The Many Lives of Laurie Strode


Although the Halloween franchise is mainly associated with indestructible serial killer Michael Myers, six of the 10 films (and by next year, seven of the 11) in the saga also feature returning ‘final girl’ Laurie Strode – the ultimate objective of Michael’s murderous rampage. The final girl, as observed by Carol J. Clover in her book Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, is a common fixture in the slasher genre, the female character who survives a killing spree and often turns up in the next instalment, only to be dispatched by the monster then. The final girl is often asexual and straight-laced in contrast to the teenage victims, who, in most slasher films, are seemingly punished for having pre-marital sex, drinking and taking drugs. Because of this, according to the documentary Halloween: 25 Years of Terror (2006), Jamie Lee Curtis, when approached by John Carpenter and producer/co-writer Debra Hill, would have preferred to have played one of the other girls in the film who did have ‘fun’. But by being cast as the more innocuous Laurie, Curtis helped create an iconic character that she would be asked to reprise in various sequels, not to mention similar parts in another three horror films – The Fog, Terror Train and Road Games – all made between Halloween and Halloween II (1981). Being a fan of Hitchcock, Carpenter also found the idea of casting the daughter of Psycho star Janet Leigh (one potential final girl who didn’t survive the second act of her brush with a serial killer) as the lead irresistible, something that would be commented on explicitly and awkwardly in Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998).

In Halloween: 25 Years of Terror, Carpenter mentions that when Michael Myers first sees Laurie, through the ageing net curtain of his abandoned family home, he sees something sisterly in her aspect. This familial attachment to his victim(s) of choice would form the backbone of the sequels, but here it carries a double meaning. First, Laurie’s bland femininity negates her as an object of desire – she would only be allowed a (doomed) relationship belatedly in Halloween H20 – but it also bears comparison to Michael’s first victim on screen, his sister, whom he voyeuristically stalks pre- and post-coitus through the window and doors of his family home, before stabbing her to death in the film’s memorable prologue.

The characters in the film refer to Michael as the ‘bogeyman’, a word whose etymology comes from an old Celtic word for ghost, and Celtic mythology becomes increasingly important in the sequels. In this first instalment, Michael is at his most ghost-like, his featureless (well, William Shatner-esque) white mask removing any emotion from his face and his drab boiler suit being at odds with his ability to appear and disappear like a wraith, who moves slowly when observed, but like lightning when off screen. One other Celtic reference makes it into the first instalment: Michael leaves the word ‘Samhain’ scrawled in the shop where he steals his iconic mask, a reference to a festival associated with legends of adventurers fleeing monsters in order to be proved worthy (which Laurie does in the films) and connected with the slaughter of mammals to allow people to survive the winter months, also applicable to the residents of Haddonfield as Michael only massacres on his favourite feast day and the days before.

Lead characters Michael, Laurie and Sam Loomis – Laurie’s erstwhile doctor, who spends the sequels in a Cassandra-style role, warning the residents of Illinois against their itinerant bogeyman, and who is always ignored until the bodies start piling up again – survive the end of the first instalment, but Carpenter and Hill hadn’t intended a sequel until the financiers revealed they had a massive hit on their hands. Fuelled by beer and sleepless nights, the workmanlike and generally pointless sequel written by Carpenter and Hill does Curtis/Laurie a great disservice by keeping her sedated in a hospital bed for half the running time of the film while Michael stalks the corridors of the institution failing to find her (Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween II in 2009 condenses this down to 25 minutes). In writing the sequel, Carpenter came up with the idea of actually making Laurie Michael’s long-lost sister, who was brought up by foster parents, and retrofitted the original film with this idea, by having the killer write the word ‘sister’ on a wall in an additional scene filmed for the extended TV version made for ABC in 1981. Why Michael wants to murder all the younger members of his family is never really explained, but when Jamie Lee Curtis didn’t reprise her role for Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) the killer went on to stalk his niece, cousins and daughter respectively in the next four instalments of the saga, as well as any other young person who got in his way.

The killer generally doesn’t change from film to film beyond the stuntman playing ‘The Shape’, as Michael is referred to in the end credits of each film, and the directors of some of the sequels even forget he should have third-degree burns covering every area of his skin whenever we see his hands on screen after his return in 1988. Laurie, however, goes through as profound a change as sci-fi final girl Ellen Ripley in the Alien saga, who goes from blue-collar space miner in Alien (1979), to maternal soldier in Aliens (1986), to shaved prisoner in Alien 3 (1992) to resurrected half-alien clone in Alien: Resurrection (1997). In Halloween, Laurie is an asexual senior high-school student, in Halloween II, a traumatised, drugged hospital patient, in Halloween H20, an alcoholic headmistress with separation anxiety, and in Halloween: Resurrection (2002), she’s back in hospital, borderline psychotic, awaiting the inevitable return of her nemesis. Perhaps in order to survive against an implacable foe, the final girl is the one who has to change, both in her approach to each return of the killer and to provide another instalment of a franchise with a degree of freshness as well as familiarity.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) is only a thematic instalment of the saga, featuring cursed masks, another hospital immolation and references to Samhain, but none of the original main characters. However, the mystical cult it introduces, which wants to kill all the children of America (not just the ones who do pot or are related to Laurie Strode), makes a return to the screen in part 6, Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (2005), in a confusing plot that mixes astronomy, black masses, genetic manipulation and incest! Before this narrative dead end, which along with parts 4 and 5 would be ignored by the script of H20, Halloween 4 starred a much younger final girl, Laurie’s daughter Jamie Lloyd, who would also go through similar transformations to her mother – becoming a killer herself in the final scene of part 4, being variously catatonic and telepathic in part 5 and a rape/cult victim in part 6…

In Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, Laurie is only present in the form of a photograph, at which her abandoned daughter gazes forlornly after she has apparently died off screen. This plot element is retained for Jamie Lee Curtis’s return to the franchise in H20, where it is revealed that Laurie faked her own death and moved to California to bring up her son, though why she left her daughter behind is anyone’s guess. Like Jamie in the previous instalment, she was perhaps impregnated by Michael off screen between sequels and she was separated from her first child for nefarious reasons…

Sequels generally follow patterns, and every third sequel to Halloween is largely quite good. Part 4, while a retread of the original with Michael stalking his niece rather than his sister, is atmospheric and has a terrific ending where Jamie re-enacts the beginning of the first film. Part 7 (H20) brings Laurie back to the franchise in a film that gives the characters genuine depth and should have brought the entire narrative to a close. Part 10, Rob Zombie’s Halloween II (2009), finally allows Laurie to have some fun and adds a touch of David Lynch/Oliver Stone-style surrealism to the proceedings.

In contrast, part 6, The Curse of Michael Myers, is almost incomprehensible and exists in two different versions. The bootleg ‘producer’s cut’ ends with a child Laurie babysat in the first film, now an adult played by future comedy actor Paul Rudd and the first ‘final boy’ of the series, who immobilises Myers by surrounding him with Celtic runes (!). The recut theatrical version had 40 minutes of different/alternate scenes mixed into the film and tones down the black magic angle (which offers some explanation for Michael’s indestructibility) while some mumbled lines and briefly glimpsed computer screens add genetic engineering to the plot… Donald Pleasance died before they shot these new scenes, so his exit from the series is off screen, only represented by a scream he recorded for the original cut.

