George Hardy: Alabama’s answer to Bruce Campbell

George Hardy in Troll 2

Guitar-slinger Dan Sartain talks to fellow Alabama native and cult movie star George Hardy below. His new album, Too Tough To Live, is a frenzied burst of machine-gun songs aimed at anything from Vietnam to Fridays, and includes guest star Jane Wiedlin from The Go-Go’s on ‘Now Now Now’. It is out on One Little Indian on 30 January 2012. For more information go to Dan Sartain’s MySpace or One Little Indian website.

George Hardy is the star of Troll 2 (1989) and its companion documentary Best Worst Movie (2009). Dentist by day and B-movie celebrity by grace of God, George is a hometown hero in his native Alexander City, Alabama. Troll 2 maintains a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a rating of 2.3 on Internet Movie Database: some have called it the worst movie of all time. It has horrible acting, awful dialogue, cheap sets, ridiculous costumes, and some not-so-special effects. What keeps Troll 2 from actually being the worst movie of all time, however, is how watchable it is. The movie flows seamlessly from one hilariously bizarre scene to the next. Most B-movies have moments of unintentional humour in them, but they are few and far between. Viewer fatigue is a non-issue with Troll 2. If Plan 9 from Outer Space must be dethroned by any movie, it had better be Troll 2.

Best Worst Movie is so much more than a ‘making of’ documentary. It is a film about turning a personal worst into a personal best. In 1990, Troll 2 was a straight-to-video embarrassment for George Hardy. His VHS copy of the film sat behind his television set collecting dust for the better part of two decades. Any hopes of a future in acting were gone. For 20 years George tried his best not to think about the film, but it would not go away so easily. The people who watched Troll 2 grew up and went to college in the ironic 2000s, and they never forgot what they saw. As the movie got passed around from party to party, Troll 2 finally found an audience as a dark comedy rather than a horror/fantasy genre piece. Troll 2 screenings and parties started popping up nationwide: the movie sold out the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, and the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in NYC, among others.

George Hardy got a call out of the blue one day from a radio station asking if he was attending a Troll 2 cast reunion in Salt Lake City. Even though it had been 20 years since he had seen or talked to the other cast members and he only had two days’ notice, George hit the road. The VHS tape was becoming a thing of the past but Troll 2 was more popular than ever. Best Worst Movie follows George and the other cast members as they come face to face with the fans and one another. We get to look into the lives and see through the eyes of the people who made the worst movie of all time. We discover that being part of the joke is a lot better than being the joke. We watch total embarrassment turn into total redemption. For the stars of Troll 2, delayed success was a shock and a blessing.

We set out to interview George Hardy in his hometown of Alexander City, located near beautiful Lake Martin. It took us an hour-long trek on a beautiful Sunday through the back roads of Alabama to conduct this interview. If not for other cars on the highway and a few Wal-Marts, it would be impossible to distinguish 2012 from 1962. Much of rural Alabama remains untouched.

George Hardy is a Southern gentleman in every sense of the word. His perfect southern accent shines through in Troll 2 and in real life. It is a true southern accent, not a country accent. There is a subtle difference between the two, but there is a difference. Mr Hardy was a cheerleader for the University of Auburn football team from 1974 to 1977. He keeps a strict workout schedule to this day and it shows. It is hard not to like this man: he seems to be enjoying life to the fullest. After viewing Best Worst Movie, it is what I expected. The film depicts him as a kind and humble southern man, thrust into a foreign world of ironic, young and hip nerds. Still, I was not expecting George Hardy to be the vintage moog synthesizer-collecting, avant-garde music-loving, independent movie-watching intellectual that we met. Everyone we met in Alexander City, Alabama, knew who Mr Hardy was. People in Alexander City know George Hardy The Man before George Hardy The B-Movie Legend. We sat down with him in a taqueria for a chat.

George Hardy: So a lot of people want to know about the status of Troll 3.

Dan Sartain: It was my first question.

I just spoke with Claudio Fragasso [director of Troll 2] on the phone today, and we are moving ahead with it. It’s gonna be called Troll: 3D. The initial concern was, are we going to be able to capture lightning in a bottle twice? Well, I’ve read the script and it’s just great. Rosella Drudi [writer of Troll 2] wrote it, and it’s fantastic. I think we are going to try to shoot half in the US and half in Europe.

Are they scouting locations in the US to film Troll 3D?

I’m trying to talk them into filming here in Alabama.

