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

Part two of my multi-series odyssey will be published on 20 September…

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Every Alfred Hitchcock film – ranked

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Over the last couple of years I’ve been watching and reviewing every surviving Alfred Hitchcock movie. So as today (Tuesday 13 August 2019) marks 120 years since the director’s birth, here are all those films in order of preference…

53. Number Seventeen (1932)
An underwhelming, muddled mess that sees various ill-defined characters doing boring things in an abandoned house. Read the full review here.

52. Juno and the Paycock (1930)
A plainly filmed drama based on a dull stage play set during the Irish Civil War. Read the full review here.

51. The Farmer’s Wife (1928)
Soppy and forgettable melodrama. Read the full review here, where I go off-topic and discuss where Hitchcock got his ideas from.

50. The Skin Game (1931)
Badly made, run-of-the-mill drama about landowners. Read the full review here.

49. Easy Virtue (1928)
A meandering romantic potboiler. Read the full review here.

48. Champagne (1928)
Frivolous and lightweight, this silent comedy sees an heirless lose her money. Read the full review here.

47. Elstree Calling (1930)
Hitchcock directed some linking scenes for this diverting if up-and-down sketch film. Read the full review here.

46. Jamaica Inn (1939)
A well staged, but ultimately lacklustre, adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel. Charles Laughton hams it up something rotten. Read the full review here.

45. Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)
An attempt at a screwball comedy, with one of the genre’s leading lights – Carole Lombard. It doesn’t really come off, but is still reasonably enjoyable. Read the full review here.

44. I Confess (1953)
A po-faced Montgomery Clift plays a priest wrongly accused of murder in a drama that misfires. Read the full review here.

43. Topaz (1969)
The spy plot is often clunky and the cast is one of Hitchcock’s weakest, but there’s a certain European glamour to proceedings. Roscoe Lee Browne has an enjoyable minor role as an undercover agent. Read the full review here.

42. The Paradine Case (1947)
Good turns from Gregory Peck and Louis Jourdan make this illogical courtroom drama worth seeing. Read the full review here.

41. Rich and Strange (1931)
A married couple splurge some newfound cash on an around-the-world holiday. Throwaway but fun. Read the full review here.

40. Suspicion (1941)
Cary Grant excels – did he ever do anything else? – as a flashy cad whose marriage to Joan Fontaine doesn’t go well. Read the full review here.

39. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The first of two Hitchcock films using the same storyline about a couple’s child being kidnapped by terrorists. This version suffers a bit from stiff-upper-lipedness but is enlivened by Peter Lorre turning up as the villain. Read the full review here.

38. The Birds (1963)
Not as wonderful as its reputation suggests, but still excellently made and genuinely terrifying at times. Read the full review here.

37. Under Capricorn (1949)
A rare Hitchcock period film, this 19th-century drama set in an Australian colony town is fun to watch because most scenes are shot in long, unedited, theatrical takes. Read the full review here.

36. Foreign Correspondent (1940)
Far from Hitch’s best movie about international espionage, this loses steam after a fun opening act. But the director was so adapt at this genre that it’s still entertaining. Read the full review here.

35. The Ring (1927)
An engaging silent film about boxing and romance. Read the full review here.

34. The Manxman (1929)
Before he became the Master of Suspense, Hitchcock directed in a variety of different styles; here, for example, is a likeable melodrama about a love triangle on the Isle of Man. Read the full review here.

33. Murder! (1930)
This early talkie has a lot of vibrant visuals and an interesting plot about an actress accused of killing a colleague. Read the full review here.

32. Secret Agent (1936)
An entertaining spy film that eerily pre-empts the tropes of the James Bond stories – 16 years before Ian Fleming wrote his first novel. Read the full review here.

31. Torn Curtain (1966)
Another espionage thriller, this time with Paul Newman’s scientist defecting to East Germany and being followed by his concerned girlfriend (Julie Andrews). The plot is see-through but there are some great moments, including a macabre death scene for one of the bad guys. Read the full review here.

