Star Trek: The Original Series – season three (1968-69)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season three…

Best episode:
* Spectre of the Gun. With viewing figures unimpressive, NBC actually axed Star Trek after its second season. Then, at least in part due to an organised letter-writing campaign by fans, it was given another year – but on a smaller budget and in a less favourable time slot. Creator Gene Roddenberry also stepped away from the production. So season three has long had a crummy reputation, not least because of its lack of ambition. (In 24 episodes, they filmed on location just once.) The lack of money is evident in several episodes, but the one that sidesteps the problem the best is Spectre of the Gun, a brilliant take on the classic Hollywood Western. Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley) and Chekov (Walter Koenig) find themselves in an alien reconstruction of the Arizona town of Tombstone in October 1881. The Enterprise crew realise they’re the Clantons. The Earps are nearby and the scene is set for the Gunfight at the OK Corral… As they had to shoot this episode on a soundstage, and save cash, the production team decided to go surreal. The sets contain deliberately missing walls; the barriers between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ are blurred; the sky is a vivid, bold red. It’s a brilliant effect, both heightening and supporting the script.

Honourable mentions:
* The Enterprise Incident. A tremendous espionage plot as Kirk and Spock are captured by a female Romulan officer (a watchable turn from guest star Joanna Linville), who then starts to fall for Mr Spock. There are plenty of twists and a spy-story structure.
* The Paradise Syndrome. An intensely odd episode, this. Kirk suffers from amnesia as he’s left behind on a planet populated by Native American types. He falls in love, marries, and grows sideburns in the months it takes for his colleagues to return and pick him up. (Downside: the near-constant incidental music gets irritating, and you also need to excuse a fair amount of naive 1960s racism.)
* Is There in Truth No Beauty? Ultimately a rather silly episode with some naff attitudes, but it contains a good guest appearance from Diane Muldaur (later a regular in Star Trek: The Next Generation) and a nicely disguised plot twist.
* Day of the Dove. A claustrophobic episode that sees the crew trapped on the Enterprise with a group of Klingons and an alien force that exaggerates negative and aggressive tendencies. The end is rather risible, though, as humans and Klingons alike down weapons, call a truce and burst into fake hearty laughter to outfox the alien entity.
* For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky. Merits a place on this list just for its amazing, poetic title! It’s an engaging enough story about Dr McCoy falling terminally ill (spoiler: he gets better) and having a romance.
* Wink of an Eye. It’s an intriguing concept for a sci-fi episode (aliens move at a vastly higher speed, so are imperceptible to humans), but the season’s budget restrictions mean it’s another episode that’s dragged out by scenes on familiar sets.
* Whom Gods Destroy. By this point, we’re past the point of boredom with the powerful-yet-loopy-villain cliché, but this episode at least has a fun guest star (Batgirl Yvonne Craig), lots of doppelganger scenes (cue William Shatner acting opposite his body double) and a general air of oddness.
* Let That Be Your Last Battlefield. Some rather hamfisted satire of race relations is made enjoyable by interesting guest characters (including one played by Frank Gorshin) and a tense sequence as Kirk threatens to destroy the Enterprise unless its control is returned to him.
* The Mark of Gideon. The meat of the story is a bit rancid – something about an arrogant race on an overpopulated planet – but Kirk being conned into thinking he’s on an abandoned Enterprise works well. (Spoiler: it’s actually a Truman Show-style recreation.) There are some surreal images and a strong subplot for Spock, who gets to act as both diplomat and detective.
* The Savage Curtain. A fun one, as Kirk meets his hero Abraham Lincoln (sort of). It gets a big eggy as the show a) rolls out another ‘war is bad’ metaphor, and b) yet again refuses to leave the soundstage for exterior scenes. But it’s enjoyable tosh.
* All Our Yesterdays. An enjoyable, if convoluted, concept episode. Visiting a strange library on an empty planet, Kirk is accidentally sent back in history – to a time similar to the earth’s 17th century. Spock and McCoy, meanwhile, are sent back even further and end up trapped in a harsh Ice Age wilderness. Being 5,000 years in the past begins to affect Spock’s psychology (somehow) and he becomes emotional…
* Turnabout Intruder. Star Trek’s final episode is one of its more ludicrous. A woman swaps bodies with Kirk, Freaky Friday-style. While playing the nefarious Dr Janice Lester masquerading as Kirk, Shatner overeggs it something rotten, but the gimmick plot works and it keeps the interest (which is more than can be said for many season-three episodes!).

Worst episode:
* The Way to Eden. Hippies. Hippies singing songs. Eugh.

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Star Trek: The Original Series – season two (1967-68)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of Star Trek: The Original Series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season two…

Best episode:
The Trouble with Tribbles. A terrific comedy episode, full of wit and class. Behind the scenes, there were worries the show was going too far into self-parody with this story, but there was no need for concern. The big hitters among Star Trek’s cast – William Shatner (Captain Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Mr Spock) and DeForest Kelley (Dr McCoy) – were all capable comic actors, able to play funny scenes without undercutting the premise. (Thirty years later, spin-off show Deep Space Nine produced a tribute episode in which that show’s characters travel back in time and interact with the events of The Trouble with Tribbles. It’s an absolute marvel.)

Honorable mentions:
* The Changeling. It seems old-fashioned now, as many Stark Trek ideas do (because they’ve been copied so often), but this is a generally engaging episode about a computer that’s out to destroy all non-perfect life. Our heroes must, essentially, out-logic it to death. The less said the better, however, about the subplot where Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) has her memory wiped so must learn to read again!
* Mirror, Mirror. A fantastic, foot-to-the-throat thriller based on an imaginative idea: the Enterprises crosses into a parallel dimension where they meet their fascistic, sadistic and cynical counterparts (which obviously gives the regular cast a chance to have some fun). The concept has since been rehashed several times in other Star Trek series, but here it still feels fresh and very dangerous.
* The Doomsday Machine. A passable episode with a Moby Dick metaphor. (Rather than a whale, it’s a giant planet-killing entity from another dimension.)
* Catspaw. Another story about an all-powerful figure toying with lesser beings, which Star Trek was very keen on, but this episode has gothic trappings and fun guest characters. It perhaps loses its impact as it becomes more campy and hokey, especially when Kirk and Spock are menaced by a giant cat (ie, a normal cat filmed in such a way that we only see its enormous shadow).
* I, Mudd. Roger C Carmel returns as guest character Harry, who is now king of his own planet populated by androids, and is again an enjoyable presence. The episode contains the now-hoary idea that robots can be turned loopy if you confuse them.
Journey to Babel. There’s some good, meaty drama for Spock as we encounter his parents for the first time. His Vulcan father, Sarek (Mark Lenard), needs a blood transfusion but, with Kirk incapacitated, Spock feels his duty is to command the Enterprise rather than give blood. He should logically stay at his post.
The Deadly Years. A decent one. The key members of the crew are affected by a virus and begin to age artificially, which leads to Kirk having to be relieved of command when his memory starts to fail him. (This is one of several episodes that highlight the stupidity of sending a starship’s captain, first officer and chief medical officer on missions together!)
* Obsession. A simplistic plot, on which an engaging character drama about Kirk’s guilt for a long-ago catastrophe is hung.
* Wolf in the Fold. The famed Scotty-as-Jack-the-Ripper episode. It’s perhaps not as good as its reputation suggests (there are too many scenes of computers explaining the plot) but it whips up to a maniacal climax.
* A Piece of the Action. Near enough a comedy, but played and directed with a light touch. Not for the first time in Star Trek’s run, it’s a let’s-use-the-backlot episode: standing sets are used for an alien planet that has modelled its whole society on Al Capone-era gangsters. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy revel in the gangster idiom and are great at playing their respective characters’ differing reactions to the situation.
* Patterns of Force. Another episode where the Enterprise stumbles across an alien world that’s oddly similar to an era of Earth history (which allows the production to save some money by shooting of pre-existing sets). This time, Kirk and co go looking for a long-missing Starfleet officer and find him as the leader of an ersatz Nazi Party. It’s a gripping episode with something to say and some surprise turns.
* The Ultimate Computer. Kirk feels threatened when an ‘AI captain’ is roadtested on the Enterprise. Not the best, but it contains a wistful scene where Kirk romantically ponders the golden era of sail (quoting John Masefield’s poem Sea-Fever: ‘And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by’). Co-stars Blacula himself, William Marshall.
* Bread and Circuses. *Yet again*, the Enterprise discovers an alien culture modelled on a period of Earth history. This time: Ancient Rome, though an Ancient Rome where people have technology and guns. It’s clunky at times but generally enjoyable and contains – gleefully – a satire of the television industry when we see behind the scenes at the gladiator contests. Also, Spock and McCoy share a lovely heart-to-heart scene.
* Assignment: Earth. Not the most nuanced or fluid piece of television you’ll ever see, but interesting for its minor place in Star Trek history. A back-door pilot for a spin-off show that never happened, this episode spends a lot of time seeding the potential new characters, such as the enigmatic Gary Seven, his secretary, his intelligent cat and his idiosyncratic computer.

