The Terminator (1984, James Cameron)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A cyborg is sent back in time to 1984, intent on killing a woman called Sarah Connor. Her only hope is a man from the future with a secret…

Main characters:

* The star of the show is Linda Hamilton. She’d just made the horror film Children of the Corn, but The Terminator took her to a whole new level: one of a science-fiction icon. As the story begins her character, Sarah Connor, is an everyday young woman living an unambitious but happy-enough life in Los Angeles. A bright, likeable person who works as a waitress at a diner called Big Jeff’s, Sarah shares an apartment with her gregarious friend Ginger and – how’s this for an oddball detail? – a pet iguana. But her life is turned upside down when she realises that someone is murdering local women who share her name. The killer, a slow-moving but extremely powerful assassin displaying no emotion, then catches up with her and is about to pull the trigger… when another man saves her life and they go on the run together. The nervous and intense Kyle Reese tells her that he’s been sent back in time. His mission is to save her from a part-organic android called a Terminator, which wants to kill her before she can conceive her son – a son who will grow up to be an important military leader in a future war against self-aware machines. As you’ll appreciate, this is a lot of information for Sarah to take in. But when she later sees the relentlessly savage Terminator in action, she’s convinced by the outlandish story. She also starts to bond with kindly Kyle and they eventually sleep together… Sarah Connor is so much more than a stereotypical girl-in-danger. As the story develops we see her grow and learn. Bit by bit, she becomes more assertive and more confident, eventually taking the lead in her and Kyle’s attempt to evade the Terminator (‘On your feet, soldier! On your feet!’), yet we always recognise her as a human being with fears and doubts. Hamilton gives an absolutely terrific performance, selling every phase of her character’s journey, every shade of her personality. (The actress later married The Terminator’s writer/director, James Cameron.)

* Kyle Reese is a sombre and serious man in his 20s; his lack of humour is understandable given that he grew up in a 21st century ravaged by a guerrilla warfare with sentient machines. His mission is to protect Sarah from the Terminator, and he knew before he time-travelled that it was a one-way journey into the past. Suffering from nightmares and post-traumatic flinches, as well as physical scars from his war experiences, he seems singularly devoted to Sarah – and it’s only gradually that we realise why. In the future, Kyle was a colleague and friend of Sarah’s grown-up son, John. Through him he learnt about and fell in love with Sarah. By that time she had proved herself as a fearless leader in her own right as well as being the mother of humanity’s saviour, the Mary to John’s Jesus. Where Sarah is in this future – whether she’s died, for example, or is a 70-year-old elder stateswoman – is never explained, but Kyle hadn’t met her before he travelled to the 1980s. So rather than personal experience, his devotion developed through John’s stories and a single Polaroid of a young Sarah looking wistful. ‘I came through time for you, Sarah,’ he tells her as they grow close while on the run from the Terminator. They soon have sex in a motel room – it was the first sex scene your current blogger ever saw, aged about seven or eight – and the implication is clear: they’ve just conceived John…  Playing Kyle is Michael Biehn, one of those actors whose career contains two or three very high points but a surprising amount of trash too. He gives classy, interesting and very effective performances in three successful films written and directed by James Cameron – The Terminator, Aliens and The Abyss.

* For the role of the T-800, the robotic killing machine from the future, Cameron wanted to cast someone who could blend into a crowd. He initially plumped for Lance Henriksen (who was later given a different role in the film) while ex-NFL player and future jailbird OJ Simpson was also considered. But when Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned for the part, it made business sense to cast the Austrian. He’d just had a big hit with Conan the Barbarian and his star was on the rise… It did mean a rethink of the character, however: the Terminator would now be significantly more ostentatious and noticeable. His first scene sees him arriving in the 1980s, totally naked and looking carved and chiselled like a statue of a Greek god. He’s also often filmed from below and framed like he’s a giant, adding to the sense that this machine is an unstoppable force. (In reality, Arnie’s height has long been a bone of contention. He claims to be 6’2”, but some have said he’s actually under six feet and wears lifts in his shoes.) Even if the original idea of an assassin looking like an everyman makes more sense, in this film you can still see a pop-culture icon being created before your eyes: the looming walk, the steely gaze, the dispassionate intent, the monotone voice, the Teutonic accent, the dry humour (‘Fuck you, asshole’), the brutal violence. Famously, the character only has 16 lines of dialogue in the whole movie. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has 100 times as many – 1,569 of them – in *his* eponymous story. But which one looks better punching a car window in, eh?

Other characters:
* There’s the aforementioned Ginger (Bess Motta) and her sex-mad boyfriend, Matt (Ross Rossovich), who are both victims of the Terminator when he comes looking for Sarah.
* Early in the film, the T-800 encounters a street gang and kills two members before stealing the clothes of a third. One of them is played by the great, sadly late Bill Paxton who pops in his small role (‘I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack’) and soon had an impressive CV that included James Cameron’s Aliens and Titanic among much else.
* The sequences involving the police focus on the fatherly and deadpan Lieutenant Ed Traxler (Paul Winfield) and his gleefully cynical sidekick, Sergeant Hal Vukovich (Lance Henriksen). When they arrest Kyle, he keeps blabbing about being from the future, so Traxler and Vukovich call in a criminal psychologist called Dr Silberman (Earl Boen) who doesn’t have much sympathy for Kyle’s fantastical story.
* Although not a hugely important character, I mention Sarah’s co-worker Nancy (Shawn Schepps) because she has one of my favourite lines of dialogue in cinema history. Early in the story, during a busy shift at the diner, Sarah is dealing with customers who are complaining about her getting their orders wrong. Then a cheeky kid deliberately plops a dollop of ice cream into her pocket. Sarah sighs with quiet frustration. Nancy breezes over and says: ‘Look at it this way: in a hundred years, who’s gonna care?’ I say that mantra to myself after every one of life’s frustrations.

Where: Most of the film is set in and around Los Angeles. In a coda scene, Sarah is seemingly in Mexico. The Terminator’s LA is a grimy, crime-y city. We see suburbia briefly but there’s little glamour or glitz or showbiz here; instead it’s a place of rundown streets, gangs, hobos, cynical cops, punky nightclubs, flophouses and construction sites. It’s also often dark and threatening: around 90 per cent of this movie is set at night. One location with a surprising legacy is a nightclub called Tech Noir (entry fee: $4.50). Spooked by news stories of other Sarah Connors being murdered, and sensing that a strange man is following her (it turns out to be Kyle), our Sarah ducks inside a club to use its phone. This is where the Terminator first catches up with her, and where Kyle first intercedes (‘Come with me if you want to live,’ he says, coining a franchise catchphrase). So Tech Noir is very important to the story. It also had an affect outside the fiction. The Terminator is part of a sub-genre of movies that blend science-fiction ideas with film-noir stylistics – Blade Runner is its key text – and the nightclub gave the concept a name.

When: The bulk of the story takes place over about 54 hours. According to a line of dialogue, we start in the early hours of Thursday 12 May and events progress until daylight on Saturday morning. It’s usually assumed that the film is set in 1984, the year it was released, but 12 May 1984 was a Saturday. The date works if it’s 1983. (Having said all that, at one point we catch sight of Sarah’s timecard when she clocks in at work – and that’s for a pay period that will end on 19 May 1984. Time-travel stories, eh?) Kyle also experiences a series of flashbacks to his earlier life in the year 2029, and there’s a coda scene set several months after the defeat of the Terminator.

I’ll be back: After about 57 minutes of the film, Sarah and Kyle are at a police station. The latter is under arrest, while the former is being cared for by officers who think she was Kyle’s hostage. In a neat piece of writing, Lt Traxler tells Sarah not to fret: ‘We got 30 cops in this building,’ he says, implying she’s completely safe. The Terminator then storms the station and dispassionately kills every single police officer in his attempt to find her… The moment when he gains entry is where Arnold Schwarzenegger’s most infamous catchphrase was born. Walking into the quiet reception area, the T-800 asks to see Sarah Connor. A bored and distracted desk clerk tells him to return in the morning. The Terminator surveys the wooden-and-glass barrier that protects the station’s innards, then leans in and says, ‘I’ll be back.’ A few moments later he does so: in a high-speed car, that crashes through and destroys the station’s lobby… It wasn’t written as an arch piece of ‘movie dialogue’ – James Cameron was going for underplayed irony that would only ping on repeat viewings – but the phrase ‘I’ll be back’ quickly took on a life of its own. It’s been reprised in all the Terminator sequels, as well as several other Schwarzenegger movies.

Review: The idea for The Terminator came to James Cameron in a fever dream while he lay ill in an Italian hotel bedroom (‘It was this chrome skeleton emerging phoenix-like out of the fire’) and that nightmarish quality purveys throughout the movie. There’s a bleak, edgy, violent tone, almost like a Halloween-style slasher film. The incidental music is percussive and unsettling – all harsh clangs, eerie drones and mournful electro washes – rather than a Hollywood score of reassuring lushness. And Cameron’s masterful control of pace and point of view creates tension right from the word go: we feel like we’re experiencing events along with Sarah and Kyle, rather than being objective viewers. The story is simple. It’s a chase movie with the good guys evading the bad. But for various reasons, we’re gripped and intrigued throughout. One is that the sharp script centres on extreme situations, and has no interest in anything that doesn’t help tell the story. Another is that the characters feel like they have lives that exist beyond the barriers of the fiction (Sarah has easy-going, natural friendships; Traxler is clearly a cop who deals with difficult cases on a daily basis; what we see of Kyle’s war service seems like the traumatic tip of an horrific iceberg). There’s also the thematic unity of the movie, which expertly supports a central idea – a machine attempting to kill a human being – with numerous examples of technology being unhelpful. A construction site reminds Kyle of the mechanical war engines of his youth. Ginger doesn’t hear her boyfriend being killed because her Walkman headphones are too loud. The Terminator locates Sarah by listening to an answerphone message. Dr Silberman’s misses seeing the Terminator because his beeper distracts him. But these conceptual jokes never get in the way or draw attention to themselves; they’re part of a fully realised vision, which is exciting, suspenseful and packs a hell of a lot into a lean, trim running time of 103 minutes. The high-octane final 15 minutes are then breathlessly brilliant and focused, almost like a modern action thriller has time-travelled back 34 years to terrorise 1980s cinema. And just when you think it’s peaked with an enormous explosion, we get a then-innovative false ending: the Terminator emerges phoenix-like out of the fire, kicking the movie into an ever higher gear. A masterpiece.

Ten nice nights for a walk out of 10

An American Werewolf in London (1981, John Landis)


Spoiler warning: This article reveals plot details.