It would match up visually.

It would.

Troll 2 found its audience as a dark cult comedy rather than a horror film as originally intended.

I think they were going for more horror/fantasy rather than straight horror.

Do you think Troll: 3D can be funny now that you and the rest of the cast are in on the joke?

I’ve read the script three times now, and there is no doubt in my mind that it will be funny.

There have been several horror franchises that have realised the audience was laughing at things that were not intended to be funny. The result was more jokes and intentional humour in horror movies. A prime example would be Evil Dead 2 with Bruce Campbell.

Oh, it has Bruce in it?

Do you know him?

No, but people keep telling me to check out his work. We are supposed to have similar features or something?

You both have the same job. B-movie actors with a cult following who fight rubber monsters.

Is that right! I’ll have to check it out.

What was the green stuff made out of in Troll 2?

Glycerin, food colouring, and corn starch or somethin’. It was water-based.

In recent years quite a few documentaries have come out about various horror series such as Friday the 13th, Psycho, Nightmare on Elm St and Halloween. Most of them focus more on the technical aspects of making the films. They don’t go home with the stars of the film and get to know them. They play more like a special feature rather than a heartfelt documentary.

That’s the last thing Michael Stephenson [the director of Best Worst Movie and star of Troll 2] wanted to do. It took about four and a half years to make Best Worst Movie, it was filmed in about 28 cities and eight countries, which a lot of people don’t know. It’s almost 420 hours of film footage that went into 93 minutes of film.

I saw on your IMDB page that you were in Street Team Massacre with Rowdy Roddy Piper (They Live) and Lloyd Kaufman (Troma).

I did that and a few other cameos. Most recently I did a movie called Junk for a director named Kevin Hamedani. Those cameo roles are fun, you can jump in and do your parts and leave.

You were a cheerleader for the University of Auburn from 1974 to 1977. You were with the team during Coach Shug Jordan’s last season. Do you have any fond memories about the legendary coach?

I do! He had an icon status not unlike coach Bear Bryant at Alabama. The head coaches back then had more of an iconic feel than the ones today. I met both Shug and Bear and they were the biggest celebrities I’d met in my life.

How did you end up in Utah [where Troll 2 was filmed]?

I was doing a post-doctorate programme in children’s dentistry.

Four out of five dentists recommend sugar-free gum. Are you one of them?

No! I think sugar is good for ya!

Feature by Dan Sartain

Tom Benn is Roy Batty

Blade Runner

Tom Benn was born in 1987 and grew up in Stockport, but now lives and works in Norwich. His debut, The Doll Princess, is a gritty urban noir set in 90s Manchester in the wake of the IRA bombings. A speedy, adrenaline-fuelled chase through the underworld, it centres on Bane, a loan shark and fixer on a mission to find out who killed his childhood sweetheart. Tom Benn’s filmic Alter Ego is Roy Batty in Blade Runner. EITHNE FARRY

Roy Batty is my favourite sympathetic villain. He’s vicious, noble and fashion-conscious (the very foundations of cyberpunk were built upon his coat collar). He also has an extremely flexible girlfriend.

Roy, a replicant (an artificial human being), has come to Earth to try and force a meeting with his maker, in the hope he will be able to extend his life beyond its programmed four years. Our gumshoe hero, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, must ‘retire’ Roy and the rest of his gang.

I’ve always felt for Roy. Most of us are full of questions, frightened of death, and at some point in our lives, want someone to blame for our design flaws. We’d probably be better off accepting what we can change about ourselves, and what we can’t. God is the ultimate absent dad. ‘I’m surprised you didn’t come sooner,’ Dr Tyrell, Roy’s maker, tells him. It’s very satisfying watching Roy beat him in a game of chess.

Rutger Hauer is otherworldly: his platinum hair and permanent sweat-glaze make him a lizard in the neon jungle of future LA. I watched the final cut of Blade Runner recently, and while the visuals are gorgeous, the dialogue is still one part stoic, two parts characters explaining things they’d already know. But Hauer delivers even the most wooden line with a regal menace.

Roy isn’t just a badass; he’s the most fiercely human character in a film where potentially no one is. I may not be as stylish or murderous as Roy, but he still speaks to me, and I always root for him over Deckard.

And although Roy doesn’t find the answers he needs to be able to cheat death, he does discover what it means to be human.

The Doll Princess is published by Jonathan Cape.