Worst episode:
The Apple. A boring, naff episode about the crew wandering around a soundstage jungle set and encountering hippies who don’t know what love or sex are.

Star Trek: The Original Series – season one (1966-67)

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Over the last few months I’ve rewatched all of the original Star Trek TV series. Here’s what I thought were the notable episodes of season one…

Best episode:
Balance of Terror. The debut of the militaristic Romulans in Star Trek is a terrific episode that plays like a submarine movie. The Starship Enterprise stalks a Romulan ship in the Neutral Zone between the two empires’ territories and the story is tense and exciting. There are also subplots and an interesting villain and telling character moments. Superb.

Honorable mentions:
The Naked Time. A fun, early episode that sees the regular crew go a bit loopy after being affected by a virus. It’s well paced and has good stuff for both Sulu (George Takei), who gets some gleeful scenes where he fences topless, and Spock (Leonard Nimoy), who struggles with his human/Vulcanian psychology.
* The Enemy Within. The central concept has become a sci-fi cliché – due to a transporter accident, an evil doppelgänger of Captain Kirk is let loose on the Enterprise – but it’s very well done here. William Shatner hams it up as the evil Kirk and there’s a ticking-clock element to the plot thanks to some crewmen stranded on a desolate planet below.
* Mudd’s Women. It’s not exactly ‘woke’, being a story about a charlatan selling women to miners, but Roger C Carmel is very entertaining as the lead guest character: the flamboyant and verbose Harcourt Fenton Mudd.
* Miri. The first really great episode. (Balance of Terror wasn’t broadcast until after this one.) A set of enigmas is set up – a planet that looks identical to Earth, a society that seems to be stuck in the 1930s, no adults anywhere to be seen – then a plot with a countdown is kicked into gear. There’s good drama along the way and it’s well directed too. The subtext of the story is that, after puberty, people do ‘bad things’.
* The Menagerie (Parts I & II). An ingenious way to save some production budget by reusing footage from Star Trek’s then-unbroadcast pilot episode, The Cage, as a flashback story. The wraparound scenes have mystery and intrigue because Spock is acting so out of character.
* The Conscience of the King. An effective – if thoroughly prediactable – drama about an actor who may be a mass murderer in hiding. There are plenty of Shakespearean parallels and quotations, such as the title.
* Shore Leave. The regular characters spend some time on a planet but start to hallucinate and undergo personality changes. Fun and surreal, if lightweight.
* The Galileo Seven. A superb showcase for both Mr Spock – the show’s most fascinating character – and the actor who played him. The story sees Spock, Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelly), Scotty (James Doohan) and others stranded on a planet with no way of contacting the Enterprise. There’s a monster nearby, deaths within the group, and dissention in the ranks…
* Tomorrow is Yesterday. A fun time-travel story (Star Trek’s first ever) sees the Enterprise end up above 1960s America and encountering an Air Force test pilot. The script has a good sense of humour.
* Space Seed. An entertaining episode about a megomaniac from the 1990s coming out of suspended animation. (The second Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, is a direct sequel.)
* A Taste of Armageddon. A society is killing its own people as part of a deal with its enemy, rather than the two states launching actual attacks. A decent story about the futility of war.
* This Side of Paradise. A good episode for Spock, who’s pacified by a weird spore and then has a romance. (It’s kind of a druggie/hippie metaphor, I guess.) The only way Kirk can shake him out of his ennui is by provoking an emotional response.
* Errand of Mercy. Kirk and Spock are stranded on a planet under Klingon occupation. Engaging stuff. (This is the Klingons’ first appearance in Star Trek.)
* The City on the Edge of Forever. It’s contrived, and needs a lot of sci-fi set-up, but this is a brilliant time-travel tragedy with a good guest performance from Joan Collins. When a disturbed Dr McCoy is flung back into 20th-century America, Kirk and Spock must give chase. There’s lots of future-men-out-of-water stuff as the two men adapt to a more basic lifestyle, then the tragic ending really packs a punch.

Worst episode:
The Squire of Gothos. It’s become such a cliché in science fiction: a capricious, arrogant, sociopathic god-like figure toys with people because he’s bored. And as well as being boring and irritating, this example gets its history wrong and has a dreadful deus ex machina ending.

My 10 favourite James Stewart films

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James Stewart – perhaps Hollywood’s best ever ‘everyman’ actor – had a film career of over half a century, from a supporting role in 1935 crime movie The Murder Man to a voice part in 1991 animation An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. In between he starred in some of the biggest and most important movies around, so on what would have been his 111th birthday, here’s a list of his 10 best.

10. Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall)
James Stewart appeared in several Westerns throughout his career; it was a genre he especially enjoyed. This was his first – and it’s often played like a comedy. He stars as Tom Destry Jr, an unconventional lawman who takes on a criminal gang but refuses to carry a gun. Marlene Dietrich is top billed as the local saloon owner and gets as couple of songs to sing. Other decent Westerns starring James Stewart include two films directed by Anthony Mann – the episodic Winchester ’73 (1950) and the predictable but well made The Man from Laramie (1955) – as well as…

9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford)
A classy team-up with director John Ford and his favourite star, John Wayne. In the late 19th century, US Senator Ranse Stoddard (Stewart) arrives in a low-key town to attend a funeral. The bulk of the film is then a flashback to 25 years later, showing Stoddard’s first visit to the town during which he encountered and stood up to a savage local thug. There’s a good supporting cast – Vera Miles as the love interest, Lee Marvin as the heavy – as well as effective themes about how memories and myths can’t always be trusted.

8. No Highway in the Sky (1951, Henry Koster)
A character part for Stewart here, as he plays an aviation engineer who fears that a new fleet of commercial aircraft will fail. His character, Theodore Honey, has a razor-sharp intellect and a passionate determination – but is also a befuddled widower who forgets where he lives. This fun British film has a smart, understated script and some terrific production values. Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins and a young Janette Scott co-star.

7. Harvey (1950, Henry Koster)
A delightfully breezy comedy about a man who has an imaginary friend in the form of an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. Elwood P Dowd (Stewart) is a benign eccentric, but his sister attempts to have him committed – which leads to a farce-like plot of misunderstanding, whimsy and humour.

6. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)
This social satire sees Stewart as a naïve man elevated to the US Senate by cynical political operatives; they think they can manipulate him into voting their way, but don’t count on his guile and decency. The plot peaks with a grandstanding sequence where Jeff Smith (Stewart) filibusters for 25 hours to block a dodgy bill passing through the Senate, but there’s also lightness and romance along the way too. (This was the second of three times Stewart worked for director Frank Capra.)

5. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
The highlights of James Stewart’s career were often his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock; the two men made four films together. In the decent The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Stewart plays one of his classic everyman roles – a husband and father who gets caught up in international espionage. But his first character for the Master of Suspence was Rupert Cadell, a sly university professor who attends a party hosted by two of his former pupils. Slowly it dawns on Cadell that the men have done something dreadful: they’ve murdered a friend as an intellectual exercise, hidden his body in a trunk, and then invited his loved ones round for drinks… The movie, famously shot in long takes, is absolutely gripping throughout. Click here for a full review.

4. Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
A courtroom drama shot like a film noir with a jazz score by Duke Ellington. Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a small-town lawyer who takes on the defence of a man accused of killing a love rival. It’s a dark film, cynical and seedy at times, but so engrossing that its long running time (160 minutes) is never an issue. Part of the reason for its success is, like all great legal dramas, the details of the case are investigated with such precision; part of the reason is the strong cast (George C Scott as the prosecution lawyer, Ben Gazzara as the defendant, Lee Remick as the defendant’s girlfriend); and part of the reason is Stewart’s endlessly watchable performance as Biegler, a melancholic character who likes fishing and playing the piano.

3. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
Stewart’s second role for Hitch was, like Rope, in a concept film. This time he plays LB Jefferies, a photographer who’s housebound due to a busted leg. During a heat wave, from his apartment window, he watches life going on outside – and then comes to belief that he’s seen his neighbour committing murder. The camera never leaves Jefferies’s side, so we see events totally from his point of view. It’s a spectacularly effective piece of filmmaking. Click here for a full review.

2. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
For a long time, there was a cliché that was often pedalled about It’s a Wonderful Life: that it’s an overly sugary, sentimental film without much depth – the very model of a ‘feel-good’ movie. But it’s now become just as much a cliché to point out that that’s not the case. Yes, there’s a stunningly upbeat ending – an explosion of joy and positivity and happiness that has no equal in cinema. But before we get there, this is a dark, shaded drama about a good, decent man who’s driven to the point of suicide. Stewart excels as small-town guy George Bailey, a role that allows the actor to display his astronomical charm and comic timing but also show us what a great dramatic performer he was. George is in virtually every scene and you feel every setback, every dent to his dreams.

1. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
James Stewart’s final role for Alfred Hitchcock was in a movie that has sometimes – such as in Sight & Sound’s most recent big poll of experts – been called the greatest ever made. A twisted, seductive story about obsession, Vertigo sees the actor as Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop who’s hired to keep an eye on a troubled woman. When she dies in front of him, Scottie is racked with guilt. He then becomes unhealthily focused on the dead woman, and later happens to see another woman who looks uncannily similar… Alfred Hitchcock shows a masterful command of both form and feeling; Stewart carries off an enormously complex performance throughout.

Horror Marathon: The Hellraiser series

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A few months ago, I saw the horror film Hellraiser for the first time. Impressed and seduced by Clive Barker’s twisted tale, I then decided to delve into its many sequels – some of which Barker was involved with, some of which he’s pointedly disowned (“If they claim it’s from the mind of Clive Barker, it’s a lie. It’s not even from my butt-hole”). I found a wide variety of quality within the series, ranging from the abjectly awful to the surprisingly complex. Here’s my journey into darkness…

SPOILER WARNING: Minor plot points will be revealed.

1. Hellraiser (1987, Clive Barker)
When a married couple move into a new house, wife Julia discovers her missing brother-in-law is in the process of returning from hell…

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Produced for under £1m, this British-American horror movie was directed by Clive Barker and based on his own novella The Hellbound Heart. Searing and stylish, it’s a compelling watch. Affable American Larry (Andrew Robinson) and his uptight British wife, Julia (Clare Higgins), move into a new home. Then Julia discovers an awful truth. Larry’s rebellious younger brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), was recently sucked into hell after toying with dark magic in the hope of an intense pain/pleasure experience. The device that allowed entry to that world is an ornate, cube-shaped puzzle box. Frank is now in the process of escaping, but is being chased by the demonic Cenobites (Doug Bradley and others)… For all its horror elements – intense violence, torture, nightmarish threats, *extremely* graphic gore – this is a story about a twisted love triangle. It’s a psycho-sexual drama about Frank and Julia’s obsessional affair that almost entirely takes place in one suburban house. (Where that house is, by the way, is difficult to answer. Almost every character is American, yet the filming locations are demonstrably in England.) Added into the mix is Larry’s daughter, Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), who becomes the heroine of the story as she uncovers the horror going on…
Nine pet shops out of 10  

2. Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988, Tony Randel)
Later that night, Kirsty is in hospital – but her doctor is showing an odd fascination in her case…

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This sequel – made with only light involvement from Clive Barker – is sometimes appealing and has a certain Gothic strangeness. But it’s also often cheesy and hammy and is far less nuanced than the original. Kirsty is in hospital after her experiences in the first film. Her doctor, Channard (Kenneth Cranham), already knows about the Cenobites and is obsessed with them and their mythology. He eventually teams up with Julia (Clare Higgins again, playing her more archly this time) and there’s then a lengthy sequence set in hell, which ticks several predictable boxes: eerie music, endless corridors, macabre circus performers, stop-motion animation, wind and smoke. Meanwhile, the lead Cenobite – now officially credited as Pinhead (Doug Bradley) – gets both a music-video entrance and an interesting backstory.
Four bandages out of 10

3. Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992, Anthony Hickox)
A TV reporter investigates a violent death and encounters the Cenobites…

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Frustrated journalist Joey (Terry Farrell from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) stumbles across a story when she sees a mutilated victim being brought into a hospital. This leads her to an underground nightclub, where the slimy owner has recently bought a strange statue… The first Hellraiser film financed by the Weinstein brothers’ Dimension Films company, Hell on Earth is certainly trash. There’s a lot of crass dialogue and a parade of bad actors (several of whom sound like they’ve been dubbed in post-production). Director Anthony Hickox is also a fan of pyrotechnics, Dutched camera angles and early 90s coloured lighting, then gives us a drawn-out, overblown action-movie finale – so subtly is not the order of the day. But there’s just enough atmosphere and arresting images to keep you watching and entertained. Especially fun is the sequence where Joey is given a ghostly tour of the backstory by Pinhead’s human form (Doug Bradley sans make-up).
Six red roses out of 10

4. Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996, Alan Smithee)
On a space station in the far future, a man tells the story of the demon-summoning puzzle box and says he’s set a trap…

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Rather joltingly, we start in space. It’s the year 2127 and an eccentric man is holed up in a space station he designed himself. The vibe in part Alien, part Babylon 5. Then the man, Paul Merchant (Bruce Ramsay), tells a strange story… We cut back to France, 1796. Merchant’s ancestor Phillip (Ramsay again) is a toymaker. He’s built an ornate puzzle box for a client, who then uses it in a bizarre ritual that brings a demon called Angelique (Valentina Vargas) from hell to earth… It’s creepy if hammy stuff with decent production design, editing and music – and we’re also back to the first film’s themes of obsession and of pain, violence and torture being aspects of sexual pleasure. The bulk of the film is then set in the modern day (1996) and features another member of the Merchant family, an architect called John (Ramsay for a third time). Angelique is still around and targets him and his family. Pinhead (Doug Bradley) also shows up… which is a shame because as he takes centre stage (on the orders of the studio), the sexy and intriguing Angelique fades into the background and the film becomes less interesting. By the time we eventually return to the space station, the momentum has dropped out of the story.
Six twin security guards out of 10

