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

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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

seaQuest DSV: Season one

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Today is the 25th anniversary of science-fiction show seaQuest DSV beginning on American television. It’s always been a much-ridiculed show (‘Star Trek glug, glug, glug,’ my mother used to call it). But I’ve always been very, very fond of it – especially the first season, which was set 25 years into the future (ie, 2018). So here’s a list of the 10 best episodes from that opening year…

10. Knight of Shadows (31 October 1993)
Shown on Halloween, this episode abandons the rest of the season’s plausible science and just has ghosts in it. A Titanic-style ship is found after lying on the seabed for 105 years.

9. To Be or Not to Be (12 September 1993)
The pilot episode, shown 25 years to the day before this blog post went live. It introduces the characters and concepts very well.

8. Games (3 October 1993)
A Hannibal Lector type inveigles his way aboard the ship and plays cat-and-mouse games. Creepily directed with a terrific score by John Debney.

7. Treasures of the Mind (26 September 1993)
A well-written, early episode about international diplomacy after a long-lost cache of antiquities is found.

6. Give Me Liberte (24 October 1993)
Crew members have to be quarantined after being exposed to a deadly virus in this mystery episode, guest starring Udo Kier.

5. Brothers and Sisters (17 October 1993)
A nice, low-key plot about a young boy who has to be convinced to abandon a dangerous location. ER’s Kellie Martin is excellent as his friend.

4. The Good Death (15 May 1994)
A stylishly directed action episode about a South American military dictator (Luis Guzmán).

3. Nothing But the Truth (9 January 1994)
SeaQuest does Die Hard as terrorists storm the boat while there’s a skeleton crew aboard.

2. Greed for a Pirate’s Dream (16 January 1994)
A deliberately slender plot because it’s the drama concerning the guest characters – a group of treasure hunters on an island about to destroyed by lava – that’s more interesting.

1. Bad Water (7 November 1993)
A shit-hits-the-fan story about a sunken tourist sub and crew members stranded in a hurricane. (It’s easily the piece of television this blogger has seen the most often.)

 

My 10 favourite Christopher Nolan films

Christopher Nolan

To celebrate the 48th birthday of film director Christopher Nolan, I’ve ranked his 10 movies to date in order of wonderfulness…

10. Following (1998)
Nolan’s self–financed debut is a story about a wannabe writer who stalks strangers out of curiosity. It has many of the elements you’d expect from a 1990s low-budget crime movie: a story told out of sequence (because, you know, Tarantino); a cast who aren’t as sharp and believable as you’d hope (to save money, Nolan only allowed one or two takes); black-and–white photography (because that makes it look moody, right?); and handheld camerawork (because that’s quicker than setting up elaborate shots). Mildly diverting to begin with, it then starts to drag.

9. The Prestige (2006)
An interesting film rather than an entertaining one. It’s about Victorian stage magicians competing to find the perfect trick, but it feels clinical and cynical. The craft is there, but not enough heart.

8. Insomnia (2002)
An orthodox crime thriller elevated by a really great performance from Robin Williams as the bad guy and the generally weird setting of Alaska in the never-ending daylight of summer.

7. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
The weakest of Nolan’s Batman trilogy, this sees a reclusive Bruce Wayne forced to suit up to fight the muffled-voiced terrorist Bane. It’s too long, too convoluted, and has too many risible moments (most famously, an entire city’s police force gets lured into some tunnels) – but it’s still a fun watch. Anne Hathaway is especially good as the cat burglar Selina Kyle.

6. Inception (2010)
Mindboggling at times, but fascinating nevertheless. It’s a film full of complex concepts and it expects you to keep up. Leonardo DiCaprio plays the leader of a gang who can secretly access people’s dreams and plant ideas in their subconscious. (The gang are an enjoyable bunch, with chalk-and-cheese members like Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. As much as it’s a sci-fi ‘concept’ film, this is also a heist movie.) The visual flamboyance on show is absolutely staggering. Many scenes take place in a dreamworld that’s spatially surreal and yet still solid, while CGI and inventive camerawork are expertly used to tell the story and embellish the settings. Also, Hans Zimmer’s *much*-copied incidental music makes everything feel monumentally huge.

5. Batman Begins (2005)
A retelling of the Batman origin story that turned its back on the kiddie-friendly slush of the most recent entry in the series. With the character rebooted, the story was played straight and given psychological rigour. It takes a while to get going, but once we’re into Bruce Wayne fighting crime in Gotham City the film sings with theatrical style.

4. Interstellar (2014)
A science-fiction movie with real sweep and panache. In a near-future blighted by ecological problems, Matthew McConaughey plays Coop, an astronaut sent on a vital mission into the depths of the solar system. Due to the differences in relative time, decades will pass on Earth while he’s away… There’s plausible science mixed with speculative theory and even spiritualism, an adventure plot merged with family drama, as well as shocks and twists. Jessica Chastain is also tremendous as Coop’s grown-up daughter.