However, The Curse of Michael Myers still turned a profit and producer Moustapha Akkad, who once joked he’d stop with part 22 (!), managed to convince Jamie Lee Curtis to reprise her role for the next film in the series, which brought the saga back to basics. The seventh instalment of a long-running franchise is often interesting, as following a pair of trilogies, filmmakers who take on a convoluted narrative have to come up with a new angle to keep the fans coming back and bring new audiences to the saga. This can mean a new, younger cast – the successful casting of Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973) following six performances by Sean Connery as James Bond, or Patrick Stuart taking command of the USS Enterprise in the seventh Star Trek film, Generations (1994) – or a gimmick that sets apart the new instalment from its predecessors – Jason Voorhees coming up against a psychokinetic final girl in Friday the 13th part VII: The New Blood (1988), ‘Saw VII’ being retitled Saw 3D (2010) – or the return of the star from the first film, as in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (on Elm Street, 1994) with original final girl Heather Langenkamp, and in this case Curtis in H20.

Having continued for 20 years at this point, the Halloween franchise, having helped create the slasher genre, also became influenced by its peers. The original film in the series was relatively bloodless, but following test screenings of Halloween II, John Carpenter had to shoot additional scenes of gore to shock an audience who had already seen Alien (1979), Friday the 13th, Prom Night, Alligator and Dressed to Kill (all 1980). By 1998, the genre had also been dismantled by director Wes Craven, writer Kevin Williamson and editor Patrick Lussier in the first two Scream films (1996-1997), and Williamson was called in to come up with a first draft of Halloween H20. Although his credit had been reduced to co-executive producer by the time the film was released, the writer’s fingerprints are all over the production, from the clip of Scream II showing on a TV in the film (replacing the classic black and white horror films of previous instalments), Lussier in the cutting room, the presence of Dawson’s Creek star Michelle Williams as a student, and the references to other horror films, including the casting of Janet Leigh as the secretary of Laurie Strode (now Keri Tate), who has moved to California, where the first film was actually shot. Leigh’s casting could have been a subtle in-joke, but it is heavily underlined: while the rest of the film creates fairly realistic characters, Leigh states she always felt ‘maternal’ to Curtis’s character, leaves the film to the strains of the score from Psycho and drives Marion Crane’s car!

However, Curtis is given plenty to do in this film: raise a son, cope with her post-traumatic stress disorder, run a school, hide her alcoholism and finally dispatch her murderous brother. H20 is the best sequel to date and it’s just unfortunate Curtis agreed to cameo in one more instalment, the lacklustre Halloween: Resurrection, which sees her killed off in the pre-credits sequence by the ‘real’ Michael Myers, as opposed to the impostor she unwittingly decapitated at the end of the previous film. Channelling Linda Hamilton’s muscled up and institutionalised Sarah Connor from Terminator 2: Judgment day (1992), Laurie Strode’s final scene wastes the character who has been with us on and off screen since 1978.

Post-Resurrection, the franchise was rebooted yet again with Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween in 2007. Reasonably entertaining, the new Halloween is as pointless as the first sequel was in 1981 as it’s just more of the same but not as good, with the only noticeable addition being that Michael’s childhood is explored, and his abuse by a poor white trash family removes much of his mystique. The new Laurie Strode is a more traditional teenager, swearing and listening to loud music, which also makes the contrast of the ingénue versus the monster less interesting, and while a capable actress, Scout Taylor-Compton isn’t a patch on Jamie Lee Curtis. However, as the eleventh instalment of the series has been announced – the inevitable Halloween 3D in 2012 – we can only hope for a female killer (as teased but not followed up on in the endings of Halloween 4 and H20), since Zombie’s Halloween II ends with Myers downed in a hail of bullets and Laurie Strode picking up her brother’s knife…

Alex Fitch

Deadly Role Reversals: Birds Eye View’s Horror Shorts

Short Lease

Birds Eye View

8-17 March 2011

BEV website

As part of its focus on girls who do gore, the Birds Eye View Film Festival programmed a selection of new horror shorts by female filmmakers. Screening at the ICA in London, the seven films revealed what happens when women take on a historically male-orientated genre. Namely, they take their revenge.

Nowhere was this more keenly felt than in Melanie Light’s Switch. Set against a lovingly shot snow-swamped English landscape, the film opened with a fairly familiar set-up: a lone female jogger running down a deserted country lane; an obvious victim-in-waiting. Spotting the lonely figure, a male driver slows down his car, calls his girlfriend to say he’ll be home late and hangs up (‘Bitch!’ he shouts). Putting on his leather gloves, he heads off to follow the girl but in a skewed reversal of roles, the poor murderer-in-waiting is given no time to enact his crime; the female jogger gets in first, launching a horribly vicious and bloody attack in the pure, white snow. The victim has switched and, in turn, the genre switches towards black comedy. Leaving him for dead, the jogger dusts herself off, unperturbed, to continue her run. The twist is cleverly handled, playing nicely with audience preconceptions of the male attacker and the female victim.

Male victims were common across the board. In Helen Komini Olsen’s Daddy’s Girl, an angelically blonde, ringlet-ed woman serves up her own dead father to a party of dinner guests. In Kate Shenton’s Bon Appetit, a woman sits down to eat a plate of male genitalia, making her partner squirm as he sits opposite her (granted, he is tucking into a Salome-style offering of his girlfriend’s head). In Sun Koh’s Dirty Bitch, a wild, pregnant, pigtailed girl ties up and attacks a male acquaintance after she finds his diary of sexual fantasies. In Laura Whyte’s stop-motion animation, Nursery Crimes, we may not see violence against male characters but we do get a strong female instigator of violence: a kick-ass and utterly satanic Little Bo Peep. These were all women on a mission.

And it is with American director Devi Sniveley’s I Spit on Eli Roth that we learn what might lie behind this female offensive. There’s the misogyny of the slasher genre but there’s also a certain chauvinistic culture in mainstream horror circles. The film follows an angry group of women seeking to protest against Eli Roth’s ‘chick vision’ feature on the DVD release of his film Cabin Fever by finding new and exciting ways to torture Roth. The action comes to a halt when the fairy godmother of horror, The Bride of Frankenstein, appears and makes the women understand that they are acting no better than Roth himself. Seeing the error of their ways (‘We’ve become our own worst nightmare’), the women instead offer an impassioned plea to horror fans: ‘This didn’t have to happen, y’ know – horror can be an intelligent, socially conscious genre. It’s made us laugh. It’s made us scream. It’s even made us piss our pants and vomit. It’s even made us think… Friends, don’t let friends denigrate the horror genre.’ While there’s a throwaway, DIY feel to the film, it’s an astute point about the problems that can plague some, but not all, horror films.

Singaporean filmmaker Sun Koh also uses her film to raise questions about cinema and filmmaking. Commissioned by the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the work was inspired by a heavily censored video copy of Claire Denis’s Nenette and Boni, which Koh rented from a library in Singapore. Feeling appalled that the censors had edited out teenage fantasies about dirty talk, Koh decided to embrace the topic. The result is a bonkers whirlwind of filthy talk set to music, ultra-violence and dancing baby dolls. The film concludes with the female lead meeting with a board of censors. As she sits opposite these imposing figures of authority, she slowly realises that they are no different from herself or anyone else; but by pretending to be above others, they have become hypocrites.