5. Hellraiser: Inferno (2000, Scott Derrickson)
A police detective is tormented by hellish visions as he attempts to track down a missing child…

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LAPD detective Joseph Thorne (the David Boreanaz-alike Craig Sheffer) likes speed chess, wordplay and prostitutes but is trapped in a dour marriage. At a crime scene he finds the puzzle box we’ve seen in previous films and nabs it for himself. But when he absentmindedly opens it, his life starts to get *weird*: a hooker he’s slept with is brutally murdered and he begins to have visions of demons… Rather than the baroque horror of the earlier movies, Inferno – the first straight-to-DVD Hellraiser – feels more like a seedy cop movie. In fact, the connection to the Hellraiser concept is pretty loose and Doug Bradley’s Pinhead barely features. Instead, we get clichés such as an angry police captain, a gullible sidekick, and a minor character played by a famous actor who turns out to be the villain. (The production designers were also surely big fans of David Fincher’s 1995 film Seven.) Scott Derrickson, who later made the Marvel movie Doctor Strange, directs with a music–video sensibility, so we do get some striking horror images, but the script lacks clarity. There’s a gumshoe plot going on about a mysterious man called the Engineer who may have kidnapped a child, but the film doesn’t seem that interested in it. There are loose ends, a central performance that doesn’t convince, and a final nightmarish third that toys with silliness. Nevertheless the dreamlike weirdness and tough-guy edge make it reasonable watchable.
Six fingers out of 10

6. Hellraiser: Hellseeker (2002, Rick Bota)
After his wife dies in a car crash, a man is haunted by hallucinations and other strangeness…

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This sixth Hellraiser sees the return of the original film’s Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), but in the first scene she drowns after a car accident, and her widower, Trevor (Dean Winters), is left in a bad way. Physically fine, he starts to realise that his memory is not reliable – and because the film is from his point of view we share in his confusion. Did he have an affair? Did he visit a strange warehouse? Was his relationship with Kirsty as happy as it seemed in the opening scene? The film is playing interesting games with perception and reality, presenting us with a puzzle made up of conflicting evidence. (It feels more like a paranoia thriller or an episode of The Twilight Zone than a horror movie. You can also detect the distinct influence of Christopher Nolan’s movie Memento.) As with the preceding Hellraiser, Doug Bradley’s Pinhead is little more than a cameo – just a few brief glimpses and then an exposition scene at the end where we get a pleasing twist ending. The cast lets the film down, especially Winters, who can’t quite convince us of the horrors Trevor is experiencing. However, this is still a surprisingly complex and engaging film.
Seven camcorders out of 10

7. Hellraiser: Deader (2005, Rick Bota)
A journalist is drawn into a terrifying world while investigating Deaders, a group attempting to gain control of the Cenobites’ realm…

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This is a grimy, putrid film: aside from brief scenes at the proto-hipster offices of UK newspaper The London Underground, the story plays out is decaying, flaking, dark spaces; there are flies and sludge and filth. Journalist Amy Klein (Kari Wuhrer) is sent to Bucharest to report on a death cult called the Deaders. Her only lead turns out to be a corpse, but she then finds the all-important puzzle box. Opening it, she summons Pinhead – who’s engaged in some kind of battle of wills with the Deaders for control of the Underworld – and her life gets more and more bizarre… The film has a few tense scenes and effective scares, as well as some genuinely out-there weirdness (following a lead to a Metro train, Amy finds an entire carriage given over to a steampunk-themed orgy with Hustle’s Marc Warren holding court). The longer it goes on, though, the more muddy the storytelling gets.
Three VHS tapes out of 10

8. Hellraiser: Hellworld (2005, Rick Bota)
A group of gamers are invited to a party connected to their favourite game, but can they trust the event’s host?

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Clichés abound in this eighth Hellraiser entry, which sees a batch of noughties slackers (one of whom is future Superman Henry Cavill) attend a party but encounter hellish experiences and violent deaths. Let’s list a few of the hamfisted, overused tropes: portentous church music and close-ups of Christian iconography to suggest religious overtones; early scenes with clunky expositionary dialogue; a ‘real’ scene being revealed as a dream; gamers being addicted to an online game that’s clearly too basic to engage anyone; a Gothic mansion; a rave where extras dance out of time to the music; a midrange star cast as the villain (Lance Henriksen); a cute female character who wanders off on her own for no reason; sex scenes shot like a music video… It’s a dreadful film: slow, stupid and simplistic.
One ultraviolet, 24-hour, wildly popular and yet utterly purposeless, embraced-by-the-masses internet roleplaying game out of 10

9. Hellraiser: Revelations (2011, Victor Garcia)
Two young Americans go on a hedonistic trip to Mexico, where they encounter violence and a mysterious puzzle box…

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Shot in just three weeks on a tiny budget – as a cynical ploy by Dimension Films to retain the Hellraiser rights – Revelations should be utter garbage. There are daytime-soap performances among the new characters while Doug Bradley has jumped ship after eight appearances as Pinhead (to be replaced by someone eminently forgettable). The film is also crudely edited and relies too heavily on Blair Witch-style camcorder footage. But despite these limitations, it’s just mediocre rather than offensively awful. In the plus column, the movie digs down deep into the same sordid subject matter as the original Hellraiser – it’s another story about perverse pleasure and obsession. In fact, there are several visual echoes and plot nods to Clive Barker’s 1987 movie, as well as the same love of extreme gore. But it’s still mediocre.
Four bullshit genericas out of 10

10. Hellraiser: Judgment (2018, Gary J Tunnicliffe)
Three police detectives hunt down a serial killer called the Preceptor, but the investigation leads to an encounter with hellish denizens…

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In an unspecified city, a trio of detectives are on the trail of a macabre murderer who kills ritualistically for religious reasons. It’s all very sub-Seven, but then the cops comes across the Cenobites, who are attempting to find new ways of tempting souls into hell… There are several clichés of low-budget filmmaking on show here – shaky camerawork, poor framings, a remarkable lack of people on screen who aren’t the lead actors, and a general sense that corners are having to be cut. The design work is decent (check out the Terry Gilliam-esque typewriters!) and gore freaks will love the amount of graphic mutilation on show. But this is grim, pretentious drivel with some really inept storytelling and a fairly rubbish cast.
Two Star Wars quotations (‘What an incredible smell you’ve discovered’) out of 10

Five years of reviews…

When writing reviews for this blog, I usually end with a score out of 10. It’s just meant as a bit of fun, but because today (Tuesday 2 April 2019) marks five years since my first review I thought it’d be appropriate to explain the grading system.

The mark is simply a reflection of how much I enjoyed seeing or listening to the thing. It’s a gut reaction, just a number that feels right. However, I do have some principles that I try to stick to. Firstly, I want to keep an optimistic frame of mind. I go into a review hoping I’m going to like the film/show/album and, when writing the blog post and deciding on the score, I try to accentuate the positive. This isn’t always possible, of course – have you *seen* Carry On England?! – but popular culture is important and it’s worth celebrating when we can.

I’m also keen to judge a work on its own merits – in other words, how does it rate against other examples of its type? (There’s no point slagging off a low-budget comedy for not having huge action scenes, that kind of thing.) This can mean that the scoring system is not really consistent across the board. A 10/10 episode of Blake’s 7 is not necessarily as good as a 10/10 James Bond film. Those series have differing qualities, expectations and levels of success.