3. Dunkirk (2017)
The evacuation of Dunkirk seen from various points of view – young soldiers stranded in France, airmen providing the cover for the retreat, and the crew of a fishing boat crossing the Channel. The three subplots take place over different time spans (an hour, a day, a week), yet feel totally concurrent due to the film’s artful editing and Nolan’s sense of storytelling. The 70mm photography takes your breath away, while several epic action sequences are impressively staged for real. Moving, well cast and engrossing.

2. Memento (2000)
A superb, noir-ish thriller with – famously – its scenes in reverse order. Devilishly clever and admirably bold, with a great central performance from Guy Pearce, this is the story of a man hunting for his wife’s murderer. The biggest problem? A medical condition means he can’t form any new memories so must rely on self-written notes and photos he can’t remember taking. As with later films Interstellar and Dunkirk, the unusual chronology never feels confusing or clunky. Instead, it puts us into Leonard’s point of view: we don’t know what happened earlier because he doesn’t.

1. The Dark Knight (2008)
Big, bold, complex, provocative and dangerous, this is the superhero genre’s equivalent of The Godfather Part II or The Empire Strikes Back. It’s monumental. Daunting. Impressive. Threatening. Challenging. Fascinating. *Ambitious*. Heath Ledger commands the frame whenever he’s on screen as the Joker, while the IMAX-shot action sequences are thrilling.

 

Four years of reviews…

To celebrate four years since I began this blog, here’s a list of every review that’s gained a maximum score of 10 out of 10…

Rubber Soul (1965)
Revolver (1966)
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band (1967; actually, I gave it 4,000 out of 10, but that’s the same thing)
Abbey Road (1969)
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969)
The Wicker Man (1973)
Fawlty Towers: The Builders (1975)
Fawlty Towers: The Hotel Inspectors (1975)
Fawlty Towers: Gourmet Night (1975)

Jaws (1975)
Star Wars (1977)
Alien (1979)
Fawlty Towers: Communication Problems (1979)
Fawlty Towers: The Kipper and the Corpse (1979)
Fawlty Towers: The Anniversary (1979)
Fawlty Towers: Basil the Rat (1979)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980; actually, because it’s so good I gave it 11 out of 10)
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Return of the Jedi (1983)
Hatful of Hollow (1984)
Back to the Future (1985)
The Breakfast Club (1985)
Aliens (1986)
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)
The Queen is Dead (1986)

Die Hard (1988)
Back to the Future Part II (1989)
Batman (1989)
Blackadder Goes Forth (1989)
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Licence to Kill (1989)

Red Dwarf III (1989)
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Aliens: Special Edition (1991)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Jurassic Park (1993)
Schindler’s List (1993)

Definitely Maybe (1994)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
GoldenEye (1995)
(What’s the Story) Morning Glory? (1995)
Fargo (1996)
The Empire Strikes Back: Special Edition (1997)

Jackie Brown (1997)
The Big Lebowski (1998)
The Masterplan (1998)
A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)
Firefly: Our Mrs Reynolds (2002)
Firefly: Out of Gas (2002)
Firefly: Objects in Space (2002)
Serenity (2005)
Casino Royale (2006)
Love (2006)
Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007)
The Dark Knight (2008)
Star Trek (2009)

The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn (2011)
The Lego Movie (2014)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Logan (2017)

My 10 favourite Ridley Scott films

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To celebrate the 80th birthday of visionary film director Ridley Scott, here is a list of what are – in my opinion – his 10 best movies…

10. Black Hawk Down (2001)
It might be a bit one-note, and too long, and too quick to paint foreigners as evil, but Scott’s based-on-a-true-story war movie is incredibly well staged.

9. Hannibal (2001)
A decent-enough sequel to an admittedly better film (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

8. Kingdom of Heaven (2005)
Ridley’s Crusades epic was cut down by studio executives before its release, but was still a good film, full of rich imagery and historical context. Thankfully, the director then released his edit on DVD – running at three hours, it’s much the better version and adds back in some necessary character detail and subplots. Only the blank central performance from Orlando Bloom disappoints.

7. Black Rain (1989)
Michael Douglas and Andy Garcia head to Japan in this fish-out-of-water cop thriller, which is stylish and thoughtful.

6. Gladiator (2000)
Made on the cusp of the CG revolution, this movie uses still-impressive computer graphics to extend its huge physical sets and the result is a totally convincing historical world. Russell Crowe, as a Roman general forced to become a gladiator, has rarely been better.

5. Thelma & Louise (1991)
Despite its serious subject matter – oppression, misogyny, death and rape – this is a huge amount of fun, thanks to a smart, witty script, two world-beating central performances from Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, and Ridley Scott’s visual panache and sense of pace.

4. The Martian (2015)
Superbly charming and likeable sci-fi disaster movie with a sense of humour. It’s based on a really good book, and carries over its playfulness and droll line in comedy. Matt Damon’s excellent, the supporting roles are really well cast, and the situation is genuinely affecting.