Moviedrome was a wonderful way of screening films on television. Broadcast between 1988 and 2000, it was a BBC2 showcase for horror, action, art-house and science-fiction flicks, which were introduced on-screen by the film director Alex Cox and later by the critic Mark Cousins. In truth, the movies would have been screened anyway but the smart and insightful intros made them feel as if they were part of a carefully curated season. It was marvellous television and now much-missed.

If you were watching at 10.30pm on Sunday 22 July 1990, you will have seen Alex Cox – filmed on a bleak hillside and pretending to be spooked by an out-of-shot werewolf – presage that night’s offerings by saying, ‘The film is a weird mixture of naïve comedy and apocalyptic violence with an abrupt ending…’ This was my first viewing of the 1981 comedy-horror An American Werewolf in London, which had been written and directed by John Landis. I was 11 years old and fell in love. To this day it remains my favourite horror film.


The movie was shot in early 1981, Landis reportedly wanting Britain’s drab weather to provide a gloomy backdrop for his story. The crew did some filming in the Black Mountains in Wales (standing in for Yorkshire), but the majority of the production was based in and around London. So I thought it would be fun to spend a few weeks exploring the movie’s use of the city. Perhaps I could visit some of the filming locations as I try to discuss why I love this movie so much?


I begin my odyssey, however, by immediately breaking my own rule and leaving London. I’m on a train that will take me a mile or so outside the M25 motorway, a notional defining barrier of Greater London. But I know the journey will be worth it because I’m going to fulfil a long-standing ambition. I’m going to have a pint of beer in the Slaughtered Lamb…

As the movie begins, David Kessler and Jack Goodman climb down from the back of a sheep lorry. They’re young American men on a backpacking holiday in Yorkshire and a local farmer has given them a lift. It’s a terrifically witty introduction and Landis has confirmed that the visual gag – the characters being treated like livestock ready for the abattoir – was deliberate. Tramping across the countryside, the boys then end up in a village pub called the Slaughtered Lamb, where they get a decidedly frosty reception from the suspicious locals. Brian Glover’s chess player unsettles the newcomers with ghoulish jokes; David Schofield’s darts player threatens them for putting him off his game; Rik Mayall just smirks impishly. The scene is a horror standard: outsiders treated with distrust in a pub. The same kind of thing can be seen in movies such as Dracula (1931) and The Wicker Man (1973). But by combining a genuine air of menace with just the right amount of self-aware humour, American Werewolf’s is the best example.

In reality, the Slaughtered Lamb was a Hollywood-style composite. Despite being set in Yorkshire, the exterior was a redressed cottage in Wales. For the interior scene, meanwhile, the crew found a real pub in the brilliantly named Surrey hamlet of Martyr’s Green. That’s where I’m going now. Getting off the train at the rural station of Effingham Junction, I walk north for about two miles down a meandering and often pavement-less road. On either side of me is woodland, from where I can hear the pop-pop-pop of paint-ball guns. Occasional cars zoom past. A few cyclists are out on morning rides. Then, after 25 minutes in increasingly warm sun, I reach my target: a country pub called The Black Swan. It’s an old building with a modern extension added in 2006. A small beer garden is out front, a car park round the back. The locals affectionately call this place the Mucky Duck.


It’s 11am as I arrive, the specified opening time on the pub’s website, but a guy tidying up outside tells me they won’t be ready for ‘about half an hour’. He’s friendly about it, rather than the cool reception David and Jack received at the Slaughtered Lamb, so I hide my disappointment and have a wander around the local area to kill time. The Black Swan is opposite a turn-off for the historic village of Ockham, where the 13th-century philosopher William of Ockham was born (he devised the keep-it-simple principle of Occam’s Razor). I walk over there and enjoy the tranquillity of the Surrey countryside.

When I return to the pub at 11.30, a couple are already at an outside table with drinks, so I go inside. What a moment for an American Werewolf fan. Here I am, in the Slaughtered Lamb. The interior of the pub has changed an awful lot since 1981. It’s now less working-class and dingy, more upmarket and airy. All of the film’s set dressing is long gone, of course – that pentangle on the wall wasn’t genuine – but the space has also been opened up and the layout I recognise from the movie is now just part of a larger bar. But I can still see the framework of the Slaughtered Lamb. The way I came in is through the same door David and Jack used; the bar is in the same place; over there is the corner where the chess game was going on. And after I’ve bought a very nice pint of IPA and taken a few photographs I sit at a table just to the right of the door – in other words, on the very spot where David and Jack plonk themselves down during their visit.



For a very long time, I assumed that the interior of the Slaughtered Lamb had been a film set constructed at somewhere like Twickenham Studios. It’s wonderful to be in the ‘real’ place, even with all the cosmetic changes. Sadly I can see no acknowledgment of the pub’s popular-culture heritage on display; no signs or framed photographs from the filming. But then something rather wonderful happens. The bar staff have put on a playlist of inoffensive music, as bar staffs tend to do when they want to generate some atmosphere, and before long I’m listening to a track that was used in An American Werewolf in London. It appears to just be a coincidence, but it provides me with a neat way of talking about the film’s music…

An American Werewolf in London does have a score, and it was composed by an all-time great: Elmer Bernstein (The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Ghostbusters). But what’s more memorable to most viewers are the pre-existing songs that Landis used to complement his scenes. There’s also a cute running joke going on. To reflect the werewolf motif, the director chose tracks with the word moon in the title: three different recordings of the ballad Blue Moon, the Creedence Clearwater Revival hit Bad Moon Rising, and Van Morrison’s light-as-air jazz-pop classic Moondance.


It’s the latter I can now hear as I drink my beer in the Black Swan. A poetic yearning for a bit of alfresco sex, it was recorded in New York City in August 1969. At the very same time, in Yugoslavia, John Landis was working as an assistant director on the satirical war film Kelly’s Heroes. During his nine months on the movie, he encountered some local gypsies who believed in the undead and the incident inspired him to write a script about a werewolf. But it was then put in a drawer (metaphorically at least) while Landis made inroads in the film industry. At the age of 21 he directed a cheap horror spoof called Schlock (1973), then followed it with three hit comedies: The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980).

Now a rising star of the Hollywood directing fraternity – someone who delivered popular and profitable films, someone who was friends with Steven Spielberg – Landis dusted off his old werewolf script and began pre-production. He hired his friend the special-effects genius Rick Baker to design the make-up then began scouting locations in England. For the story’s lead character of David, Landis cast 29-year-old David Naughton, who was then best known in the US for a series of Dr Pepper commercials. In the role of David’s pal Jack, the director plumped for Griffin Dunne, who was 25 and later married Bond girl Carey Lowell. David and Jack are superbly cast. They absolutely feel like believable pals with an easy-going yet deep friendship.


As I leave the Black Swan pub, I have a much more pleasant time than Naughton and Dunne’s characters do in the movie. I simply walk back to the train station. After leaving the Slaughtered Lamb, David and Jack have a terrifying encounter on the Yorkshire moorlands. Lost at night, under the light of a full moon, the pair are menaced by some kind of wild beast – David is badly injured, while Jack is mauled to death. It’s a brilliantly shot sequence, director of photography Robert Paynter creating a lot of menace from smoke and artificial moonlight.

Three weeks later David wakes up in a London hospital and is soon spooked by a ghostly visitation. His now-undead friend Jack appears by his hospital bed to urge David to kill himself, otherwise he will inevitably transform into a werewolf… The scene is a marvel. Jack’s matter-of-fact appearance in the room is all the more effective because Landis simply cuts to him via a conventional edit, rather than using any supernatural effect or melodramatic music. Griffin Dunne also looks so brilliantly ghoulish, thanks to some world-class monster make-up featuring deep scars and bloody rips in his neck. He’s one of cinema’s greatest zombie-like characters.


The hospital featured in these scenes is fictional, but for the filming the crew used the interior of the abandoned Princess Beatrice Hospital in west London. It had been founded in 1887 and initially called Jubilee Hospital to mark Queen Victoria’s half-century on the throne. Various name changes and redevelopments followed – it was only known as the Princess Beatrice from 1931 – until it was considered obsolete and closed down in March 1978.

When I visit the surviving building on the corner of Finborough Road and Old Brompton Road, having walked there from Earl’s Court tube station, I do so knowing that I won’t be able to go inside and see where David recuperated. It’s long since been converted in hostel accommodation.


But I’m in the area anyway, as it’s on the way to another key filming location from An American Werewolf in London. When David is discharged from hospital, he accepts an invitation to stay with the nurse who’s been looking after him, Alex Price, and she takes him to her modest flat in a converted townhouse. Much to David’s understandable delight, the pair soon become lovers in a shower-and-sex montage scored by Van Morrison’s Moondance. Alex is played by Jenny Agutter, then 28 years old and the most famous member of the cast after big films such as The Railway Children, Logan’s Run and The Eagle Has Landed. The actress brings an awful lot to the movie, combining star power with believability, an English-rose quality with a fierce sex appeal.


In the film, Alex’s workplace is a tube ride away from where she lives. In reality, the filming locations are only about 150 metres apart. I turn off Finborough Road and zigzag onto a parallel residential street. Very soon I’m walking into a familiar view and I find myself standing on the spot where John Landis’s camera filmed Alex and David arriving at her home.



I’m on Redcliffe Square, which was laid down in the 1860s by the surveyors George and Henry Godwin. Across the road I can see St Luke’s, a squat and rather beautiful Anglican church built in 1872-73 and also designed by the Godwin brothers, while to my right is number 64, the address used as the location of Alex’s flat. What’s most striking is how little it’s all changed. Visiting the Black Swan pub had required a bit of mental squinting to see how it had been transformed into the Slaughtered Lamb. No such process is necessary here: other than the trees being fuller of leaves and the cars being modern – and the obvious absence of Jenny Agutter and David Naughton – I could be in the movie. The architecture of the building is exactly the same. Even the railings and the familiar black front door are still here.



In the film, it’s in this ground-floor flat where the full horror of David’s predicament becomes clear. Alone as the full moon begins to rise, David suddenly shouts out in pain… His werewolf’s curse has struck, and as he screams in agony (‘Jesus Christ!’ he cries. ‘I’m burning up!’) his body contorts and twists, changing him from a man into a hairy, snarling beast… The scene is rightly famed as a wonder of special effects. This is where Rick Baker and his team show off their astonishing skills with prosthetics and make-up. His transformation complete, David leaves the flat. He’s on the hunt…


David may have metamorphosed into a rabid lycanthrope, but the only notable change to the Redcliffe Square location I can see today is a sign on the front door saying ‘ADDRESSED MAIL ONLY. NO FREE PAPERS, NO JUNK MAIL’ (Perhaps they should add ‘No werewolves’. Or ‘No American Werewolf fans researching blogs’.) I hang around for a few minutes and take my photos, hoping no one asks what I’m up to. No one does. I then chance my arm and walk up number 64’s steps, recreating David and Alex’s approach. It’s always a thrill to be in a location that was used in a cherished film or TV show. The best movies are ‘transportative’; they invite you into a heightened, escapist world that might be superficially similar to reality but somehow seems magical or unreachable.