Anyway, once I’ve watched the movie or the TV show or listened to the album, I come up with a score out of 10 to express how good I think it is. Here’s a guide to what I think the numbers mean…

10 – A masterpiece. Something I adore and think is essentially perfect (it may have flaws but they simply don’t matter). Something I enjoy returning to often. Something that is pretty much as good as it can be.
Examples: action film Die Hard, Beatles album Abbey Road, Hitchcock movie Rear Window, the Fawlty Towers episode The Kipper and the Corpse, all three Back to the Future films…

9 – Excellent. It perhaps lacks that stratospheric element that would push it up into the 10s, but it’s still extremely impressive, very enjoyable and something I think is worth shouting about.
Examples: superhero film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the pilot episode of Firefly, the Blake’s 7 episode City at the Edge of the World, silent movie The Lodger, the idiosyncratic Escape from the Planet of the Apes

8 – Very good. Better than the majority, obviously, and perhaps better than it needs to be. There’s something notable that lifts it above the crowd.
Examples: Hammer horror Dracula A.D. 1972, 80s comic-book movie Superman III, sitcom Blackadder the Third, Hitchcock’s Marnie, Tarantino’s Django Unchained

7 – Enjoyable. Given that I select projects to review, and rarely choose something I know I won’t like, 7/10 can be considered par. It denotes something that is solid, decent, entertaining, but may have some issues. Every review starts out as a 7, so the film/show/album must do something significantly bad to score lower or have something especially admirable about it to score higher.
Examples: 80s comedy Weird Science, 90s Bond picture Tomorrow Never Dies, Spielberg’s first film, ABBA’s final album, Star Wars spin-off Rogue One

6 – Yeah, it was good. Far from perfect, but I liked it. Nothing special but nothing offensively bad or anything.
Examples: the remake of The Karate Kid, blaxploitation chiller Blacula, Oasis album Be Here Now, Marvel movie Thor: The Dark World, sci-fi sequel Alien: Resurrection

5 – Hmm, that’s got problems. It *fine*, I guess. I don’t regret watching/listening. But maybe I found more things I disliked than liked.
Examples: the schlocky Alien vs Predator, the slooooow first Star Trek movie, 90s vanity folly Four Rooms, the clunky 70s remake of King Kong, superhero misfire Suicide Squad

4 – Oh, come on. That’s not great. A movie, episode or album that makes you question whether you’re wasting your time.
Examples: Tim Burton’s lumpen Planet of the Apes, the worst series of comedy show Red Dwarf, limp kids film The BFG, the empty The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the rotten remake of The Omen

3 – Fairly awful. We’re talking properly rubbish here. Something that, while maybe showing promise, really doesn’t work as a piece of entertainment.
Examples: the horror spoof Stan Helsing, the worst film Alfred Hitchcock ever made, the irritating-as-hell Natural Born Killers, the first Ewoks TV movie, the 1960s Casino Royale

2 – ARE YOU SERIOUS? THEY RELEASED THIS? Something that is undoubtedly dreadful. Our lives would be better off if it had never been made. But perhaps there’s one element – a performance, say, or a certain scene – that prevents it getting the worst score possible.
Examples: the depressingly tatty Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, the disco-themed vampire flick Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula, the stunningly misjudged Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, an inept 1965 episode of Doctor Who, a jaw-droppingly awful Carry On TV special that contains comedy paedophilia…

1 – Without merit. Total crud. Something that is not only disastrous, it also *annoyed* me when I reviewed it.
Examples: the putrid fifth Die Hard, the Coen brothers’ worst film, the pathetic Carry On Emmannuelle, the amateurish kinda-sequel to The Wicker Man, the gobsmackingly cheesy Star Wars Holiday Special

40 years, 40 films…

Today (Saturday 16 March 2019) is my 40th birthday, so I thought it would be an interesting challenge to see if I can nominate my favourite film from each of the previous 40 years. ‘Favourite’ is the key word here – they’re not necessarily what I think is the *best* movie (though in many cases that means the same thing). They’re the films I love the most, the films I most enjoy going back to again and again.

Narrowing it down was a really tough task, and I’ve had to exclude so many movies that are precious to me – the first two Aliens, A Christmas Story, Return of the Jedi, the first two Terminators, Clue, Withnail & I, Die Hard, DOA, Heat, Seven, 12 Monkeys, Fargo, Grosse Pointe Blank, Jackie Brown, Edgar Wright’s last three films and many, many more.

Here’s my roll call of favourites…

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979)

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The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

E.T. the Extra Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982)

WarGames (John Badham, 1983)

Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)

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Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986)

The Living Daylights (John Glen, 1987)

A Fish Called Wanda (Charles Crichton, 1988)

Licence to Kill (John Glen, 1989)

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The Hunt For Red October (John McTiernan, 1990)

JFK (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Sneakers (Phil Alden Robinson, 1992)

Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993)

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

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The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer, 1995)

From Dusk til Dawn (Robert Rodriguez, 1996)

L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997)

Out of Sight (Steven Soderbergh, 1998)

American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999)

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Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000)

Amélie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)

The Bourne Identity (Doug Liman, 2002)

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (Gore Verbinksi, 2003)

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004)

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Serenity (Joss Whedon, 2005)

Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, 2006)

Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007)

The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008)

Star Trek (JJ Abrams, 2009)

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Easy A (Will Gluck, 2010)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, 2012)

The Lone Ranger (Gore Verbinski, 2013)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2014)

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)

The Nice Guys (Shane Black, 2016)

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard, 2018)

Now I’ve completed the list I can see trends: a dominance of Hollywood; a childhood love of films with George Lucas and Steven Spielberg connections; teenage years dominated by crime movies; a recent affection for big-budget escapism; a recurrence of James Bond.

Let me know in the comments section below if I’ve picked something you love too (or hate!)…

My 10 favourite John Carpenter films

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To celebrate the 71st birthday of film director John Carpenter, here’s a list of what I think are his 10 best films.

10. Prince of Darkness (1987)
A group of post-grad students spend the night in an old church to investigate a mysterious cylinder which may contain the essence of Satan. As you’d imagine, things soon start to go wrong… It’s a film full of fascinating ideas and themes – real science, empiricism, religious mythology, dreams, time-travel, a cameo from Alice Cooper – but sadly not enough storytelling focus. The second half of the film gets quite intense and features some really out-there horror, but none of the characters is compelling enough for us to care.

9. Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
Carpenter’s love letter to kung-fu movies is a breathlessly directed comedy. It gets quite samey in the middle, but it’s often fun and is worth seeing for the amazing sets and Kurt Russell’s subversively inept action hero.

8. The Thing (1982)
A remake of a famous 50s B-movie, this has brilliantly bizarre monster make-up and special effects. It’s also tense and claustrophobic. Shame we don’t care more about the large cast of all-male characters, though.

7. Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Carpenter’s first mainstream film. (He’d previously directed Dark Star (1975), a low-budget sci-fi comedy that spoofs 2001: A Space Odyssey but replaces the awe and wonder with mundanity.) It’s a Western-style siege plot, but the story plays out in a grimy, gritty, modern-day inner city. There’s bad dialogue and flat performances all over the place, but you’re pulled through by the amazing incidental music, the bursts of ultraviolence and the general sense of menace.

6. They Live (1988)
A sci-fi actioner about a man who uncovers an alien conspiracy in modern-day LA. The social satire is very good, as is the visual device of sunglasses allowing you to see the truth. Again, it’s a shame about the lacklustre characters. There’s also a punch-up that seems to last about half an hour.