3. Robin Hood (2010)
One of Ridley’s most maligned movies, this does have one significant flaw. At various points of his career, lead actor Russell Crowe has attempted a vaguely English accent – see Gladiator, Master and Commander, Man of Steel, The Mummy… Nowhere, however, is it quite as ear-scrapping as in Robin Hood. The actor once walked out of an interview when a journalist suggested he sounded Irish. I’d go more for a mix of Irish, East Midlands, Cornish, Australian, Geordie, Welsh and Dick Van Dyke. But this is just a blemish on an otherwise excellent piece of work. Basically Robin Hood: The Origin Story, the movie ticks the usual boxes – the Crusades, King John, Marian, the sidekicks – but also weaves Robin’s story into a tapestry that involves palace intrigue, civil rights and a coming war. Beautiful to look at, well cast, exciting, funny, and with a fascinating backstory informing everything, this deserves to be much more liked.

2. Blade Runner (1982)
See full review for more, but basically it’s a masterpiece.

1. Alien (1979)
Beating Blade Runner by a Jonesy the cat’s whisker, Alien is not only one of the best science-fiction films ever made and one of the best horror films ever made, it’s one of the best films of any description ever made – see my full review for more.

 

My 500 favourite films

This is the 500th post on this website, so to celebrate I’ve quickly knocked up a list of my 500 favourite films. Well, that’s a lie. It wasn’t quick. It’s taken *weeks*.

I’ve limited my choices to narrative films that were released at the cinema, so there are no TV movies, documentaries or concert films. And I’ve tried to be honest. I’ve not artificially added ‘classics’ just because that’s the thing to do. I’m not saying The Wizard of Oz, Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shawshank Redemption or any other omissions are bad films; it’s just that I don’t have a personal affection for them. Neither have I shied away from including unpopular films. If a movie is on this list it’s because I genuinely like it.

1920
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

1922
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror

1927
Metropolis
Wings

1929
Piccadilly

1931
Dracula
Frankenstein
M

1933
King Kong

1935
Bride of Frankenstein

1936
Dracula’s Daughter

1941
Citizen Kane
The Maltese Falcon

1942
Casablanca

1946
The Big Sleep
It’s a Wonderful Life
A Matter of Life and Death

1948
Rope

1949
The Third Man

1950
Sunset Boulevard

1951
Strangers on a Train

1952
Singin’ in the Rain

1953
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

1954
Dial M For Murder
Rear Window

1958
Carry On Sergeant
Dracula
Some Like It Hot
Vertigo

1959 
North by Northwest

1960
Psycho

1961
Carry On Regardless

1962
Dr No
The Manchurian Candidate

1963
Carry On Cabby
From Russia With Love
The Great Escape

1964
Carry On Cleo
Carry On Spying
A Fistful of Dollars
Goldfinger
A Hard Day’s Night

1965
Carry On Cowboy
For a Few Dollars More
Help!
Thunderball

1966
Carry On Screaming!
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

1967
Carry On Doctor
You Only Live Twice

1968
Once Upon a Time in the West
Planet of the Apes
The Producers

1969
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Carry On Camping
On Her Majesty’s Secret Service

1970
Carry On Loving

1971
And Now For Something Completely Different
Carry On At Your Convenience
Diamonds Are Forever
Dirty Harry
Duck, You Sucker!
Duel
Escape From The Planet of the Apes
Shaft

1972
Blacula
Carry On Abroad
Dracula A.D. 1972
The Godfather
Shaft’s Big Score

1973
Carry On Girls
Coffy
The Exorcist
High Planes Drifter
Live and Let Die
Magnum Force
Scream Blacula Scream
Shaft in Africa
The Wicker Man

1974
Blazing Saddles
The Conversation
The Godfather Part II
The Man With the Golden Gun
Murder on the Orient Express
Young Frankenstein

1975
Dog Day Afternoon
Jaws
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
The Rocky Horror Picture Show

1976
All The President’s Men
The Eagle Has Landed
The Enforcer
Keoma
The Omen
Rocky
Silent Movie

1977
Jabberwocky
The Spy Who Loved Me
Star Wars

That’s Carry On!

1978
Damien: Omen II
Death on the Nile
Grease
Halloween
Superman: The Movie

1979
Alien
Apocalypse Now
Mad Max
Monty Python’s Life of Brian
Moonraker
Rocky II

1980
Airplane!
The Blues Brothers
The Empire Strikes Back
Raging Bull
Superman II

1981
An American Werewolf in London
For Your Eyes Only
History of the World, Pt 1
Mad Max 2
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Time Bandits

1982
Airplane II: The Sequel
Blade Runner
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Evil Under the Sun
First Blood
The King of Comedy
The Missionary
Rocky III
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
Tootsie

1983
A Christmas Story
The Dead Zone
Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life
National Lampoon’s Vacation
Never Say Never Again
Octopussy
Return of the Jedi

Sudden Impact
Superman III
To Be or Not to Be
Trading Places
WarGames

1984
2010
Beverly Hills Cop
Blood Simple
The Boys in Blue
Ghostbusters
Gremlins
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
The Karate Kid
Police Academy
Runaway
Sixteen Candles
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock
The Terminator
This is Spinal Tap

