If You’re Going to San Francisco

The Rock (1996)

I should begin by publicly apologising to my old school friend, Ben, whose bargain bin copy of The Rock I accidentally-on-purpose held onto forever. He recently reminded me of the giant-boxed ex-rentals and free posters up for grabs in Richmond’s video shops like Trinity Video and Choices – the former was a tiny cupboard of a shop next to Woolworths, stocked with VHS tapes, a range of computer games, and some Games Workshop miniatures, the latter was perched at the top of the marketplace, where I later applied for a summer job, attempting to copy Quentin Tarantino (or Randy from Scream), but was sadly rejected.

In an era when I should’ve been solely revising for my GCSEs, I was rewinding and rewatching tapes of Nic Cage in The Rock, Face/Off, and Con Air instead; obliterating essential brain cells at a time when I needed them the most, in what can only be described as an act of pure escapism. Little did I know, I was in fact (sort of) training myself to make films – something I didn’t realise I wanted to, or could do until the following year when I enrolled at a local technical college to become a sports journalist, but was bug-bitten and ensnared by a calling to make movies. I always loved them, but the possibility hadn’t ever occurred to me, in spite of my undercover obsession with Dawson’s Creek – its lead’s worship of Spielberg mirroring my own, and the intriguing Scream 2 film class discussion on sequels. Once I learned about no-budget filmmakers like the rebel without a crew, Mariachi man himself, Robert Rodriguez, and credit card maxer-outer, Kevin Smith, tearing an indie trail, I thought, why not give it a go?

It all began the day I uncharacteristically thrust myself forward to direct a mock episode of a Coronation Street scene in Darlington Tech’s glamorous hair and beauty department as part of my BTEC Media course. Then, alongside fellow students, armed with Canon XL1s and Speed Razor editing bays, we cobbled together a few music videos and fake adverts, and soon after, aged 17, I directed an eleven-minute teen slasher ripoff, penned by my best friend, Sam, entitled Night Class; a film in which it inexplicably takes a lad 2 minutes and 10 seconds to walk through a graveyard – “Bayhem,” it certainly was not. It owed more to whizzing around in a wheelchair dolly, trying to be Darlington’s answer to Rodriguez, and attempting to remake John Carpenter’s Halloween in a college in North East England. Nevertheless, it marks my first time really picking up a camera and trying to tell a story on my own terms. Storyboarding, casting, not so much lighting, but operating camera, and perhaps most invaluably, cutting. It remains the most fun I’ve ever had making a film, under our self-consciously titled production company name of Ego Trip Films, which reveals we were aware of getting ideas way above our stations, but did it anyway, and for that I’m incredibly proud because not many people bother, even after receiving “the call” to be creative. Yes, it’s just a daft little short, and it’s nothing if not derivative, but I’m so happy it exists.

“What kinda fucked up tour is this?”

Tourist, The Rock

Bay’s sophomore effort, The Rock, arrived hot on the heels of his buddy cop feature debut, Bad Boys, just a year later in fact, and much like the Will Smith vehicle, it captivated the minds of teenage lads throughout my village, secondary school, and beyond. The grandiose execution, gloss, and sheen encapsulated everything we expected from a big-budget Hollywood actioner. Every frame dripped expense. As far as I can tell, coupled with 1998’s Armageddon, it’s the more credible half of Bay’s masterpiece double-header. In short, The Rock rocked.

Sometimes a photographic eye, and a keen knack (bordering on wunderkind genius) for visual storytelling finds itself in the body of a thoughtful artist like Bay’s Propaganda Films mentor and eventual rival, David Fincher, and sometimes it lands in the socket of a juvenile mind, who with confidence to spare, barges his way to the top, by analysing, understanding, and then catering to the vast American sensibility. Fincher makes Se7en; Bay makes Bad Boys. Both worthy films for different occasions, but whichever you prefer ultimately tells you who you are, and which side your bread is buttered.

So who in the name of Zeus’s butthole does Michael Bay think he is? With an endless parade of supermodel girlfriends, this baseball-capped, Aviator shades wearing, Michael Bolton lookalike ticks every stereotypical Tinseltown director box, but turns off so-called “real filmmakers” left right and centre – no one at film school would confess to liking anything he did, let alone being a Bay fan. Aside from this jock-looking frat dude, occasionally shirtless, with long, ’90s rock and roll locks, looking like he should be either in, or at the very least, producing Bon Jovi records behind the camera, what do Bad Boys and The Rock have in common? The suited and booted, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.

Both these influential figures were the fat cat, filmic fathers of Bay. Simpson exploded off the planet in ’96, prior to the release of The Rock, with pony-tailed hair and his trademark black Levi’s 501s, aged just 52, in a self-destructive haze of cocaine, pills, high-class hookers and bizarre sexual practices. But Jerry persisted without him, completing the film on his lonesome, then cut Simpson’s high-concept movie formula and established aesthetic from hit films such as Flashdance, Beverly Hills Cop, Beverly Hills Cop II, Top Gun, and Days of Thunder, and without ever really altering anything, pasted it across the board to bring us films like Con Air and Gone in Sixty Seconds (also with Cage), Enemy of the State and Bad Boys II (reuniting with Will Smith), and Pearl Harbor (back with Bay).

“Whaddaya say we cut the chit-chat… a-hole!”

Stanley Goodspeed, The Rock

Michael Bay is the kind of fella you might find schmoozing with Charlie Sheen or John Stamos behind a waterfall – a Sports Illustrated swimsuit babe under each muscular arm in the Playboy Mansion’s grotto. He’s the filmmaker who finds it totally acceptable to yell deafeningly into a bullhorn on set, behind a giant Panavision camera, as if manning a recoiling machine gun, walls collapsing in around him, with his affected grandad shirt unbuttoned slightly too far, no doubt carefully calculated for maximum manly hairy chest display, cellphone chock full of supermodels’ digits, and the giant, chiseled jaw and smirk of a man who’s doing precisely what he wants to do, how he wants to do it, 24/7, and is succeeding in making a shit-ton of cash in the process. He wants to date pornstars, and cast hot chicks who look like (or actually are) Victoria’s Secret models, to show off their flawless physiques. This man does not exude the paternal presence of a godfatherly Steven Spielberg, instructing Drew Barrymore to cover up after her Playboy spread; he’d more likely convince her to strip down further. As Nicolas Cage says in the movie, SHAME ON HIM.

On the other hand, there’s a complicity in any actress willing to work with Bay on a teen boy-titillating blockbuster like Transformers; a knowledge you’ll be tacked on the walls of college dorms across the USA and beyond. A line has to be drawn; you work with Bay and face his wrath, or seek out a more fulfilling project for a fraction of the pay, but I’ll bet you won’t be voted “FHM’s Sexiest Woman in the World” anytime soon. There’s a price to pay for that particular honour. I hesitate to say all this without being labelled a “problematic” Bay-sympathiser, but a filmmaker instructing an actor (in this case, Megan Fox) to arch their back 70%, as was reported by the now shamed, Shia LaBeouf, on the Transformers set, is merely something any artist could, in theory, ask of their subject. Should we “cancel” a Pablo Picasso or an Egon Schiele for requesting their muses bend over? What’s the difference? One perv paints with light? Can we be fair across the board here? Let’s not vilify him for doing precisely what he’s hired to do, all the while excusing the collusion of studios and the cinemagoers themselves.

Isn’t this exactly what audiences ultimately demand from a top-tier hotshot movie maker anyway? The bums are on seats. The money’s rolling in. Is his filmography really any dumber than the majority of the movies and TV shows we’re subjected to each year, particularly nowadays? This is Bay’s art. Yeah, it’s excessive, it’s chauvinistic, and flat out obnoxious at times – just like the man himself, but isn’t that an artist’s right? To express himself and his worldview? However deplorable it may be? Bay’s not an intellectual. Why are we holding him to that standard? He blows stuff up and says things like, “This island is so fuckin’ bitchin’!” But this is where the trouble starts – because he’s no dummy either. He’s a frat boy auteur, ready and willing to use you for what you can give him and his movie. Isn’t that why he’s paid the big bucks? Surely Bay’s just doing his job as a purveyor of the perverted to the perverted masses? Who’s lewd and lascivious here, really? The guy putting it up on screen, or the crowds queuing ’round the block, willing to fork over their hard-earned money to see it? Maybe a bit of both, eh?

There’s a part of most men – a sliver in some, a character-defining chunk in others, that covet his lifestyle. Do women understand there’s a little Michael Bay in all of us? Take every panel of petulant judges on TV, or every creep casting director, or model scout. If he (or she) is sick, then so’s the industry, and if we can all admit that, then why consume anything it vomits out? We, as moviegoers who enjoy Hollywood and crave more are innocent, I suppose? We’re comfortable reviling Bay, dispelling him as a hack, without ever acknowledging or understanding that he isn’t the real problem – we are. He’s just feeding the bears as far as I’m concerned. Bay is holding the mirror, and we are the warped reflection.

“How d’ya like how that shit works!”

Stanley Goodspeed – The Rock

Bay lost me forever with 2001’s Pearl Harbor – something I’ve still never absorbed in its entirety, but saw enough to be completely turned off. Everything that followed disappointed me. Especially his take on a childhood favourite, Transformers. But his first three – that out of the traps trilogy of Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, comprised an incredible trio of unabashed, people-pleasing, cutting-edge action movies. Will Smith’s edgy leap to commercial fame in Bad Boys, from TV’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air heralded his arrival as one of the stars of the late nineties and the new millennium. The Rock was Connery’s spectacular revival, and perhaps my personal favourite, Armageddon, which takes Bay, Bruckheimer, and Simpson’s cinematic formula and scale to stratospheric proportions where it explodes into a meteoric catastrophe of bewildering brilliance.

The Rock popped up on special edition DVD along with Armageddon on the revered Criterion label, which felt puzzling at the time, but now I think I understand it. Those films are curated under the criteria of being culturally and artistically significant – here illustrating America’s culture of excess. Perhaps they consider Bay to be a satirist? Either way, John Schwartzman’s lush cinematography, and the guidance of Bruckheimer, make this pairing peak Bay – a dog in his prime, in his time, throwing the kitchen sink at his movies with a youthful, arrogant exuberance that translated to the screen fervently. Every amped-up Tony Scottism reverberating through the mind – the fast cuts, constant tracking and trucking of multiple cameras, and larger than life performances. How could a film ever get bigger than Armageddon? I’m still not sure it can! At 136 and 151 minutes, these bloated, indulgent broad strokes, to this day, define his brand of film. They’re staggeringly expensive, but it’s all on the screen, as they say, and Bay and his buddies made their money back many times over.

“It’s a grunge thing.”

John Mason, The Rock

As the times change, the films of the past don’t. A world once sated by Bay is now hyper-aware of the circumstances surrounding said entertainment, and the real-life repercussions relating to him and his methods. We’re progressing as empathetic beings, we’re more considerate perhaps, but where does this leave us in an industry (don’t say industry) where primal desires are still sought by audiences who long for the days of Bay and company’s incendiary fireballs and male gaze bias? They’ll likely have to dig out their old DVDs and Blu-rays, because the time of the cigar-chomping movie mogul is through, and the insensitive, barking filmmaker is next. The weaselly Weinsteins and sleazy Simpsons are dead, and with them goes their bloated bigot blockbusters. I’m sure it’s for the best. But for better or worse, if for no other reason than posterity, as a record of the flashy MTV era, we’ll always have Michael Bay’s The Rock. The final hurrah of Don Simpson, and one of the genre-defining movies death-rattling around the mid-nineties, for me, should be rewatched, and respected as a massive milestone of excessive action cinema.