5. Memoirs of an Invisible Man (1992)
A sweet if overly lightweight Chevy Chase comedy-thriller. The story’s slight and predictable, but the special effects are wonderful. The film was made slightly before the digital revolution, so we get a fun mixture of practical and optical tricks – all inventive. (Sadly, nothing Carpenter’s done since this film is worth seeing. Especially bad are the cheesy Vampires (1998) and the dunderheaded Ghosts of Mars (2001).)

4. Starman (1984)
A very charming film about an alien (an endearingly childlike Jeff Bridges) stranded on Earth. It’s not just the story’s similarity to ET that makes you think of Steven Spielberg; it’s the sense of wonder too (and the presence of Raiders of the Lost Ark‘s Karen Allen, excellent as the widow who helps the alien get home).

3. Escape From New York (1981)
A brilliantly cynical sci-fi thriller set in a dystopian 1997. Kurt Russell plays former special forces soldier Snake Plissken (‘I heard you were dead…’), who’s coerced into a mission to rescue the US President (Donald Pleasance) when he crash-lands in a city-wide, lawless prison. Dark, twisted and a lot of fun. (Avoid the belated sequel, though.)

2. The Fog (1980)
A gorgeously atmospheric ghost story about a coastal town being terrorised by a century-old secret. There’s an ensemble cast of interesting characters and everything is so eerily evocative. Despite very little explicit horror – there’s almost no gore – it’s extremely scary and tense. Beautifully filmed too.

1. Halloween (1978)
This is a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. For a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode; Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis; and the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.

Horror Marathon: The Halloween film series

To celebrate 40 years since the release of influential horror film Halloween, I recently rewatched it… and then delved into all the sequels, spin-offs and reboots. It was often fun. It was often dispiriting. And that was just trying to keep track of all the times films ignore previous entries in the series. Here’s my journey into darkness…

Spoiler warning: Minor plot points may be revealed.

1. Halloween (1978, John Carpenter)
Fifteen years after he murdered his sister, psychiatric patient Michael Myers escapes hospital, returns to his home town and targets a group of young friends…

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It’s a staggeringly simple story – a ruthless, seemingly unstoppable killer picks off victims one by one – and has been copied endlessly ever since. But the first modern slasher film is still the best. Made for just $325,000, it’s a stripped-down, economical movie: trim, taut and terrifically constructed. Carpenter’s script has no flab on it and his shooting style is a masterclass in how to create mood and suspense. The widescreen anamorphic format keeps you looking for threats and danger in every corner of the frame, while long Panaglide shots give scenes a formal, elegant beauty. (The latter also sometimes act as Michael’s point of view, such as in the film’s bravura opening: a four-minute long take as he stalks and murders his sister.) But for a film about a violent killer, there’s actually little gore on display; Halloween is more about tension and scares. In her first ever movie, Jamie Lee Curtis is very good as virginal lead character Laurie Strode, one of the horror genre’s definitive final girls. Donald Pleasance adds a bit of class as Michael’s manic psychiatrist, Dr Loomis. And the excellent incidental music (written by the director) is both creepy and catchy.
Nine jack-o’-lanterns out of 10.

2. Halloween II (1981, Rick Rosenthal)
Later that same night, Michael Myers continues to terrorise teenagers in the town of Haddonfield…

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This direct follow-on picks up at the very moment that film one finished. John Carpenter co-wrote the script and produced, but later said he didn’t think he did a very good job. An injured and shaken Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis again, though given far less to do this time) spends most of the film in the world’s quietest hospital as Michael’s killing spree continues. Meanwhile, Dr Loomis continues trying to hunt Michael down. It’s a shlockier film than the original: there’s deliberately more gore, because the horror genre had moved on swiftly in the three years since the original, and more nudity too. But it’s still tense and scary enough to be basely entertaining. The imaginatively staged deaths are far more interesting than the new sacrificial characters, while the incidental music is again fantastic.
Retcon alert! In the first film, Michael targeted Laurie simply because he happened to see her near his childhood home. But we’re now told that they’re siblings: Laurie was adopted at a young age by the Strode family after older brother Michael went loopy. Not even Dr Loomis, Michael’s long-time psychiatrist, knew about the link until this film.
Six hydrothermal baths out of 10.

3. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982, Tommy Lee Wallace)
A doctor and a grieving daughter investigate a mysterious toy company… 

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The oddity of the Halloween series: a self-contained horror story that has nothing to do with Michael Myers, Laurie Strode or the town of Haddonfield. In fact, it’s not even a slasher film. Season of the Witch is more like the kind of plot later seen in The X-Files – there’s horror and there are deaths, but it’s a conspiracy thriller about a spooky business run by a man with a secret, and the film is more about computers and CCTV cameras than a crank with a carving knife. It’s *wonderful*, a real gem that deserves a much better reputation. There’s a fantastic oddball tone to the whole thing (while still being scary), as well as an amazing score by producer John Carpenter and some very classy camerawork by cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, the Back to the Future series, Jurassic Park).
Retcon alert! The original Halloween film actually exists in this story’s fiction – characters watch a TV advert for an upcoming screening.
Eight Shamrock Novelties masks out of 10

4. Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988, Dwight H Little)
On the tenth anniversary of his killing spree, Michael Myers escapes once again and returns to Haddonfield to target his seven-year-old niece…

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He’s back. After Season of the Witch’s attempt to morph the series into an anthology of different threats, Michael Myers was resurrected and wheeled out for a third iteration of the same basic slasher storyline. It’s 1988, 10 years on from the events of the first two films, and Michael learns that his sister Laurie has died in a car crash. (Jamie Lee Curtis, by now a huge star thanks to world-class comedy turns in Trading Places and A Fish Called Wanda, didn’t want to come back.) So instead Michael goes after her young daughter, the aptly named Jamie played a not-bad Danielle Harris. Meanwhile, poor old Dr Loomis gives chase again, this time with a scarred face and a walking stick after the trauma he suffered in film two. Original co-writer/director John Carpenter had left the series after Season of the Witch, which may explain why this film is so plodding and why most of the deaths lack the shock factor of the original or the flamboyance of Halloween II. But let’s give the movie an extra mark for its unsettling – and genuinely unexpected – ending.
Retcon alert! Both Michael and Loomis were patently killed in Halloween II, but now we’re told that they were ‘nearly’ burnt to death.
Five roofs out of 10

5. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers (1989, Dominque Othenin-Girard)
A year later: the presumed-dead Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield (again) to continue his persecution of his niece…

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After a recap of film four, which has some new footage to explain that Michael actually survived a hail of bullets and crawled away into the woods, we cut to a year later. It’s Halloween again and the town of Haddonfield is tempting fate again by celebrating it. After her trauma in the last movie, young Jamie (Danielle Harris, impressively intense throughout) is now in a children’s hospital. She’s troubled, mute and scared, while Dr Loomis (a frail-sounding Donald Pleasance) is still keeping a watch over her. And we meet a whole new gang of kids for Michael to kill: a desperately drab gang, one of whom is a prick who dresses up as Michael Myers *as a prank*. This film was directed by Dominique Othenin-Girard, who later made the appalling Omen IV. He does a terrible job. It’s shot and cut like a TV movie; many scenes feel rushed or abrupt; Michael’s first kill is confusing because the camera ‘crosses the line’; there’s precious little tension; the story is forgettable; and the deaths lack theatricality. The script is atrocious too.
Retcon alert! Not so much a contradiction, more a confirmation, but Michael’s supernatural quality is finally made explicit in this film. In earlier films we’ve been invited to question whether he’s something more than a man – he’s repeatedly survived being shot and burnt, for example. But now we learn that he has a psychic connection with his niece.
Three comedy cops (scored by cartoon incidental music) out of 10

6. Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995, Joe Chappelle)
Michael escapes from a secretive cult who have been holding him prisoner for six years and continues his quest to murder his family…