30. Saboteur (1942)
It lacks star power and is episodic, but this is one of several entertaining Hitchcock films about a man wrongly accused of a crime. Read the full review here, in which I discuss the context of making a war film during the war.

29. The Trouble with Harry (1955)
A pleasingly quirky black comedy about a dead body being found in the woods. John Forsythe, Hitchcock regular Edmund Gwenn and Shirley MacLaine (in her first film) lead the cast, while the autumnal colours of New England are gorgeously presented in VistaVision. Read the full review here.

28. Spellbound (1945)
Ingrid Bergman is the star attraction in this torrid, psychology-based thriller about a man (Gregory Peck) with amnesia posing as a doctor. Ignore the naïve character work; enjoy the stellar cast and the way Hitch ekes out the mysteries for all their worth. Salvador Dalí helped create the film’s oddball dream sequence. Read the full review here.

27. Downhill (1927)
Impressive silent movie starring Ivor Novello as a student whose life suffers when he makes an honourable choice. Read the full review here.

26. Young and Innocent (1937)
A lively and fun man-on-the-run story that features one of Hitchcock’s most audacious shots as a camera swoops across a ballroom full of people to focus in on a murderer. Read the full review here.

25. Waltzes from Vienna (1934)
Hitch’s only music-based film, the story charts Johann Strauss’s composition of The Blue Danube (with a rather loose sense of historical accuracy). It’s made with a sense of humour. Read the full review here.

24. Sabotage (1936)
A tense thriller set in and around a London cinema. The sequence where a boy makes a cross-city trip on a bus – while unknowingly carrying a bomb – is justly revered. Read the full review here.

23. The Pleasure Garden (1925)
Alfred Hitchcock’s first feature film is a little gem: a visually inventive and never-boring story about two West End dancers and their conflicting romantic experiences. Read the full review here, in which I set off to explore Hitchcock’s childhood and early career.

22. Strangers on a Train (1951)
A devilish thriller, based on the macabre premise of a man committing a murder on someone else’s behalf and then expecting the same in return. The tension mounts throughout. Read the full review here, where I look at the imagery of the film.

21. Family Plot (1976)
Hitchcock’s final film – released over half a century after his first – is a comedy thriller about a pair of con artists trying to track down a rich heir. The cast is terrific, with fun turns from Bruce Dern, Barbara Harris, Karen Black, William Devane, Katherine Helmond and Coach from Cheers, while the movie never takes itself too seriously. Read the full review here.

20. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
The one instance of Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own work. This 1950s, colour, Hollywood redo betters the original 1930s, black-and-white, British version by virtue of having a better lead cast (James Stewart and Doris Day) and a deeper sense of emotion. Read the full review here.

19. Stage Fright (1950)
A complex crime thriller set around the world of the theatre. Some critics have taken issue with what they see as a storytelling cheat, but we revel in the cat-and-mouse plotting, the suspenseful action, the eclectic cast (Richard Todd, Marlene Dietrich, Alastair Sim, Joyce Grenfell, the Major from Fawlty Towers) and the themes of lying, pretending and acting. Read the full review here.

18. Blackmail (1929)
Planned as a silent movie, then retooled during production as a talkie (Britain’s first), Blackmail is simply terrific. Starring Czech actress Anny Ondra – the first in a long line of troubled blondes in Hitchcock’s filmography – it sees a woman fight back during a rape and kill her attacker. She fears being accused of murder, then an anonymous witness attempts to extort money from her. Stunningly inventive, both visually and aurally, it also features one of Hitch’s most prominent cameos: he plays a man being irritated by a child on a tube train. Read the full review here.

17. Marnie (1964)
Tippi Hedren’s lead character is a troubled drifter, a woman who takes jobs so she can steal the company’s cash and then move on to a new town. But when she encounters Sean Connery’s wily businessman, he catches her out and develops an obsession. The movie is excellently put-together, very watchable and fascinatingly complex. But it does need to be viewed in context. Behind the scenes, Alfred Hitchcock had a reprehensible attitude to an infamous rape scene, while the story arc sees a psychologically damaged woman ‘cured’ by domineering misogyny and a forced catharsis. Read the full review here.