Sex Crimes

Wild Things (1998)

Exec-produced by a “streaky” Kevin Bacon, directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mad Dog and Glory), and described as “Scream meets Body Heat” by its breakout star, Denise Richards, Wild Things is a film I somewhat sheepishly, but repeatedly return to. It helped define a specific era of late-nineties cinema, along with other genre gems, Scream and American Pie, in the sense that it was subversive, exploitative, adult, and something the previous generation wouldn’t necessarily flock to.

Wild Things felt like it was crafted especially for my 17-year-old college crowd. There’s sweltering sexuality from the outset – the growly Mandalay Pictures logo, paired with George S. Clinton’s sleazy saxophone score, immediately conjures memories of sliding in the verboten VHS. Scenes such as the “I Want What I Want” wet t-shirt car wash and its immediate soggy aftermath, the revealing motel threesome, and the artwork-adorning lesbian pool kiss, all exude an unmistakable ’90s steaminess.

In spite of Matt Dillon’s gurning, it’s all less laughable than most depictions of “coitus” in erotic thriller peers like Fatal Attraction (mad scrambling sink hydration), Color of Night (Bruce’s underwater Willis and bath time toy tank body off-roading), Body of Evidence (Madge’s hot dripping candle wax), Showgirls (splashy pool thrashing), and 9½ Weeks (iconic fridge-raiding and awkward alleyway waterfall fumblings), and to up the adolescent interest, featured starlets from popular television programmes of the day, in various states of undress, cursing, and acting in a manner we were not used to seeing on their weekly episodic shows. These actors were suddenly let loose; unleashed into the wild to fend for themselves without the protection of network telly censors. R-rated horrors, comedies, and thrillers, boasted an edginess, and a tantalising sense that anything could unfold.

“Guidance counselors get to find out all kinds of interesting things.”

Sam Lombardo, Wild Things

In terms of blatant beauty, Denise Richards stands out from the crowd – she has magnetism, and the camera clearly loves her. Check out the wide shot of the Blue Bay Buccaneers’ cheerleaders, for example. The eye trains on her. There may as well be an iris in. It’s all about Denise. Unfortunately, following Wild Things, Starship Troopers, and perhaps her career apex as Brosnan Bond girl, Dr Christmas Jones, in The World Is Not Enough, Richards retreated into Playboy centrefold, E! reality TV territory, and regrettably got mixed up with bi-winning warlock, Charlie Sheen.

In 1994’s television drama series, Party of Five, Neve Campbell played the sensitive, and highly intelligent orphan, Julia Salinger. The hype around her and co-star, Jennifer Love Hewitt, who appeared as Bailey’s beau, Sarah, is perfectly illustrated in an objectifying but shamefully spot-on scene from Robert Rodriguez’s The Faculty, in which Josh Hartnett rips off gullible high schoolers by flogging them supposed nude tapes of the pair. I was the perfect age to fall for each of them a little – Neve in The Craft and the first two Scream films, and J.Love in the teen slasher, I Know What You Did Last Summer and its ludicrously titled, but firm guilty pleasure, I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Wild Things was released the same year as Scream 2, and 1998’s MTV Movie Awards neatly illustrated Campbell’s burgeoning stardom.

Actors’ jumps from angsty, but relatively safe and comfortable TV to risqué features, seemed to be the transitional trend. You’d often hear muted mutterings like, “Dawson gets to say ‘fuck’ in Varsity Blues!” or “Buffy snogs that girl from Zoe, Duncan, Jack and Jane in Cruel Intentions!”

Party of Five, Dawson’s Creek, and My So-Called Life spawned the careers of many promising young performers. It seemed to happen much more back then, with Campbell, Love Hewitt, and Scott Wolf graduating from Party of Five to features such as Scream (alongside Friends’ Courteney Cox, who made Wes Craven’s horror buzz a bit louder), Scream 2, Wild Things, and the first two I Know What You Did Last Summer movies – Wolf most notably appearing in Doug Liman’s Go, alongside Dawson’s Creek’s “good girl gone bad,” Katie Holmes. Capeside’s other inhabitants, namely Dawson Leery himself, James Van Der Beek, Joshua Jackson, and Michelle Williams, each popped up in small screen-subverting roles in Varsity Blues, Urban Legend, Cruel Intentions (alongside Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s bedroom wall pin-up, Sarah Michelle Gellar – who also appeared in I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2), and Halloween H20: 20 Years Later.

Throughout the nineties, even Saved by the Bell’s Zack and Jessie, Mark-Paul Gosselaar and Elisabeth Berkley, were appearing in “grown-up” films like the underrated (and unfairly overshadowed by its ’98 doppelgänger, Dead Man’s Curve) Dead Man on Campus, and Showgirls. Beverly Hills, 90210’s Shannen Doherty made Kevin Smith’s Mallrats with Campbell’s Party of Five squeeze, Jeremy London, and My So-Called Life helped usher in the careers of Claire Danes and Jared Leto (an actor I felt was so promising in Girl, Interrupted and Requiem for a Dream, that I used to refer to him as “the best actor of his generation” – something I later regretted and retracted).

“So, where’s your hose, Mr Lombardo?”

Kelly Van Ryan, Wild Things

To take Wild Things too seriously is a discredit to the film’s well-balanced daftness, and would also rob you of the sheer fun of it. After all, a movie featuring a fake-collared, funny-boned, scene-stealing Bill Murray, and a preposterous raccoon witness (faraway the funniest wild animal cutaway in a film chock-full of them), “acting” somewhere between intrigued and startled, before the scene abruptly fades to black, is hardly the motion picture to pick apart in terms of it tackling hot topics. Wild Things neither desires, nor deserves, to be appointed as spokesperson. However, the film does resonate awkwardly upon rewatch, partially due to its prescient rape themes, dealt with much more carefully in hard-hitting documentaries, The Hunting Ground, Audrie & Daisy, and 2001’s Raw Deal: A Question of Consent.

To me, the self-awareness, the winks, nods, and tongue-in-cheekness of it all, just nudges Wild Things onto the acceptable side of the line, and shouldn’t, as they say, “trigger” too much. The high-wire is certainly tiptoed in terms of serious issues being wrung through the mangle by filmmakers in search of nothing but a sensationalist, sizzling box office hit, but they don’t dramatically teeter, especially when comparing the movie to arguably the genre’s biggest blockbuster, Basic Instinct, which has its own, more graphic and troublesome date rape subplot. Having said that, the hyper-sexualisation of high school girls plays as questionable at best, but alarmingly wasn’t out of place back in ’98, with Britney Spears parading provocatively in school uniform 24/7 on MTV in her racy music video for “…Baby One More Time.” Although Neve and Denise were 23 and 26 years old respectively in Wild Things, it does bring into question how much the filmmakers and complicit studio would have been willing to ask and “show” if the actors’ ages mirrored those of their characters.

Ideally, Wild Things should be segregated as a silly-smart, exploitative, but not mean-spirited movie; deeply affecting social commentary, this is not, and to invoke it too much is the shortest route to crippling the film of its lurid, but fiendishly entertaining qualities.

“So how much is $8.5 million, divided by 3?”

Suzie Toller, Wild Things

So if you’re thinking of venturing back to the South Miami swamps and Coconut Grove humidity, to get a bit hot under the collar, there are two cuts of Wild Things currently available. The unrated version is worth favouring over the truncated theatrical, as it features 6½ minutes of extra footage. It’s a bit saucier, there’s more Bill Murray, dirtier alternative lines, and an interesting third act bonus story nugget.

Anyone interested in going one step beyond Wild Things might enjoy my month-long, 30 Days Hath Sextember season of sordid films, showing the peaks and troughs of the once ubiquitous erotic thriller genre.

A World of Shit

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

I was a terrible sleeper as a kid. I’d often only drop off if I was watching TV downstairs, or had my dad read to me. A clunky old television soon changed that. When my grandparents finally bought a new living room telly, their old box (and I mean old) was suddenly up for grabs, and fortunately found its way into my bedroom. It had a plug-in, external aerial, which could just about provide a watchable picture if you jiggled it enough, balanced it precariously on the edge of the set, or a nearby flat surface – if the cord would stretch; the perils of terrestrial TV before the digital switchover. It also thankfully had an early remote control – it was the size of a brick, but it had one. I’d watch late night movies, controller in hand, and hone my talent for switching over during adverts and back to the film again, before, or just as the film recommenced – a skill I have proudly retained to this day.

Sometime during secondary school, which would put me between the ages of twelve and fifteen, I recorded a late night screening of Full Metal Jacket, with commercials littering the broadcast, which would make it a Channel 4 standalone showing, or more likely, part of one of their many Stanley Kubrick seasons over the years.

“You are the lowest form of life on Earth. You are not even human fucking beings! You are nothing but unorganized, grabastic pieces of amphibian shit.”

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, Full Metal Jacket

Kubrick was once described as “a remarkable, genius, nightmare, warm, caring, distant, cold, expansive, funny, hugely intelligent, totally driven man” and again, “the most patient man, and simultaneously the most impatient of tyrants.” In truth, Kubrick was at the mercy of his wife, Christiane, and daughters, Vivian and Anya, whose feminine powers helped keep him in check, in spite of his domineering nature. According to Christiane, Stanley was the opposite of a recluse. This was one of many misconceptions about the man. He was curious and gregarious, but didn’t suffer fools. He worked from home as it was logical and convenient. No one recognised him as he never gave television interviews, so he enjoyed popping to Ryman’s on the high street to look at the new stationary – always paying with cash to remain anonymous. If he made you coffee or tea, he’d spill it. He’d burn your toast, but he would always offer. He was bitingly sarcastic, and often very funny. On Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick put several Warner Bros. executives in a van during shooting, and told them not to come out. That is power, and evidence of his playful, humorous nature. Maybe I’m blinded by how much his work means to me, and I have no doubt Shelley Duvall would disagree, but I like the sound of Stanley.

Yet, the manner of Kubrick’s directorial approach precedes him. “Regimented” doesn’t come close. He’d spend two days on an actor, performing one line, over and over, doing 66 takes or more, and then not include it in the final film. Kubrick would sometimes light for an entire day, and then send everyone home. It took seven days alone just to light Pyle’s bathroom scene in FMJ. Kubrick purportedly shot a million feet of film on both The Shining, and Full Metal Jacket. His maniacal, repeated takes on the former resulted in a gargantuan 100:1 shooting ratio. On Full Metal Jacket, he apparently averaged close to thirty takes – the most being 37, on Lee Ermey, for the unlocked footlocker scene. Matthew Modine’s theory was that Kubrick in fact liked to halt shooting, for whatever reason imaginable. It was the chess player within him. It gave him time to step back and reassess. He also cracked the code of Kubrick’s exhaustive drilling of actors in as insightful a way as I’ve ever heard it put. He found the actors’ complaints about, “Why is Stanley doing this to me?” egotistical, and instead contemplated, “Why is Stanley doing this to himself?”