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Decidedly unscary and exceedingly boring, this film sees the series sink lower than ever before. Jamie (recast with JC Brandy) is now a teenager and has been held captive by ritual-loving weirdos for six years. She gives birth, then escapes with her baby. So uncle Michael gives chase – back to Haddonfield (again)… A lost-looking Paul Rudd (Clueless, Friends, Ant-Man) plays Tommy Doyle, a character who was a child in the original film; he’s now an adult with a Michael Myers obsession who pervs at his next-door neighbour who just happens to be related to Laurie Strode and lives in Michael’s childhood home. A visibly unwell Donald Pleasance returns for a final time as Dr Loomis (the actor died before the film was released), and the plot picks up hints from Halloween II that there’s a supernatural reason why Michael always strikes on 31 October. But this is a truly abysmal film. The script is half-arsed horseshit, and it’s directed with the nuance of a wrecking ball. There’s an obsession with empty, artificial, horror-movie clichés, for example, while none of the characters feels even remotely real.
Retcon alert! At the end of Halloween 5, we saw a mysterious ‘man in black’ character take Michael away but leave Jamie behind. Now, we’re told that he kidnapped Jamie too – and both have been locked away in an underground bunker ever since.
Two radio phone-ins out of 10

7. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998, Steve Miner)
Having faked her death, Laurie Strode is living under an assumed name and working as a school headmistress. But then, two decades after her encounter with brother Michael Myers, he returns…

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Laurie Strode is living under a new identity, having gone into hiding after the events of Halloween II. She has a 17-year-old son, who goes to the secluded private school where she works, but she’s dogged by nightmares and has a drink problem. On the 20th anniversary of her encounter with Michael, her brother shows up again intent on killing her, so Laurie decides to fight back… A *galactic* leap up in quality from the previous few movies, this project was instigated by Jamie Lee Curtis. The script has life and bounce to it, while there’s a confidence and a competency to the staging. Because it’s the postmodern 1990s, we also get plenty of knowing references to other horror films – the Friday the 13th series, Scream 2, Frankenstein, Psycho… (Among several nods to the granddaddy of slasher films is the casting of Jamie Lee Curtis’s mother, Psycho star Janet Leigh, in a small role.) The school setting, teenage characters and funny dialogue are also reminiscent of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while a more-interesting-than-usual guest cast (Adam Arkin, Michelle Williams, LL Cool J) only add to what is a very enjoyable slasher movie.
Retcon alert! The last three films are wiped from the narrative slate completely. Laurie’s off-screen death, Laurie’s daughter, Michael’s extra killing sprees – all are now ignored. This presents the oddity that Michael and Dr Loomis’s deaths in Halloween II are being retconned for a second time.
Eight ice skates out of 10

8. Halloween: Resurrection (2002, Rick Rosenthal)
A group of kids take part in a reality show filmed inside Michael Myers’s childhood home. But they don’t know he’s in the house too…

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After an opening 15-minute sequence that’s basically an extended Jamie Lee Curtis cameo so she can be on the poster, we cut to Haddonfield University. A gang of students (all thoroughly dull except for Katie Sackhoff’s spirited Jen) win places on an internet reality show called Dangertainment. The plan is for them to spend the night in Michael Myers’s long-abandoned house and for people to watch them online. In other words, the postmodern pep of Halloween H20 has given way to noughties narcissism. Unfortunately for the contestants, Michael has sneaked into the house and rather slowly bumps them off one by one… It’s rarely tense or scary and you never really care what’s happening. But in the film’s favour, there’s some satire of reality shows – the producers have salted the house with artificial scares, for example, while viewers assume the murders are staged. There’s also a neat bit of writing when the murders kick off: a friend of a contestant is watching online, so texts her with guidance (‘He’s climbing up the stairs,’ etc). Meanwhile, Busta Rhymes plays Dangertainment’s producer and almost keeps a straight face when he confronts Michael: ‘Trick or treat, motherfucker!’ It’s not a great movie, but it’s not as awful as some of the previous ones.
Retcon alert! Halloween H20 ended with Laurie decapitating Michael Myers, but we’re now told that it wasn’t Michael. He’d earlier switched places with an unfortunate paramedic who was unable to tell Laurie who he was because his larynx had been crushed. (Why he didn’t remove the mask, though, is another matter.)
Five internet Emmys out of 10

9. Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)
After a killing spree, a young boy called Michael Myers is committed to a psychiatric hospital. But 15 years later he escapes to go after his surviving sister…

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This remake of the 1978 original also acts as a prequel. It begins with more than half an hour focusing on Michael Myers as a child – a topic covered in less than five minutes by John Carpenter. We see him kill his elder sister, his stepfather and a school bully – all of whom have it coming because they’re so obnoxious – then his sessions with psychiatrist Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell). So rather than Michael being a character-less, motiveless ‘Shape’, we see events from his point of view and understand why he is how he is. All this means it’s nearly the halfway point before we meet teenager Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and enter a dreary retelling of the 1978 plot. The grown-up Michael is played by the 6’9″ Tyler Mane, while Danielle Harris (Jamie in Halloweens 4 and 5) plays Laurie’s pal Annie and has to suffer the indignity of acting topless for several scenes after Michael attacks Annie while she’s having sex. That coarseness sums the whole movie up, really. This is the kind of horror film that’s all about a sustained tone of unpleasantness, a focus on suffering and pain, and characters who are pricks for no reason. It’s a dreadful, depressing couple of hours, full of caked blood and sharp edges and gore and rape and a grimy colour palette.
Retcon alert! Obviously, being a reboot, all the previous movies are ignored. In a change from the 1978 original, Michael and Laurie are siblings straight away here.
One taco deluxe supreme out of 10

10. Halloween II (2009, Rob Zombie)
A year later: Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield…

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Just like Rob Zombie’s first Halloween movie, this sequel has a fetishist fascination with gore, blood, suffering and general unpleasantness. The film goes intense and graphic early on, which means there’s never any chance of suspense or dynamic storytelling: if it’ll show *that* early on, you think, then it’ll do anything. After a looooong opening sequence which is then revealed to be a nightmare, the body of the film takes place a year after the events of the previous film. Laurie (Scout Taylor-Compton) has PTSD: she’s now a wild child and says fuck a lot. Meanwhile, Dr Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) is living off the fame of the Myers case, while the not-dead-after-all Michael Myers has been having Freudian dreams about his mother. (Soon, for some reason, Laurie’s having dreams about her too – a woman she hasn’t seen since being a baby.) Michael then heads back to Haddonfield and begins killing again… This dreadful, ham-fisted, charmless travesty has two light-hearted things of note. It’s the first Halloween film to mention Mike Myers, the Austin Powers actor. And, because she’s been to a fancy-dress party, Laurie spends the last third of the story dressed as Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Retcon alert! Michael Myers was shot in the face in the previous film, but now we’re told that no body was found.
One shaggin’ wagon out of 10

11. Halloween (2018, David Gordon Green)
Forty years after his killing spree, Michael Myers escapes custody and heads for the victim that got away: Laurie Strode…