This happens in An American Werewolf in London. It’s set in an everyday 1980s London – one of packed tube carriages and newspaper vendors and trashy adverts on TV – but even before the supernatural plot comes into focus the film feels ‘other’ and ‘special’. All good films do, if they have smart direction, classy camerawork and a skilful cast (things that distinguish American Werewolf hugely). So there’s a kind of spiritual connection that happens when you visit a filming location. The place is both eerily strange and reassuringly familiar at the same time.

I feel this vivid sensation again a few days later when I head up to leafy Hampstead in north London to see the site of werewolf David’s first kill. Known as Middle Heath Road until the 1860s, East Heath Road snakes around the north of the locale, dividing the streets and houses from the vast open parkland of Hampstead Heath. To get there I take a pleasant, undulating walk from the tube station. I pass through a quiet, well-off residential area and see a house where, according to a blue plaque on its wall, the painter John Constable once lived. Then after a few minutes I hit the T-junction with East Heath Road and see a view familiar from the movie.



It’s actually quite a short sequence that was shot here in 1981. A young, posh couple (played by Geoffrey Burridge and Brenda Cavendish) get out of a taxi. They’ve come to attend a dinner party with friends, and jovially walk down the side of a building towards Hampstead Heath. They’re sneaking round the back so they can playfully scare their hosts, but they’re about to encounter David in the form of a ravening werewolf… The block of flats featured in the film and which I can now see is called The Pryors. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century to the design of the architect Paul Waterhouse and was only allowed on the Heath side of the road because it was replacing an existing property. Former residents include the novelist Ernest Raymond and the acting couple Jean Forbes-Robertson and André van Gyseghem.

As with Redcliffe Square, what’s immediately apparent is how little has changed – but then again, why would it be different? This is a fine piece of architecture in a well-to-do area of London. I’m oddly amused to see that the post box visible in the movie is still here (or at least there’s now a modern one in the same position), while a pedestrian crossing has been added since 1981. As well as the building’s frontage, I take a look down its left-hand side, where a hedge separates the block from the wilds of Hampstead Heath. This is where the posh couple walked arm in arm to their doom…



With dusk falling fast, the trees and hedges feel full of menace. The light from the streetlamps doesn’t reach very far into the Heath and total darkness is only a few steps away. Not wanting to risk an encounter with a werewolf or any other potential danger, I keep close to the road. Occasional cars come past, a couple of joggers too. But mostly it’s quiet. After taking my photographs, I then retrace my steps back towards the tube station. Hungry, I look for somewhere to eat. In a delightful alleyway called Flask Walk, I find an equally pleasing pub called The Flask and dive inside for a beer and a burger.

Talking of pubs, the Slaughtered Lamb makes a reappearance in the film long after David and Jack’s visit. David’s doctor, Dr Hirsch, has had his interest piqued by David’s stories of a werewolf attacking him so he travels to the Yorkshire village of East Proctor to investigate. Hirsch is brilliantly played by the fuss-free actor John Woodvine, a veteran of the Royal Shakespeare Company, who brings both gravitas and a light touch to the part. He’s just one of many wonderful supporting actors in this film. Elsewhere, there’s the deadpan Lila Kaye as the Slaughtered Lamb’s landlady; Landis’s old pal Frank Oz cameoing as a man from the US embassy; and Paul Kember as a charmingly buffoonish British policeman.

However, back in London, the werewolf David is tearing through the city… After his attack on the posh couple, he stalks some tramps near Tower Bridge then terrorises a lone commuter in an atypically quiet Tottenham Court Road tube station. (The commuter is played by Michael Carter, later Jabba the Hutt’s aide Bib Fortuna in Return of the Jedi.) The following morning, a now-human-again David awakens – naked and understandably discombobulated – in the wolf pen at London Zoo, then later freaks out while in Trafalgar Square with Alex.

As you can see, this section of American Werewolf ticks off many hugely famous picture-postcard landmarks. Interestingly, though, in earlier drafts of the script some of them aren’t specified. Tottenham Court Road is just ‘a subway station’, while others were changed during the filming process. A scene of David using a public phone box, for example, was written as Leicester Square but then moved to Piccadilly Circus. As that location features so heavily in the movie’s final third, I feel I must take a pilgrimage…


Piccadilly Circus, one of central London’s most recognisable areas, is busy as I arrive on a rainy October evening. Because I’ve lived in London since 2002, I’ve been here many times before, so it’s not a surprise that it’s full of tourists and traffic. It always is. (It’s not for nothing that ‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus’ is a British cliché used to denote a busy place.) But tonight my plan is to attempt to see the area through fresh eyes. Can I place it within the context of An American Werewolf in London? Can I ignore the smartphone-obsessed crowds and the horn-honking cars, and see if I can visualise where the film crew worked and how John Landis staged his remarkable and chaotic sequence here?

In truth, the Circus – the word has its roots in the Greek for circle or ring – is simply a crossroads. But it’s taken on a cultural significance over the years, not least because of two major features: the massive advertising hoardings first installed in the 1890s, which tonight glitter and flash and pulse with digital persistence, and the central fountain often called Eros but which actually includes a statue of the Greek god Anteros. When the nearby Regent Street was laid down by the architect John Nash in 1819, its meeting point with the venerable thoroughfare Piccadilly was shaped into what we now recognise as Piccadilly Circus. Shaftesbury Avenue, built in 1886, also connects to the junction and it’s on that road – famed throughout the world as the spine of London’s theatre district – where I first turn my attention.

In the movie, David is on Piccadilly Circus when he spots his undead friend, Jack, standing outside the ticket office of a cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue. He races across the street and follows Jack inside, only pausing to buy a £2.80 ticket to the porno See You Next Wednesday. (Landis buffs will know that the title See You Next Wednesday is an in-joke; a motif the director adds to most of his movies.) I don’t race across the street now, however, because that would mean risking my life with the traffic. I also don’t go inside the cinema, because sadly it’s no longer there.


The Art Deco-styled cinema the Eros News Theatre first opened its doors at 7 Shaftesbury Avenue, along the northern edge of Piccadilly Circus, on 20 August 1934. It was a real success for several years, but by the time John Landis and his crew came here it had developed a reputation for being a rent boys’ hangout and for showing soft-core pornography. It had also been renamed the Eros Cinema. The cinema later closed down in February 1985; the final screening was of the Bo Derek flop Bolero. After a period as a jewellers’, the space was then converted into a branch of clothing store Gap in June 1997. The shop is still there now and is open as I walk over. I wonder how many people inside tonight realise that the entrance they used was, in a 1981 horror film, the ticket office of a porno cinema.


It’s inside the Eros Cinema where David Kessler is forced to face his zombiefied victims – the posh couple, the tramps, the commuter from Tottenham Court Road. He then metamorphoses again into his werewolf form. Bursting out of the cinema, past the assembled crowds and the police called by the cinema’s ticket attendant, he rampages across Piccadilly Circus. It’s the movie’s huge action set-piece. Cars crash, buses skid, pedestrians are run over, policemen’s throats are ripped out. In the kind of director’s cameo that Alfred Hitchcock would have balked at, John Landis – who’d worked as a Spaghetti Western stuntman earlier in his career – is flung through a shop window.


When planning all this stuff, Landis had sweet-talked the Metropolitan Police into letting him take over Piccadilly Circus for two nights. No movie had been allowed to shoot there in 15 years because of the disruption caused to central London traffic, but Landis got the permission after screening his recent comedy film The Blues Brothers to 300 police officers. It went down a storm, apparently. Thankfully, there’s none of that chaos here tonight. I look around, mentally replaying the American Werewolf scene over what I can see. I’m far from the only person taking photos as Piccadilly Circus is something of a tourist mecca. The nearby Criterion Theatre is preparing for a performance of The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. A street artist is painted silver and impressing the crowds by standing very still. A busker starts to plink away on his electronic keyboard and is soon belting out Bohemian Rhapsody. Before leaving I also look for the red phone box where, earlier in the film, David makes a call home to America. It’s not here any more.

That’s mercifully not true of everything in this city. In certain areas it’s all but impossible to avoid London’s rich and cherished heritage, and I’m reminded of this as I make my way to the site of Amercan Werewolf’s final sequence: the rabbit-warren of streets to the south of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster. Leaving London Bridge underground station, for example, I walk past the vibrant Borough Market, which dates back around a thousand years. I admire the gorgeously Gothic architecture of Southwark Cathedral, a building begun in 1220. I see tourists flocking around a sprightly modern replica of Sir Francis Drake’s 16th-century galleon ship the Golden Hind. And I stumble across the sole surviving fragment of the 12th-century Winchester Palace. All of this in just a five-minute stroll.


I then arrive at my final destination – and David Kessler’s too. Clink Street, which these days is a very smart, pedestrianised alleyway, has changed greatly from when John Landis and his crew came to this area to film their final scene. An upmarket eatery sits opposite a shop selling Union Jack-branded tourist tat, while many of the buildings have changed beyond recognition in the last 38 years. The street’s name comes from the nearby Clink Prison, a notorious institution that opened (and then presumably swiftly locked) its doors in the 12th century and served as a penal institution until it burned down in 1780. (It’s now a museum.)


As I wander around, it’s early evening – earlier in the day and significantly lighter than when the werewolf David was chased here by the police after his Piccadilly Circus rampage. The street is busy with tourists, commuters, people on nights out, and at least one fool taking photographs for a blog. I assume I’m the only person here who realises that he’s walking on hallowed ground. No one else seems to be aware that this is where David was cornered by the cops. Where Dr Hirsch and Alex looked on in horror. Where Alex broke through the barriers to comfort the werewolf. And where a police gunshot rang out fatally…


The legacy of An American Werewolf in London and its director have, sadly, been quite haphazard. John Landis made at least one more classic – the riotously enjoyable comedy Trading Places in 1983 – but his output has had its share of duds too. At least neither he nor anyone else from my favourite horror film had anything to do with a truly ghastly sequel called An American Werewolf in Paris. In the same year as that turkey (1997) there was also a better-received BBC radio adaptation of the 1981 film that reunited some of the cast, while a remake of the original movie is currently in development and is set to be directed by John Landis’s son Max.

But whatever has happened since 1981, and whatever may happen in the future, we’ll always have An American Werewolf in London.

Ten bathroom mirrors out of 10

Notes and acknowledgments

As well as providing lots of encouragement, my friend Lizzie Hopley helped enormously by giving this blog a read before I published it and pointing out some errors. (Any that remain are entirely my fault.) Andy at the Gap UK press office gave me the information about their Piccadilly Circus branch.