Films are built in the edit; why not do thirty takes if you can? Or if you feel the need to explore the minutiae of something to a ridiculous degree? How many directors would do that if they didn’t have suits and studios breathing down their necks? I hesitate to say a lot. Yes, Kubrick went over schedule massively, but only 10% or so over budget. He famously took his time, ordering in McDonald’s and pizzas for the cast and crew, or vegetable curry for himself, which according to Modine, in his superb Full Metal Jacket Diary and iPad app, was all Stanley ate. It was a humble setup. Kubrick would parsimoniously count the plates at lunchtimes to ensure the crew was as skeleton as humanly possible. Stanley didn’t want to rush, or have any pressure during shooting. Pre, and post-production, ok – just not during turnover. For me, this precision and keen attention to detail is where Kubrick pulls away from his contemporaries. As Martin Scorsese said, “One of Stanley’s pictures is equivalent to ten of somebody else’s.” I do feel that’s a touch modest, especially coming from Marty, but it’s a claim that makes you wonder if Kubrick could be the best filmmaker we’ll ever experience.

After Stanley refused to grant Modine a day off to visit his wife in hospital for the emergency C-section birth of their son, Boman, Modine threatened to cut his own hand with a knife in order to guarantee an A&E visit. Seemingly outwitted, all Kubrick could muster was that Modine should’ve named his kid, “John,” or something else “normal.” Later, regarding Full Metal Jacket’s potential alternate endings, Modine broke Stanley’s golden rule of there being “no bad ideas” and criticised both the director, and the cast, in Stanley’s Winnebago. Kubrick, who had by this point, adopted some good ol’ British swearing, chose to refer to Modine as a “miserable cunt” for an extended period of the shoot. I know the type. Nothing is right. Nothing is good enough. We often want to please these people when we’re faced with them – especially when they hold a position of authority over us. On some level, we may even fear them, but ultimately they don’t command our respect. However, love him or hate him, Kubrick did.

As incredible as his films are, I find myself wondering if it all could’ve been achieved without these provocative methods. Would the films be what they are if Kubrick had behaved differently on set? Wouldn’t they be almost identical if he’d just lightened up, used one of the first three takes, and treated everyone with a gentle respect?

Personally, I believe it’s who he was that made his filmography so unique. Those innate, methodical quirks may have been unpleasant for some, but you can’t pick and choose with artists, with friends, with lovers, with people. It’s all or nothing. We should accept them entirely, or not at all, and that’s how I regard Kubrick. We mustn’t chop him up, remove the rotten bits, and separate the aspects of his character we agree with. Who knows, maybe the key to what makes his films so special is that Jungian dark side he seemingly embraced.

“These are great days we’re livin’, bros. We’re jolly green giants, walking the earth, with guns!”

Crazy Earl, Full Metal Jacket

Kubrick began developing Gustav Hasford’s The Short-Timers in 1980. By the time it came to fruition as Full Metal Jacket in 1987, Vietnam films had become a ubiquitous subgenre.

To be clear, I love and respect Francis Ford Coppola’s work. He’s without doubt among the toppermost of history’s greatest directors. Although his 1979 Vietnam movie, Apocalypse Now, has sheer cinematic clout, and the scale and chaos of it stuns, Full Metal Jacket boasts an intent, and to a degree, an execution, that Apocalypse lacks. As foolish as it may be to compare apples and oranges, I only invoke Apocalypse Now to emphasise the importance of Full Metal Jacket, and to place it alongside the very best of its peers, where I believe it holds its own. As I did, you’re probably comparing the quality of the imagery in each film in your mind – something I concede is debatable as to which is superior. When I picture the napalm strike, or the destruction of the Kurtz compound, I’m wowed every time, but I don’t believe most take as much intellectually from Apocalypse as they do Full Metal Jacket.

For one, Apocalypse Now was helmed by a certifiable madman (at the time). Coppola had lost the plot – gone insane. Just look at his wife, Eleanor’s stunning documentary, Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, and see for yourself. Coppola descended into madness, to the threshold of his sanity, he had no idea how to end his movie, was concerned he was making a pompous film on an important subject, and that it had become a pretentious failure, all the while teetering on the verge of suicide. Brando and Hopper’s scenes are strong, but they were ultimately improvised on the spot by drug-addled maniacs. All power to them, it’s a dazzling piece of work, and even more than that, an appropriate mirror for Vietnam. As Coppola said, “My film is not a movie. My film is not about Vietnam; it is Vietnam.” Conversely, Kubrick knew precisely what he was making. Sure, he shot thirty-odd takes of scenes, just to see what happened, but when he experimented, he did so within an already cemented vision. Also, throughout his life, Kubrick didn’t alter a frame of Full Metal Jacket. No reduxes were necessary. Coppola, however, returns to Apocalypse endlessly and fiddles. Stanley Kubrick made the film he wanted to make the first time.

Some call Full Metal Jacket the best “war movie” ever made, whatever that means. Despite the astounding execution of Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha Beach opening, as a complete piece, FMJ has a cold commentary and resonance that Spielberg’s WWII drama lacks. It has less abstraction and pretension than Apocalypse Now, and simultaneously evades the melodrama of Oliver Stone’s Platoon. It’s more of an intelligent allegory. We feel as if we know where the bodies are buried, but still have to dig.

“Listen up, pilgrim. A day without blood is like a day without sunshine.”

Joker, Full Metal Jacket

At the climax of Full Metal Jacket’s first act, the ethereal howls of Vivian’s score wither and merge with my favourite shot – the now totally iconic, Steadicam tracking entrance of the Da Nang hooker (and A View to a Kill Bond girl, Papillon Soo Soo), with Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ playing. This gelling of striking image and subliminal lyrical content are second to none. Before this scene can be decoded, we need to view the ending’s adolescent sniper as being an incarnation of Vietnam – a physical representation of the entire war. No heavy firepower, just a brave girl defending her country by any means necessary. The Vietnamese people were underestimated, taunted, and abused, but ultimately “won” out over the U.S. Army. When factoring in FMJ’s female roles in particular, this karmic revenge payback message is evident in Sinatra’s salty, swaggering lyrics: “You’ve been a’messin’ where you shouldn’t’ve been a’messin’. You keep lyin’ when you oughta be truthin’, and you keep losing when you oughta not bet. You keep playin’ where you shouldn’t be playin’, and you keep thinkin’ that you’ll never get burnt (ha). One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you.”

“It’s a hardball world, son. We’ve gotta try and keep our heads until this peace craze blows over.”

Poge Colonel, Full Metal Jacket

I tend to watch Full Metal Jacket alone. It conjures a mood I don’t mind dwelling in for a couple of hours, and then I leave it well behind, if I can. Subjecting someone else to this film could be classed as a cruel act. This one’s solely for the phoney tough and the crazy brave. It is depressing, but no more depressing than watching the news. It’s such a sad experience, partly because it’s still going on. It’s a Vietnam War period piece, yes, but at its heart, it’s just as much an exploration of modern warfare. We only wish it was the past, and not our present.

Full Metal Jacket doesn’t answer questions. It won’t comfort you with false hope. It’s a stylised look at how absurd war is, and challenges us to just look; look at what we’re doing to ourselves, and each other. Look what we’re capable of, and how we continue to echo our violent mistakes of the past. It’s an uneasy watch. It’s obsessive and clinical, but has an action as clean as Pyle’s rifle, Charlene. It’s a pornographic view of a stripping away of human decency and humanity to further a corrupt and evil political cause. It’s a Kubrickian warning that these actions, if repeated, will ultimately result in our downfall. It’s not a perverse, cold study; it’s a cold study of the perverse – a film sliced in two by a cinematic magician, who then challenges us to put it back together again in our own minds.

The Dude Abides

The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Coen Brothers’ pot-heady, mistaken identity picture and ode to the unemployed, adopts and adapts the specificity of film noir’s dialogue to create a colourful, highly quotable, stoner-noir. It’s as if our fall guy, The Dude – a clueless dropout, has been dragged into the swirling dramatic plot of a Raymond Chandler novel, or more accurately, an American movie based on one; something like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

These Chandleresque flourishes are woven throughout The Big Lebowski. As with noir, characters are haunted by, or plain stuck in the past – The Dude in the psychedelic sixties, with his rug being a likely visual representation of them, and Walter constantly invoking his tour in Vietnam. Dude, however, is contradictorily a man living in the moment; seemingly not concerned with the past, or the future, until he gets bogged down in the whole rug-pissing fiasco. His pacifistic, flower power ethos and unlikely buddy, Walter’s Nam flashbacks and outbursts dance with one other, highlighting the duo’s dysfunctional marriage of sorts. When we learn about The Dude being one of the original authors of the Port Huron Statement – an anti-Vietnam War text, it only adds to the odd tapestry that is their close friendship; Walter being a sort of Sancho Panza to Dude’s Don Quixote.

As Joel Coen once stated, the plot is secondary; Lebowski intentionally sets up a complex narrative and then largely ignores it. Noir’s heroes were forever necking whisky and chain-smoking; Dude’s beverage of choice is a milk moustache-inducing White Russian – childlike like a chocolate milk, which he sips continuously throughout, and Bogart’s iconic cigarettes are swapped out for reefers. Memorably, Lebowski’s endlessly quotable screenplay features a keen repetition of phrases spanning different characters, and an excessive (but that’s the point) 260 uses of “fuck” – that’s even more cuss words than De Palma’s Scarface.

“Everything’s a fuckin’ travesty with you, man!”

The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Pauline Kael once declared Jeff Bridges, “the most natural and least self conscious actor.” I’d wholeheartedly agree. In fact, he’s so Dude-like, it prompts the question, where does Jeff end and His Dudeness begin? For instance, Duder’s jelly sandals actually belonged to Jeff, and his band, The Abiders, absolutely nail a live cover of CCR’s Lookin’ Out My Back Door. Although, to counteract that, in a move akin to Withnail and I’s boozehound, Richard E. Grant, who was famously teetotal in reality, Bridges reportedly abstained from doobies during filming.

Seemingly the sweetest, coolest, extremely likeable guy in real life too, and a terrific actor, Bridges clearly inherited comedy chops from his dad, Lloyd (Airplane, Hot Shots). I always appreciated him in John Carpenter’s Starman, and maybe it’s the Karen Allen factor talking, but Jeff’s like the anti-Harrison Ford. I love them both, but it’s revealing how their film choices eventually defined them as actors. To a degree, I believe they were each capable of doing what the other did. Once upon a time, I could see Bridges as Indy or Han, however, in spite of Harrison’s allegedly baked lifestyle, Jeff’s comedic sensibility always made him a better bet as The Dude.

“Is this your homework, Larry?”

Walter, The Big Lebowski

Lebowski is smartly and mischievously layered in such a way that you can absorb it totally addled, not follow anything, and still chuckle your way through. Or, if you dig the turf a little, you can find some interesting deeper meanings and alternative readings – everything from American militarism and the “violence begets violence” angle, the first Gulf War and Bush Sr’s New World Order, to Marxism, a carnivalesque critique of society, the feminist consequences of sexual fetishism, post-Reaganomics, a more general analysis on war and ethics, and even the theory that it’s a modern retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Gulf War commentary, and subsequent Iraq War, in particular, are potential explanations for the sudden cult appreciation of the film in the years that followed. It seemingly tapped into the zeitgeist and allowed certain folks to unscramble and make sense of world politics almost subconsciously. How we processed, or failed to process 9/11, is perhaps a key factor in the film’s resurgence and long life. The character of Lebowski himself, David Huddleston, resembling future warmongering secretary of defence, Dick Cheney, and the truly bizarre instance of The Dude’s cheque being dated on September 11th are each eerily prescient.

