliff with the girls, which would suggest she holds a similar attitude to alcohol.

So, why the reputation which has passed on through slasherdom? Because she doesn't do that much "sin" on-screen, and, most importantly, after the killings have started.

That's what usually ends up saving final girls. It's not that they don't drink or have sex, it's just that they don't do it while the loony is about. Jess, the final girl in Black Christmas, wants an abortion - not something virgins tend to do. Annie in Halloween has packed off her charge to go have fun with Paul, and dies in her car as a result. She's not doing what she is supposed to, and pays the price. The same totally applies to Lynda and Bob, who are having sex in somebody else's house. They stop paying attention to their surroundings and pay the price when Michael comes calling.

Laurie, on the other hand, is very attentive and observant - which is what ultimately saves her. That and a straightened-out coat hanger, showing that she's also very resourceful. As is our next heroine - Nancy Thompson.

Nancy's resourceful nature goes a long way toward saving her life at the end of the film - it's her booby traps that take Freddy down. She's got a girl's name, and considering she's dating Johnny Depp I'd assume that his death scene isn't the only time he's gone down whilst on that bed. 

One of my favourite final girls is Taylor from Behind the Mask. Spoiler territory, but we're set up for the first 2/3 of the film to believe someone else is going to be the final girl before a brilliant reveal shows that she's not the person she's been played up as. Taylor's cliché credentials are all present and correct - she's quiet and withdrawn, has a genderless name, avoids the standard "sins" of slasher victims, and yet we're still expecting the final girl to be the one we're presented with.

But when thrust into the role, Taylor takes to it like a pro. She manages to bring Leslie Vernon down in true final girl style, and hopefully would have been front and centre to do so again had a sequel ever arisen. It's still not too late...

One of the reasons Ginny is so celebrated amongst slasher fans is that she's a far more interesting character throughout than many other final girls from the series. Let's raise a toast here to thingy from Friday the 13th Part III, wossname from Friday the 13th Part VII, her from Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare and that one from Urban Legends: Final Cut, you know, she was in House, Jennifer something.

For an interesting twist on final girliness, see Lauren McKnight as Skye Rotter in My Super Psycho Sweet 16.

She's pretty standard right up to the end, when she walks away and leaves the main bully in the hands of the killer. That's cold.

So, in conclusion, what have we learned? Final girls are cool, they don't have to be drug-free teetotal virgins named Sam, and they're at their best when intelligent, resourceful, responsible and brave.

Oh, and there's the thing about phallic weapons too. Most commonly available hand weapons are phallic, either due to aerodynamics or a thrusting motion when in use. Not even worth mentioning.

Friday 29 November 2013

29 - What I Want From A Friday Sequel!

For my final Friday the 13th Friday, a little on the future of the franchise. With the announcement of the next movie being due for Friday March 13th 2015, there’s a lot of chatter at the moment about the next movie being found footage, but I can’t see how or why someone would film Jason killing a bunch of people without getting a machete through the head.

Do we want a sequel to the last movie, or the original series? Well, as I said way back at the start of the month, there’s nothing on screen that explicitly confirms that it’s a remake:

There’s nothing to say that the flashback at the start isn’t supposed to be the events of the first movie, slightly altered through years of retellings as a campfire tale. Jason’s altered appearance? The last time we saw Jason before this was in the dreamworld at the end of FvJ, who know how he came back from that and what effect it had on him. Even down to the sack mask – his hockey mask had gone missing, he went with an alternative until he found it again.

It would actually be relatively easy to have a film that functions as a sequel to both. Unless you refer directly to specific events and just establish the basics, it’s pretty straightforward. Take the broad strokes approach – it’s worked for James Bond.

What are the essentials for a Friday the 13th movie? Here’s the key elements:

Jason Voorhees is a big deformed killer in a hockey mask. He hangs out in the woods by Camp Crystal Lake, an old summer camp by a big lake and kills teenagers – mainly with a big machete. 

That’s it. Fill all that in, don’t actively contradict any of the last 12 movies and you’re set.

Then make sure that the victims are likeable. The odd jerk is fine, but when Jason hacks them up or impales them or burns them or defenestrates them, you should be unhappy. You need a collection of potential final girls and boys, and you shouldn’t be able to guess who it will be until they get there. Think of the original poster for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre – “Who will survive – and what will be left of them?”

A little thing, but don’t repeat any past kills. If you have a guy in a wheelchair, don’t hack him in the face and throw the chair down a staircase. If you want to kill someone in a sleeping bag, don’t smash it against a tree or string it up over a fire.

Should it be in the snow, as fans keep demanding? Only if they can do something with it. You need to have the lake frozen over, you need blood splatter on snow, you need visuals and deaths that evolve naturally from the winter setting and wouldn’t fit directly in any other film.

So, what do I want from the next Friday the 13th film? Jason at Crystal Lake killing teens in inventive ways. That’ll do.

Oh, and a couple of tiny but essential things: Ki-Ki-Ki and also Ma-Ma-Ma.

Thursday 28 November 2013

28 - Songs From Horror Films

After yesterday’s wordy epic, here’s something a little more... YouTube-y. These are some songs used in horror movies, with very little accompaniment from me.

Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
An American Werewolf in London

Mr Sandman – The Chordettes
Halloween II

Brick House 2003 – Rob Zombie/Lionel Richie
House of 1000 Corpses

Kerncraft 400 (Shaun of the Dead version) - Zombie Nation 
Shaun of the Dead

Tom Hark -The Piranhas
Dog Soldiers

Tubular Bells – Mike Oldfield
The Exorcist


He’s Back (The Man Behind The Mask) – Alice Cooper
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

AM180 – Grandaddy
28 Days Later

All My Friends Are Dead – Turbonegro
Cold Prey

Blue Moon - The Marcels
An American Werewolf in London

Wednesday 27 November 2013

27 - I love An American Werewolf in London

If I had to pick a favourite film of all time, I’d eventually settle on An American Werewolf in London. I love that movie so very much. It’s that rare thing, a horror comedy where there’s a perfect balance between horror and comedy – the scares are scary and the jokes are funny, but they don’t cancel one another out. Over 30 years on and the effects still pretty much hold up, and the ‘moon’ songs on the soundtrack stay just the right side of knowing winks. It’s utterly English without straying into the worst excesses of Richard Curtis-ism. Every character is memorable and feels completely real. The dialogue is endlessly quotable and perfectly functional at the same time - it either furthers the plot or further defines character.

Now, many of the same things can be said about Shaun of the Dead, which I feel was greatly influenced by this film, but An American Werewolf in London wins on three counts:

- It came first.
- Brian Glover.
- Naked Jenny Agutter.

If I wrote a script even approaching this kind of quality, I would probably stop right there and then.

I’d do a podcast fan commentary, but I’m a boring old fart and a technophobe, I hate the sound of my own voice, and I prefer the control the written word provides. So I’m going to do a written commentary instead. Either read it along with the DVD or imagine the film as you read. I’m just going to ramble on, mainly just pointing out things I like.

We open on Bobby Vinton’s version of Blue Moon, Welsh hills (Wales playing the part of Yorkshire for some reason) and some fairly bland credits – they look like TV show credits. It’s a very safe opening. The title is a mixture of “An American in Paris” and “Werewolf of London”.

Our leads arrive in the back of a farm lorry – the future wolf arriving amid some sheep, wonderful foreshadowing. I first saw this film some time in 1990, when it was shown as part of the Moviedrome series on BBC2. I’ve not been able to find the airdates so I don’t know exactly when I saw it, but I’m 38 today. (I came to horror late – there’s a part of me that’s still playing catch-up as other fandoms have taken precedence over the years.)

I love the interplay between the boys – you know they’re old friends even before they mention how long they’ve known Debbie Klein, just from the way they talk to one another. 

The arrival at The Slaughtered Lamb is the perfect “stranger walks into the bar” scene given an English twist. Everything about this scene is brilliant - the amazing Brian Glover telling his (kinda racist) joke,  a pre-Young Ones Rik Mayall, Lila Kaye’s cautiously welcoming barmaid, and David Schofield putting more menace into the line “You made me miss” than would seem possible. 

It took me multiple viewings to realise that they’re not just in the pub to drink - they're all huddled together in the one place for security while the local werewolf roams the moors. How do they handle him when he turns back to human form? Do they trust him, does he go about his daily business – or is he locked away for the rest of the month, only allowed out on transformation night when everyone else seeks refuge in the pub?

Is the rising (crane?) shot that goes behind the statue referenced in the opening titles of The League of Gentlemen?

Jack’s death is so brutal, and despite the increasing menace of the lead-in, still seems to come almost from nowhere. I’d love to know the story of the Wolfman of East Proctor – I get the feeling that Brian Glover and David Schofield’s characters would have been major figures. Who was this balding, middle-aged man? What did he mean to them?

And then there’s Jenny Agutter. Take that in for a moment. John Woodvine and Frank Oz are also great, but Jenny Agutter...

Why is David in a hospital in London anyway? He was attacked a couple of hundred miles away, and even with injuries like his they could easily have taken him to a hospital in York, Manchester, Leicester, Birmingham... His wounds were dressed before he arrived in London, so why not take him to somewhere closer? Unless he needed some kind of specialist care that was only available at that hospital.

“Nurse Price will see to all your needs” – tee hee hee.
The dream sequences fulfil a dual function – they key us in to David’s state of mind, and give us some moments of horror before the big wolf-out.

Benjamin (the little boy who says NO all the time) is brilliant.

And then there’s the Nazi wolfman demon things shooting up David’s family. Which is kinda terrifying and awesome at the same time. The shooting of the menorah is a very powerful image.

I love Dead Jack so much – he may be my favourite character in the movie. If nothing else, his delivery of “Have you ever talked to a corpse? It’s boring!”would push him up the list. The flappy skin around his wounds makes me think of kebabs.

I’m told, by those with greater knowledge than me, that David’s behaviour is pretty consistent with PTSD and survivor’s guilt.

And then there’s the scene where Moondance plays.

Oh yes.

Bathroom mirror reveals of scary faces are such a cliché now, but this one does it so very well.