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Thankfully, the latest entry in this up-and-doooooooown series is a really entertaining slasher film made with thought and craft and decent storytelling. Wisely turning its back on the humourless, hackneyed tone of the Rob Zombie reboots, this sequel to the 1978 original may be yet another Halloween film that pretends previous films don’t exist – but it’s so entertaining that doesn’t really matter… Forty years after Michael Myers tormented her, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is a hardened, embittered and lonely women. She’s kept at a distance by her grown-up daughter (Judy Greer) and has spent four decades preparing for Michael’s return. (In promotional interviews, Curtis likened this version of Laurie to doomsday preppers.) When Myers (inevitably) escapes and goes on another murderous rampage, Laurie’s granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) gets in the way… This is a horror film that never forgets that horror only works in relation to other stuff: we need to know and care for the characters; the darkness must contrast with the light. So we get plenty of moments of humanity and humour, and a well-cast and interesting group of characters. As well as Laurie and her family (all very good), Allyson’s babysitting mate Vicky and the young lad she’s looking after are especially fun. All that means that when the tension builds, it’s effective. And when the violence comes it’s savage. Add in some clever callbacks to John Carpenter’s original and you have a terrific way to cap forty years of carnage.
Retcon alert! Yet again, lots of previous sequels are ignored… including the last time Laurie Strode returned to the series and ignored previous sequels! Also, the fact Michael and Laurie are siblings is now downgraded to a rumour.
Eight basements out of 10

Ten Things I Love About North by Northwest (1959)

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An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When advertising executive Roger Thornhill is mistaken for a spy, it leads to a cross-country game of cat-and-mouse…

In a specially shot trailer to promote his new movie. Alfred Hitchcock stands behind a travel agent’s desk. He tells us that his latest film will cover many miles across America and take viewers on a thrilling adventure. ‘A vacation from all your problems,’ the master promises. He’s not wrong. North by Northwest is escapism of the highest order – breezy, confident, witty and a huge amount of fun. Here are 10 reasons why it’s one of Hitch’s best and most entertaining films…

1. The title sequence… North by Northwest’s credits play over a slick, modernist masterpiece of graphic design by Saul Bass. Kinetic typography moves fluidly, inventively and stylishly across shots of New York skyscrapers, and the music is also out of this world – brassy, bold, memorable. The score is by Bernard Herrmann, an all-time great film composer whose career began with Citizen Kane (1941), ended with Taxi Driver (1976), and took in eight collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock. The movie’s title, by the way, is a deliberate piece of nonsense. Borrowing the phrase from Shakespeare (‘I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw’), Hitchcock and writer Ernest Lehman knew that it had little to do with the story. Events might move in vaguely that direction across America; we might see an airline called Northwest – but the title is more an acknowledgement that the movie isn’t intended to *mean* anything beyond uncomplicated enjoyment.

2. The opening scenes… The body of the film begins so quickly, with so much energy. Madison Avenue advertising executive Roger Thornhill is heading out of his office, to meet some clients at a fancy restaurant, and as he walks he rattles off instructions to his loyal secretary. There’s fast dialogue, dynamic camera moves, and even location filming on a busy New York City street. The sequence sets up the tone and pace of the movie brilliantly: this story will not hang about and, as we watch Roger con a man into giving up his taxi, we also know that it’s not going to be taking itself too seriously either.

3. Cary Grant… In many ways, Roger Thornhill is a Hitchcock standard: he’s the innocent, likeable man accidentally caught up in a dangerous plot that he knows nothing about. (This idea also crops up in The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Saboteur, The Wrong Man, Frenzy…) Due to a misunderstanding in the restaurant, two heavies wrongly believe that Roger is really a spy called George Kaplan. They kidnap him, bundle him into a car, and take him to see their boss… Cary Grant is perfect casting for the film’s lead character; it’s his final role for Alfred Hitchcock and his most memorable. There was an early idea to cast James Stewart, and he would of course have done an excellent job. But Stewart’s Thornhill would have been more everyman, more full of all-American outrage. Grant, however, knows he’s playing a fantasy: he’s debonair and smooth and can handle light comedy, tough dialogue, action and romance. He knows that, while it must be played straight, North by Northwest is pure adventure. (It was surely this role above all others that put him top of United Artists’ wish list when casting for James Bond in 1962.)

4. The mystery… In truth, the entire plot is one big MacGuffin. Hitchcock defined a MacGuffin as something ultimately uninteresting to the audience but which motivates the characters and drives the action. In North by Northwest, there is a story going on about American spymasters inventing a secret agent as a decoy in order to ensnare a villain. But does anyone care? It’s not important and Hitchcock knows it: the ‘plot’ is simply an excuse for the suspense, the entertaining characters, and the heightened incidents along the way as Roger fumbles around to find out what’s going on.

5. The bad guys… Having been kidnapped, Thornhill is taken to a large house outside the city and introduced to the silky criminal Phillip Vandamm, whose first scene sees him methodically switching lamps on as he circles and studies a confused Thornhill. Vandamm refuses to believe Roger when he protests that he’s not a spy called George Kaplan, but unlike many movie bad guys he never rants or raves or throws tantrums. He simply presses on as if Roger were a CIA agent intent on ruining his nefarious plans. Vandamm is played by James Mason, who purrs through every scene with undimmable assurance, while second-in-command Leonard is played by Martin Landau.

6. Style… In part, North by Northwest feels so fresh because it has had a big influence. Subsequent movies have followed suit to such a degree that it’s never really gone out of fashion. The mix of suspense, comedy, action, sex, theatrical sets and dramatic incidental music was more or less copied wholesale for James Bond when that film series began three years later, while you can also detect the elan and sophisticated humour of North by Northwest – taking things *just* seriously enough – in Steven Spielberg films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park.

7. Eva Marie Saint… After escaping and then being framed for the murder of a diplomat, Roger is on the run from both Vandamm and the police. So he sets out to track down the elusive George Kaplan and get some answers. This involves a train journey from New York to Chicago, during which he meets fellow passenger Eve Kendall, played by Eva Marie Saint. The studio had wanted Singin’ in the Rain’s Cyd Charisse for the part, but Hitchcock stood firm. Another example of his obsession with complex blondes, she’s sexually bold and flirtatious… and of course isn’t what she first appears. Saint is terrific, playing the role with just enough guard that you’re initially not sure of her motives. The cross-country train ride also provides us with another James Bond parallel. The second 007 movie, 1963’s From Russia with Love, also features characters with secrets sharing a buffet-car table – just one of several apparent nods towards North by Northwest…

8. The dust-cropping scene… Perhaps the film’s most famous sequence comes when Roger gets off a bus in the middle of nowhere, hoping to rendezvous with Kaplan. Initially all alone at an isolated country bus stop, he then encounters a man who points out that a nearby plane is dusting crops but doing so over fields where they are no crops. After the guy has been picked up and Roger is alone again, he realises the plane is getting closer and closer. And then it attacks, swooping just feet above Roger’s head and forcing him to throw himself to the ground. It circles back and strikes again and again… Roger only escapes its menace when the plane crashes into a passing petrol tanker. From slow build-up to explosive climax, this is nine minutes and 20 seconds of pure cinema. (It’s also another scene later homaged in From Russia With Love, this time with a helicopter.)

9. Mount Rushmore… The trail of breadcrumbs eventually leads Roger to Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, where he encounters the CIA chief (Leo G Carroll) who concocted the idea of George Kaplan as a decoy. And what was Kaplan intended to distract Vandamm from? The real agent… Eve Kendall. But Vandamm is close by too, and has Kendall prisoner. Eventually, Eve and Roger flee and escape up to the top of the famous Mount Rushmore façade, a scene which is as gloriously silly as any in a Hitchcock film. It combines an action-movie chase with the bonkers sight of huge Presidential faces and the very real threat of a fatal fall…

10. The final image… After two hours of excitement and enjoyment, Vandamm is dead, Eve safe, and Roger on his way back to his comfortable life in New York. But Hitchcock has one final cheeky gag. Roger and Eve are in their carriage aboard a sleeper train. As they start to get amorous, Hitchcock cuts to… the train entering a tunnel.

Ten men trying to catch a bus out of 10