We can’t help but feel when Walter rants about “the rules,” he’s not just talking about Smokey being “over the line,” or even bowling in general. When he references “that camel-fucker in Iraq,” it’s uttered carelessly and casually, but with such disdain, we’re certain U.S. foreign policy is endlessly swirling around his Nam-obsessed mind. Saddam Hussein appears briefly, relegated to a low-status, bowling shoe attendant in Dude’s dream, and when Walter is apoplectic, repeatedly screaming, “This is what happens, Larry! This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” it becomes clear he’s not furious with a kid for stonewalling him, he’s enacting his Republican rage upon an innocent party as he destroys a neighbour’s car. It’s all driven by this deep-seated, unresolved anger from his service past, and his anxieties about it all inevitably coming to pass again in the near future. The Dude abides, Walter does not.

“I’m throwin’ rocks tonight!”

Donny, The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski, broadly speaking, targets the aimless wanderers of our time, but only you can decide if it’s a farce with no meaning, or if its pointless is the point. Lebowski is essentially the glorification and romanticisation of a slacker – a loser, and that doesn’t happen enough in film. The Dude’s a holy fool, a divine idiot, “takin’ ’er easy for all us sinners.” He exposes the truth in his own way by subverting conformity, reminding us to go with the flow, and that in a world of unchecked aggression, all we can do is abide.

The Big Lebowski Drinking Game

I scoured the Internet and condensed the impossible mania of its Lebowski drinking games into something not just doable, but personally tested. I sorted the alco-poseurs from the thirty-somethings who don’t want a hangover that’ll cave their skull in for three days. There’s none of that “drink every time someone says, ‘man,’ or ‘dude,’ because it’s simply not enjoyable. This is a reasonably sensible, manageable version that doesn’t involve you pickling your liver.

I selected the traditional White Russian (albeit a smidge weaker than the vodka-heavy Dude version) as it’s clearly the only way forward (unless you’re an oat soda guy or gal). To annoy mixologists everywhere, I chose to muddle mine with a straw. I probably put on half a stone, but it was worth it. I conservatively breezed through three beverages over the two-hour running time and it left me nicely merry. This is not a pissing contest, or a getting pissed contest; it’s a comfy night in.

Sip, yes, sip your White Russian, El Duderino-style, when…

  • Someone bowls a strike
  • The Dude refers to himself in the third person e.g. Dude, His Dudeness, Duder, etc.
  • The Dude drinks a White Russian
  • The Dude does a “J”
  • The Dude’s rug is micturated upon
  • Brandt squirms or laughs nervously
  • Walter says, “Shut the fuck up, Donny”
  • Walter invokes Vietnam
  • Walter mentions converting to Judaism e.g. “shomer Shabbos”
  • The Dude dreams
  • Flea!
  • Nudity
  • Someone says, “goldbricker”
  • Donny’s ashes are scattered

Matt’s Christmas (I Gave You My Heart)

Season’s Greetings from Riggs and Murtaugh x

On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love sent to me, Dickens with Kermit, Super Duper Looper, Christmas in the trenches, penguin commandos, last TurboMan doll, Lifesavers hotline, too old for this shit, nude Jamie Lee, cute Peltzer pets, Clark Griswold, Ebenezer Bill, and a gunfight at Nakatomi.

A tad late for this year, but for the die-hard Yuletide fanatics out there, I’ve wrapped up two seasonal movie playlists: the elf-explanatory 12 Days of Crimbo 🎄, and Merry Chrisember! 🎄, a longer, December-spanning celebration of all things holidays! You know HorrOctober and Noirvember? Like that, but with a fashionably late Thanksgiving classic, a cavalcade of Christmastime crackers, and a New Year’s resolution. Take a sleigh ride over to my Letterboxd to open the presents.

Also, as we’re allowed to unwrap one gift early on Christmas Eve, here’s a sorta reduxed compendium of my Christmas playlist trilogy: A) Merry Christmas, You Filthy Animal, 2) Another Christmas in the Trenches, and D) Ornaments Out of Fishhooks (also available separately).

Everybody Be Cool

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) | Full Tilt Boogie (1998)

When did you first hear the words “Quentin” and “Tarantino?”

The Tarantino explosion of ’96/’97 (for me anyway – most older people were aware of him much sooner, but I was only ten when Reservoir Dogs came out, so give me a break) was a multiple film initiation, as if Reservoir Dogs, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, Desperado, Four Rooms, and From Dusk Till Dawn, were all sat on the QT shelf, just waiting to be discovered. Unlike today, I didn’t have to wait two or three years for a new Tarantino movie – they were all just there. Directed by him or not, I could gorge on them; this major “hit” of perhaps seven, life-altering films in quick succession. It was like finding a great band and sifting through their back catalogue, impressed with everything they did. Quentinmania had gripped my secondary school; not so much the girls though, who I remember were more into Trainspotting at the time, but the lads, certainly.

I first saw Pulp Fiction on a school sick day. It was kindly rented by my mum, as per, due to it being an 18 certificate, top-shelfer. She, of course, chose Mia’s gory, “madman” heroin overdose scene to walk in on, and likely regretted her decision. I was completely gobsmacked. I’d never seen anything like it. Tarantino became the biggest director to me since Steven Spielberg. It was the first evidence of a true auteur. Not just a director; a writer/director. This opened up my mind to what films and filmmakers truly are, or could be. I coveted that “written and directed by” role ever since, in spite of finding it extremely difficult to write my own material; at least until my time at film school, where I was actively encouraged, and directed a few of my own scripts. QT was my “in” to everything cinematic beyond the usual TV repeats of the era’s most popular films, and the accessible, pop cultural, commercial fare surrounding everyone in the ’80s and ’90s.

I saw Reservoir Dogs next, at my friend, Rob’s house. I think his mum rented it this time from the same local video shop; Cav’s (the one I always namecheck on The Rewind Movie Podcast), but I had to leave just before the very end, so I rented it again immediately to catch the full, uninterrupted resolution – after Rob returned his, of course, as there was only ever one copy of anything. Occasionally, villagers would pop in to rent a Hard to Kill and Nico double feature tape, a C. Thomas Howell film perhaps, or something like One Tough Bastard or The Delta Force, and see the dreaded, red “ON LOAN” tab. You’d then have to reserve it and wait a few days.

“I will turn this place into the fucking Wild Bunch if I think that you are fucking with me.”

Seth, From Dusk Till Dawn

On a family holiday in 1994 to Hong Kong, I recall noticing my uncle David had a couple of pretty edgy t-shirts – no doubt from one of the many cheap, unofficial clothing markets there. One was Janet Jackson’s topless 1993 Rolling Stone cover shot with someone’s hands covering her boobs from behind, the other was a bald Woody Harrelson with little, round, red sunglasses and the title, Natural Born Killers. Although the violent and controversial film was directed by Oliver Stone, and disowned entirely by Quentin, who only received a story credit, he was somehow guilty by association and became a notorious, wanted man; his name, a cool and dangerous one. Natural Born Killers was banned outright in Ireland, and delayed a theatrical and video release in the UK due to the Dunblane Massacre. Alongside a VHS of True Romance, a dodgy bootleg copy, or imported version of NBK, circulated my school; possibly from Germany or Holland. It had slightly shoddy, unofficial artwork, and an over-sized, ex-rental style, plastic case.

Desperado was next, as I’d heard it had a QT connection – he appears briefly and tells a piss joke. Notably, it was also my introduction to the incredible Salma Hayek, Cheech Marin, and Danny Trejo, who would all pop up in Dusk soon after. This was a VHS purchase first, but I later bought an early El Mariachi/Desperado double bill on a flipper disc DVD. This was my real introduction to Robert Rodriguez, and the concept of low (or no) budget indie filmmaking, as it included his award winning short, Bedhead, an insightful and beyond inspirational, Ten Minute Film School, and feature debut, El Mariachi, with a commentary to end all commentaries on one side, and Desperado on the other with Ten More Minutes, a Hollywood stage follow up to the Ten Minute Film School. It ignited something, and for years, fuelled my interest in independent filmmaking; planting a seed that would eventually send me off to film school to follow in the footsteps of my cinematic heroes (sort of, as neither RR nor QT really attended one). I always told myself I was going for the equipment and the experience, not the education. Above all, I wanted an opportunity to use their 16mm Arriflex and Aaton film cameras, and work with like-minded people.

My contribution to Richmond School’s Tarantino craze was From Dusk Till Dawn, which I owned on VHS on first release in ’97. A lad (previously mentioned in my Demolition Man blog intro as the Lynx deodorant huffer) borrowed it, then lent it to a friend, who passed it on to a mate of a mate, and it was gone forever. But there is an upside to this tragic tale. The DVD I subsequently bought to replace the thieved Dusk tape had extensive bonus features, my favourite ever commentary, a terrific making of in Full Tilt Boogie, deleted scenes, etc. So thank you to whoever nicked off with my video – you actually did me a favour.

I went to college to study journalism for a couple of years when school ended, but the film, TV, and radio modules were all more appealing than the dull, regimented newspaper writing, so with a love of film already burning within me, I pursued that instead. In fact, on our first ever film, Night Class, myself and best mate, Sam, peculiarly thanked Earl McGraw (the Michael Parks character from Dusk) for his inspiration, and included the quote, “We’ll get ’em… we’ll get ’em” in the end credits. Only now do I fully understand how impactful and influential From Dusk Till Dawn, and its makers were.

Dusk (along with Peter Jackson) also inspired my British film on vampire lore, which I attempted to shoot on black and white 16mm, using a clockwork Bolex around 2010. Devlin (eye gouge) and Gali (throat slash) patiently sat for makeup tests by my sister, Anna. Unfortunately, due to a lab error, we lost a lot of footage and were forced to abandon it.

Anna and Matt, Christmas 2013

Sarah Kelly’s insightful making of From Dusk Till Dawn, entitled Full Tilt Boogie, opens with a fictionalised, spoofy segment of Larry Sanders proportions, with Quentin and George playing skewed versions of themselves, mugging, and generally speaking, being faux-assholes. Also, Quentin’s assistant, Victoria Lucai (name-checked in Death Proof during Rose McGowan’s bar story) is sent on an errand to retrieve Tarantino’s treasured Wacky Races mug, as “He needs it on every set.” We meet some lovely people, some strange and wonderful characters, such as adventures in craft service’s Ken Bondy, the sweet art direction team, who sadly burn half the Titty Twister set down by mistake, but discover it still looks great. There’s the 2nd or 3rd AD that doesn’t care about the creative process, and the quirky “career extras.” Among other things, Full Tilt taught me what an AD actually did. Here seems like the perfect opportunity to draw attention to Gali’s excellent first AD work on my 2007 graduation film, The Wilds, along with superb camera assistant, Devlin.

Full Tilt Boogie also interestingly highlights the issues QT producer, Lawrence Bender, faced when selecting a non-union shoot for Dusk. Their hardline rules were against his crew’s approach to filmmaking. In particular, the blurring of lines between departments troubled them, e.g. Rodriguez was the one-man show poster boy; a Rebel Without a Crew, renowned for editing his own work, operating his own camera and Steadicam, and generally speaking, making films in his trademark Mariachi-style. Dusk seems to have been targeted as it featured a successful, high profile, cast and crew. The union could easily make an example of them. In my eyes, Bender and company were essentially standing up for indie film. They fought for their idea of what filmmaking can and perhaps should be. Full Tilt Boogie brilliantly illustrates the possibilities when filmmaking is conducted with a family element; its camaraderie, and on set relationships – romantic and otherwise, feel warm and genuine.