Tom Benn

Barry Adamson’s Film Jukebox

Barry Adamson

For the first Film Jukebox compiler of 2012, who better than Barry Adamson, writer of imaginary film soundtracks (see 1988’s Moss Side Story) and a musician who’s long been associated with cinematic sounds. Known for his work with Magazine, The Bad Seeds and other luminaries of various music scenes as well as having written the score for an award-winning ballet, Adamson has also garnered a nomination for the Mercury Prize, won prizes for his short stories and even written and directed a movie. His new album I Will Set You Free is released on 30 January 2012 and he plays the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 9 February 2012. Download the taster track ‘Destination’ from Barry Adamson’s website. Delia Sparrer

1. Taxi Driver (1976)
Director Martin Scorsese’s 1976 urban masterpiece begins with Travis Bickle’s (Robert De Niro) taxi emerging into the cinema frame, all fire and brimstone; cruising through the ‘foul’ landscape that will see him set out on a deranged crusade. This movie is the ultimate depiction of alienation, obsession and perverse desire, where reality is played out as an insomniac nightmare of rejection and racial hatred and the need to save mankind’s angel/whore as Travis’s angst builds into an apex of horror. An amazing study of ‘God’s lonely man’. The screenplay by Paul Schrader and the score by Bernard Hermann begin and finish one of the greatest films ever made.

2. Seconds (1966)
Arthur Hamilton becomes Tony Wilson but regrets it, too late, before meeting a surreal, eerie fate. Extraordinary 1960s black and white paranoia movie bearing depressing truths about today, with its theme of transformation through plastic surgery. Using distortion and exaggeration, cameraman James Wong Howe and director John Frankenheimer reveal the mind of a man who is struggling to break free from an emotional straightjacket, by painting a frightening picture of a dehumanised and controlling world, where, ultimately, fulfilment cannot be found by changing the outside.

3. Humanity (1999)
A beautifully mundane film displaying director Bruno Dumont’s trademark cinematographic blend of lush widescreen landscapes, glossy-eyed close-ups and clinically objective (and graphic) staging of sex to personify his idealised vision of ‘the ordinary people, who don’t speak a lot, but who experience an incredible intensity of… Emotion’. Pharaon de Winter (Emmanuel Schotté) is an incompetent detective, who longs desperately to connect with humanity but is frustrated at every turn. This is intense tedium observed with clinical precision.

4. Enter the Void (2009)
Gaspar Noé shocked everybody with Carne, Seul contre tous and Irréversible. With Enter the Void, he creates a magnificently deranged melodrama that surrounds the tragic and strange relationship of Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) and his sister, Linda (Paz de la Huerta). This is a tripped-out journey into and out of hell: drugged, neon-lit and with a fully realised nightmare-porn aesthetic that has to be seen to be believed. Unlike anything seen before, it has a vitality and originality that are at once bold and strikingly inspiring.

5. Mirror (1975)
Stifled by the Soviet Union due to its ‘confused narrative’ and therefore not getting a proper release at the time, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, indeed appears at first to be a hotchpotch of ideas thrown together. In this dreamlike and evocative film, childhood memory is pitted against newsreels of war and left open for the viewer to pin their own childhood onto. Mirror represents the closest Tarkovsky would ever come to total abandonment of what many people would consider the most important aspect of any film – a coherent story! There are sequences in this film that are breathtaking and it deserves watching again and again.

6. Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)
Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is haunting and magical. It’s a deeply strange film, constantly subverting narrative clarity and demanding that its images be taken as metaphors rather than at face value. It charts the story of Valerie’s (Jaroslava Schallerov&#225) transformation from child to adult through the onset of puberty, which is expressed as a nightmarish fantasia, a dreamlike fairy tale populated with vampires, grisly violence and lurid sexuality. A genius tripped-out tale of innocence kept, with one of the great film scores by Lubos Fischer.

7. Performance (1970)
Performance stands out as being (at the time) the most visually daring major studio film dealing with questions of sanity and identity rarely touched on in mainstream filmmaking. A gangster on the run (James Fox) hides out in the home of a reclusive rock star (Mick Jagger). Co-directors Nicolas Roeg (who also photographed) and Donald Cammell (who wrote the screenplay) explore self-discovery through sex, drugs and violence. The film’s madness unfolds in a bizarre unconventional examination that many baulked at but that suits its themes perfectly, giving them real cohesion and truth. The score by Jack Nitzsche is brilliant too.