As might be surmised from these descriptions, the films chosen for the programme do not strictly adhere to conventional definitions of horror; in fact, they are quite circumspect in their approach to the genre. Most involved violence of some sort but chose to move away from being a straightforward horror film and, watching the films, it was actually easy to forget that this was a horror screening at all. Some involved a lot of gore without much build-up (the bloody meals of Bon Appetit, the vengeful attacks in Switch and Dirty Bitch); some detached themselves from the material enough to create black comedy (Switch, Daddy’s Girl and Nursery Crimes) and some acted as polemics on filmmaking (I Spit on Eli Roth and Dirty Bitch). Only one of the shorts was a direct horror film in the traditional sense: Prano Bailey-Bond and Jennifer Eiss’s Short Lease. While the other films offered food for thought, Short Lease seemed to be the only one to stick to its brief for its entire duration. Bailey-Bond and Eiss’s film was incredibly effective in creating tension with classic horror tools: a lonely, isolated setting; a big, deserted house; and a supernatural, inexplicable force haunting and tormenting its human victims. Following in the mysterious, gothic style of M.R. James, the film left a lot of questions unanswered and a strange, lingering feeling of discomfort in the viewer. But while the haunted staircases left a chill, it was heartening to see an example of intelligent horror, with a female victim but without the misogyny, directed by women filmmakers.

Listen to the podcast with Jennifer Eiss, Melanie Light and Kate Shenton, read Jennifer Eiss’s article, ‘Do Women Prefer Psychological Horror?’ and Eleanor McKeown’s ‘Warped Women: The Emergence of Female Horror Directors in the UK’.

Eleanor McKeown

Do Women Prefer Psychological Horror?

Near Dark

As a director who recently showed a short horror film in the Birds Eye View Film Festival’s Bloody Women programme, I found the question most often asked of me was, ‘Do women prefer psychological horror?’ The most accurate answer would be that I have no idea. Personally I know women who love to be scared and so seek out the creepy atmospheric tension of films such as The Changeling (1980), The Haunting (1963) and The Orphanage (2007). I also know women who can’t stand the emotional manipulations of psychological horror and favour the more superficial nature of gore-fests like The Evil Dead (1981) or the numerous 80s slasher flicks. And then, of course, there are the women (myself included) who are simply horror fans, and who find something to appreciate in most or all of the subgenres.

But my anecdotal experiences don’t answer the question satisfactorily – far from it, in fact – and the more I was asked the question, the more I realised I couldn’t possibly answer it, though valiant attempts were made. During the fourth or fifth time I found myself rambling on about the history of horror and women’s involvement in it, I came to an epiphany, possibly born of sheer self-defence, but important nonetheless: it’s not the answer to the question that deserves further scrutiny, but rather the question itself.

Namely, why is it assumed that women would prefer psychological horror?

I do believe that this question stems from certain assumptions about women’s relation to the horror genre, though I doubt intentionally or even consciously. Historically, women have not been the target audience for horror films – that distinction has been held exclusively by men. Women are largely not even expected to enjoy horror. One need only to look to John Landis’s fantastic and ground-breaking music video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ (1983) to find a summary of the popular stereotype regarding women and horror films: men take their girlfriends to horror films not because women might enjoy horror, but specifically because they don’t. Eventually, bowing under the weight of terror and revulsion caused by the monster on screen, the girlfriend will be forced to cuddle up to her boyfriend for support while shielding her innocent eyes. The boyfriend, of course, is not bothered at all by the shock horror (he is, in fact, entertained by it) and slips easily into the hero’s role, protecting his woman and possibly getting to cop a feel.

These days, the horror genre in film has a tendency to be regarded as synonymous with monsters and graphic gore, which in itself is an unjust stereotype. Psychological horror, on the other hand, by virtue of its subtlety, has an ability to hide in plain sight in the guise of a thriller, or even a drama, label. Is it possible that we assume female horror filmmakers would prefer to make psychological horror films because it’s not really horror, at least not in the current layman’s definition, which seems to require graphic sex and gore and blood and innards? Well, yes, but do the facts really bear out the assumption that women prefer psychological horror?

Women have been involved in horror since the conception of the genre, back when horror stories only appeared in writing and were given labels such as ‘Gothic fiction’ and ‘ghost stories’. Mary Shelley published her seminal Frankenstein in 1818, and it has become one of the most famous and iconic monster stories of modern times. Women such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Edith Wharton, children’s book author Edith Nesbit and many, many others were heavily involved in and lauded during the modern ghost story boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the stories they wrote could be called mostly psychological. But so were the stories that men wrote. It was simply a sign of the times. Censorship and propriety meant that graphic detail was impossible, so most horror stories of that time could be lumped under the ‘psychological’ banner.

Moving forward in time and looking specifically at film, we don’t find very many horror films written and/or directed by women – but then there aren’t very many films in general by women. However, just a sample of the available horror films with major female involvement shows us Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987), which is as graphic and nasty as any male-directed horror; Mary Lambert, who directed an adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary (1989); Debra Hill, co-writer of John Carpenter’s serial-killer film Halloween (1978), among others; and more recently, the Soska sisters’ Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009), which I haven’t yet seen, but something tells me it’s not going to feature a lot of quiet introspection.

Men are capable of making and have made a range of horror films encompassing all subgenres, from psychological horror dominated by female characters to torture porn. Though the sample for women in film is much, much smaller, we know that women are capable of the same range and have been active and instrumental in the horror genre for hundreds of years. So do women prefer psychological horror? Frankly, I can’t answer that question, nor do I want to, because I feel it’s limiting to assume that female filmmakers could or would overwhelmingly make psychological horror films when they have so much more to offer the genre as a whole.

Jennifer Eiss

Jennifer Eiss is the writer and co-director of the short horror film Short Lease (2010), which screened in the Horror Shorts, part of the Bloody Women strand at the Birds Eye View Film Festival. She is also the author of The 500 Essential Cult Movies (2010) and contributing author to Jovanka Vuckovic’s Zombies!: An Illustrated History of the Undead (2011).

The Curriculum Vitae of Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley


1. Name: Ellen Ripley
When we first meet, her name is just one more surname in the work place. We have Kane, Ash, Dallas, Ripley, Brett, Parker and Lambert. Even the cat goes by Jones. ‘Enough of this kitty bullshit,’ says Brett, on an ill-fated hunt of the cat. ‘Jones!’ There’s no way of knowing who’s going to survive. Ripley’s just a crew member: abrasive, self-serving and by no means heroic. She’s smart in wanting to quarantine Kane, but not exactly a team player, not someone your heart goes out to. And there’s nothing spacey about the names, in the same way there’s nothing space-age about the chunky steam-powered technology.

2. Sex: Female
A tough woman in a man’s world. Aside from the construct of Mother, the only other female crew member of the Nostromo is Lambert, played by Veronica Cartwright, a stereotypical weak link, whose death comes as a mercy to the audience and whose emotional incontinence contrasts with Ripley, the tough, capable, authoritative and, most importantly, unemotional character. The threat this represents is played out by Ash (the synthetic man), who attempts to kill her by literally ramming a male view of female sexuality down her throat. Ripley’s actual sexiness is a late discovery, in her standard issue knickers. As the last woman standing, she combines Little Red Riding Hood with something witchy, especially in her otherwise inexplicable devotion to Jones, the cat.

Aliens screens at BFI Southbank on March 26 and 31 as part of the A Woman’s Gotta Do season.