Dusk is not without faults. I favour its practical effects over the shoddy computer morphing, but it’s fine. It’s all a bit schlocky and cheap and nasty at times, but it fits somehow. It’s very 1996. Nothing takes me out of the film, really. I even have a fondness for Ritchie’s “I love you too, Seth” roaring digital face transformation. It was one of the scariest parts of my early viewings. The Superman-vision, hostage in the boot shot during the opening titles nails the feeling RR and QT were after. It’s befitting of exploitation horror, and sets the perfect tone for the dark humor in the vein of something like Evil Dead II. The deleted scenes reveal a few other poorly rendered effects, such as a vamp swooping down to attack. There is at least one seriously dodgy effect in the movie, where Jacob is about to strike Frost and he suddenly melts down. I love the giant animatronic rat! It’s really one for the Fangoria crowd. The CG shot of the bats swarming outside also holds up nicely, and the ace matte painting of the pyramid at the end makes for a worthy closing image.

“Ok, vampire killers. Let’s kill some fuckin’ vampires.” 

Seth, From Dusk Till Dawn

Described as “brothers” by Robert’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Avellan; Robert and Quentin first met on the festival circuit promoting their debut films, El Mariachi and Reservoir Dogs. The duo came together for Dusk due to a duplicitous scheme. One executive told Rodriguez’s agent, if Robert agrees to direct, Quentin will come on board to rewrite. The other told Tarantino’s people, if QT rewrites the script, Robert will direct. The ruse worked and brought the friends together once again after already collaborating on 1995’s Desperado and Four Rooms. At Dimension Films (Scream, Scream 2, The Crow, The Faculty), a division of Miramax, Robert and Quentin got all the perks; 100% approval of casting, promotional materials, and final cut – which was totally unheard of, and no one else had.

I have a real soft spot for Quentin – his honest, emotional nature and innocence actually. The word “geek” gets thrown around, but that’s a little too derogatory and dismissive of someone with such cinematic clout. Yes, he’s a bit eccentric. His twitchy energy and gesticulating in interviews is intolerable to some; Vincent Gallo had a go at him a while back for being a “day and night” California weed king, but if he’s conceiving of, and creating the caliber of movies he does high, then I say leave him be.

To me, Tarantino’s deep film knowledge, unbridled enthusiasm for all things cinema, and undying passion for filmmaking, make him my favourite working director (alongside his buddy and worthy contemporary, Paul Thomas Anderson). He’s the one I leave my house for every single time – to go to the cinema and see a Tarantino film on the big screen. There are almost no directors like that left, and I’ll be heartbroken when he concludes his ten-film directorial run, and retires from filmmaking to be a gentleman of leisure, and work on his novels and film criticism books. I also get the feeling I won’t be alone. Some of these QT naysayers will miss him too, because the saying is true – you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

Express Elevator to Hell (Goin’ Down)

Aliens (1986)

James Cameron’s action-packed, balls-to-the-wall, Southern Comfort meets The Magnificent Seven follow up to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic, Alien, was first released around this time in the summer of ’86.

I was about 9-years-old, like Newt, when I first saw Aliens on television, and I must’ve been completely obsessed by the time I was 10, as each month throughout 1992, my mum would order me the Aliens magazine from our local newsagents. The magazine featured gory comic excerpts, movie trivia, a fervent fan letter section (which I felt intimidated by, and regrettably never contributed to), and mail-in order offers for items such as a £100 replica of Ripley’s leather jacket, which I was never wealthy, nor geeky enough to pull the trigger on. I’d read them and reread them obsessively, copying the pictures carefully and colouring them in.

At the time, there were several films I couldn’t watch with my family due to bad language, as I’d be, no doubt, told to switch it off. There are 25 uses of “fuck” in Aliens; 18 of them spewed by Bill Paxton‘s hysterical Hudson. Insane levels of bloody, ’80s violence, as seen in Die Hard, RoboCop, Total Recall, and Predator, and a topless Linda Hamilton in The Terminator, would also secure these films a place on heavy rotation in the Sunday morning club when my dad was at church and my mum was busy making Sunday lunch.

I slummed it for years, watching a butchered for telly, ITV taping (I think) of Aliens, with carefully chopped out adverts and news reports. This copy featured daft, dubbed lines like, “You don’t see them frigging each other over for a goddamn percentage.” This censored theatrical cut was the version that formed all my initial responses, but little did I know, there were always two incarnations of Aliens floating around – the theatrical, and the special edition. I treasured that TV taping as my sole, go-to copy until I finally acquired the special edition VHS, which was fortuitously on UK shelves early, from 1990 onward. When I did finally see Cameron’s director’s cut, with its extra 17 minutes of Xeno-goodies, it felt like Christmas morning.

“It’s 40 miles of bad road.”

James Cameron on Aliens: Special Edition

Theatrical vs special edition is a loaded question, as I feel there are indispensable additions, but also some superfluous ones. The theatrical comes in at a hefty 137 minutes already, and Jim’s cut runs at 154. In Aliens: Special Edition, it’s a case of “this time it’s more.” No doubt, fans will bicker over the validity of certain new scenes. For example, take the re-implanted, family-orientated Hadley’s Hope, with the tricycle kid (Kubrick much?) and the terraformers’ expositional discussion regarding Burke and Weyland-Yutani’s intentions. Its purpose is to both illustrate company orders, and emphasise the importance of the family unit, which is cued up with Ripley’s crushing, “families” response to Van Leuwen; a great lead-in line, which works fine on its own, but has ultimate power when preceding a hard cut to Hadley’s Hope.

However, there’s a lot to be said for leaving these scenes out completely, as the implication is already there, and in many ways, it’s more terrifying to hear, “We’ve lost contact with the colony on LV-426.” The comic, Newt’s Tale, does the trick in terms of filling any gaps in the story. In one instance, poor Newt sees her mother impregnated across from her. There was always the potential for this to happen in the film, and to have Newt witness it moments before Ripley enters and breaks apart her cocoon, freeing her. Personally, I think it’d be a tad too busy. Besides, we’ve seen a chestburster already, and an effective impregnation, of sorts, with Newt’s dad and the facehugger. It also creates the problem of what do we do with her mother after that? Ripley killing Newt’s mum is an avenue we absolutely don’t need to go down.

I enjoy the sentry guns sequence as it adds a thicker layer of pressure, pre-ceiling crawling Alien attack, but when it’s seamlessly expunged in the theatrical, I don’t miss it at all. In fact, with the reactor ticking down, and Bishop’s dropship subplot, there’s enough waiting around, and the imminent Alien breach really kicks things into gear for the remainder of the film. So, although it has merits in terms of mounting claustrophobic tension, the overall pacing is improved without it. There’s also some clearly reused footage of exploding Xenomorphs.

My first instinct, when assessing the special edition, was to keep it all. I just wanted to see everything. This brings up an important quandary regarding pacing, and crucial reveals of information. I can understand the initial removal of the early Hadley’s Hope colony scenes, as the producers simply had to get the running time down, and Gale Anne Hurd’s suggestion to remove that entire reel was a wise one.

Critically and commercially speaking, would the special edition have been as successful as the theatrical, or even more so? Who knows, maybe the impact of seeing Aliens for the first time in its special edition presentation would’ve been dulled somehow by its pacing and length. I personally doubt it, but it is debatable. I’m definitely not an objective opinion here, as I’d happily accept another hour or so of Aliens, and to hell with the pacing.

There’s a cut of Aliens inside my mind that is better than anything currently available; a custom edit I’d love to see play out in context. The fact that I’m still craving a cut incorporating the CBS TV broadcast premiere scenes from 1988, depicting the fabled cocooning and death of Burke, speaks volumes. The long-discussed scene of Bishop crawling in the tunnel, and encountering an Alien, would also make an interesting addition, but it appears to be apocryphal and appears only in the novelisation.

I enjoy the nuances, such as the subtle moment between Ripley and Hicks, in which they reveal their first names – Ellen and Dwayne, although I think Cameron could’ve done better than Dwayne. A tiny moment earlier, where Hicks asks if Ripley is ok before entering the colony may have been removed simply due to timing, but perhaps also because Hicks asks Ripley if she’s ok again immediately after the dropship crash and the ensuing wreckage. We get it, he fancies her, and wants to protect her at all costs. This repeated behaviour is all to further Cameron’s adoptive family setup – Hicks (the father), Ripley (the mother), and Newt (the daughter). Certain shots were carefully framed to visually illustrate the trio as a functioning family unit; the most notable being post-facehugger attack, as Ripley states, “Burke. It was Burke.” Due to this important, overarching plot line, I think these little additions are all extremely valid.

“We’re in the pipe, five by five.”

Ferro, Aliens

Growing up, without really knowing what a director actually did, James Cameron was certainly in my top four filmmakers, alongside Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan and Joe Dante. There is a caveat: I only really consider his great work to be The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Aliens. Everything else pales.

When I first heard the tale of Cameron’s fiery endoskeleton fever dream, him immediately painting the T-800 from memory, and then building what would become The Terminator story around that singular image, I was immediately insanely jealous; wishing I could have that experience. Now, with the Harlan Ellison plagiarising factor, I’m a little more skeptical of Jim. It’s a bit like when John Lennon’s Beatles origin myth, where he claimed to have dreamt about a flaming pie and a voice that told him, “You are ‘Beatles’ with an ‘a’.” Much like Jim’s, that story eventually folded under the truth that Lennon simply picked a name with a double meaning that sounded a bit like Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets; but print the legend by all means, it’s usually more interesting, and often makes the creator seem like a genius.

Titanic fans will no doubt disagree, but where can you really go after Judgment Day? Everything Jim did after T2 was bloated, as if boredom had skewed his interest and integrity. The years that followed saw him obsessively diving for the wreckage of the Titanic, then announcing and apparently making a bunch of Avatar films no one asked for, and we’re yet to see any real evidence of – not that I care. I’m yet to meet one person who is excited about Avatar 2, or felt a sequel, or prequel, was even remotely warranted, let alone five or whatever silly number he’s up to.

I also feel, looking (or more honestly, not looking) at Alita: Battle Angel, that the digital film revolution has ruined many things when it comes to cinema; it also ruined Jim, along with Robert Rodriguez – an early, no-budget filmmaking hero of mine. This digital nonsense has severely affected the quality their output. With the dwindling Terminator sequels ranging from daft to dire, I’m not even remotely interested in Cameron’s take on The Terminator or Alien franchises anymore, or anything else for that matter. It’s not the ’80s or early ’90s anymore; the glory years are over, and I’m over Jim.

Cameron himself may be ostentatious to the point of nausea at times, particularly these days, but he had the goods to back it up at the beginning; a captivating sense of deliberation and control, resulting in some truly magical cinema. We’ll always have his three masterpieces. They’ll last forever, and when you’ve made two of my top ten films of all time (Aliens and T2), my hat’s off to you. Stellar job, Jim.

“Smoking or non-smoking?”

Hudson, Aliens

Alien fans are sticklers, and Cameron was a brave man to take on the sequel. For the most part, I love his attitude throughout this era. The boozy British crew were undoubtedly at odds with him. They were Ridley Scott fans, and objected to “Grizzly Adams” waltzing in with his pixie wife and taking over the gaff. It was just another job to them. All the while, Jim was killing himself daily to carve out his vision and get it on camera the way he envisioned it. It was his moment, and he took it; no thanks to them.