16. To Catch a Thief (1955)
As delightfully sun-kissed and elegant as its French Riviera setting, this stylish, witty and romantic caper film sees an effortlessly debonair Cary Grant attempting to prove that he’s not responsible for a spate of thefts. Grace Kelly is the scintillatingly sexy love interest; John Williams and Jessie Royce Landis provide entertaining support. Read the full review here.

15. The Lady Vanishes (1938)
This train-based spy caper often has its tongue in its cheek, but is still suspenseful in the classic Hitchcock way. While commuting across Europe, Margaret Lockwood’s Iris meets a friendly old woman – but after the woman goes missing no other passenger remembers seeing her. As well as the mystery plot to enjoy, there are comedic minor characters, charming model shots and dialogue worthy of a screwball comedy. Read the full review here, in which I directly compare the movie with its 1979 remake.

14. The Wrong Man (1956)
The straightest and least flamboyant film the director ever made sees Henry Fonda’s jazz musician and family man tagged for a crime he didn’t commit. But rather than the equivalent characters in the many other Hitchcock films that use this idea, Manny doesn’t flee across country to prove his innocence. He instead surrenders himself to the justice system, which is dramatised in cold, harsh detail. Largely shot in real locations, the movie has a vérité feel and a terrific cast (including an impressive Vera Miles as Manny’s anxious wife). Read the full review here.

13. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927)
Alfred’s finest silent film is a dark and dangerous tale, a gorgeous mixture of tension, menace, romance, visual audacity and German Expressionism. Ivor Novello plays a mysterious man who is suspected to be a Jack the Ripper-alike killer. Read the full review here.

12. Rebecca (1940)
A ghost story where the ghost never appears, this Gothic-tinged movie mixes high emotions with effective psychology. Joan Fontaine’s unnamed heroine falls for a rich man played by Laurence Olivier. But after she moves into his Cornish country house, Manderley, she can’t escape the shadow cast by his late first wife. Hitchcock shows an amazing command of the material, artfully shifting the tone from romance to mystery, from melodrama to horror. Read the full review here.

11. Lifeboat (1944)
The first in a subset of Hitchcock films that tell their stories in a single setting, this entire movie takes place in a small craft adrift in the Atlantic Ocean after a passenger ship is torpedoed by the Germans. (The film was made during the Second World War.) A ragtag collection of survivors must work together, keep each other’s spirits up, marshal supplies, perform emergency medical aid and try to find a way out of the situation. The ante is then raised exponentially when a German from the U-boat that caused the disaster is found floating in the water. An endlessly impressive, claustrophobic and never-dull film. Read the full review here.

10. Frenzy (1972)
A brilliantly seedy and grubby movie, set in a down-and-dirty, working-class London. A serial killer is on the loose around Covent Garden and an innocent man (Jon Finch) finds himself accused after his ex-wife is raped and murdered. The terrific supporting cast includes Anna Massey, Barry Foster, Barbara Leigh-Hunt, Billie Whitelaw and Bernard Cribbins, while the genuine locations and lack of any Hollywood glamour give the story a sinister, sleazy edge. (Being a Hitchcock film, there are also flashes of black comedy.) Read the full review here.

9. Psycho (1960)
A sensationally twisted horror film – the granddaddy of the slasher genre – which is enlivened by the very smart central performances from Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins. The famously famous shower scene is still shocking and effective when you view it in context, but the storytelling that leads up to that moment might be even more impressive. Read the full review here – which, to be honest, doesn’t really talk about Psycho very much and instead looks at the connections between Hitchcock and James Bond.

8. Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
Joseph Cotten plays a mysterious man from Philadelphia who needs to lie low, so he goes to stay with his apple-pie relatives in a small, quiet town. However, his relationship with his doting niece (a wonderful Teresa Wright) is tested when she begins to believe he’s a serial killer. Complexity, ambiguity and film-noir style abound. Read the full review here.