3. Family: one Special Edition daughter, one surrogate daughter, one weird alien daughter
Ridley Scott’s 1979 film, as well as being a science fiction/ horror hybrid, is also crucially a work place drama. Characters are defined by the job they do. Parker and Brett repair the engines, Ash works in his laboratory. We go through procedures: landing, taking off. Perhaps the most exciting sequence involves the self-destruct procedure in its full fiddly-ness. James Cameron’s sequel, Aliens (1986), as well as becoming a more straightforward action/war film, also segues into a family romance. On the Special Edition DVD, this is rendered more explicit with the inclusion of a scene explaining that Ripley had a daughter, who died while Ripley was in hyper-sleep. In the photograph, she is played by Weaver’s mother, Elizabeth Inglis. According to Cameron, Weaver was appalled that this scene was cut, saying that she’d based her whole performance on it. But this is precisely the kind of back story that is good for the actor, but not necessary for the audience. We understand the minute we see Rebecca (aka Newt, a nickname hinting at the ineffable weirdness of children) that there is a surrogate family in the offing, with Hicks as ineffectual father and Bishop as Synthetic Uncle (I prefer Avuncular Artificial). The feminist survivor of the 1970s becomes the working mum of the 1980s, juggling child care and grenade launchers and ultimately going mano a mano with the mother of all Aliens. Of course, motherhood is compromised as the original terror of the chest-bursters is a fear of malignant pregnancy and Newt has to be rescued from the alien maternity ward. With the shift to war movie/family romance, Cameron’s Aliens become less alien. They become resourceful soldiers and one angry mother. The femme-on-femme violence anticipates Weaver’s Women Beware Women role as the manipulative ‘bony-assed’ career woman Katherine Parker in Mike Nichols’s Working Girl (1988). Feminist struggle becomes a catfight. ‘Mommy,’ Newt cries at the end as she embraces Ripley, completing her in a way that seems incomprehensible without the Special Edition daughter subplot.

4. Marital Status: Single
In the Nostromo, sexual tensions brew but are not acted on. There are no overt romances and the various wet deaths are the only consummations, devoutly not to be wished. Cameron, in his attempt to normalise Ripley, gives her a potential partner (and Newt a potential father) in Hicks, a white- bread, charisma-free zone. And just as Lambert’s flapping panic assured us of Ripley’s heroism, so Vasquez’s butch marine (‘ever been mistaken for a man, Vasquez?’ — ‘nope, have you?’) assures us that Ripley’s het. David Fincher happily rips into Cameron’s facile sitcom values by despatching both Newt and Hicks in the credit sequence of Alien 3. Whatever flaws his film might have (Skippy the CGI kangaroo Alien chief among them), we should be thankful for Fincher’s attempt to radically cancel the homogenising impulses of his predecessor, as well as giving Ripley a post-Aids haircut. In contrast to the Pretty Woman dream of meeting the right man, Ripley is happy to get her rocks off with a similarly damaged partner who certainly offers her nothing in terms of a marital future. ‘I’ve been out here a long time,’ Ripley says in explaining her direct need for sex. Played by Charles Dance, Clemens is a doctor, an ex-drug addict, a prisoner and the most interesting character in the film. His early death at the hands of an apparently jealous Alien robs the film of much of its emotional content and leaves us with a cast of anonymous, unpleasant and brutish characters for the Alien to lunch on. Ripley will survive that attack because she is carrying an Alien. Ripley evolves from the innocent pursued by the wolfish Alien of the first film through the competing matriarchs of the second, and the third film cements her relationship to the Alien via an offstage rape. Perhaps this is what the Alien always wanted. Think back to the first film and how odd it is that once ensconced in the escape pod, the previously implacably hostile, aggressive and effective Alien seems to relax, settling in for the ride, now that all possible competitors for Ripley’s affections are dead. It would be tempting to see Ripley’s suicide/infanticide, which concludes Fincher’s film, as a meta-commentary on the state of the franchise, which she affectionately and thankfully finishes off, but for the horrors of the Jeunet sequel to come.

5. Work Experience: Warrant Officer
The original Alien brought a rare highlighting of class to a major Hollywood film. Brett and Parker are, respectively, the indifferent and angry horny-handed heroes of toil, and the rest of the crew represent a higher echelon, a middle management, while still being subordinate to the Company for which their lives are (literally) expendable. Yaphet Koto walks straight off Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978), arguing about bonuses, belligerently and amusingly obstructive. Ash and Ripley bicker about priorities, everyone is touchy and no one (aside from Kane) has any enthusiasm for adventure unless it is written into their contracts. Ripley goes from being a member of the workforce to a ‘fish out of water’ hero in the following two sequels. In Aliens, she earns her spurs as a grunt, comfortable with ballsy machinery and improvised weaponry. In Fincher’s film, the Company is a cartoonishly malignant presence, and in the final film Ripley is no longer worker but product. The Company, as a character, goes from faceless menace to slimy presence (Carter Burke, the lawyer in Aliens). However, the increased villainy of the Company comes at the cost of any real critique. The credible deception and betrayal of the Company in the first film becomes a pantomimic caricature and Ripley, instead of a paid-up member of society, becomes increasingly ostracised throughout the franchise, from warrant officer to soldier to inmate, until in the end she’s more Alien than human. Likewise, Sigourney Weaver transmutes from an ensemble player in the first film, a more conventional lead but still within an ensemble context in the second film, to a co-producer and undisputed star of the final two films of the franchise. In the latter two films, she is more complicit (as the bearer of secret knowledge) with the Alien (Jeunet) and the Company (Brandywine Productions).

6. Age: 300 and something
There was always going to be some falling off in a franchise whose main initial attraction was surprise and shock. The last productions seem particularly fraught with a ‘why are we doing this’ mentality and the very naming of the final entry (Alien: Resurrection) smacks of ironic apology. One of the main problems was Ripley herself and the contrivances the films had to use to put her in harm’s way. Weaver admitted to the danger of turning Ripley into a ridiculous cartoon who keeps waking up to find aliens chasing her, but was apparently convinced by the quality of the scripts and the artistic merit of receiving ever larger cheques in her bank account. The clone that she plays in the final entry gleefully enjoys her polymorphous role as a Ripley/Alien hybrid, but the ghosts of greater films haunts Jeunet’s Gilliamesque comic book romp. A moment of genuine tragedy, the discovery by Ripley of sister clones in tortured partial forms reminiscent of Nazi medical atrocities, is undermined by Ron Perlman’s throwaway line ‘must be a chick thing’ and the rest of the film feels like a tortured cloning of the first movie’s original motifs: instead of the original film’s chest-burster we now get a chest-burster that becomes a head-burster, instead of the computer, Mother, we now get Father.

7. Hobbies and Interests: Likes Animals and World Peace
In Alien, Ripley wants to save herself and the cat. By Alien Resurrection, she’s saving the world. ‘You sound disappointed,’ Winona Ryder’s Call notices as they look at… erm… clouds. To be fair to Weaver, with her environmental charities and her inspiring performance as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mist (1988), she has used the clout and dollars earned via Ripley to do good, but doing good was never what Ripley was about. She was about surviving. And survive she did, but perhaps for a little too long.

John Bleasdale

Berlinale 3D: Pina + Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Cave of Forgotten Dreams


Billed as the official Berlinale 3D-day, Sunday 13 February saw the premieres of three 3D films, screening in and out of competition. Although the films could have not been further apart in terms of style and content, surprisingly, all three turned out to be mostly enjoyable and fascinating in their own right. It started with Michel Ocelot’s beautiful animated Tales of the Night (Les contes de la nuit), but the main event (and for me the best 3D venture on offer) was Pina, Wim Wenders’s widescreen tribute to the German choreographer and dancer Pina Bausch, who died in June 2009, two days before shooting was due to start. Originally planned as a collaboration with Wenders when Bausch was still alive, the film links some hauntingly beautiful dance scenes from four of her most successful works, Café Müller, Vollmond, Kontakthof and The Rite of Spring, with brief statements by the dancers of her Wuppertal dance company. Much more effective than these snaps of interviews, however, are the sequences in which the dancers then develop their thoughts about their adamant teacher in their own personal choreographies in an imaginative range of indoor and outdoor settings. Although first and foremost a dance film in 3D, Pina is also a wonderfully rich and powerful cinematographic experience that will enthral not only hardcore Bausch enthusiasts but all audiences.