My trips to the filming locations were carried out in a slightly different order from how I’ve presented them above. I visited Clink Street on Tuesday 20 August 2019; the Black Swan pub on Saturday 24 August; the old Princess Beatrice Hospital and Redcliffe Square on Monday 2 September; East Heath Road on Monday 16 September; and Piccadilly Circus on Monday 14 October. Photos © Ian Farrington 2019

There is some dubiety about exactly where the final scene of An American Werewolf in London was filmed. Some online sources claim it was a short distance from Clink Street, in the nearby Winchester Walk, but the Bankside area has been so massively redeveloped over the last four decades that it’s difficult to be sure. The scenes of police converging in the area were certainly shot on Clink Street, so I chose to focus on that location.

Incidentally, Clink Street can also be seen in the 1940s film Oliver Twist, a 1977 Doctor Who serial set in Victorian times, and the 2001 movie Bridget Jones’s Diary. The Black Swan pub also features in Deadly Slumber, an episode of ITV crime drama Inspector Morse originally broadcast on 6 January 1993.

I used a wide variety of sources, both print and online, for the factual information in this article. There’s little point listing them all, but these websites and books were especially helpful:

You can watch Alex Cox’s Moviedrome introduction to American Werewolf in London here, while this website helped with Moviedrome generally.

These sites were good starting points when it came to identifying American Werewolf filming locations:

Information about Princess Beatrice Hospital was gleaned from this National Archives site.

Background details about East Heath Road were found in Streets of Hampstead by Christopher Wade (Camden History Society, third edition, 2000), a locally published guide to the area. This private residents’ website was also useful.

Some details about the Eros Cinema were found on this site about cinemas around the world.

Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony and Joe Russo)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Reeling from the devastation caused by Thanos, the remaining Avengers and their allies attempt a risky strategy to put things right…

In early October 2019, a few months after the release of the Marvel superhero film Avengers: Endgame, the revered film director Martin Scorsese caused a minor kerfuffle. Asked if he’d seen any Marvel movies, he said, ‘I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.’

An array of fans cried foul on Twitter, ridiculing Marty as an out-of-touch old man or a snob or a fool or all three. (Samuel L Jackson, who’d had a small role in Scorsese’s Goodfellas before appearing in many Marvel films, gave a more measured response: ‘That’s like saying Bugs Bunny ain’t funny. Films are films. Everybody doesn’t like his stuff either.’) Scorsese is entitled his opinion. He’s earned that much after a career that has included genuine all-time-great works of the art form such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas, even if there’s a certain irony in him evoking the purity of cinema while preparing to release a film, 2019’s The Irishman, that has been funded by Netflix and will be available for people to watch on their phones astonishingly soon after its theatrical run.

Also, as clumsily articulated as his point was, modern, flashy, big-budget, effects-heavy superhero films are undeniably different beasts from, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Casablanca or American Beauty. Films such as Avengers: Endgame and its stablemates have a different focus, a different intent. Scorsese’s theme-park analogy actually holds up when you consider that every Marvel Cinematic Universe movie is awash with boldly designed visuals intended to excite and thrill, as well as camera movements and rapid editing designed to pull you along and sweep you around.

The problem comes when you assume that that’s *all* they are. To use Martin Scorsese’s logic against him, should we conclude that Mean Streets is not cinema but closer to a videogame because it contains lots of violence? Of course not. The film uses violence to tell its story, and its story is about human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

It’s true that the Marvel series is open to any number of criticisms on a filmmaking level. The movies can be cinematographically bland, flatly staged, horrendously over-edited and lit like a game show; the scripts can feel hammered out by a committee and have a sense of explain-everything-for-the-people-in-the-cheap-seats; occasionally the stories can be undermined by boring action sequences and badly thought-out villains. However, saying they’re ‘not cinema’ is patently ridiculous. And while no one is going to claim that modern superhero films are as sophisticated as Shakespeare, so is implying that there’s no drama involved amongst the razzmatazz. Soon after that Scorsese quote went viral, the writer C Robert Cargill tweeted to say that when he was working on Doctor Strange, the 14th MCU film, ‘the vast majority of Marvel’s notes were about deepening character, strengthening the story, and asking us if we could “make it weirder”. Anyone who thinks Marvel is only trying to make theme park rides is being unjust and cynical.’

That approach is easy to believe when you watch Avengers: Endgame, which is nevertheless the most bombastically epic movie in a serious not short of bombast or epic qualities. The film, all three hours of it, is packed pull of *stuff* and characters and spectacle and action and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of talent and effort, but its story is still founded on character choices and character reactions. It starts, in fact, feeling less like an event movie and more like an indie drama: an understated cold open shot with a handheld camera shows us Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton in idyllic domesticity with his family. But then the mood darkens, as his wife and children fade out of existence thanks to the villainous actions of Josh Brolin’s Thanos as seen in previous MCU mega-hit Avengers: Infinity War.

Endgame is very much a follow-on from that earlier film. In fact, when originally announced in 2014 its title was Avengers: Infinity War – Part 2. However, the script moves events on by five years into a grim, sombre, post-Thanos world where the remaining members of society are trying to deal with their grief and their survivor guilt. Even the mighty Avengers and their associates have been hit hard by Thanos’s finger-clicking carnage. Well, ish… Fifty per cent of all life in the universe may be now gone, but for storytelling reasons the big headline characters who started this series of films – Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Bruce Banner aka Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Clint Barton aka Hawkeye – have all survived the cull.

Character stories dominate. Thor has descended into a overweight drunkard. The traumatised Clint has become a cyberpunk vigilante. Tony Stark has retreated into rural obscurity. Natasha is trying to coordinate the remaining Avengers but is emotionally raw. Bruce Banner has actually flourished, finally finding peace with the two halves of his personality. It’s a bravely downbeat way to start such a film, but a smart one. Martin Scorsese may disagree, but the MCU has always put emotion at the heart of their stories. For all the razzle-dazzle, each film has been about characters wanting things and overcoming hurdles. It’s fundamentally why the series has been so enjoyable. (And why it stands up so well when compared to the rival DC franchise.)

However, the dark mood doesn’t last. Slowly, bit by bit, the film raises its levels of humour and momentum as the characters realise they have a way of righting the wrongs caused by the now-dead Thanos. The surprise reappearance of Scott Lang aka Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), who avoided the cull because he was infinitesimally small in the quantum realm at the time, gives the gang the impetus to attempt a plan based on time-travel. The plan dominates the middle third of the movie, and is generally a hoot.

The goal is to obtain a full set of the Infinity Stones – singularly bland plot devices that have recurred throughout this series since 2011’s Thor movie – by removing them from the timeline before Thanos did his damage. We get the usual meta gags about how time-travel doesn’t really make sense (Back to the Future is cited), then we’re thrown into a gleefully self-indulgent tour around the MCU’s own heritage. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers and Scott Lang travel to the New York City of Avengers Assemble; Bruce Banner drops in on Tilda Swinton’s character from Doctor Strange; Thor and Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) head to the planet Asgard at the time of Thor: The Dark World; Nebula (Karen Gillen) and Rhodes (Don Cheadle) visit the planet Morag at the time of Guardians of the Galaxy; and later Tony and Steve must also travel to a secret research base in the 1970s where they encounter a succession of younger versions of important MCU characters (Michael Douglas’s Hank Pym, Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter and John Slattery’s Howard Stark). The sequences are riotously enjoyable, blending action-driven plotting and emotion with humour and postmodern winking-to-the-audience. Several times, new footage is stitched into old scenes, a la Back to the Future Part II, allowing both fresh perspectives and a hell of a lot of fun.

The final third of the movie is then more conventional, essentially boiling down into yet another MCU battle scene where thousands of characters are filmed (or created digitally) in isolation and then matted together in post-production. But you forgive it with Avengers: Endgame because the stakes have been laid out so cleverly. And for all its CGI noise and bluster, this climactic action sequence still contains plenty of character moments, comedy and stirring emotions. (Having said that, how you respond to an archly designed moment that features all the major female characters – Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Okoye (Danai Gurira), Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Shuri (Letitia Wright), Hope van Dyne aka Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula – teaming up for *one shot* will depend on your levels of cynicism. Is it a daring, pointed, woke breakthrough? Or a rather silly bit of tokenism? You decide!)

Endgame is well named. The MCU series has continued, with movies and TV spin-offs announced for several years to come. But this film has the real feel of a season finale, an end point, a conclusion. The two biggest, most well-known and most popular characters are written out, while it features the final cameo from Marvel godfather the late Stan Lee. It’s the end of an era. Given how effective the emotional series of wrap-up scenes are, it’s also undeniably the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.

Nine men shouting, ‘Make love, not war!’ out of 10


Doctor Who (1963-2017)

Over the last four years I’ve been on a marathon quest. In 2015 I decided to watch every episode of Doctor Who, a show I’m very fond of, and tweet some short reviews. I began with the serials broadcast in the 20th century and – rather than start with the William Hartnell-starring first episode from 1963 – watched those in a randomly chosen order. Just to keep it fun. I saw 158 stories and it took nearly two years.


I then moved on to the seasons that have followed the show’s relaunch in 2005, and I saw and commented on these 144 episodes in broadcast order – one episode per tweet this time, even when they part of larger stories. This phase took 25 months. I brought it to an end after Peter Capaldi’s final appearance in Twice Upon a Time (2017) because I don’t want to rewatch and review stories starring the current Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, until there’s been a greater distance of time and perspective.


In the end, therefore, this process has meant 302 tweets – some serious, some silly, all just what I thought at the time. You can view the full archive here, as well as a statistical leader board of appearances I kept as I went along: it lists every character who’s in more than one Doctor Who story, ranked by the number of individual episodes in which they appear. (Well, it entertained me to update it after each tweet.)

Captain Marvel (2019, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck)


Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A female soldier from a far-off world crash-lands on Earth in the 1990s and soon begins to piece together her mysterious past…

‘So Captain Marvel zaps him right between the eyes,’ John Lennon once sang. That was in 1968, more than half a century ago. But the Beatle could have been psychically predicting the impact of this 2019 superhero film, because the character of Captain Marvel is slick, fun and focused. She aims, shoots and hits her target. (Yeah, yeah, when Lennon made that throwaway reference in the lyrics to his song The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill, he actually meant a different comic-book character altogether. *That* Captain Marvel now goes by the name Shazam and, coincidentally, also had a solo superhero movie in 2019.)

But the fact that, for some of us, the film’s title brings to mind a track from the Beatles’ White Album is more than just vague thought association. Captain Marvel is dominated by a theme of nostalgia, of longing for a bygone time, of revelling in reminiscing. It even begins with a unique production-company logo that pays tribute to the Marvel universe’s founding father, the late Stan Lee. Whether you were alive to experience the Beatles first hand or have come to them after the fact, they cast an enormous shadow over pop culture. For most of us, they are one of the pillars of what we think of as ‘the 1960s’; for many, they’ve played a huge role in our lives. But they spilt up 50 years ago. We all have to *remember* them in order to enjoy their music.