7. The 39 Steps (1935)
A rip-roaring romp that sees Robert Donat flee to Scotland to find out why a woman was killed in his London flat. Madeleine Carroll is the spunky dame he hooks up with along the way, while John Laurie of Dad’s Army fame plays a grumpy crofter. Packed full of excitement, humour, action and panache, this is an endlessly influential movie that essentially serves as the blueprint for all the road-movie caper films that have followed. Read the full review here, where I talk about remakes of and sequels to Hitchcock’s work.

6. Notorious (1946)
One of Hitchcock’s most sophisticated works, this grown-up spy thriller sees Cary Grant’s US intelligence agent recruit Ingrid Bergman to go undercover with some Nazis hiding in Brazil. The two leads are simply sensational – their sexual chemistry is unrivalled – while there’s strong support from the likes of Claude Rains. Hitchcock directs with precision, keeping things focused and textured at all times. Sublime beyond belief. Read the full review here.

5. Rope (1948)
A dazzling example of filmmaking rhetoric, this one-set thriller plays out in real time and is shot in a succession of loooooong takes. Two young men murder a friend as an intellectual exercise then invite his loved ones round for a soirée with the corpse hidden in a nearby chest. Playful and macabre in equal measure, with a terrific cast headlined by John Dall, Farley Grainger and James Stewart. Read the full review here – see if you can spot the incredibly funny conceptual gag I employed while writing it.

4. Rear Window (1954)
Another high-concept film. James Stewart plays a housebound photographer who becomes vicariously curious about the neighbours he spies on from his apartment window. When he believes he sees evidence of murder, his broken leg prevents him from investigating directly so he recruits girlfriend Grace Kelly and housekeeper Thelma Ritter to act as his proxy. The camera never once leaves Stewart’s side, so we experience the story solely from his perspective: we see what he sees, feels what he feels. A sumptuous piece of cinematic storytelling. Read the full review here, in which – like every review of Rear Window ever published – I discuss Hitchcock’s use of point of view.

3. North by Northwest (1959)
A foot-to-the-floor adventure movie that sees Cary Grant’s oblivious businessman get caught up in international espionage. The plot is probably the least important aspect (in Hitchcock’s terms, it’s a MacGuffin – something trivial to motivate the characters). Instead, the storyline acts as a gallery space on whose walls hang a myriad of pleasures: mysteries, action sequences, comedy, sex, danger, tension, absurdity, style, panache, excitement, interesting characters, theatrical production design, thrilling incidental music and an enormous amount of fun… Read the full review here.

2. Vertigo (1958)
A profound meditation on the dangers of obsession, this beautiful and deeply meaningful movie – once voted the greatest ever made by a leading film magazine – follows James Stewart’s retired cop as he falls for a psychologically unsound woman played by Kim Novak. The craft on display in the filmmaking is stunning; the way Hitchcock reveals information, paces scenes and stokes emotions is utter perfection. The effect is close to hypnotism, so complete is the grip of the storytelling. Read the full review here, during which I go off on a tangent about how I love cinema.

1. Dial M for Murder (1954)
Beating the magisterial Vertigo to the top spot based on a decision made by the heart rather than the head, Dial M is the director’s take on an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. We’re in an upper-middle-class world of a moneyed couple who seem at first to be happy, but there are dark secrets within the marriage. The Hitchcockian twist comes from the fact that we viewers are privy to the killer’s plan from the start… Ray Milland’s ex-tennis pro decides to bump off his wealthy wife in revenge for her having an affair. (She’s played by Grace Kelly, one of the most beautiful women ever filmed, so personally I’d have forgiven and forgotten.) We follow Tony as he meticulously plans the crime and blackmails an old acquaintance into doing the deed while he creates an alibi, but then on the night it all goes wrong… Stylish, brilliantly cast, and – as I can attest – endlessly rewatchable entertainment. Read the full review here, in which I argue my favourite Hitchcock movie is essentially an episode of Colombo.

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.

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.