Pina is released in UK cinemas on April 22 by Artificial Eye.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

We loved Werner Herzog’s most recent feature works (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?) and his new documentary sees him on equally good form as he enters the Chauvet Cave in the Ardèche Valley in southern France to explore its astonishing and mysterious content. Herzog managed to get permission from the French government (who owns the cave) to film the oldest known cave paintings, which were sealed for over 20,000 years and are hidden from the world for fear human breath will damage them. He is accompanied by a small camera team and some of the scientists who have been analysing every scratch on the inner walls of the cave since its discovery in 1994. Although the maverick German filmmaker was at first sceptical about the use of 3D for his latest venture, it perfectly fits the dimensions and shape of the curved, uneven and shadow-casting surfaces that form the canvas for drawings of animals, including horses, bison, bears, owls, rhinos and hyenas. As the camera moves across, they seem to become almost animated through light effects. But as could be expected, Herzog goes beyond a simple visual exploration of the cave. As with all of his documentaries, the cave paintings mainly serve as the entry point into a wider reflection, and his narration and expert sources are as educational as they are eccentric and entertaining. Even if you don’t appreciate the director’s tendency to treat every subject like the plot for a grand opera, it’s his great talent to stimulate our sense of wonder that makes his work so fascinating and Cave of Forgotten Dreams is no exception.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams is released in UK cinemas on March 25 by Picturehouse Entertainment.

Pamela Jahn

Scare Attraction: A Comedian Revisits Horror Cinema

Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires

For research purposes I have been reacquainting myself with the sillier side of scary cinema of late, and frankly, it has been an absolute joy.

I am co-writing a sitcom series set in a ‘scare attraction’ – having worked in a number of them across the capital in the past. Arguably a natural evolution of the ghost train, these tourist attractions have proliferated around the Western world, notably in the last five years. It’s not just independent events or arts groups trying something different at Halloween, but right across the (tourist) board the likes of Disney and, here in the UK, the Merlin Group (Europe’s corporate entertainment giant, the Tesco of the tourist world, if you like) have put a live ‘scare’ element into each of their attractions. These run all year round, from a haunted house to a Chamber of Horrors, Tombs, Crypts, Cells, even the West End phenomenon ‘Le Passage Del Terror’ – seriously, they actually called it that. The working title for our script is ‘Shaft of Doom’ – why not?

Unsurprisingly, it is an extremely popular pastime among the Lynx-sodden youth to go into a pitch-black, smelly maze of dry ice and have your wits shat out of you by some terrifying out-of-work actors. The training for these ‘scaring’ jobs is surprisingly competitive and intensive, with those in charge taking it all hilariously seriously – after all, to them, it’s an actual ‘career… in bringing fear’, to quote an ex-boss. What a douche. So I spent a lot of my early performing days convincingly and gorily made-up as some form of insane undead, pouncing from hidden cages to within a millimetre of a startled French school child’s screaming face. Not exactly a demure job but I cared not, it was a lot more fun than handing out flyers or tea.

So a few years on and I’m writing on the topic with fellow comic Vicky Stedeford, and like the creators of the wonderful Radio and TV series League of Gentlemen (1997-2002), I want to use my love of film to inform my comedy. I intend there to be plenty a reference in the script, specifically for the delectation of the fellow horror-nerd. In the League there are many specific references to obscure British horror films, which bring a frisson of recognition to fans of the genre and can still be appreciated by non-aficionados as bizarre and surreal. As well as the genre films I’ve watched and kept mental notes of over the last decade, more recently in preparation for ‘Shaft of Doom’ I’ve started watching the obscure stuff, particularly British horror films. Those range from films with a justifiably classic reputation, such as Quatermass and the Pit (1967) – still chilling after four decades, even with the sticky-backed plastic effects – to lesser-known entries made towards the end of this country’s horror boom. At that time, the genre was dominated by Amicus portmanteau films and strange genre-crossing movies like Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (1974), which mixed the 1970s fad for Kung Fu with the wane of Hammer’s ongoing Dracula franchise. Late portmanteau films such as The Monster Club (1980), starring stalwarts of the genre Vincent Price, Donald Pleasence and John Carradine, were clearly desperate to include any element that might get bums on seats; that film has bands performing between the horror short stories – unfortunately UB40 only appear off-screen – which range from the laughable to the genuinely touching, such as the tale of a monster hybrid who has the face of a ghoul and sets creatures on fire when he whistles!

In my late teens and early twenties, I worked in a wonderful independent video rental shop, which stocked hundreds of incredible titles I would otherwise have never heard of. It wasn’t until that job that I really understood the incredible popular dominance that horror and comedy have over all other genres. There is, after all, pleasure in pain and people want to feel something when they watch a film – fear reminds you that you’re alive. Surprisingly, before I worked there I’d largely overlooked any film that I thought might scare me – I had a terrible relationship with horror. As soon as I was mildly perturbed I would clamp my eyes shut and think about somewhere warm and safe. I sat through too many horrors just watching brief snippets of day-lit dialogue interspersed with long scenes of the inside of my eyelids while coaxing forth some early arthritis through the approximately two hours of permanently clenched fists. So justifiably, I personally considered scary films a waste of time and money. And I know a lot of people, not just women, who still feel the same way.

Working in that video shop though, I hated it that there was an entire genre of film, and such a popular one at that, which I couldn’t even comment on. Also, it made me slightly crap at my job. So I took advice from my wiser colleagues and compiled a list of recommended classics. I buckled in and set to actually seeing what these horror films were all about. Fortunately, with a bit of determination I was quickly turned over to the dark side by the likes of The Omen (1976) and The Wicker Man (1973). Over time and exposure you inevitably become a bit desensitised, but films can still make me feel terrified to the point where I can’t watch, and I’m a prolific ‘jumper’ – but I’ve genuinely learnt to enjoy that in a sordid way. And that’s rather a strange psychological shift to acknowledge.

Personally I’m most frightened by fast-paced, people-being-chased-type horror films – the two scariest (and most brilliant) films for me in the last decade came out almost back to back: The Descent and Wolf Creek (both 2005). They had me realise films could deeply affect me without them having made me laugh or cry and that was novel. The reason scare attractions are enjoyable is much the same as for horror films – it’s a life-affirming experience, but it’s also a shared and amusing experience. If you see someone else get frightened, it is funny. The other sound you hear in horror auditoriums and scare attractions alike, aside from gasps and screams, is laughter. Hence my renewed interest in them now, from a comedic perspective.

Vicky and I hope to tread that delicate line between scary and funny – but it’s no mean feat. In order to buff up for this I’ve been watching films that also cross that divide, intentionally or not! I’ve watched a lot of Hammer, Amicus and other films from the same time and it’s been the most fun ‘research’ I’ve ever done. One of the funniest things I’ve seen is the ‘candle-tug’ in Twins of Evil (1971). The heroine’s laid out on a stone slab, surrounded by vampires admiring her own ‘twins of evil’ and in a fit of totally unwarranted ecstasy/agony she arches her back and clearly tosses off the candle behind her – what? I love it. And there’s genuinely scary stuff in there too; most notably, I found the metallic tinkling rattle of the advancing zombie peasants in Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires truly unnerving. There’s a lot to be inspired by and a lot to draw from.