Captain Marvel’s lead character, however, can’t indulge this kind of nostalgia because she can’t remember her past. In Hala, the capital of the Kree civilisation – which is another of those skyscraper-heavy alien cities realised via CGI that we always get in these types of films – a young woman called Vers (Brie Larson) is being trained by a mentor-type called Yon-Rogg (Jude ‘Does anyone not guess that he’ll turn out to be a bad guy?’ Law). She’s spunky, sassy and headstrong, has superpowers, and works as part of a gang of military commandos. She’s also sexy, but not in the usual superhero-film way. This character’s allure comes from self-assuredness and arch lines of dialogue delivered in heroic close-ups. She may wear a figure-hugging uniform, but she feels quite different – more confident, more independent, less fanboy-baiting – from Wonder Woman’s cosplay costume or Harley Quinn’s Lolita act. This film doesn’t succumb to ‘male gaze’ objectifying.

Early on, Vers has a one-on-one chat with a mystical deity, the Supreme Intelligence, which seems to run the Kree civilisation. Everyone sees this spirit as someone unique, and Vers’s vision is of a middle-aged American woman played by Annette Bening. Sadly, it’s a fairly clunky opening act, inelegantly full of setup rather than storytelling. In fact, it’s not so much storytelling as ‘storytold’: we have to take in a lot of information, which isn’t always elucidated very clearly.

The upshot is that Vers is struggling to remember her past. When some bad guys later rifle through the deep folds of her consciousness (it’s that type of film), she sees glimpsed flashbacks to what we recognise as a Top Gun-style life on Earth (‘Higher, faster, further, baby!’ being the Marvel equivalent of ‘I feel the need: the need for speed!’). The villains are looking inside her mind because they’re hunting for a faster-than-light engine, which Vers was somehow involved with. But inconveniently for both her and them, she has amnesia.

Thankfully, after 22 minutes, Vers is flung across space and crash lands onto Earth – specifically into a LA branch of Blockbusters in 1995. Our theme of nostalgia really kicks into gear now, whether you’re old enough to remember the 1990s or not. If you are, there’s a whole level of pleasure-through-recognition to be had: we see a poster for True Lies, a VHS copy of The Right Stuff, a GameBoy, cyber-cafes. We hear tracks by Smashing Pumpkins and Elastica. We smirk at the now-dated technology and cars and fashions. It’s all joyful nostalgia, well deployed to get both laughs and to set the scene. (The later use of the No Doubt track I’m Just a Girl in a fight scene, however, may be a contender for the most literal-minded use of a song in any movie ever.)

The film is also wallowing in its own history. The character of Nick Fury – who arrives on the scene after Vers’s crash-landing into the video store – has been an MCU stalwart since the first entry in the series in 2008. Now we have the joy of seeing him at an earlier stage of his life – before the Avengers, before his ‘death’, before he was the leader of SHIELD. The role is still played by Samuel L Jackson, but he’s been de-aged digitally. The special-effects work is utterly magnificent. Seriously, it is a seamless piece of artifice. Fury looks to be about 40 and you very quickly forget that he’s being played by a 69-year-old. All this wizardry also means that we get an additional level of Proustian recollection: Sam Jackson was already a huge Hollywood star in the mid-90s, and another chance to see the actor who played Jules from Pulp Fiction or Zeus from Die Hard with a Vengeance running around on the cinema screen is a real thrill.

Soon, Fury and Vers are thrown together by the plot and they make such an entertaining buddy-cop team-up that you’re left wondering whether we needed all that boring setup on Halo. The actors’ chemistry and comic timing are wonderful and the film comes alive any time they’re in the same scene. How much more elegant and more instantly fun would it have been to *start* with Vers’s arrival on Earth, and for us to learn about her as she and Fury discover things together?

But, a bit regrettably, there’s a plot to service. At least we have Ben Mendelsohn as Talos, a leader of the antagonistic Skrull race who’s seemingly the bad guy of the story but who actually turns out to have a more noble intent. The actor is developing a nice career of playing entertaining foes in genre films (cf Rogue One, Ready Player One), and is great value here. But as the film develops, there are two strands going on at the same time: a story in the present with Talos and his plans, and a story in the past. It’s the story in the past that’s the more resonant.

Via an impressive variety of means – snatched memories, secret military files, exposition from other characters, photos, audio recordings – Vers pieces together her backstory. She was, as we suspected, originally from Earth and was a hotshot test pilot called Carol Danvers. (When taken away from Earth by the selfish Ron-Yogg, his only clue to her identity was a damaged military identity badge showing just the final four letters of her name.) This mixture of tools to tell the story keeps things fresh and interesting, and we feel like we’re discovering information along with our central character. The quest to find out what’s going on – who exactly Vers is, who Annette Bening’s Supreme Intelligence was based on – leads Vers and Fury to a old fighter-pilot colleague of Carol’s called Maria (Lashana Lynch) and her young daughter, Monica (Akira Akbar). The latter can remember Carol from six years previously, despite only being about eight years old – another instance of this film playing with how memories work.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has now reached 21. Captain Marvel is the 21st film in the megalithic series that shows no signs of slowing down now it can buy alcohol in America and adopt children in the UK. Whether this entry becomes as memorable as some of the big-hitters that have come before is debatable. But it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well made. It’s also very funny. A scene where characters need to wait several, silent seconds for an audio file to load on Maria’s 1990s PC is a mini-masterpiece of humour and deserves to be remembered for a long time.

Eight Stan Lees on a bus reading the script for Mallrats in preparation for his real-life cameo in that 1996 comedy movie out of 10


Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)


An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: LA and Hawaii in the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all – this isn’t an adaptation or even a horror film. Instead, it’s a romcom whose inclusion in this blogging project is solely down to a throwaway gag that sees the lead character writing a Dracula musical. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released during a noughties vogue for movies produced by Judd Apatow which centred on immature characters struggling with the trials of everyday life. Toying with gross-out humour and using the improvisational skills of their casts, the phase had kicked into gear with the out-and-out comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), then included the watchable The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), the decent Knocked Up (2007), the sublime Superbad (2007), the funny Bridesmaids (2010) and several others before its popularity petered out. Forgetting Sarah Marshall tells the story of Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the script). He writes the incidental music for an ersatz-CSI TV drama, but is thrown into despair when he’s dumped by his actress girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell). We follow him as he plummets into depression then decides to go on holiday to Hawaii, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he ends up in the same luxury hotel as Sarah and her new beau, the English rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Best performance: It’s a cast with a lot of US TV comedy connections: Segal from How I Met Your Mother, Bell from The Good Place, Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live as Peter’s brother, Jack McBrayer from 50 Rock as a newly-wed at the hotel… Even Paul Rudd – once best known as Mike from Friends – has a small role as a surfing instructor. When Peter arrives at the Turtle Bay resort, he meets receptionist Rachel Jansen. She’s a stunningly gorgeous young woman who takes a shine to him, despite his self-pitying neuroses. Rachel is played by Mila Kunis (the voice of Meg in Family Guy, to keep the TV comedy theme going), who’s able to fulfil the function of the male lead’s object of desire and yet also feel like a self-assured character in her own right.

Best bit: When Peter attempts to hit on Rachel, he boasts that he’s writing a rock opera but is then immediately sheepish when she asks what it’s about. ‘Dracula,’ he says without conviction. ‘And eternal love. That’s the theme, but I think the two kind of go hand in hand.’ He also says that his dream is to stage it with puppets. (Jason Segel is an admitted Muppets fan. Roping in puppet experts from The Jim Henson Company to help with this film led to him co-writing and starring in a reboot of the Muppets movie series in 2011.) Later in the evening, Rachel forces Peter to sing a number from his musical on stage in a crowded bar. He’s nervous, saying that out of context the song might not work, then launches into a plaintive piano ballad which he sings in an affected Broadway manner. Sample lyric: ‘And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord I will slay him/Take it from me, but I swear I won’t let it be so/Blood will run down his face when he is decapitated/His head on my mantle is how I will let this world know.’ As their relationship develops, eventually becoming sexual, Rachel urges him to finish writing the opera. Back home in LA, he does just that – and the film’s climax is built around a well-received performance of Taste for Love: A Dracula Puppet Musical at a small theatre. Peter and the other puppeteers are visible on stage, a la Avenue Q; the characters are clearly modelled on the Jim Henson idiom. It’s silly but sweet.

Review: There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud moments here, and the story never takes you by surprise, but this is an amiable-enough romantic comedy with a good cast. The Dracula musical – based on a real incident in Segel’s past – adds an oddball tone to all the conventional storytelling. It works well, especially when we see the triumphant performance. (Incidentally, Jonah Hill as a hotel worker who idolises Aldous was such a success in his scenes with Russell Brand that the actors later teamed up for spin-off: the more overtly funny film Get Him to the Greek, in which Brand reprised Aldous Snow and Hill played a new character.)

Seven little holidays with Hitler out of 10

Horror Marathon: Friday the 13th/The Evil Dead/A Nightmare on Elm Street – Part Three

Here’s the third and final part of my journey into darkness as I systematically watch and review every movie from three horror series that share fictional crossovers. You can catch up with parts one (1980-1986) and two (1987-1991) by clicking on the links.

Spoiler warning: I’ve not blown every surprise or twist, but some of the more famous plot points are revealed.