1985
Back to the Future
Brazil
The Breakfast Club
Brewster’s Millions
Clue
Commando
The Goonies
Ladyhawke
National Lampoon’s European Vacation
Return to Oz
Rocky IV
Santa Clause: The Movie
Teen Wolf
A View to a Kill
Weird Science

1986
Aliens
Clockwise
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Howard the Duck
Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Little Shop of Horrors
Police Academy 3: Back in Training
Pretty in Pink
SpaceCamp
Stand By Me
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Top Gun

1987
Beverly Hills Cop II
Dirty Dancing
Empire of the Sun
The Fourth Protocol
Good Morning, Vietnam
Innerspace
Lethal Weapon
The Living Daylights
The Lost Boys
Mannequin
Masters of the Universe
Near Dark
Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Predator
The Princess Bride
Project X
RoboCop
The Running Man
The Secret of My Success
Spaceballs
Three Men and a Baby
The Untouchables
Withnail & I

1988
Big
The Dead Pool
Die Hard
D.O.A.
A Fish Called Wanda
The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!
Police Academy 5: Assignment: Miami Beach
The Rescue
Scrooged
Vice Versa
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Working Girl
Young Guns

1989
The Abyss
Back to the Future Part II
Batman
Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Black Rain
Fletch Lives
Ghostbusters II
Honey I Shrunk the Kids
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Lethal Weapon 2
Licence to Kill
Parenthood
Police Academy 6: City Under Siege
Slipstream
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier
Twins

1990
Back to the Future Part III
Die Hard 2
Edward Scissorhands
The Exorcist III
The Godfather Part III
GoodFellas
Home Alone
The Hunt For Red October
Narrow Margin
Nuns on the Run
Predator 2
Presumed Innocent
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Total Recall
Young Guns II

1991
Barton Fink
JFK
The Last Boy Scout
Point Break
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
Terminator 2: Judgment Day

1992
Alien3
Batman Returns
A Few Good Men
Lethal Weapon 3
Memoirs of an Invisible Man
The Muppet Christmas Carol
Patriot Games
The Player
Reservoir Dogs
Sneakers
Unforgiven
Wayne’s World

1993
Dazed and Confused
The Fugitive
Groundhog Day
In The Line of Fire
Jurassic Park
Last Action Hero
Schindler’s List
True Romance

1994
Clear and Present Danger
Ed Wood
The Hudsucker Proxy

Nadja
Pulp Fiction
Shallow Grave
Star Trek: Generations
Speed
True Lies

1995
The American President
Bad Boys
Casino
Crimson Tide
Desperado
Die Hard With a Vengeance
Get Shorty
GoldenEye
Heat
Mallrats
Outbreak
Se7en
Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead
Toy Story
Twelve Monkeys
The Usual Suspects
Waterworld

1996
2 Days in the Valley
The Fan
Fargo
The Frighteners
From Dusk Till Dawn
Grosse Pointe Blank
Independence Day
Mission: Impossible
Trainspotting

1997
Alien Resurrection
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Face/Off
Fierce Creatures
Jackie Brown
L.A. Confidential
Lethal Weapon 4
Men in Black
Starship Troopers
Titanic
Tomorrow Never Dies

1998
The Big Lebowski
Enemy of the State
The Negotiator
Out of Sight
Ronin
Saving Private Ryan
The X Files

1999
American Beauty
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me
Galaxy Quest
The Limey
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
Toy Story 2
Wild Wild West
The World is Not Enough

2000
Dracula 2000
Gladiator
Memento
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Shadow of the Vampire

Shaft
Sleepy Hollow
Timecode
Traffic
X-Men

2001
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Amélie
The Fast and the Furious
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Moulin Rouge
Ocean’s Eleven
The Parole Officer
Spy Game

2002
24 Hour Party People
The Bourne Identity
Catch Me If You Can
Chicago
Die Another Day
Gosford Park
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Solaris
Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
The Sum of All Fears
The Time Machine

2003
Bad Boys 2
Kill Bill, Vol 1
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Runaway Jury
Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
X2

2004
The Bourne Supremacy
I, Robot
Kill Bill, Vol 2
The Manchurian Candidate
Man on Fire
Ocean’s Twelve
Shaun of the Dead

2005
The 40-Year-Old Virgin
Batman Begins
Good Night, and Good Luck
Kingdom of Heaven
King Kong
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Serenity
Sin City
Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

2006
The Black Dahlia
Casino Royale
Children of Men
Crank
Déjà Vu
The Departed
Mission: Impossible III
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Superman Returns

2007
The Bourne Ultimatum
Death Proof
Die Hard 4.0
Hot Fuzz
I am Legend
No Country For Old Men
Ocean’s Thirteen
Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
Planet Terror
Superbad
Run, Fatboy, Run

2008
The Dark Knight
Frost/Nixon
How to Lose Friends & Alienate People
Iron Man
Quantum of Solace

Vantage Point

2009
Crank: High Voltage
The Damned United
Fast and Furious
Inglourious Basterds
The Invention of Lying
Sherlock Holmes
Star Trek
The Taking of Pelham 123