Learning to enjoy the manufactured fear of horror cinema has been one of the best things I’ve ever done. Next, I will learn to enjoy the musical genre. Maybe not…

Jessica Fostekew

Pete and the Pirates’ Film Jukebox

Pete and the Pirates

Pete And The Pirates bestowed upon us their long-awaited comeback single ‘Come To The Bar’ on March 14 via Stolen Records. Having toured the world, played various prestigious showcases and festivals and conquered the continent, they’re now back in the UK and ready to embark on the next stage of their world-domination plan. They’ve been recording a new album with Brendan Lynch with their usual sharp lyrical ear, double-barrelled guitar folk/punk/lilt attack but with added motorik rhythms and sleek synths. Look out for their new album ‘One Thousand Pictures’, released on May 23, and their headline gig at Heaven on May 26. For more information, visit their website. Tickets to the Heaven gig are available from CrowdSurge. Below, they tell us about their favourite films. DELIA SPARRER


1. Paris, Texas (1984)
A beautiful, slow and quiet film. Harry Dean Stanton is amazing. Both simple and very complex simultaneously, very beautiful and sad, and probably nearly perfect.

2. Love and Death (1975)
I watched this Woody Allen film for the first time a few days after I first saw Andrei Rublev, I think I could probably list them both here as two of my favourites, but Love and Death wins. Woody and Diane Keaton are great, and it is just so full of great lines. My favourite Woody Allen film.

Pete H.

3. Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Like Luke, this film has a cutting sort of wit which it hides behind a brave nonchalant exterior. It is a film that gets drunk and cuts the heads of parking meters. Paul Newman’s performance is perfect in this film, using the excellent script to show the depth of a man who struggles to find his place within society and to understand his relationship with God, family and authority. This film sort of doesn’t belong. It refuses to be knocked down; it refuses to stay down. We, the audience, become George Segal’s character Dragline. We love this film, would do anything to protect it and those of us who’ve seen it still tell stories about it to this day.

4. Life Is Beautiful (1997)
An Italian film about a Jewish Italian, Guido Orifece, in the years before World War II. Roberto Benigni directs the film and plays the central character. Like Benigni himself, Guido is a charismatic, funny and hopelessly romantic hero. He throws himself completely into everything he does with charm and skill. The film uses slapstick humour coupled with brilliant and clever dialogue to tell a really beautiful story. I think the reason I love this film so much is because it completely swept me off my feet. Don’t read the blurb on the back and don’t read any reviews. Just put it on.

Pete C.

5. Fitzcarraldo (1982)
At this time in his life German filmmaker/auteur Werner Herzog was ambitious enough, and crazy enough, to actually pull a massive boat over a massive hill in Peru, using only rudimentary pulleys and a big tribe of indigenous folk. It was one of the most difficult shoots ever undertaken. Not only that, but after 40% of the filming was completed, one of the actors became so ill that they had to recast and start the movie again from scratch! Klaus Kinski’s manic antics and obscene outbursts eventually led to death threats from the tribe they were filming with. The end result is a feat to behold. For more Herzog/Kinski madness, see Nosferatu the Vampyre, Cobra Verde, Aguirre, Wrath of God, and Woyzeck. There is also a nice documentary Herzog made after Kinski’s death called My Best Fiend.

6. Clockwise (1986)
A very funny and silly comedy that follows the misfortunes of a school headmaster played by John Cleese. It’s no Life of Brian, but it is really funny, and I do prefer it to the better-known A Fish Called Wanda. I really feel the headmaster’s pain! It’s a simple film with simple values but it has a really nice flow to it, and is quite touching in places.


7. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Magical, creepy and like some semi-nightmarish folk tale. I can’t say I fully understood all that was going on. The story follows Valerie as she encounters scary vampires and church people. Somewhere between a nightmare and a happy dream all at once. This film has a beautiful soundtrack by Lubos Fiser, which I listen to frequently. Gentle folky flute songs with dark theatrical twists.

8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Probably the film I have watched most times. I, like many other people, kind of fell in love with it. Maybe it was because I broke up with a girlfriend at the time. It captures those lovely feelings you get at the beginning of a relationship but also the horrible feelings when things go bad. The whole thing is wrapped up in a clever twist of a plot about erasing memory. Jim Carrey is great in it too… oh and I really fancied Kirsten Dunst at the time and she jumps on a bed in her underwear in this film. It has a great soundtrack by Jon Brion. The theme from the film is so beautiful yet melancholic.


9. L’Eclisse (The Eclipse, 1962)
This film is a complete overdose of beauty. The principal actress is Monica Vitti, who I was briefly and retrospectively in love with (she’s now 80) and she’s an important part of why I love this film. The film deals with things I relate to easily: the demise of crap, materialistic relationships and emotional absence. But the beauty lies in the stunning cinematography, the quietness of the film, the lovely pace of the editing, and Monica Vitti’s face and voice. It’s the kind of film I’d feel so proud of making if I was a filmmaker. It really lets you interpret it yourself, doesn’t spell anything out to you, is completely un-formulaic, and is full of little bits of detail and symbolism that you’ll probably miss the first time you watch it.

10. The Jerk (1979)
It’s a shit film but for some reason I keep watching it. I think it’s because I love one-liners and I love Steve Martin. It’s basically about a white guy (Steve Martin) who thinks he’s black, has a dog called Shithead who hates him, and who accidentally makes a fortune then loses it. When he leaves his foster family to explore the world, it’s his inconceivable naivety that is so compelling, as we see him find his first job, lose his virginity and generally be sociopathic. Behind the cheap gags and slapstick, there are some really tender moments, especially the ukulele duet.

Flatpack Festival 2011

The Lost Thing (Andrew Ruhemann and Shaun Tan)

Flatpack Festival

23-27 March 2010, Birmingham, UK

Flatpack website

One of our favourite festivals, Flatpack celebrates its fifth birthday with parties, live scores, AV performances, a restored 60s mobile cinema, plus feature film previews including Self Made, Marwencol and Meek’s Cutoff, an archive renaissance and adolescent metalheads from Loughborough…

Expect the usual quirky and eccentric discoveries alongside forgotten gems and new talent + a vintage mobile cinema, live scores, experimental film and late night parties.

Flatpack Festival 2011 Feature Films include:

Self Made – Birmingham born Turner prize-winner Gillian Wearing’s hugely-anticipated first feature has been rapturously received by critics and audiences alike. This film needs no highbrow qualifications to connect to its highly charged emotional journey, which started with the placement of a local advert ‘Do you want to be in a film? Would you play yourself or a fictional character?’

Read a short review of Self made in our coverage of the London Film Festival 2010.

Marwencol – already assuming cult status, director Jeff Malmberg’s unmissable feature documentary follows the ‘stranger-than-fiction’ story of Mark Hogancamp. After a vicious attack left him brain-damaged, Hogancamp retreated into ‘Marwencol’, a meticulously self-created world of dolls populating miniature sets which bring to life a WWII Belgian village in his backyard. Touching and mind-bending.

Read a short review of Marwencol that was part of our SXSW 2010 coverage.

Rubber – the new feature from the multitalented Quentin Dupieux (aka Mr Oizo) is a one-of-a-kind B-movie about a psychotic car tyre who goes on the rampage.

Read a short review of Rubber that was part of our coverage of L’Etrange Festival 2010.

Piercing, I – the critically acclaimed animated feature by Liu Jian was generated over three years on a WACOM graphic tablet and heralds China’s arrival at the forefront of animation.

Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then – debut feature by director and animator Brent Green. Shot entirely on the full-scale town he built in his backyard, Green combines animation, stop-motion and live-action to create an ethereal opus to lovers and tinkerers everywhere.

A Useful Life – Uruguay’s submission to the Oscars and shot in black and white at Montevideo Cinematheque, it offers a compelling insight into the struggles of running an art house cinema venue.