Granted, the “sequel master” shows us things we’ve seen before, but he also ups the ante. Take the Alien warriors – their movements are more wide-ranging, and appear to be a massive advancement on the first in terms of their physicality. However, I personally prefer the often stationary, or calm and collected, slower movements of the creature in the first film. Aliens’ Xenomorphs can appear more like mindless drones, as opposed to perfect organisms, but they needed to be fallible, so it’s forgivable. For this particular film, that was what was required of them. Alien has some flawless one-on-ones; Kane and the egg, the ambiguous, yet palpably sexual violation of Lambert, Parker’s tense undoing, that classic Dallas jump scare, and Brett’s chain-dangling, watery face off. They’re all slasher movie 101 set pieces, done artfully and stylistically, and each has its own beauty, with the steady, calculated movements of the Alien, the unfurling of its tail, and the whole haunted house aesthetic. But Aliens needed to be more overt. Clearer. We wanted to see more crawling, running, jumping, and although the rubbery suits and limp arms of the creatures jar a bit in 2020, it’s where that next step needed to go.

Jim knows what to leave out too. I don’t think Cameron believed he could, or needed to top the facehugger scene from Alien, so he didn’t even attempt it. It’s brilliant. We all know it. It transcends the film. It’s firmly in our memories, in pop culture, and it doesn’t require a retread. Cameron wisely ups the stakes in unexplored areas, where the technology of ’86 could outdo Scott’s ’79 vision.

When Bishop, the seemingly kindly “artificial person” says, “Magnificent, isn’t it?” in reference to the facehugger specimens, and holds a lingering, suspect glare with Spunkmeyer, it’s all Cameron; cleverly playing on the series’ sneaky AI expectations by referencing Ash, Ian Holm’s chilling, murderous company android from Alien. This shrewd game leads to a satisfying payoff, with Bishop’s heroic actions aiding Ripley at the denouement, and even physically grabbing Newt to rescue her after being sacrificially torn in two. Yes, Cameron gives us another robot, but he uses our prior knowledge to play us.

I don’t believe Cameron was trying to top Alien, necessarily. Aliens was designed as a sequel, not a remake; a “combat film”, as opposed to a gothic horror. Jim is respectful of the original, and as a fan, clearly adored it, and wanted to walk in Scott’s shoes as a world creator. As Cameron once said, “Alien is a funhouse with things jumping out of the dark. Aliens is a roller coaster. You can see what’s coming, but you can’t stop it.” The word I kept returning to was extension; he extends the universe, the story, and the characters. Cameron didn’t create this world, but he interpreted it logically, and then broadened it. He developed the creatures beyond the walls of the original, expanding upon their life cycles and behaviour. He added to the synthetics, revealing more about their protocols and rules, and built upon Ripley’s character, adding the death of her daughter, and haunted, recurring dreams, to propel her towards the action once again.

“Look into my eye.”

Apone, Aliens

For Cameron, the leap from The Terminator to Aliens in just two years is astounding. The Terminator, although a sci-fi horror classic in its own right, has its roots in low-budget filmmaking. Aliens is a powerhouse spectacular, fizzing with all the bells and whistles of a true blockbuster. What is often overlooked, I think, is Jim’s practical, hands on approach, and his use of just about every trick in the book to get his images on screen.

They don’t make ‘em like they used to. For anyone thinking, “alright, grandad”; particularly younger folks, an entirely practical approach offered a tactile element – the puppets were really there, on set, with no one looking up at tennis balls on sticks at something that’ll be figured out later in post. The crew built them, tested them, and I imagine, based on the rubbish bin bag queen test, panicked drastically, then worked incredibly hard to make it work for camera.

The Alien queen could very well be the pinnacle of film puppetry, requiring 14-16 operators to function. Ripley’s escape from the queen, under flickering electric light is a masterclass; hiding and revealing the creature to the exact degree required, to both instill terror and retain mystique. It’s a piecemeal task, but a worthwhile one. There are, I imagine, lots of starts and stops, taking a few frames from here, and a few frames from there. That’s a good looking snarl! That dripping goo looks decent, and that movement feels real for however many frames. This accomplishment is testament to the filmmakers – the excellent editor, Ray Lovejoy (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining, Batman), in particular, as well as effects magician, Stan Winston (Predator, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park) and his team.

Although I don’t wish to disregard the VFX guys and girls behind their computer screens, there’s something to be said about purely practical work. Teams of puppeteers (it took nine people just to make the facehuggers in the stasis jars move) who, with the aid of smoke and mirrors, can achieve an in-camera effect, which doesn’t require any further embellishment. There’s a purity to it. For me, perhaps alongside the T-Rex from Jurassic Park (aided beautifully by CG in this instance), the Alien queen is the greatest animatronic puppet ever assembled, and sadly the last of its kind. It existed, and was photographed; not added in later, and it shows. When you’ve experienced practical effects like this, how can CGI ever measure up? Aliens will look great forever (unlike Fincher’s Alien 3, which although having my favourite Alien warrior in the dogburster (or oxburster, depending on which cut you prefer), is damned to the annals of early CG nonsense where audiences will giggle and point at it in perpetuity.

Not all directors fall victim to sucky CG. Some superb work goes unnoticed, as it’s so subtly done. Denis Villeneuve has a firm grasp of it. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, I felt, was particularly restrained, and offered up some striking, believable imagery. I do think most modern CG will age out rapidly due to its continuously evolving nature. Contradictorily, some argue it peaked with Jurassic Park – one of the first examples of its use, so who knows. Maybe we’re going backwards. It could come to pass that early, and some contemporary CG, with the exception of the big guns like Jurassic Park, will soon appear more dated than Aliens. Perhaps we’ll look back on Avatar and laugh, but aside from some hokey rear/front projection plates (I’ll concede that’s one occasion where Prometheus-level CG would’ve come in very handy), and the typical issues of a few dated costume and hair designs, I don’t think Aliens will ever fall victim to the same pitfalls as these CG-laden blockbusters.

“I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.”

Ripley, Aliens

James Horner’s majestic, often mimicked or pinched score is a vital component in the success of Aliens. Robert Rodriguez nabbed “Bishop’s Countdown” from the Aliens OST and used it to great effect in the From Dusk Till Dawn trailer. Even Die Hard got in on the action with an unused piece called “Resolution and Hyperspace” being selected by McTiernan for the climactic dispatch of Karl.

Gale and Jim, at that stage of their careers, clearly didn’t understand the time and approach required to effectively score a feature. All their bravado, and threats to sack Horner showed bad form on their part, and quite embarrassingly reflected their green approach to collaborating with a composer. Their inexperience played a destructive part. If you’re after The Terminator’s rudimentary chase scene music, a chimp can knock that off on the black keys of a Casio keyboard in thirty seconds. This is anything but a throwaway score. It’s emotive and layered, moving and sweeping. Fact of the matter is, Horner needed a locked picture cut before he could really dig in and time out the cues. The producers were down to the wire, and it caused rows. Jim picked his battle wisely in retrospect, as the rumour was he focussed his undivided attention on approving the myriad sound effects, rather than the music, which was already being spearheaded by the more than capable Horner. In 2003’s Superior Firepower documentary, Hurd says Horner didn’t finish the music on time. Maybe so, but only because you failed to provide him with a locked picture cut, and sufficient time to score. This clearly ate into Horner’s four-week recording window, and that’s what resulted in delays. Then, when Horner did eventually deliver, the couple moaned because it didn’t have every moment they’d discussed previously, precisely at the times agreed upon. How could Horner possibly achieve that without a picture lock? It’s an impossible request. I still feel he not only delivered one of the strongest scores of all time, but also miraculously managed, against all odds, to keep somewhat of a cool head with the troublesome producers. It’s a true testament to the man.

Back in the days of Drew’s Script-O-Rama (which endearingly hasn’t altered to this day), which we’d visit during our media and film studies courses to learn how to correctly format scripts, I’d often reference the stark, expressive opening lines of Cameron’s Aliens screenplay.

“Space. Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of God – cold and remote.”

James Cameron, Aliens screenplay

I hadn’t seen the original Alien when I first saw Aliens. Alien is often viewed as a liberal-leaning, leftist, feminist masterpiece, and in opposition, Aliens a pro-Republican Nam allegory, in staunch defence of the nuclear family. To an extent, I think the shoes fit, but I detect more intentional feminism in Aliens than in Alien.

I can’t think of a scene more moving and heroic than the selfless return to nightmarish horror Ripley embarks upon in the third act of Aliens. A bereaved mother’s surrogate relationship with an orphaned colonist named Newt leads to one of my favourite moments in cinematic history – the gearing up in the elevator scene, in which Ripley holds her promise, and boldly goes back to rescue the little girl after a traumatising abduction. It’s a quest only a mother’s love could possibly explain, and yet there’s no shared blood between the two. It’s heartrending, adrenalising, and precedes one of the all-time great sci-fi movie battles: Ripley vs the Alien queen.

“Not bad… for a human.”

Bishop, Aliens

Although it’s a carbon copy of the original Alien trailer, the sublime, wordless Aliens teaser is still outstanding. Seeing it in a cinema would’ve been monumental. I’d’ve been there on opening night in a heartbeat. It doesn’t fall victim to the usual pitfalls of most modern trailers, and does exactly what it’s supposed to do: tease us.

Notably, castmembers, Lance Henriksen (Bishop), Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez), and Bill Paxton (who very nearly took Bobcat Goldthwait’s Zed role in Police Academy 3: Back in Training, prior to being scouted out to play Hudson), all reunited for future-ex-Mrs Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow’s rock and roll vampire flick, Near Dark, a year later in ’87.

If you have any interest in seeing the invariably clueless old duffer duo, Siskel & Ebert, dismiss this total work of art in six minutes flat, you can find their asinine review of Aliens in the YouTube playlist below. The only borderline interesting insight was Ebert’s chestburster time bomb argument that Newt may have been carrying an Alien embryo inside her when the marines arrived, and that justified her place in the film as a device for tension and drama, and she was not simply a “child in peril” cheap shot, as Siskel put it.

“And you, you little shithead. You’re staying here.”

Ripley, Aliens

Aliens remains a dark action piece with a warm human centre, utilising the profound theme of committing to another person when it may mean your life. As the late, great, Bill Paxton once said, in reference to Cameron, he really made it “snap, crackle, and pop.”

I’m firmly team Scorsese on the whole Marvel Universe, Disney behemoth, Star Wars remake machine, and the theory of the infantilisation of cinema – these dummies in shorts and baseball caps, still feuding, and banging on about Star Wars aged 40. However, Aliens happened to be my Marvel Universe. It was my superhero movie. My franchise, or whatever you’d call it, or at least one of them, alongside Indiana Jones and Back to the Future. So, I both identify with, and pity the Star Wars lot, and the Marvel kids, because my favourite film when I was 9 was infinitely better than theirs.

There are no more video boxes as such, all the Blockbusters are dead, and the HMVs are dying; it’s hard enough finding DVDs and Blu-rays in the shops here in Korea – everything is streamed now. That being said, I hope there are still a few kids out there, staring at posters, or Netflix images (or whatever they do these days) of fascinating films; wondering what they could possibly be about, and waiting on tenterhooks to finally see them, never forgetting what drew them to it initially, and then getting immeasurable pleasure and satisfaction from the final film like I did with Aliens.

Rat Burgers, the Three Seashells, and the Hunka Chunka

Demolition Man (1993)

Mellow greetings.

I think my twelve-year-old self would roll his eyes if I said anything other than Demolition Man is a fun, rip-roaring slice of ’90s action cinema.