2010
The Book of Eli
Easy A
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec
Inception
Robin Hood
Scott Pilgrim vs The World
Toy Story 3
True Grit
Unstoppable

2011
The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn
The Artist
Attack the Block
Captain America: The First Avenger
Contagion
Drive
Fast and Furious 5
Hugo
The Inbetweeners Movie
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
Paul
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows
Super 8
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
X-Men: First Class

2012
21 Jump Street
The Dark Knight Rises
Django Unchained
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Hunger Games
Looper
Skyfall

2013
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness
The World’s End

2014
22 Jump Street
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1
The Inbetweeners 2
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit
The Lego Movie
X-Men: Days of Future Past

2015
Bridge of Spies
Crimson Peak
Ex Machina
The Hateful Eight
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2
Legend
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Mr Holmes
Spectre

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A Walk in the Woods

2016
Deadpool
The Nice Guys
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Star Trek Beyond
Their Finest
X-Men: Apocalypse

2017
Baby Driver
Blade Runner 2049
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Logan
Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge
T2 Trainspotting

Totals:
1920s: 5 films (1%)
1930s: 6 (1.2%)
1940s: 8 (1.6%)
1950s: 11 (2.2%)
1960s: 26 (5.2%)
1970s: 55 (11%)
1980s: 126 (25.2%)
1990s: 103 (20.6%)
2000s: 87 (17.4%)
2010s: 73 (14.6%)

The Wicker Man: The Different Cuts

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The version of The Wicker Man that came out in 1973 was not what the director intended. Around 12 minutes of footage had been removed from Robin Hardy’s movie on the orders of his superiors at production company British Lion. They feared that it was too difficult a film for a general audience and also wanted a shorter cut that could be released as a B-movie. Running at 87 minutes, The Wicker Man was first released as the support for Don’t Look Now in December.

Then, in 1976, Hardy decided to release his original version in America. But there was controversy when it became apparent that his 99-minute cut had been junked, as had all 368 cans of the raw footage from the late-1972 shoot. Some people, including the movie’s star Christopher Lee, saw this as a deliberate, petulant ploy on the part of British Lion. Less paranoid people concluded that the footage has simply been misplaced. (Archiving the rushes and assembly edits from an unsuccessful horror film was not standard practice in the 1970s.)

It was then recalled that a print of the longer version had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman in LA when he’d been asked for advice on how to market the movie. Being a film geek, Corman had kept his copy – so it was now used for the basis of a rerelease in 1977. (Ironically, Hardy took the opportunity to take out a few scenes.)

I’ve already reviewed the 1973 version of The Wicker Man, so this is a look at the extra footage that’s contained in the original director’s cut. It’s not an extensive list of every difference; just a discussion of the interesting ones. Some of these moments were trimmed out for the 1977 release, but all three versions are now available on DVD/Blu-ray.

* Because any scenes that were cut out in 1973 are taken from Corman’s viewing print, the picture quality is not as strong.
* As originally released in 1973, The Wicker Man begins with policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arriving on the island of Summerisle. In the earlier director’s cut, however, that arrival is preceded by six minutes of storytelling… On the mainland, Howie chats to a colleague called McTaggart (John Hallam) and walks past some graffiti on a wall that reads ‘Jesus saves’. Howie agrees with the sentiment but still wants it removed. McTaggart then gently ridicules his superior after Howie asks how things are in the town: “Just the usual,” he replies. “Rape, sodomy, sacrilege.”
* Next, we see Howie attending and speaking at a church service (some footage of which was used in the theatrical cut as brief flashbacks). We get a closer look at his fiancée, Mary (Alison Hughes), while the minister is played by director Robin Hardy in a Hitchcock-style cameo.
* In the next scene, a postman (Tony Roper) delivers a letter to the police station and shares a joke with McTaggart about the uptight, prudish Howie. “Ah, poor old Mary,” says the postman. “When those two are married, she’ll spend more time on her knees in church than on her back in bed!” Howie then walks in on them laughing. The letter, of course, is the one telling Howie about the missing Rowan Morrison. He says he’ll visit the island of Summerisle and will be away overnight.
* We then cut to him flying to the island in his seaplane – ie, the opening scene of the theatrical version.
* The film’s first in-story song, The Landlord’s Daughter, has an extra verse in the longer cut. During it, the landlord (Lindsay Kemp) bangs the optics with a pair of spoons and we get a look at the musicians.
* Later in the same scene, after the landlord says that last year’s harvest-festival photo is missing because the frame broke, there’s an extra shot of him looking meaningfully at the space on the wall.
* A major bit of restructuring occurs now. In the longer cut of the film, Willow (Britt Ekland) doesn’t sing her sexy song at this point in the story. Instead, we see the musicians in the pub (including the film’s composer) singing a gentle, sensual folk song. Outside, Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) appears under Willow’s bedroom window and introduces her to a boy called Ash Buchanan (Richard Wren). This is clearly a regular arrangement: Summerisle brings Willow young men for her to bed. Howie watches on bemused. Then Summerisle has a long speech about how he likes animals: “They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins. They do not make me sick discussing their duty to ‘God.’” Later, Howie is trying to sleep but has to ignore the sound of Willow and Ash having sex.
* The next morning, Howie and Willow share a quick scene and he asks where the school is. In the theatrical version it was replaced by a scene (absent from the long cut) where Willow wakes Howie with a cup of tea and says, “I thought you were going to come and see me last night.” (Because, of course, in that version of the film she’s already tried tempting Howie into bed.)
* A scene that was cut out in 1973 shows Howie questioning the island’s unhelpful doctor (John Sharp). Howie has been told that the missing Rowan Morrison has died and asks the GP how. “She was burnt to death,” he says. “As my lunch will be if I continue here talking to you.”
* Willow’s siren song happens now – during Howie’s *second* night on the island. As well as being moved, a verse was trimmed out when the film was edited down in 1973.
* In the longer edit Howie’s frantic search of the island has a couple of moments that were missing in the theatrical cut: he looks in the hairdressers, then falls down someone’s stairs.