Music and Film

We Don’t Care About Music Anyway – documentary of Japan’s experimental music scene, accompanied by a live set by Sakamoto Hiromichi

Kinshasa Symphony, the moving story of the Kimbanguist Symphony Orchestra and their efforts to master Beethoven’s Ninth

Strange Powers: Stephin Merrit and the Magnetic Fields – this portrait of the inscrutable, hugely influential songwriter and his merry band was a decade in the filming

Read a short review of Strange Powers in our coverage of the London Film Festival 2010.

Other highlights:

Pram – Shadow Shows – first full UK performance of a deliciously creepy ‘experiment in surreal horror’ using projections and silhouettes to summon up nightmarish fairy tales

Every Minute, Always – immersive headphone performance in a cinema for two people, using sound, projections and a faint trace of Brief Encounter.

In Bed With Chris Needham – the trials and tribulations of an adolescent metal fan are laid out in painful detail by this legendary Video Diary, presented as a taster for this year’s Home of Metal celebrations

Paper Party – Saturday night antics include a live performance by audio-visual duo Sculpture who use video zoetrope record decks, tape loops, cassettes, samples, computer programming and lo-fi electronics

Patron Saint of Flatpack – this year’s celebration of film pioneers past focuses on Birmingham resident Iris Barry, founder of the Museum of Modern Art’s film archive – featuring a special event exploring her life & legacy, plus screenings of work she preserved – including Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Junior, to be screened at Birmingham Town Hall with live organ by Nigel Ogden.

Keystone Cut Ups – an amazing kaleidoscopic voyage through early cinema by cut-up connoiseurs People Like Us and Ergo Phizmiz, taking in everything from mannequins to hats

Vintage Mobile Cinema – the magical 22-seater cine bus, perfectly restored from its 1960s hey day, will be touring across the city throughout Flatpack with a range of shorts, home-movies and archive clips

The Invisible Cinema – following the success of 2010 tour of the original 1930s Art Deco Odeon cinemas, this year’s heritage offer will bring back to life some of the city’s ex-picturehouses and forgotten celluloid landmarks

Loft in Translation – screenings in partnership with MACE’s Full Circle project, which encourages people to retrieve home-movies from their attics

Archive Revival – Artists and filmmakers who appropriate and repurpose archive material including work by Thom Andersen, Duncan Campbell and Peter Tscherkassky

Mind Bombs – pulsing, psychedelic eye candy in the form of shorts and music videos by a host of upcoming filmmakers including ‘cell animator’ Mirai Mizue.

More details at Flatpack Festival.

Scream Queen: Amber Heard and Contemporary Horror Stardom

And Soon the Darkness

Surviving the trappings of the horror film – both on screen and off – is an industrial rite of passage that most actresses must brave in order to establish themselves within the Hollywood mainstream, with some leading ladies successfully breaking out of the genre after a few appearances, while others remain associated with roles that require them to run around in a state of distress. Although the term ‘scream queen’ now exists in tandem with the ‘slasher’ sub-genre that was independently instigated by the surprise success of John Carpenter’s classic Halloween (1978) and industrially validated by the saturation release of Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980), it actually refers to roles that have been regularly undertaken by actresses over the course of a century of commercial cinema. Gloria Stewart in The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), Fay Wray in The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and King Kong (1933), and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964) are three classic examples of actresses who have exhibited an independent streak while shrieking their way to stardom through genre films.

Of course, the combination of the enduring popularity of the horror genre and the increase in production due to the evolution of ancillary markets (VHS, DVD, VOD) has caused a proliferation of scream queens as actresses can make their claims for the title by starring in films that have been made at varying industrial levels and may even have bypassed the big screen altogether. The current crop of contenders for the scream queen crown includes Scout Taylor-Compton and Danielle Harris of the ‘reimagined’ Halloween (2007), but despite the benefits that come with the brand value of an established franchise, they have been unable to compete with Amber Heard of Jonathon Levine’s comparatively little-seen All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006). Heard is truly a star of the internet age in that she has achieved a considerable level of fame despite the fact that none of the films in which she has starred have made much of an impression at the box office.

As the success that Heard has achieved within the horror genre has led to comparisons with Jamie Lee Curtis, it can be argued that scream queen status is no longer entirely linked to ticket sales; Halloween was a box office phenomenon with a gross of $47 million, or $124 million when adjusted for ticket price inflation, while All the Boys Love Mandy Lane achieved more traffic on internet forums than at theatrical venues due to distribution difficulties. After being shown at such notable festivals as London FrightFest and South by Southwest, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was picked up for distribution by the Weinstein Company, who planned to release the film through their genre division Dimension in 2007. An unusual teen slasher with an eerie atmosphere reminiscent of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and a smart final reel twist, it looked set for a profitable run. Unfortunately, a string of commercial misfires that included the expensive exploitation homage Grindhouse (2007) and the Stephen King adaptation The Mist (2007) led the Weinstein Company to postpone the release of Levine’s film, then to sell the rights to fledgling distributor Senator as a means of swiftly recovering recent losses. Ironically, the financial failure of another Senator acquisition featuring Heard – Gregor Jordan’s poorly received Brett Easton Ellis adaptation The Informers (2008) – forced the company to file for bankruptcy, leaving All the Boys Love Mandy Lane on the shelf indefinitely. The film received a theatrical release in the United Kingdom through Optimum and was sent straight to DVD in other territories, but remains unseen beyond the festival circuit in the all-important North American market, with Levine’s second feature – the dark teen comedy The Wackness (2008) – entering general release while his directorial debut was in distribution limbo. With a worldwide gross of $1.7 million against a production cost of $750,000, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane has been a modest money-spinner within the realms of low-budget horror, but its lack of distribution in the United States has led it to be assigned the status of ‘buried treasure’ among American genre aficionados. Heard has since landed ‘final girl’ parts in And Soon the Darkness (2010) and The Ward (2010), while taking on proactive girlfriend duties in The Stepfather (2009) and turning up as a less-than-final girl in Zombieland (2009).

The four genre films in which Heard has appeared since All the Boys Love Mandy Lane serve to show that subtle diversity is perhaps more beneficial to the long-term career prospects of the contemporary scream queen than a box-office juggernaut. Curtis followed Halloween with such similar independent productions as Terror Train (1980) and Prom Night (1980), while 1990s scream queens Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love Hewitt became stranded in the sub-standard sequel zone after their respective success with Scream (1996) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997). Heard’s biggest hit within the genre is the knowingly comedic studio production Zombieland, which grossed $75 million, although her contribution is essentially a glorified cameo (albeit a most memorable one) as the infected neighbour of reluctant zombie slayer Jesse Eisenberg. She has more screen time in The Stepfather, which is the kind of product that is typical of studio sub-division Screen Gems in that it is a remake of the 1987 thriller of the same name that tones down the subversive suburban satire of the original in favour of teen-friendly thrills.

And Soon the Darkness is another remake, although this one was independently financed, with the source material stemming from the pre-VHS era: it updates a 1970 thriller by Robert Fuest about an abduction that occurs during a cycling holiday. The more adult tone of And Soon the Darkness is maintained by The Ward, which finds Heard working with a genuine genre auteur in John Carpenter for a psychological thriller that takes place in a mental institution. The Stepfather, And Soon the Darkness and The Ward all cast Heard as a strong-willed young woman in a perilous situation, but each film exists at a different industrial level and appeals to a different aspect of the horror market, from teen audience to a more adult market and to ardent fans of an acknowledged genre master. Heard will next take a trip into action-adventure territory as an assertive waitress alongside Nicolas Cage’s vengeance-seeking motorist in Drive Angry 3D (2011), which should further expand her audience. It remains to be seen if Heard can achieve dramatic legitimacy beyond genre circles but it is evident that, despite the stifled release, Heard’s performance in All the Boys Love Mandy Lane was anything but a silent scream.