19. Army of Darkness (1992, Sam Raimi)
Transported to the Middle Ages, a young 20th-century American called Ash must continue to fight the Deadites… and find a way to get home…

Screenshot 2019-04-20 09.23.06

What a bonkers movie. Gloriously so. Following on from Evil Dead II’s time-travelling cliffhanger, Ash (Bruce Campbell) is now in the year 1300 (seemingly in England). He’s captured by a local lord who wants to sacrifice him to a beast in a pit, but soon proves his worth and sets out to find the Necronomican, the book with the power to get him back to the present… Even more of a comedy than the previous Evil Dead film, Army of Darkness gets a lot of humour from Ash’s action-movie quips contrasting with the dialogue of the earnest locals (it’s a case of Schwarzenegger vs Shakespeare). The plot is structured like a Western, with Ash as the stranger who arrives to defend a town from an outside force – but rather than Henry Fonda or Eli Wallach, this outside force is an army of Ray Harryhausen-style skeletons. When the battle comes, the Monty Python-like humour continues but it’s now complemented by a siege sequence that spookily preempts Helm’s Deep from The Lord of the Rings by a decade. The whole movie is directed archly, with enormous energy and bags of wit. The hyper-kenetic and goofy style is close to a live-action cartoon and it’s brilliantly entertaining.
Eight copies of Fangoria out of 10

20. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993, Adam Marcus)
After being caught and killed by the FBI, the spirit of Jason Voorhees transfers from person to person to continue his carnage…

Screenshot 2019-02-16 17.56.25

After a deliberately slow opening, which reminds us of the simplicity of the earliest Friday the 13th films, Jason Voorhees is gunned down by FBI marksmen. But that’s not the end: it turns out that ‘Jason’ is actually a slug-like parasite that can transfer from person to person. Who knew?! He can enter his new victim’s body via the mouth or, in one crass instance, the vagina. Having possessed the new host, he can then continue to murder people in violent ways. Riiiiight… This film, which is the second Friday film to use the word ‘Final’ incorrectly, has another parade of forgettable characters who come and go without much impact. (Perhaps the exception is Steven Williams’s Creighton Duke, a bounty hunter who acts like he’s the star of his own action-movie franchise.) There’s also a lot of nudity, sex, violence and gore – the latter provided by Greg Nicotero, a revered special-effects supervisor. It’s an exceeding silly film, which has a wispy plotline about Jason only being vulnerable to his blood relatives. But it does have special interest for this blogging project because this is where Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street collide. It’s revealed that Jason’s supernatural qualities are because his mother once used the Necronomicon book from The Evil Dead series to resurrect him. (Director Adam Marcus sneaked this cross-reference in under the radar.) Then the final image of the movie is deliberately setting up a crossover sequel: Freddy Krueger’s gloved hand appears out of the ground and pulls Jason down into hell…
Five Voorhees burgers out of 10

21. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994, Wes Craven)
Ten years after starring in A Nightmare on Elm Street, actress Heather Langenkamp suffers from nightmares herself – and comes to believe that Freddy Krueger is breaking out of his fictional realm…

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Wow. Just… wow. It feels slightly unfair on all the other films in this blog series to include New Nightmare, given that it’s not a hastily churned-out slasher film. It’s a postmodern, avant-garde experiment; a clever-clever, cerebral movie that’s deep and dangerous. Series creator Wes Craven returns to write and direct a film in which Heather Langenkamp (Nancy in Nightmares 1 and 3) plays herself. The movie Heather is an actress recognisable from horror film A Nightmare on Elm Street, but is also a wife and doting mother. She’s already under pressure from a crank caller and bad dreams when her old colleague Wes Craven (also playing himself) asks her to reprise Nancy in a new Nightmare movie alongside Robert Englund (ditto). But this story is so much more than a behind-the-scenes in-joke. Langenkamp gives a fantastic performance, playing herself but doing so as an acting role – there’s no smugness or winking to the audience (well, not much). There are smart themes at play too: of fairy tales, of the power of motherhood, of the world being off-kilter thanks to a series of Californian earthquakes. The script also talks about the nature of horror stories – Craven himself explains that the evil of Freddy Krueger was contained within his film series, but now that the movies have ended he’s free to break into reality. And when he does, it’s a darker Freddy: he’s still played by Englund, but there are no quips or sense of glee. This Fred is *scary*. A marvellous, marvellous film.
Nine pairs of pyjamas out of 10

22. Jason X (2001, Jim Isaac)
When Jason Voorhees is awoken after five centuries in suspended animation, he resumes his murderous ways… IN SPACE!

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Treading the fine line between clever and stupid, this film sees a desperate roll of the dice from the Friday the 13th creative team. And it kinda pays off… After nine films with samey settings, Jason X is Galaxy Quest-style sci-fi. We begin in the year 2010 and a captured Jason Voorhees is cryogenically frozen – but so too, by accident, is one of the team working at the Crystal Lake Research Facility. Then we cut to 455 years later. Earth is now a sandstorm-blasted wilderness. A team of goggle-wearing survivors of an apocalypse discover the lab and take both bodies back to their spaceship, where they thaw them out… There’s a definite Alien-influenced, truckers-in-space vibe going on here. There are far too many characters, so while some pop more than others – the greedy professor, the android who (typically) wants to be more human – we never get enough to time to hang out with them. But the team are refreshingly vivid, broadly drawn and unpretentious. Anyway, as you’d expect, Jason wakes up and starts killing people – it’s predictable stuff and has some haphazard storytelling, but it’s generally more fun and more engaging than you assume it’s going to be. (It helps that the film is clearly not taking itself too seriously.) One death involving a face being instantly frozen in liquid nitrogen is terrific and there are also several flashes of effective comedy, such as a funny scene that spoofs the innocent days of the first Friday the 13th movie.
Seven costume designers who clearly have an obsession with outfits that show off the female characters’ breasts out of 10

23. Freddy vs Jason (2003, Ronny Yu)
Having been forgotten by the population of Springwood, Freddy Krueger recruits Jason Voorhees to enact a murderous campaign on his behalf…

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A cast of characters so one-note they could come from one of those lame comedies like Not Another Teen Movie. A script so cheesy and cliché-riddled it’s amazing that people thought it was good enough to film. A story devoid of any texture or depth. A dead-hand-on-the-tiller director who has no sense of suspense or style… The Friday and Nightmare series had both previously shown that they can experiment and do risky things – an out-and-out comedy, a metatextual drama, a diversion into science fiction – but given the chance to combine the franchises, the result is even more tawdry and cynical than you’d expect from the title. The worst film so far in this marathon – and that’s *really* saying something.
One schoolkid in the background of a scene who’s played by Kate from Lost out of 10

24. Friday the 13th (2009, Marcus Nispel)
When a group of young people venture into the woods, they encounter the sadistic killer Jason Voorhees…

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We’re now entering the era of the horror remake. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Omen (2006), The Wicker Man (2006), Halloween (2007) and others had already been churned out before this one came along. In the plus column – and we’re clutching for straws here – this new take on Friday the 13th is not just a lazy retread of the original plot. Instead, after we see the climax of the 1980 movie restaged, we cut to more than 20 years later. The main story is then told in two unequal parts: a 23-minute section showing us some unlikable kids hanging out in the woods, being pricks, trading insults, having sex and getting killed by Jason Voorhees… then the main bulk of the film features a different group of unlikable kids hanging out in the woods, being pricks, trading insults, having sex and getting killed by Jason Voorhees. The rejig was done to both honour the original film *and* have a fully formed Jason as the killer. But this is a really rotten endeavour, lacking any wit or new ideas. As cheap and tatty as the early Fridays could be, there was at least a knockabout charm and a sense that tongues were in cheeks. This, however, is po-faced nonsense that’s close to torture porn. Dreadful dialogue, a blandly attractive cast and some serious dips in momentum make up for a putrefyingly awful experience.
Two missing-person flyers out of 10

25. A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010, Samuel Bayer)
Several young friends in the town of Springwood, Ohio, realise they’ve all been dreaming of the same scary man with knives for fingers…

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This remake of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street movie – which retells the story fairly faithfully – begins with a grim, humourless, portentous mood. Characters are scared and on edge; violence isn’t far away from the surface; and Samuel Bayer’s direction lacks any zip. Sadly, this means the film has nowhere to go tonally. As things develop, everything feels muted – from the low-energy performances to the drab colour scheme – and therefore the threat, the deaths, the scares and the shocks don’t have the impact they should. (They have nothing to contrast against.) It’s a shame, actually, as this is not an incompetent film. The dreams are nicely shot, there are some good actors involved, and Freddy Kreuger’s backstory is more imaginatively revealed than it was in 1984. But it all feels monotonous and sluggish.
Five micronaps out of 10

26. Evil Dead (2013, Fede Alvarez)
A group of friends take a young woman to a cabin in the woods so she can go cold turkey, but soon a malevolent force is awoken…

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The third and final remake in this blogging project is, by some distance, the best. Following the same basic plotline as the original Evil Dead, it sees a group of young friends (one of whom is Gotham’s Jessica Lucas) staying at a decrepit cabin in the woods. But straightaway there’s a difference from 1981. Unlike that film’s holidaymakers, these kids have a more serious intent: they’ve taken their friend Mia (Jane Levy, very good) away from the city so she can sober up after a drug addition. But then one of the group discovers a strange book full of punky, John Doe-in-Seven-style scribblings. Reading aloud from it, he evokes an evil spirit that soon starts to torment his friends… This is a terrifying film, with more than a hint of The Exorcist in his grungy coarseness (sample dialogue from a possessed Mia: ‘Kiss me, you dirty cunt!’). With some amazing, old-school special-effects gags and an enormous amount of graphic content (check out the Grand Guignol ending as it literally rains blood!), Evil Dead is a superbly put-together shocker.
Eight nailguns out of 10

27. Ash vs Evil Dead (2015-18)
Thirty years after his experiences with the Deadites, Ash is living in a trailer park and working at a hardware store. But he can’t escape his past…

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More than a quarter of a century after Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the Evil Dead series crosses over into TV. This spin-off series, which is a continuation of the films’ continuity, had Bruce Campbell reprise his most famous character for 30 episodes across three seasons. So goofy as to be essentially a sitcom with added gore, the opening episode, El Jefe, was directed by Sam Raimi, who filled it with slapstick and his idiosyncratic crash-zoom action. Ash is 30 years older than he was in the movies. He’s now living through a midlife crisis – picking up women in bars, taking drugs, living in a caravan strewn with pornography – and is noticeably more of a moron. (He’s kinda like the Fonz crossed with Mr Bean.) When Ash accidentally resurrects the same evil spirits that hounded him years before, he and his colleagues Pablo (Ray Santiago) and Kelly (Dana DeLorenzo) get involved in a horror plotline involving demonic possession.
Seven poetry reads out of 10

And relax…

Horror Marathon: Friday the 13th/The Evil Dead/A Nightmare on Elm Street – Part Two

My epic horror project continues… I’ve been watching three horror series that share narrative crossovers and recording my thoughts. You can read part one, which covered nine horror movies released between 1980 and 1986, by clicking on this link. Here’s part two…

Spoiler warning: I’ve not blown every surprise or twist, but some of the more famous plot points are revealed.