I have little desire to pick it apart too much. I’m fiercely loyal to the films of my youth, particularly these days, and will fight Demolition Man’s corner purely because it gave me so many wasted years of daft entertainment and big laughs when I needed them. Admittedly, I should’ve been studying a little harder, and not demolishing valuable brain cells by rewatching a gurning, grunty, thawed out caveman diving about the place.

“Ubiquitous” is an adjective we chuck around when selecting our Bargain Bin films for The Rewind Movie Podcast, and in the small town of Richmond, North Yorkshire, circa 1994, Demolition Man was most certainly that.

During secondary school, I owned the VHS tape, and can vouch for its widespread popularity as I was the mug lending it out non-stop to friends, and against my will, to dreaded friends of friends. Fortunately, it was always returned safe and sound – unlike my From Dusk Till Dawn video, which was sadly lost forever, courtesy of a permanently baked lad, who used to huff Lynx deodorant through his school jumper.

Marco Brambilla’s Stallonian sci-fi opus was omnipresent. Every boy at school must’ve seen it at least once. When me and my fellow Judderman, Rob, weren’t drinking Metz and watching Evil Dead II, passing film quote notes under the door of our adjoining classrooms, making fun of our English teacher – “Vigo the Carpathian”, making bizarre To Kill a Mockingbird board games, or kicking Chelsea buns down the street, we’d often quote Demolition Man – cracking in-jokes about our rubbish ice cream van school lunches by labelling the subpar patties, “rat burgers.”

I also recall mimicking the irreverent lunacy of Wesley Snipes’ Simon Phoenix with a totally different group of friends between our occasionally violent card games of “Raps”, and playing “Heads and Volleys.”

“Somebody put me back in the fridge.”

John Spartan, Demolition Man

Upon a recent double rewatch in preparation for the podcast, it was peculiar to recognise just a handful of names from the opening titles; far fewer than my usual average. The director, Brambilla, in particular, I knew absolutely nothing about. Turns out I was also a fan of his ’97 sophomore effort, Excess Baggage (or maybe just a fan of Alicia Silverstone). An Italian-born, Canadian video artist; Brambilla’s filmography from 1999-2020 consists solely of video installations.

One name, however, leapt immediately off the screen like an exploding building. Before I figured out what a producer even did, I was a disciple of Joel Silver. From the Lethal Weapon series, to Commando, Predator, and personal favourite, Die Hard – his films were among the ones I would loop on a regular basis.

Old pro, Alex Thomson BSC, also shot Stallone’s Cliffhanger the same year as Demolition Man, as well as previously serving as director of photography on childhood faves, Labyrinth and Alien 3, Schwarzenegger’s Raw Deal, Ridley Scott’s fantasy adventure, Legend, Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon with Mickey Rourke, and Death Line aka Raw Meat – a ’70s London Underground cannibal horror, reminiscent of 2004’s Creep. Thomson also worked as camera operator for the brilliant, Nicolas Roeg, in the ’60s.

From the opening shot of the Hollywood sign in flames to a G.I. Joe-lookin’ bloke in a beret; bungee jumping out of a helicopter, yelling “PPHHOOEEENNIIIXXX!!!” at the top of his lungs, you know exactly where you stand. Switch that brain off. You won’t be needing it.

It’s big, dumb action, but I found it delivers more than we’re perhaps expecting; certainly more than we’re used to from a ’90s actioner. It could’ve descended into unwatchable territory in the hands of another director, but for my money, Brambilla gave it a solid grounding, and paid attention to some crucial details.

Perhaps this is too generous, but the way Spartan eyes the Cryotube as he initially goes into stasis is a smart visual setup for the final scene, which has him freezing Phoenix. Many directors would’ve missed that tiny trick, and, although a microscopic detail, it illustrates Brambilla knew how to relay information quickly and clearly.

For me, Demolition Man holds up. It works particularly well in a meta movie double feature with another self-referential action film of the same year, Last Action Hero, with the bigger man himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I was an Arnie advocate, through and through. Generally speaking, I maintain he made better films than Sly. When it came to Stallone, I wasn’t a Rocky kid, but I enjoyed aspects of First Blood, and absolutely loved both Cliffhanger and Demolition Man.

It looks expensive and glossy. It’s got scope and scale, and a talented visualist in Brambilla. Fans of Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, RoboCop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers) will have a ball. It successfully reflects the excess of the ’90s, and represents its blockbusters warmly and accurately; flying the flag for the kinds of films I loved as an early teenager. You may lose a few brain cells, but it’s an enjoyable, relatively healthy way to do it.

What can I say? It still inspires joy-joy feelings in me.

Be well.

The Dark Side of the Moonwalker

Captain EO (1986) | Moonwalker (1988)

I missed the bus on Michael Jackson. Had I been born a bit earlier, and Thriller or Bad (his best LP, in my opinion) had been my introductory album to the “King of Pop”, rather than ’91’s Dangerous, who knows, I might’ve been one of those fellas you see with a single white glove.

Billie Jean” might be his masterpiece. “Beat It”, I can get with, perhaps because it has such prominent guitars. Although done to death by Simon Cowell’s American Pop X Factor Idol machine, “Dirty Diana” remains a tune. The definitely not occult-endorsing, John Landis-directed, zombie promo for “Thriller” surely stood the test of time, and remains one of Jackson’s most iconic moments; encapsulating music, dance, and fashion – reanimating itself every Hallowe’en to haunt us. I wanted more MJ songs like these, both as a kid, and during my recent rewatch of Moonwalker.

Although I’m yet to pay for any of Jackson’s music, I did have the Moonwalker computer game for the Sega Master System II, in which he memorably throws a coin across the room, directly into a jukebox, decked out in an elegant white suit and hat. It was such a captivating image. School friends talked about it often, and clearly bought into Jackson’s hip image. Maybe I did too – to an extent. Frankly, his strangeness always put me off.

“I’m going to search for my star until I find it. It’s hidden in the drawer of innocence, wrapped in a scarf of wonder.”

Michael Jackson

“Wacko Jacko”, they christened him in the UK tabloid press, and boy did it catch on. The sensational headlines included Mike buying the Elephant Man’s bones, his vitiligo/shifting skin tone, multiple surgeries (two nose jobs confirmed), artificial inseminations, and other wild tales of building shrines to Liz Taylor, kipping in an oxygen tent, pissing off Paul McCartney by snapping up The Beatles’ publishing rights, and naming his third kid, “Blanket.”

The calculated Martin Bashir hit piece, Louis Theroux’s kick in the teeth follow-up circa MJ’s baby-dangling antics, plus Leigh Francis’ (Bo’ Selecta!) cruel and nonsensical (but I’m a little ashamed to say painfully hilarious in its time), abstract portrayal, and comedic dissection, which echoed playground jibes about Jackson’s nose falling off, and hammered a few more nails into his coffin.

Negative press aside, I do feel, for the most part, Jackson was given the benefit of the doubt in relation to the more disturbing hearsay. He continued to have colossal hit singles despite the lewd rumours, court cases, and in light of recent Neverland revelations, even posthumously, retains die hard supporters; some with high profiles, willing to die on the cross alongside him.

Talking of crosses, Jacko’s Christ-aping nonsense got Jarvis Cocker’s goat at the BRITS ’96, where the tweed-clad Pulp frontman, in an inspired moment of comedic heroism, decided enough was enough, and crashed the stage to do a daft hand dance, and expose Jackson’s blasphemous, power of healing, self-adoring “Earth Song” stage show for what it really was: a self-inflating booster for Michael Jackson, Inc.

Moonwalker didn’t represent MJ’s first foray into acting though, with appearances as Scarecrow in 1978’s The Wiz, and as the titular Captain EO in George Lucas’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 (first ever 4D) Disney sci-fi short, which makes a fascinating and kooky double bill with Moonwalker.

Captain EO features a rag-tag band of space truckers, struggling to bring balance to the force, sorry, freedom to the universe, using musical gifts as peaceful offerings. MJ, of course, plays the charismatic leader, capable of turning even the haggiest of ceiling-hags – the spider woman with a planet of her own, into a chilled out, benevolent goddess.

Jacko really looks at home amongst the Mos Eisley cantina rejects in his cool, light-up space jacket. When a man owns a monkey, the image of a singing, orange hamster with wings sitting on his shoulder isn’t that much of a stretch.

EO’s motley crew includes Academy Award winner (An American Werewolf in London), Rick Baker’s Fuzzball animatronic, the three-legged and two-headed Geex – Idee and Odee, the moustachioed Major Domo – a bossy, pegleg droid, largely ignored by EO à la Han Solo and Threepio, Minor Domo – a mini robot cleaner, and last but not least, the (surely) Max Rebo-inspired, Hooter (played by Bad Santa’s Joseph Anthony Cox) – a flatulent, two-stepping, Artoo-ish, honking Howard the Duck-alike, keyboardist pachyderm in a string vest, who enjoys putting waste paper bins on his head, eating star maps for a laugh, and getting the group completely lost in the process, much to the dismay of Michael, who constantly emits breathy, childlike yelps in his direction.

The extremely loose, 17-minute, Jim Henson nightmare plot revolves around the gang’s quest to transform a witchy queen with the empowering gift of music. What follows results in, without doubt, the maddest A-list movie short ever produced.

Director, Francis Coppola slums it, presumably for a sizeable paycheck. George Lucas is executive producer and wrote the screenplay from a Disney Imagineers’ concept. Anjelica Huston (The Witches) makes a compelling, if a little broad, Giger-esque, biomechanical bitch, with claws and tubes galore, suspended from wires; scowling her way through heavy 3-hour makeup. There’s lighting and photography courtesy of Oscar-winner, Vittorio Storaro (The Deer Hunter), James Horner (Aliens, Willow, Titanic) did the music, and the impressive choreography is by Jacko and Jeffrey Hornaday (Flashdance, Streets of Fire, Dick Tracy).

Captain EO was made to launch a cutting edge theatre at Disneyland, California; designed to lure the punters in with 3D, lasers, smoke and of course, Michael Jackson. It was sold as a space opera akin to Star Wars, but in reality plays like some shit Lucas had left over in a drawer. The hologram boss, Commander Bog, the Millennium Falcon-style, Death Star runs from the ship’s point of view, the Trench City miniature, and royalty ceremonially knighting EO and the crew is all reminiscent of a galaxy far far away.

It’s a well-meaning, non-violent, infectious farce, with a disobedient, rebellious MJ sticking it to the Man, as an outlaw with transformative superpowers. In terms of positives, there’s a blend of inventive stop motion musical sequences, the Seinfeldian bass-slapping dance numbers work well, and like it or not, there’s a true showman at the helm – albeit inexplicably shooting space glitter lightning out of his fingertips at every turn. Captain EO arguably justifies its own existence entirely by premiering Jackson’s first two new tracks since Thriller and “We Are the World” with “We Are Here to Change the World” and the Bad-teasing, “Another Part of Me.”

I don’t think I’ve ever written the word “bizarre” more often than in my notes to Michael Jackson’s experiMENTAL movie-musical, and video anthology piece, Moonwalker – directed by Colin Chilvers and Jerry Kramer, not that it really matters, as Mike is the pretty much the sole creative vision behind it.

I was puzzled from the outset, as I found myself wondering where the movie element I vaguely remembered was. I thought perhaps I’d made a mistake and was watching something different, but a quick Google search confirmed Moonwalker was always comprised of both documentary footage, and short and long-form narrative, video vignettes – the main segment beginning at around 37 minutes, in the form of the Smooth Criminal story.