REVIEW: It may be sacrilege to say it, but the shorter, butchered version of The Wicker Man is a better film than the original director’s cut. The theatrical print is leaner, tauter, pacier and jumps straight into the story, whereas the longer version has scenes that you just don’t need. The opening, for example, is six minutes of hammering home Howie’s puritanical, uptight Christianity. But cutting it in 1973 didn’t damage the film because later scenes (and Edward Woodward’s excellent performance) sell the notion perfectly well and more economically. The other major difference between the cuts is the shifting of Willow’s song from the story’s second night to its first. Again, the enforced change helps the movie. Not only does it pull Britt Ekland’s nudity forward – this is, after all, an exploitation film – but it means we lose Summerisle’s original introduction. His first scene in the director’s cut is a rather naff and redundant scene where we spy him standing him outside Willow’s window. In the 1973 release print, he gets a much stronger first moment: Howie thinks he’s in an empty room in Summerisle’s mansion, then Christopher Lee appears from behind a high-backed chair.

Nine slugs out of 10

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: This website was incredibly helpful in providing information and context.

Ten Things I Love About The Wicker Man (1973, Robin Hardy)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists!

The Wicker Man is sometimes cited as Britain’s best horror film. Here are 10 reason why I think that might be so… (Note: this review is based on the version of the film released in 1973. I’ll cover the longer ‘director’s cut’ in the next blog.)

1. The story…
…which (seriously, big spoiler coming up now) is a huge con trick. Every character but one is lying throughout, which makes a first viewing a gripping mystery and repeat viewings great fun. Policeman Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on a small, isolated island in the Hebrides in search of a missing 13-year-old girl. He’s been tipped off by an anonymous letter, but no one on the island – not even the girl’s supposed mother – appears to have heard of Rowan Morrison. They also seem benignly disinterested in Howie’s investigation. As the copper asks more and more questions, he also becomes aware that the villagers have abandoned Christianity in favour of pagan rituals and beliefs, many of which centre around sex. Eventually, he uncovers the truth: the disappearance of the girl was staged in order to lure him to the island – and the entire village is in on the ruse. They need a pure, righteous virgin for a horrific sacrificial ceremony…

2. Sgt Neil Howie…
…who is the movie’s point-of-view character. Edward Woodward holds the whole film together, appearing in every scene and playing Howie with total sincerity (and a decent Scottish accent). The earnest West Highland policeman arrives on the island in a dapper little seaplane (he represents the technologically advanced outside world, you see) but soon faces a frustrated enquiry. He’s a deeply religious man who prays before going to sleep and who rallies against the island’s heathen community. He’s also, we learn, engaged to be married and doesn’t believe in sex before marriage. Woodward’s measured performance is fantastic: just watch as Howie gets increasingly manic and angry and shocked from scene to scene. Howie’s a rather humourless man, yet you feel real sympathy for him during the harrowing final scene.

3. The music…
…which is vital to the movie’s eerie, unsettling vibe. The Wicker Man is essentially a musical in disguise. As well as mood-setting score, there are numerous scenes where characters burst into song. The first instance comes after just 11 minutes: Howie watches agog as a pub full of villagers serenade him with a lewd song called The Landlord’s Daughter. Even Howie himself gets to sing later on when he blasts out Psalm 23 as death approaches. Music is woven into the fabric of life on the island and the film’s many folk songs manage to sound both menacing and seductive at the same time.

4. The landscape…
…which gives the story a beautiful yet strange island setting. The movie was shot entirely on location in Scotland, which immediately differentiates it from, say, Hammer Horror films that were confined to sound-stages and Home County woodlands. In The Wicker Man, you can sense the fresh air blowing through every scene. We see the fishing village, the sea, cliffs and caves, the woods, fields and orchards, an abandoned churchyard and the stately manor – all locations with a bucolic, medieval, pre-science feel. Nature is so important to this story – it’s almost a character in itself – so images and discussions of it recur throughout.