10. A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, Chuck Russell)
Teenage patients in a psychiatric hospital must join forces to defeat Freddy Krueger…

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There are some big names involved in this second Elm Street sequel. After skipping the previous entry, creator Wes Craven returned to work on the script; Frank Darabont (the director of The Shawshank Redemption) also did a pass; and the cast includes Laurence Fishburne and a pre-fame Patricia Arquette. It’s decent stuff – spooky and unsettling, even inventive at times, and done with intent. You care for the characters and want to know what happens next… Kristen Parker (Arquette, giving a good performance) has been having nightmares about Freddy Krueger, so is admitted to a psychiatric hospital where all the other patients on the ward are teens who have been dreaming of him too. Handily, the institute’s hotshot new doctor has experience in this area, because she’s Nancy from the original film (played again by Heather Langenkamp, sadly looking too young to be convincing). She helps the group, but Freddy induces some of them to kill themselves, so the survivors team up to fight back… The surrealistic dream sequences are a treat, as are several of the special effects. A subplot about Freddy being evil because he was the product of rape, however, is maybe one idea too many.
Seven papier-mâché houses

11. Evil Dead II (1987, Sam Raimi)
Ash’s nightmare continues as the Deadites torment him in the cabin…

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More a remake of the first Evil Dead movie than a traditional sequel (a story-so-far prologue plays very fast and loose with continuity), this gleefully vibrant film sees Ash Williams (a foot-to-the-floor performance from Bruce Campbell) still trapped in the same cabin and still surrounded by demonic forces. Meanwhile, the daughter of the archaeologist who originally found the Necronomicon Ex-Mortis (the book that unleashed the horror in the first place) is on her way to the cabin with some friends… This is a relentlessly entertaining horror flick, clearly made with a relish for slapstick and cartoon violence. We get a razzle-dazzle hotchpotch of stop-motion photography, greenscreens, handheld shots, POV shots, crane shots, matte shots, model shots, puppets, prosthetics, monster make-up, blood, gore, decapitated heads and arch sound effects. Directed, shot and cut with a real sharpness, Evil Dead II rivals An American Werewolf in London as the best comedy-horror film ever made. (There’s also a subtle cross-reference worth noting here: Freddy Krueger’s glove appears above a tool-shed door. It was director Sam Raimi’s sly reference to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which had in turn shown characters watching The Evil Dead on TV.)
Ten copies of A Farewell to Arms out of 10

12. Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990)
When a pair of cousins inherit an antiques shop, they realise its contents are extremely dangerous…

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With the Friday the 13th movies taking so much money no matter the quality, Paramount decided to spin the brand off into television. Co-created by film series producer Larry Mancuso, the resulting show ran for three seasons totalling 71 episodes… and never once had any narrative connection to its parent franchise. The opening episode, The Inheritance, sees the bizarre death of an antique-shop owner, after which his niece Micki Foster (an often bra-less Louise Robey) inherits the business. Not wanting it, she and her cousin Ryan Dallion (an often expression-less John D LeMay) sell off all the stock. But then a strange man called Jack Marshak (Chris Wiggins) shows up and tells them the artefacts have all been cursed by the devil! They need to get them back one at a time, thereby establishing the episodic format of the series, and their first problem is that a malevolent, sentient doll has been given as a present to a little girl called Mary (Sally Polley)… A later genre show, Warehouse 13 (2009-2014), used much the same structure – two good-looking people hunt for powerful artefacts while being guided by an older mentor type – and indeed was accused of copying its premise from Friday the 13th: The Series. It did it so much better than this drivel, which has shallow storytelling and a drab cast of characters.
Four deals with the devil out of 10

13. Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988, John Carl Buechler)
A troubled teenager is taken to Crystal Lake – the scene of her father’s death – but she triggers the return of Jason Voorhees…

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It’s quite an achievement to make a film so lacking in distinction. In a prologue, a young girl called Tina psychically yet accidentally causes the death of her father. A few years later, Tina is now a teen (Lar Park Lincoln) and her mother has brought her back to Crystal Lake to undergo therapy with a clearly dodgy doctor. While there, she somehow manages to magically resurrect Jason Voorhees, who has been trapped at the bottom of the water since the previous Friday movie. Meanwhile, there’s a gang of teenagers with 80s hairstyles staying in a cabin nearby – all are bland, all are clichés, and all are rotten. Guess what? Jason starts to pick people off, one by one. Most of the deaths are boring; at least one is inadvertently funny. There are then about 27 false endings.
Two pearl necklaces out of 10

14. A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988, Renny Harlin)
When Freddy Krueger is resurrected he targets a previous nemesis and her friends…

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Things look promising as you go into this one. The director is Renny Harlin, who later proved he can handle suspense and spectacle with Die Hard 2 (1990), Cliffhanger (1993) and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996); one of the writers is Brian Helgeland, who later won an Oscar for 1997’s LA Confidential. But it very quickly falls apart. And how. There’s an absolutely dreadful cast – even by slasher-film standards – playing friends who attend one of those 1980s American high schools where students drive expensive cars and fall into easily defined cliques. The key character is Kristen from the previous Nightmare film (recast with the anaemic Tuesday Knight), but soon Freddy is resurrected and targets the kids. Some of the dreams are quite fun, such as a body-horror-tastic sequence as Brooke Theiss’s Debbie grotesquely morphs into a cockroach, but this is an awful and very boring film. Admittedly, one decent idea bubbles away and then comes to the boil late on. Kristen’s meek and bullied friend Alice (Lisa Wilcox) initially seems to be an irrelevance, but she becomes stronger and more determined the longer the story goes on. By the end, she’s the one character who stands up to Freddy: as she prepares for the showdown she ritualistically ‘suits up’, collecting mementoes given to her by her late friends.
Three waterbeds out of 10

15. Freddy’s Nightmares (1988-1990)
When murderer Freddy Krueger walks free from court, the policeman who arrested him is tormented by his failure – and resorts to extreme measures…

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Watching on as the Friday the 13th series got a TV spin-off, New Line Cinema chose to do the same with their franchise. Freddy’s Nightmares, however, maintained more of a link to the Elm Street movies. The opening episode, No More Mr Nice Guy, acts as a prequel to Wes Craven’s 1984 film. Even with subsequent instalments telling self-contained horror plots, Freddy cropped up in a further seven stories as well as emceeing the show in framing scenes. The series ran for two seasons, totalling 44 episodes. No More Mr Nice Guy starts before Freddy (Robert Englund) has the ability to enter people’s dreams. He’s a child murderer standing trial and everyone knows he’s guilty. But when the judge learns that he wasn’t read his rights when arrested, Krueger has to be let go. This causes anguish for the grieving parents, as well as for cop Timothy Blocker (Ian Patrick Williams), the man who made the mistake. So they hunt Freddy down and burn him to death, with Blocker lighting the fire. As a piece of television, it’s occasionally shot with some style by film director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist), but the drama is feeble and the cast appalling.
Five twins out of 10

16. Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989, Rob Heddon)
When Jason is resurrected from a watery grave, he slips aboard a ship headed for New York City…

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The Friday the 13th series hits New York! Well, actually, it takes about an hour’s running time before the characters reach the Big Apple. Before that, we’re on a ship full of post-grad students. A resurrected Jason sneaks on board and slowly starts to kill them one by one… The film is garbage, admittedly, and has noticeably less gore than some previous Fridays – but at least it breaks free of the woods-and-cabins setting. There’s also a *bit* of drama going on here and there, such as nominal lead character Rennie (Jensen Daggett) having a fear of drowning caused by a prior encounter with Jason. When the survivors finally reach Manhattan, there’s some location shooting in Times Square and a subway – yet the action mostly takes place in non-descript, deserted backalleys. It’s a shame. The scenes of Jason on the rampage in New York are quite effective, but for practical and budgetary reasons they have to be fleeting.
Five pens supposedly used by Stephen King in high school out of 10

17. A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989, Stephen Hopkins)
Freddy Krueger targets a group of young friends (again), but one of them has fought him before…

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The ‘final girl’ survivor of the previous Nightmare film, Alice (Lisa Wilcox), is graduating from high school alongside her boring friends. But she’s also dreaming about Freddy Krueger’s mother, a nun who was gang-raped by lunatic criminals. Before long, the boring friends begin to die in bizarre ways, and it’s in these sequences where the film succeeds the most. Director Stephen Hopkins (Predator 2) distinguishes the real world from the nightmares by using a lot of long lenses in the former and wide-angles in the latter. The nightmare sequences are also lively and grotesque and feature some old-school special effects – Alice’s boyfriend is violently attacked by a motorbike while he’s riding it; her hot pal Greta is force-fed food by Freddy; a friend who likes comic books is sucked into his own drawings; and a sequence near the end of the movie features MC Escher-like staircases. However, the story – some nonsense about Alice’s unborn son and Freddy’s dead-but-in-limbo mother – never really takes flight.
Five scar-faced limp-dicks out of 10

18. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991, Rachel Talalay)
After a spate of suicides and strange deaths, Freddy torments Springwood’s last remaining teenager…

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The Elm Street story moves 10 years into the future for a film intended at the time to be the last in the series. It’s batshit crazy – a befuddled mix of ambitious special effects, goofy comedy, superfluous celebrity cameos and visual gimmicks. It’s never scary, and sometimes frustrating, but it zips along and is ultimately rather likeable. A social worker takes a troubled boy with amnesia back to his hometown to try to find out who he is. Given that Freddy Krueger has by now killed off all its children, Springwood has been repurposed from a sleepy Midwest suburb into a creepy, desolate frontier town populated by weirdos. (One character likens it to Twin Peaks.) The guest cast – several kids, Lisa Zane’s social worker and a bored-looking Yaphet Kotto – disappoint, as they often do in these films, but we get some truly surreal scenes in the dreamworld. One sequence, for example, features a hearing-impaired character and uses some smart sound design. We also delve deeply into Freddy’s backstory, which gives Robert Englund much more varied material to play than in the previous entries.
Six 3-D glasses out of 10

The third and final part of this horror odyssey can be read here.

Horror Marathon: Friday the 13th/The Evil Dead/A Nightmare on Elm Street – Part One


Over the last year or so, I’ve been watching three series of horror films that are linked by fictional crossovers: Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street. The plan was to view every movie in the order in which they were released, jot down a few thoughts, and give each one a score out of 10. (I also sampled the pilot episodes of some TV spin-offs.)

At times it was a struggle to remain sane through 13 months, 24 movies and three TV episodes of violence, terror, murder, carnage, gratuitous nudity and an awful lot of dreadful acting. But there were surprises along the way too – and a few decent films.

Here’s the first part of my journey into darkness…

Spoiler warning: I’ve not blown every surprise or twist, but some of the more famous plot points are revealed.

1. Friday the 13th (1980, Sean S Cunningham)
The counsellors at New Jersey summer camp Crystal Lake are terrorised by a mysterious murderer…

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Young, attractive people being persecuted by an unknown killer who first murdered years previously (as seen in the film’s prologue) and now strikes in barbaric and often theatrical ways? A shameless copy of John Carpenter’s 1978 hit Halloween, the slasher film Friday the 13th is as crass as anything. But it’s also fun in a low-budget, hammy-cast, shlock-horror kinda way. There are some differences from the Halloween format, however. There’s more nudity on show here – a well as having sex, these kids go swimming and play ‘strip Monopoly’! There’s also more gross-out gore, courtesy of visual-effects genius Tom Savini. Creepy locals, a shock twist concerning the killer (spoiler: it’s a middle-aged woman) and a bizarre dream-sequence ending give the film extra interest too.
Six rainstorms out of 10

2. Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, Steve Miner)
Five years later: trainee camp counsellors at a site near to Crystal Lake are attacked by the not-dead-after-all Jason Voorhees.