An exploration of fandom and innocence in seven chapters; Moonwalker is a confounding, confused, mish-mash of concepts, muddled together in the form of a “Man in the Mirror” performance, an MJ retrospective docu dealing with rumours and speculation amid the media frenzy, then a Jackson 5 bit, “Badder” (an all kids recreation of Martin Scorsese’s “Bad” music video, the “Speed Demon” and “Leave Me Alone” promos, a round the bend “Smooth Criminal” narrative segment, and finally, a cover of The Beatles’ “Come Together.” Jacko once again proves to be a draw for the best of the best, with Frederick Elmes (Eraserhead, Wild at Heart) – David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch’s go-to cinematographer, photographing the “Speed Demon”, “Smooth Criminal”, and “Come Together” segments.

Fainting fans, and general MJ adulation kick off the proceedings (as they’re meant to go on). Jackson’s boogying around from the outset, shaking stardust out of his trousers with double doses of Michaelese “cha’mones!”, “heee-heeees!”, “hooo-hooos!”, and “owwwws!!” He telegraphs these quirky affectations to ludicrous extremes, and comes off, as my parents would say, as “a bit of an oddbod.” It’s a collaged sequence, cynically designed to prop up Jackson as a humanitarian figure of empathy and mercy. Here, even the reflective lyrics to “Man in the Mirror” play as narcissistic and conceited.

However, amid the greatest hits montage, and braggy collection of awards, MJ’s impact as a pop star is undeniable. When you hear these tracks back to back, it’s just a fact. As the key member of The Jackson 5, the little fella was a songbird – a naturally gifted wunderkind. Whatever came to pass, whatever may have happened to, and because of this person; there’s an underlying tragedy here.

Moonwalker contains no interviews as such; the non-fiction portion is solely montaged concert and live footage with added voiceover. In essence, Moonwalker was a promo tool for Jackson’s Bad LP, released in 1987. This strikes a disingenuous chord, as a commercial for an album perhaps shouldn’t exploit images of children and famine in Africa, and preach incoherently with shots of Desmond Tutu, JFK and Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, John Lennon, and Jesus Christ. There’s a clash of interests there, surely? Are you making a statement about how we should all listen to the words of Nelson Mandela, or are you selling a record? In the era of Live Aid, these political inserts initially appear to make a peaceful statement of some kind, but actually play quite trite. A picture of Mother Teresa is not going to fix anything, dude.

Next up, a Bugsy Malone-esque take off of the visually arresting “Bad” video, in which MJ originally, implausibly, dance-defeated a rock hard Wesley Snipes and earned his respect. Yeah, right. The very natural child actor, Brandon Quintin Adams (The Mighty Ducks, The Sandlot) showcases his talent as a miniature “Baby Bad” Michael here, and also in the “Smooth Criminal” story as Zeke.

Adams shifts from child to adult in a single cut as Jackson leaves the sound stage with his entourage, and struts onto the studio back lot, where a chase akin to a scene from Dick Lester’s Beatles picture, A Hard Day’s Night kicks in. Michael encounters claymation expert, Will Vinton’s Plasticine fanatics, and later takes on their live action/clay hybrid form, much like his other famous creation, The California Raisins. “Excuse me”, Michael squeaks, in a timid, little girl’s voice, before an MJ bunny rabbit “Speed Demon” motorcycle chase ensues, with character cameos from Swamp Thing, Sylvester Stallone, Tina Turner, and Pee-wee Herman.

Next, Michael attempts to shake off the media critics with the artistically adept, and visually arresting, “Leave Me Alone” video, featuring a cut-out “King of Pop” and Bubbles zooming around in a little, detached, fairground rocket ship, and climaxes with Jackson as a Gulliver-esque giant, standing up and breaking a rollercoaster.

The remainder of Moonwalker is a nutty, short-feature fiasco, and it won’t surprise anyone to discover it’s all based on a story by Michael Jackson. It was also his first independent movie project, financing, and penning the Smooth Criminal screenplay with David Newman (Bonnie and Clyde, the first three Superman movies).

Cue more adoration. It’s laid on pretty thick with three kids on a rooftop, peering down in abject terror as an attempted MJ assassination rocks the neighbourhood. Mike enjoyed playing prankster on this particular day of shooting, firing tommy gun blanks to startle everyone on set.

Plot-wise, Moonwalker depicts Michael as being constantly victimised, and always on the run, when all he wants to do is play with kids. Hmm. One eerie flashback involves MJ frolicking with youngsters in a meadow. What’s Sean Lennon doing there? How did that poor lad get dragged into all this? Hasn’t he suffered enough?

Teary children are distraught, with cries of “Oh no! Michael!”, as they weep inconsolably at the thought of Jackson leaving them; concern for his well being is littered throughout. It’s somewhat of a pity party. It plays as truly unusual, due to Jackson’s real life antics; inviting kids to the Neverland Ranch, sharing his bed, and allegedly his “Jesus juice.” Perhaps this scene, and Moonwalker to a greater degree, was a conscious attempt to normalise these social interactions, and steer away the demonising media by concocting a distracting, batshit crazy plot line about drugs, spiders, lasers and robots.

“Bugs and drugs. Bugs and drugs. Smooth operation, that’s what I got. Smooth operation.”

Mr Big, Moonwalker

If you want to see Joe Pesci as a fruitcake character named, “Mr Big” – a drug dealer to, and happy slapper of little’uns, eating peanuts in high heels, yelling incoherently into a megaphone, with a disturbingly erect ponytail, little round sunglasses, and tarantulas all around him (and why wouldn’t you?) this is your one stop shop. One pursuit sees a silhouetted MJ running (in tap shoes) from a pack of dogs, before bafflingly morphing into a hyper-fast, futuristic, bulletproof vehicle to evade him.

This villain, Frankie Lideo, is named after MJ’s manager; a mafia don-looking, cigar-chomping fatman, and real-life hawker of stuff that’s likely bad for you (you’ll recognise him as both Tuddy Cicero from Goodfellas and also Wayne’s World’s Frankie “Mr Big” (aha!) Sharp of Sharp Records, Frank DiLeo. DiLeo, Lideo, Chyeah! Right! As if we wouldn’t notice! Are they equating the peddling of narcotics to kids to flogging Michael Jackson records? Are they equally Bad for you? Is DiLeo as much of a crook in real life? What are they alluding to exactly?

Jackson’s half-unbuttoned, sweaty torso flashing and staccato “uh!” noises, meshed with his constant crotch-grabbing (at least it’s his own), fondling himself, and gyrating his gold belt buckle like he’s the the WWF Intercontinental champion of oddness, lead us into the most overtly sexual scene of Moonwalker. The “Smooth Criminal” section showcases a harrowing, blue-washed, nodding sex-scene-of-sorts, with no actual sex or nudity – just writhing, panting, and groaning on the dance floor.

Clearly sexual, yet desperate to appear wholesome, could be a review of both Moonwalker, and of Jackson in general; his career image was split. His sexuality and appearance, clothes, moves, vocals, and then this other immature persona, with the falsetto choirboy voice, childlike mannerisms, the funfair obsession, climbing trees, etc. When these two aspects of MJ collide, it’s a psychological pill many understandably can’t accept.

Michael imbibes himself with a supernatural, messianic power to save children from danger, but it’s all tinged with a try-hard implausibility, and at times, a freaky, ill-judged tone. Take Jackson’s ominous, glowing eyes, and sinister mechanical mask as he transforms into Mechajacko – a RoboGod with built-in, impenetrable force field, whose cries of, “aaaahhhh!” can decimate Mr Big’s henchmen no bother. Shooting stars (including MJ’s “lucky star”) give him level-up powers for unexplained reasons, ensuring justice is served and the invincible Jacko reigns supreme.

At a late juncture, Jackson (again, just because he can), turns into a spaceship and reverse zaps Mr Big’s weapon; cue lots of things blowing up in slow motion. The final, frankly unearned musical crescendo baffles and underwhelms in equal measure, and that’s that. Ladysmith Black Mambazo’s “The Moon is Walking” winds things down, and “Come Together” draws the curtains on the sharpish 93 minutes; one of Moonwalker‘s few virtues.

DiLeo denies Moonwalker is merely a commercial for Michael Jackson, and insists they’re selling “happiness.” If you have no issues bastardising your music to pimp Pepsi, I don’t see how plugging yourself for an hour and a half would be such an issue. The unsightly egotism and greed lands again when we learn Jackson demanded such insane amounts of cash for the American theatrical release of Moonwalker that he was eventually denied one entirely.

So, is Moonwalker fractured lunacy from the mind of an insane person? Or is it all just a bit of fun?

Moonwalker plays as a hypocritical mess. At best, it was a cynical tool, no doubt used to Jackson’s own benefit financially and commercially, and at the worst, to fuel his own sociopathic ego, and perpetuate a squeaky clean media image, enabling him to manoeuvre in some seedy circles. Another disconcerting factor is to what degree Jackson may have benefitted from this affected persona. Whether we’re watching a childishly playful, grown-man scamp, or someone more sinister and calculating, is a disturbing question to pose.

To me, it’s a unique, but crackers, ego trip to the furthest reaches of Jacko’s self conceits. Bar a few standout moments of true visual creativity (namely the “Smooth Criminal” and “Leave Me Alone” segments), Moonwalker folds under the weight of its own erratic derangement. It’s like existing inside Jackson’s head for an hour and a half; as if he dreamt it, described it to the crew in his shy little voice, and then the execs (and Mike, to be fair) just chucked bucks at it.

There’s no rhyme or reason to anything that happens, and the film itself hides behind its somewhat experimental approach. Basically, the narrative is crackers, but as expected, the dancing and tunes are mostly first-rate.

As a songwriter, musician, and performer, Michael Jackson was a phenomenon. As the key creative behind Moonwalker, he’s selling self-promotion, self-adulation, and dark wonder, and it’s hard to buy any of it.

All Hallows’ Evenings

All Hallows’ Evenings, 2018

In 2018, myself, my extremely patient girlfriend, Shinyeong, and a band of likeminded comrades in Jeonju, South Korea, embarked upon our first ever #horroctober – one horror film every night throughout the month of October. We named ours All Hallows’ Evenings.

It’s not a particularly clever or diverse curation of titles, but it’s what we ended up with, and what we actually saw through to the bloody end. Please enjoy Werewolf Wednesdays, the Dead By Dawn duo (my favourite beer and pizza double bill), a Neve Campbell ’96 pairing, The Witching Hours, a found footage coupling, a frightening Franchise Friday, and the 40th anniversary double feature, Halloween: The Nights He Came Home.

“They were vampires. Psychos do not explode when sunlight hits them, I don’t give a fuck how crazy they are!”

Seth Gecko, From Dusk Till Dawn

It was a mad rush to finish the accompanying drawings. I used a cool little Wacom Bamboo Slate tablet, which allowed me to draw directly onto paper with the ink pen provided, and digitally convert at the touch of a button using the Wacom app.

This playlist represents the first incarnation of a Scarious Artists project, back in 2012. It began as the throwaway title of a 2CD Hallowe’en compilation – a daft pun on Various Artists, which spiralled each year into a longer, ever-evolving catalogue of mildly macabre party-appropriate (and not so party-appropriate) tunes.

Some lucky souls even got physical copies with handmade, Universal Monster artwork. I made a few of these Hallowe’en mixes over the years, including spooky Hobbycraft felt pouches, and little USB thumbs in coffin boxes with red tissue paper interiors. You can freak out to the digital version below.