It happens very quickly and conveniently, but I believe in David and Alex’s relationship here. They feel real to me in a way some romcom couples never manage.

On the other hand I don’t buy Dr Hirsch’s trip to East Proctor, but it takes us back to the Slaughtered Lamb so I’ll forgive it.  Why does the darts player want to check on the dogs – and why does Brian Glover’s character want to stop him?  I don’t think he was leaving just so he could talk to Dr Hirsch when he left either – he really did seem to want to leave.

We have far more channels now, but the standard of British daytime telly hasn’t improved much in the ensuing years. I don’t know if that was a real advert for the News of the World, but I certainly remember their ads from the time being like that.

And then there’s Blue Moon. Sure, there are parts of this scene you could pick holes in if you felt so inclined, but the fact that you get the whole thing in such a brightly lit room and reasonably close-up goes a long way to explaining Rick Baker’s Oscar. I’d like to know how the wolf gets out of the flat without causing any damage – maybe whoever brought David him down from East Proctor let him out. I love how late in the film this scene comes. We’re almost an hour in, about 2/3 of the way through the film.

I really like Harry and Judith. They’re just so lovely. Even their idea of a prank – going round the back door of their friend’s house – is so sweet.

Mixing the roar in with the tube noise is a simple but effective trick, leading us into probably my favourite death in the whole movie. “I can assure you that this is not in the least bit amusing” is such an English response. I’m so glad my first viewing of this (and Death Line) came years after I started using the tube, otherwise it would have been a Psycho/shower situation. Note that this scene is all about the chase – the only blood you see is from the man’s nose. And just as we started with a loud noise from another source, we open the next scene in exactly the same way.

“A naked American man stole my balloons” is one of the all-time great lines.

I love that David’s primal, animalistic behaviour with Alex – the unbridled lust – isn’t spelled out as being due to the wolf, though it’s pretty obvious. There may also be a sense of release, of mental weightlessness from having let the caged wolf within take over after having it caged up for so long. The impending second night of wolf-out raises a question of the full moon, but we’ll pretend not to have noticed that. That’s Alan Ford as the cabbie, by the way – you may have seen him in The Long Good Friday, Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Snatch, Cockneys versus Zombies...

A policeman with a beard – is that even allowed nowadays?

Dead Jack! Dead Jack luring David in to a porno cinema. The return of all the great victims – Gerald from the tube is especially good, but Harry and Judith’s chirpiness despite their situation is wonderful, especially when contrasted against the others. 

Oh, that’s a pitch perfect recreation of a British soft-core porno of the era, by the way – possibly better than quite a lot of them.

And then there’s chaos, and everything happens at once – and yet you believe it all, from the moment the wolf bursts out onto the street right up to the police running past a crying Alex and the shot of David’s naked body. It could probably have been played out a bit slower, a bit more decompressed, but this adds a sense of urgency, of panic that you wouldn’t get with a more measured pace. How rushed is it? From the wolf breaking out through the shutters to the start of the credits is just on four minutes.

So, our hero is dead, shot by police marksmen in front of the woman he loves. It’s a bleak, tragic moment – time for some doo-wap! It’s an audio custard pie in the face, a final moment of black humour from John Landis.”What would be the least appropriate music to cut to after that scene? OK, let’s do it!”

So, that’s An American Werewolf in London, and a lot of the things I love about it.

I’ve never seen the “sequel”, though I’d love to read the script Landis wrote for his sequel starring the oft-mentioned at the start Debbie Klein. Maybe a prequel, following The Wolfman of East Proctor? TV script editor Andrew Ellard (@Ellardent) said this on Twitter -

Started pondering an American Werewolf prequel: a Northern man driven insane by visions of the dead, a town threatened yet protecting him.

I don’t know about you, but I’d love to see that. Granted, you’d run the risk of damaging the legacy of the film with a bad prequel that tells you too much – but that story is just so enticing to me, I just want to see it. It would be a small film, or possibly a TV miniseries, and you’d need to somehow find workable replacements for all the original cast. But the TV success of Hannibal and (to a lesser extent) Bates Motel show that something like this could work without destroying the mystery of the original. We know that these people have lived with a secret, we know they know more than they imply or than we can infer from their actions, we know the nature of the secret – we just don’t know exactly what that secret is. Who was he? How did he get bitten? When was he bitten? How long was he a wolf for?

The best part of recasting everyone is that you could keep the wolf a secret until a little way in – reveal the wolf to your cast and your audience at the same time, for maximum shock. Finally, the mystery of the three missing people and the mutilated sheep is revealed.

Trouble is, prequels are so tediously inevitable. ("We end on two cheery American hikers getting a lift with a sheep farmer….")

My response to this (apart from exploding with the desire to buy a ticket) was “But they don't have to be. End it with him escaping to the moors and you're golden.”

He responded: That escape's a bit flat, though, unless it comes with deadly portent - the victims we know he'll reach next...

Thinking about it now, the best way to end a prequel would be those opening title shots of the “moors”, with Bad Moon Rising playing over the top. Those shots would work just as well for an ending as a beginning, and Bad Moon Rising is filled with portents and warnings of impending doom.

Or you could just get One Direction to cover Blue Moon...