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There’s very little tension in this hastily knocked-together sequel, which repeats the same basic storyline as the first movie. This time, an even more moronic and less memorable batch of attractive young people are picked off one by one. Then for the second film running, after the killer has dispatched all the other victims with ninja-like stealth, a ‘final girl’ puts up a fight that takes quarter of an hour. Part 2’s biggest addition to the series – to horror cinema as a whole, actually – is the retconning of its main villain. In the first film, Jason Voorhees was a child who’d drowned 20 years earlier. Now we learn he actually survived and has been living rough in the nearby woods.
Four chainsaws out of 10

3. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)
Five friends rent an isolated house in the Tennessee woods, but on their first night they invoke an ancient, malevolent force…

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We now switch focus to a different series… Not a slasher film in the vein of Friday the 13th, The Evil Dead is perhaps the blueprint cabin-in-the-woods movie. A group of pals drive deep into the forest to stay in a ramshackle house, but when they find a mysterious old book and an audio recording, they accidentally summon forth an evil spirit that attacks and possesses them one by one… Despite clearly being made on a limited budget, this movie succeeds thanks to a cast who are memorable enough to care about (including Bruce Campbell’s Ash Williams) and a remarkably inventive job of direction by Sam Raimi. It’s genuinely tense, with a spooky atmosphere and effective scares right from the start. The camerawork and editing are clever, stylish and innovative – especially the low-angle, prowling shots from the evil spirit’s point of view. The sound mix and incidental music add a great amount as well, and once the characters start to turn into grotesque, screeching zombies – and the film becomes a gleeful splatter-fest – the special effects and gory make-up are just wonderful. A love of horror cinema is imbued into every frame.
Nine collapsed bridges out of 10

4. Friday the 13th Part III (1982, Steve Miner)
Having evaded capture, Jason continues his killing spree – this time targeting some kids on holiday at a nearby cabin.

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The action in this Friday the 13th film begins on the same day that Part 2 ended. Jason has escaped and moves on to butchering a group of young people holidaying in the area. The gang are another selection of poor actors, but maybe because they’re sketched in vivid strokes – the pregnant one, the fat one, the dopeheads, the hunk – they’re more likeable and watchable than their predecessors. The pick of the characters is Chris (Dana Kimmell, pictured), a glamorous beauty who had an encounter with Jason a couple of years previously. As a gimmick, the film was shot in 3D so there are lots of instances of characters holding objects close to the camera lens, and there are a few good gags such as a serial prankster not being believed while he’s bleeding to death. The film has far too many artificial scares to build any genuine tension, but it more or less keeps the interest. Note: this is the first film in the series where Jason dons his signature hockey mask.
Seven yo-yos out of 10

5. Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, Joseph Zito)
Having evaded capture (again), Jason continues his killing spree (again) – this time targeting a group of kids (again) on holiday at a nearby cabin (again)…

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After a recap that neatly merges the first three Friday movies into one story, we’re into what was genuinely intended at the time as the last film in the series. The script is the usual guff – horny teenagers (one of whom is Back to the Future’s Crispin Glover) are on holiday in the woods and are killed by Jason Voorhees in violent, gruesome ways. A twist comes from the fact there’s also a local family involved, the son of which is a horror fan called Tommy Jarvis (Corey Feldman). As humdrum as all this sounds, the film is reasonably entertaining thanks to Joseph Zito, who directs with pace and a knowing sense of humour. Jason is barely seen, at least until the now-ubiquitous duel with a ‘final girl’ (Tommy’s boring sister). We then get a truly oddball ending which sees Tommy use his amateur horror-movie make-up skills.
Seven corkscrews out of 10

6. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven)
A group of young friends are haunted in their dreams by the same terrifying man…

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We now cut to another rival series… In the town of Springwood, teenagers (including a young Johnny Depp) have all been dreaming of a scarred man with knives for fingers, and he has the ability to kill them in their nightmares. It’s a terrific concept for a horror film and writer/director Wes Craven builds a very effective story around it. The villain, Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), has less screentime than Jason Voorhees or Halloween’s Michael Myers, but he’s a much more flamboyant personality: all sarcastic quips and pointed menace. And the first time he murders someone is genuinely terrifying: while asleep, schoolgirl Tina (Amanda Wyss) is flung around her bedroom, defying gravity, and is ultimately hacked to death in a bloodbath. As well as this shock factor, the film’s most interesting feature is the way it cleverly meshes reality with dream sequences. There are flashes of subtle surrealism, but mostly the nightmares are solid, vivid and feel real, so you’re sometimes not quite sure where you are. This pretention to something psychologically deeper than a usual slasher movie means that A Nightmare on Elm Street is less schlocky than Friday the 13th or The Evil Dead. It also has a more compelling lead character than anyone seen so far in those series: the resourceful, smart, brave Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), who deliberately goes after Fred in the dreamworld, intent on destroying him.
Nine boiler rooms out of 10

7. Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985, Danny Steinmann)
A few years after his encounter with Jason Voorhees, Tommy Jarvis is sent to an offenders’ rehabilitation camp in the woods. But when people start dying, has Jason returned?

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Back to the Friday the 13th series… Although only a year had passed since The Final Chapter’s release, this relaunch of the franchise is set several years later. Tommy (recast with John Shepherd) has been suffering since the previous film. He’s plagued by nightmares and is sent to a hippie-ish halfway house for troubled young people. But then locals begin to die and it seems that Jason is back… The storytelling is staggeringly slapdash. It feels like a compilation of scenes from different films and the plethora of characters – another cast of nobodies – aren’t worth any attention. Sadly, not much else is either. The tone is often going for goofy (comedy rednecks, stupid cops, a waitress who flashes her tits at herself in a mirror, diarrhea jokes) but it’s *never* funny. We then get a couple of ‘shock’ twists at the end, one of which is quite sly, one of which is just silly. (A fun side note: at one point Tommy dreams about when he was a child, so in the dream the character is played by original actor Corey Feldman. He shot his one scene on a day off from The Goonies.)
Two chocolate bars out of 10

8. A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985, Jack Sholder)
Five years after Nancy Thompson’s encounter with Freddy Krueger, the killer returns to torment a new victim…

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Teenager Jesse Walsh (Mark Patton) has moved into Nancy Thompson’s old house, but is soon plagued by dreams of Fred Krueger (Robert Englund), who then starts to possess him and use him to kill people… This is a weirdly limp film; it relies on music, make-up and special effects for its impact, rather than writing, acting or dramatic staging. For example, the nightmare sequences are more ‘far-out’ than in the first Elm Street film and use more ‘movie-ish’ special effects – an opening scene involving Freddy driving a school bus ends up looking like something from a Terry Gilliam film. But there’s no oomph, no rising menace. As many people have spotted over the years, there’s also an undeniable thread of homoeroticism: Jesse is often seen topless and sweaty (sometimes in his Y-fronts); there are scenes in boys’ showers and a gay bar; and a sadistic PE teacher is stripped naked and towel-flicked on the arse before Jesse/Freddy kills him. You almost have to admire the movie for its sheer unusualness. Almost.
Four parakeets out of 10

9. Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986, Tom McLoughlin)
Jason Voorhees is resurrected and continues his killing spree around Crystal Lake…

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After his traumas in the last couple of Friday films, Tommy Jarvis (recast again, this time with a lively Thom Mathews) is determined to make sure that his nemesis is dead. So, during a thunderstorm at night, he digs up Jason Voorhees’s corpse. But a bolt of lightning resurrects the killer a la Frankenstein – d’oh! We then, um, cut to a spoof of the famous James Bond barrel-of-a-gun logo. That’s right: Part VI is essentially a comedy… and you know what? It’s a hoot. Some jokes, such as the many visual gags and witty cutaways, wouldn’t feel out of place in Airplane! (1980). In fact, this self-aware tone is pretty much a precursor of Wes Craven’s postmodern horror film Scream (1996). Upon encountering a machete-wielding Jason, for example, one character says she’s seen enough movies to know he’s bad news. Because of all this tomfoolery, the film doesn’t really generate any scares or tension. The gore levels are also noticeably reduced from previous Fridays. But it doesn’t especially matter. The plot might be hokum – Jason indiscriminately kills camp councillors, paintballers and yuppies, while Tommy tries to warn people – but the film has zip and is a lot of fun.
Eight crotch shots out of 10

You can read part two of my multi-series odyssey here…

Avengers: Secret Wars – Why I Hate Halloween (2017, Micah Gunnell)


An occasional series where I watch and review works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: Initially known as Avengers Assemble before some season-specific rebrands, this animated show for children is a spin-off from the phenomenally successful series of Marvel movies. It uses many of the MCU’s characters and puts them in very similar situations, though the TV show forms its own fictional continuity. Beginning on Disney XD in 2013, there have so far been five seasons totalling 126 episodes. This episode – a kind of Halloween special – was first broadcast on 8 October 2017 during season four, which formed a story arc called Secret Wars. However, the events actually take place during season three (Ultron Revolution). We begin on 31 October in an unspecified year (modern day) at an underground base in Manhattan. Events then move to a safe house in Rutland, Vermont (codenamed, ironically, the beach house).

Faithful to the novel? No, it just uses the title character. As the episode begins, the Avengers – Hulk, Captain America, Hawkeye, Thor, Iron Man – are invading a secret base under New York City which is a home for the fascist cult Hydra. They find a scientist called Whitney Frost, who has been experimenting with vampires in order to create super-soldiers for Hydra’s evil plans, but when the vamps – animalistic creatures more like humanoid dogs than anything else – attack, Hawkeye takes Frost to a safe house. They’re soon attacked by Hydra goons, and then someone knocks on the door. No one appears on the CCTV camera aimed at the porch, but when Frost opens the door standing there is Dracula (voiced by Corey Burton). He’s an arrogant, silky-voiced, tall, well-built man with light-blue skin and white hair. The character had actually been a recurring bad guy in this show’s first season. He wants to punish Frost for meddling in the affairs of the vampires: ‘She must be chastised.’ The heroic Hawkeye protects her.

Best performance: Whitney Frost is voiced by Wynn Everett, the actress who played a different version of the same character in the superior live-action TV show Agent Carter. Nice touch.

Best bit: When Hawkeye smugly points out that Dracula can’t enter the safe house unless he’s invited, Dracula simply orders his vampire hordes to tear the house down.

Review: Unlike the parent film series, this episode gives a lot of screentime – and some personality – to the character of Hawkeye. Frost calls him the ‘weakest’ Avenger a couple of times, a gag that reflects how the character in the movies has failed to pop in the same way as his colleagues, but it works in context here as this episode is all about him stepping up and doing his job well. It’s action heavy and nuance light, but fast-paced and enjoyably flippant.

Six back-up quivers out of 10