And Soon the Darkness is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on March 7 by Optimum Home Entertainment.

John Berra

Confessions of a Dog: Interview with Gen Takahashi

Confessions of a Dog

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 14 March 2011

Distributor: Third Window Films

Director: Gen Takahashi

Writers: Gen Takahashi, Yû Terasawa

Original title: Pochi no kokuhaku

Cast: Shun Sugata, Junichi Kawamoto, Harumi Inoue

Japan 2006

195 mins

Gen Takahashi’s Confessions of a Dog follows a simple, honest beat cop as he wins the confidence of the Head of the Criminal Investigative Department and works his way up, finding out as he does how corrupted the system is. Too committed to his job to reject an order, Takeda (Shun Sugata) soon sees himself embroiled in the daily transgressions of the force, from seedy backroom dealings to blackmail and brutal violence, which not only jeopardise his life but also cause him to become increasingly detached from his wife and daughter.

Although ticking in at a bum-numbing 195 minutes, the film’s length implicitly adds to its gripping intensity, allowing the viewer to become fully immersed in the correlations between crime, police corruption and the complicit media. Confessions of a Dog thrives on its deft pacing as much as on the towering lead performance given by Shun Sugata, who is increasingly unnerving as Takeda becomes trapped in the dirty business that goes all the way to the top of the force. It’s a mesmerising psychological ride that builds up to a gloriously theatrical tragic finale as the broken Takeda has to face the consequences of his actions.

The fact that Takahashi has dared to tackle such a controversial subject and has turned it into one of the finest and most devastating films about the everyday politics of corruption has unfortunately led to the film being only marginally released in Japan. But Confessions of a Dog deserves to be seen widely, and thanks to Third Window Films it is now getting a DVD release in the UK. Pamela Jahn

Sarah Cronin caught up with director Gen Takahashi on his visit to the UK last month and he told her about the complex motivations of Shun Sugata’s bent cop, the reality of police corruption and the reception of the film in Japan.

Sarah Cronin: Why did you choose to make a film about police corruption? Is it based on real events?

Gen Takahashi: Because I hate the police, and yes, it’s all true.

Why do you hate the police?

Because they trick people out of money. The things that you see in the film are just one part of what they do – they actually do a lot more than what is shown. They are civil servants, they live off our taxes, but because they are the ones in charge of law enforcement, if no one knows about the things they do, they can get away with it. So they’re very sly in some respects, and I don’t like sly people. The yakuza, on the other hand, I’m not saying I like them, but I feel closer to them, because if they do something wrong or commit a crime, they are charged and they go to prison.

How closely do the yakuza and the police work together in Japan?

They don’t collaborate, apart from possibly on a personal level, although the police need the yakuza, but the yakuza don’t need the police. They both use each other.

Can you explain the delay between the completion of the film in 2005 and its release last year? Did you come under pressure to change or re-edit the film?

Not at all. I wish I could say that, it would be quite cool. But nothing. I’m asked that question a lot, by Chinese people, by Europeans, but I think they’re making the mistake of thinking that Japanese people have a cultural and mental awareness level that is higher than it actually is. Because even the police don’t do anything about a film like this. I’ve never been threatened or been at risk. My phone has been tapped occasionally, but that’s about it. I just haven’t been proactive in promoting the film. The first distributor I brought it to took it on, so it’s not like I’ve been applying to lots of places that have been turning it down.

There’s a tradition of American cop movies from the 70s and 80s like Serpico, Dirty Harry, Bad Lieutenant that all expose police corruption. Why do you think this type of film never took off in Japan?

One reason is that in Japanese culture you’re not allowed to criticise the police. There have been a lot of characters in films who were corrupt policemen, but they are fictional characters. In Japan, people either trust the police or they’re scared of them, and they don’t want to be blacklisted by the police.

Were you inspired by any of these films while making Confessions of a Dog?

No. Everyone says Serpico, Serpico, but I’ve not actually seen it.

So what did inspire you?

There are no particular films that inspired me with this. There are filmmakers I like, like Martin Scorsese, people who bring real life into the world of film. I’m inspired by the 60s and 70s in Europe, Italian neo-realism, by new cinema in the US and the UK. Cinema rather than movies.

Why do you think corruption is so rampant in the police and the judiciary? And why isn’t there a stronger moral code?

That’s a very good question. And it’s not just the police in Japan, but all civil servants. Whatever they do, they won’t get sacked, so they’re all corrupt.

I suppose in the West we learn our history of Japan through the samurai warrior or the salary man. I think we have this idea that people are actually very moral. I don’t think we associate corruption with Japan.

The Japanese people are very moral, but it’s the civil servants who aren’t.

Because it’s so easy to get away with it?

It’s because the civil servants create society, they make the rules that benefit themselves. So nowadays you hear that there are no jobs for young people coming out of university. The average wage is £20-30,000 for a young person, but for a civil servant it’s £60-70,000. It’s because the civil servants just decide that’s how much more they’re going to get paid.

The film is also very critical of the press, who seems to be guilty of self-censorship. Why are newspapers so obedient?

In Japan you have the kisha, or press club, and they write their articles based on what the police tells them. They actually have their offices in police stations, and the rent and the phone bills are paid for by the police. So if they were to criticise the police, they would just be biting the hands that feed them.

Is the character of the journalist based on someone you collaborated with?

Yes, but he’s not one person in particular. The journalist in the film quits his job and goes freelance, and some people do that in real life as well, because if they have a sense of justice they will quit the mass media. They tend to follow the same path that the journalist in the film does – they’ll go to the internet where there’s less censorship and write their stories there. I know several people who have done that, so there was no need for me to do any special research into that aspect of the film, because I already knew those people in my life.

Why does Takeda allow himself to be used as a scapegoat? Why does he go along with it for so long?

That’s what I want to know. His mindset is the same as the kamikaze – although not quite the same, because the kamikaze pilots were ready to die for their country. Whereas this, rather than being real self-sacrifice, is a pretend self-sacrifice. They sacrifice themselves because they know that they will be rewarded later. [SPOILER] In the film, there’s the scene where the police boss says, when he gets out of prison, let’s make sure he gets a good job. There’s that sense that you’ll be rewarded. So even though you see him trying to commit suicide with the box cutter, he’s not actually trying to die, he’s not trying to kill himself – he does it in a way so that he knows he won’t die.

And they don’t want him to die either, I guess – is the whole thing an act?

Yes, it is put on. It’s all about who profits, so the lower-ranking officer can only profit by behaving the way he behaved, and the higher-ranking officers profit by treating their subordinates in that way, to have their dogs. And what I was trying to depict was that it’s not going to change. [END OF SPOILER]

In some ways Takeda is still a sympathetic character, despite his brutal criminality – was that intentional?

It is intentional. I worked together with the actor to make him a sympathetic figure. He sacrifices himself, and the audience feels sorry for him, even though he’s in the wrong. I wanted to point out to the audience that they are stupid for feeling sorry for him, being tricked by him.

I read that you do a lot of work in Hong Kong. Is it much easier to get films made there than in Japan?

I haven’t actually directed a film in Hong Kong, I’m more involved in the production side there. I chose Hong Kong because it has a history of being a launch pad into the international film world for Japanese and Asian people, so I’ve learnt a lot about the business side in Hong Kong.

Is it a better environment to work in?

The Hong Kong film industry is actually losing its power now. Setting aside the question of whether it’s easier to make a film in Hong Kong, it’s definitely more difficult in Japan.

Interview by Sarah Cronin