5. The villagers…
…who are now the prime example of ‘happy yet creepy locals’ in a horror movie. When Howie arrives at the island, they’re reluctant to send a dinghy out to his seaplane. Then they pretend they’ve never heard of the child he’s looking for. Without being openly rude or aggressive, it’s clear that *something* is wrong. The scene also showcases some fantastically characterful faces: these are real people, not Hollywood extras. The action soon cuts to the village pub, The Green Man Inn, where we get one of the great the-music-stops-and-everyone-looks-round moments in cinema. But again a palpable sense of danger is being created because the villagers are being so *nice*: they smile, laugh, sing, dance; they never threaten Howie or tell him to get lost.

6. Willow…
…the beautiful, blonde barmaid at The Green Man who enjoys being the object of the villagers’ lusty affections. The film ekes out real menace because no one (not Willow, not her father) is at all concerned by a load of old men perving over her. Cast in the role was Swedish actress Britt Ekland, who brought both star power and sexual chemistry to what is actually a relatively minor role. (Britt had some help: not only is all of her dialogue dubbed by another actress, but a body double was brought in for some of the nudity.) The character’s showpiece scene comes during Howie’s first night on the island: he’s trying to sleep, but in the next room a naked Willow is singing a seductive song and rhythmically banging on the wall and writhing around. It’s an erotic temptation – an act designed to test the virgin Howie and make sure he’s the best possible person for the sacrifice. (Howie’s willpower holds. Somehow.)

7. The weirdness…
…which gives the film a relentlessly surreal, and often sexual, quality. Without ever going full-blown mental (and therefore losing the ‘truth’ of the situation), the bizarre behaviour soon starts to mount up… The local postmistress cheerfully denies her eldest daughter is missing, then later forces her youngest to hold a toad in her mouth as a cure for a sore throat. The village schoolteacher (Diane Cilento) teaches a class of 13-year-old girls about phallic symbolism. Howie stumbles across a midnight orgy going on in the middle of the village. The chemists has a jar full of foreskins for sale. A schoolgirl has a beetle tied to a piece of string attached to a nail, so the more it fights to get free the more it’s trapped. Women dance naked around some standing stones. Howie walks in on the local librarian (Ingrid Pitt, another bit of star casting) having a bath and possibly masturbating… and she just smiles at him.

8. Lord Summerisle…
…who is the leader of the community. He doesn’t actually appear until the 40th minute, but his entry into the story kicks Howie’s indignation into an even higher gear. It’s probably Christopher Lee’s finest acting performance: free of Dracula and co, he’s able to show charm, toss off quips (“Do sit down, Sergeant. Shocks are so much better absorbed with the knees bent”), affect nonchalance, and turn into an ever-smiling murderer. Lee was a prime mover in getting the film made and took it very personally when his studio bosses didn’t like it. 

9. The different edits…
…which mean this film has a fascinating production history and now exists in a variety of cuts. Basically, director Robin Hardy’s preferred version of the film was edited down by the producers before release. About 12 minutes were removed, much to the chagrin of Hardy and star Christopher Lee, then the unused negatives were junked. (The urban myth is they were thrown into a landfill site that’s now under a motorway – sometimes said to be the M3, sometimes the M4.) A few years later, however, Hardy remembered that a print of the longer edit had been sent to independent film producer Roger Corman so he could give his opinion on how to market the film in America. And he’d kept it. So the long version was released in 1977 – ironically with a few trims. I shall look at how the versions differ from each other in the following blog.

10. The ending…
…which is where this horror film becomes truly horrific. Having deduced that Rowan Morrison is to be sacrificed to appease the gods who let a harvest fail, Howie disguises himself and joins the village’s May Day parade. There are strange rituals along the way, including a moment when it seems that someone has been beheaded, then Howie sees Rowan near some caves. He races to save her and they flee… But it’s all a ruse. Rowan deliberately leads him onto a cliff where Summerisle, Willow and others are waiting. It’s not Rowan they’re going to sacrifice; it’s Howie. The whole thing has been a long con: they staged the girl’s disappearance to draw the virgin Howie to the island, then frustrated his investigation until May Day. The entire village was in on the charade, even the children. It’s an astonishingly chilling plot twist, in part because of how numb Woodward plays the revelation scenes. Howie knows there’s no way out so retreats inward, quietly praying and reaffirming his faith in Jesus. But then he’s led further up the headland and sees it… an enormous wicker statue, in which he’s to be burnt to death. “Oh, Christ! Oh, Jesus Christ,” he calls out, as much a call for help as a scream of desperation. He’s a man of faith, who believes he will be reborn through Jesus. But aren’t the villagers also people of faith? There’s a cheeky piece of religious satire going on here. Earlier in the movie, Howie, shocked by the community’s heathen beliefs, asked, “Have these children never heard of Jesus?” and Summerisle pointedly replied, “Himself the son of a virgin impregnated, I believe, by a ghost.” The difference, of course, is that the villagers are prepared to murder an innocent man for their beliefs… The Wicker Man is part of the ‘folk horror’ tradition – a series of stories set in isolated rural communities and featuring brutal, often violent behaviour. It’s the finest example, actually.

Ten apples out of 10

“Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience…”

Episodes of the American sitcom Cheers typically begin with a voiceover informing viewers that the show has been recorded with a studio audience in attendance. The device was introduced during the first season to confound rumours that the producers were adding a laughter track.

The phrase first appeared on the 13th episode (Now Pitching, Sam Malone, which was broadcast on 6 January 1983) and was used on nearly every episode until the show came to an end with its 11th season in 1993. The regular cast shared the duties, on a seemingly random rotation, so I thought it would be edifying – or at least diverting – to see who did it the most often.

11. Nicholas Colasanto (Coach Ernie Pantusso) – 0

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Of the 10 actors credited in a Cheers opening title sequence, only one never said “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience”: Nicholas Colasanto, who played dim-witted but eternally loveable barman Coach. The character was a regular from episode one, but Colasanto died from heart disease on 12 February 1985 during production of the show’s third season.

=9. Kirstie Alley (Rebecca Howe) – 1

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Despite neurotic bar manager Rebecca being in all 149 episodes made after she joined the cast in 1987, Kirstie Alley performed the introductory voiceover just once: on the episode Paint Your Office (5 November 1987).

=9. Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith Sternin-Crane) – 1

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Psychiatrist Lilith was initially a one-off character in season four – a love interest for Frasier Crane – then returned as a semi-regular from season five onwards. But despite all these appearances, Neuwirth only got to say “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience” once. It was on Madame LaCarla (3 October 1991), which came during the 10th season when she’d been temporarily promoted to the regular cast.

8. George Wendt (Norm Peterson) – 12

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One of only three actors who appeared in all 270 episodes of Cheers, George Wendt – who played slovenly but good-natured barfly Norm – was conspicuously underused when it came to assuring viewers that the laughs were genuine. When the gimmick was introduced, he actually said it on the first three episodes. But he was then called on just three times in the next two seasons… and then not again until season 10. His final go at it was on the episode It’s Lonely On The Top (29 April 1993).

7. Kelsey Grammer (Frasier Crane) – 13

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Psychiatrist Frasier Crane was introduced in the first episode of the 1984/85 season, initially as a short-term character. But he proved so popular he was promoted to the regular cast and stayed until the end. He performed the voiceover 13 times, from season six’s My Fair Clavin (10 December 1987) to season 11’s Is There a Doctor in the Howe? (11 February 1993).

6. [No one] – 22

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There are 22 episodes of Cheers that don’t use the phrase. Most came before the device was introduced, but in occasional later episodes it was replaced by either a ‘Previously on Cheers’-type voiceover or simply the first line of the opening scene.

5. Shelley Long (Diane Chambers) – 27

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One of the co-leads when the series began, Shelley Long – who played aspirational waitress Diane – featured in every episode until leaving at the end of the fifth season. (She also returned as a guest star for the last ever episode in 1993.) Her first go at “Cheers is filmed…” was on the second-season episode Homicidal Ham (27 October 1983); her final instance was on I Do, Adieu (7 May 1987), her last episode as a regular.

4. Woody Harrelson (Woody Boyd) – 33

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Naïve, young barman Woody Boyd joined the show at the start of season four, as a replacement for Coach, and stayed until the end. But he had to wait for his first “Cheers is filmed…”. It finally came in season six on the episode Christmas Cheers (17 December 1987). His final voiceover was exactly five years later on Love Me, Love My Car (17 December 1992).

3. John Ratzenberger (Cliff Clavin) – 49

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Postman Cliff featured in the show’s opener, Give Me a Ring Sometime (30 September 1982), then was in nearly every episode until the finale in 1993. Ratzenberger said “Cheers is filmed…” regularly between No Contest (17 February 1983) and Look Before You Sleep (1 April 1993). He’s one of only two actors who got to do it in all 11 seasons. He’s also one of only two actors who were allowed to embellish the phrase. The first and fourth times he performed the function, it was amended to “Here’s a little-known fact: Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience.”

2. Rhea Perlman (Carla Tortelli/LeBec) – 53

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Caustic waitress Carla was in every episode of Cheers and performed the voiceover in every season, from Show Down Part 1 (24 March 1983) until penultimate episode The Guy Can’t Help It (13 May 1993). She also got her own character-centric embellishment. In most of her instances during the first five seasons, she said “Hey” before the usual wording. This addition was then dropped.

1. Ted Danson (Sam Malone) – 59

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Unsurprisingly, the actor who introduced episodes of Cheers the most often was the top-billed Ted Danson, who played bar owner and ladies’ man Sam Malone in every episode. What is surprising, perhaps, is that he didn’t do it until the third season. Ted’s first voiceover was on Rebound (Part 1) (27 September 1984), then he performed the role regularly until series finale One for the Road (20 May 1993).