8. Mother and Son (1997)
Alexander Sokurov’s extraordinarily lyrical film is a beautiful and tender exploration of the deep affection between an ailing mother and her devoted adult son. In a hauntingly beautiful landscape, which Sokurov’s camera transforms into stunning cinematic canvases, the pair recall happier times as the dutiful son lovingly nurses his mother in her final hours. Often this movie feels like watching paint dry in a most exquisite, almost narcotic way. Slow, ponderous and genius.

9. In Cold Blood (1967)
I came to this story written by Truman Capote and directed by Richard Brooks via its Quincy Jones score. It’s the story of Perry Smith (Robert Blake) and Dick Hickock (Scott Wilson), who, after a botched robbery, kill a whole family, are caught, and then tried. Capote wrote the whole thing from memory after befriending Smith on jail visits and then interviewing the townsfolk. Four Oscar nominations later, this remains a great re-telling of something truly awful.

10. Psycho (1960)
Alfred Hitchcock was a sly genius who scared audiences out of their lives (and showers) with Psycho. Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals from her boss and goes on the run, ending up at The Bates Motel, where Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) takes her in. The nightmarish, disturbing film’s themes of corruptibility, confused identities, voyeurism, human vulnerabilities and victimisation, the deadly effects of money, Oedipal murder and dark past histories are realistically revealed through repeated uses of motifs such as birds, eyes, hands and mirrors. Bernard Hermann scores a motif that would end up (at Scorsese’s request) in his Taxi Driver score too!

Barry Adamson and band play the QEH, London Southbank, on 9 February 2012.

Road to Nowhere: Interview with Monte Hellman

Road to Nowhere

As Monte Hellman’s legendary Two-Lane Blacktop is released on Blu-ray by Eureka, we publish an interview with the director on his latest film.

In Road to Nowhere (2010), his feature comeback after 20-odd years, Monte Hellman deftly blurs the line between cinema and reality: the film depicts a young director shooting a crime drama based on a true story, using the actual locations as a source of inspiration. During the shoot, he falls in love with his lead actress, who uncannily resembles the real-life crime’s femme fatale, and soon things get alarmingly tangled up, especially in the mind of one imaginative member of the crew. Although there is no denying that its decidedly artificial touch and wooden dialogue make this a flawed film, the director’s approach is complex, intriguing and worthy of attention. Ultimately, Road to Nowhere amounts to little more than a series of bravura noir scenes in which the tension and emotion sometimes build up too slowly, but a great meta-B-movie feel and fitting cinematography make it an enjoyable watch.

Monte Hellman talked to Pamela Jahn at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in July 2011 about how it feels to be back on set, what it takes to let things go and other things you don’t usually learn in film school.

Pamela Jahn: Road to Nowhere is your first feature film in over 20 years but in the meantime you had been working on various other projects that didn’t come to fruition. What was different this time?

Monte Hellman: My daughter decided that we would stop waiting for other people to give us permission to make movies and instead do it ourselves. So she went out and raised the money. She fell in love with the script and that was something that fascinated me because it’s a movie about my life in the sense that it’s about the process of making movies – it’s a film about the making of a film.

How important is the process of making a film to you as compared to the final outcome on screen?

Both things are important to me. In this case, the process was exciting because we tried something different. Filmmakers are control freaks, but we tried to give up this whole idea of controlling every aspect of it. I guess I got tired of it. Instead we tried to pursue something that was less intellectual and more emotional. I tried to get everybody to turn off their brains and let the subconscious take over. It’s not an easy thing to do, particularly for people who like to understand what they are doing and why they are doing it. Actors are trained to examine themselves like, ‘what was I doing 10 minutes ago’ and ‘where am I going with this’. And all this is very much about control. But we tried to find a way to forget about all that and just let this thing happen. It requires an awful lot of trust, of course, and faith. Both their faith in me and also their faith in themselves. But it worked. It was amazing.

How did it feel to be back on set after so many years?

It’s always the same for me. Before starting any movie I feel like I don’t remember what to do and how to do it and I am always terrified until the moment I get on the set. And it was the same this time. It’s been over 20 years… well, not really, because I directed a segment in a film called Trapped Ashes in 2006. But I get on the set and think, ‘This is where I belong to’, and I feel comfortable, and suddenly all the fear is disappearing.

Is there a relation between Mitchell Haven, the director in the movie, and yourself? How much of the young Monte Hellman do you see in him?

It started out that way. When we were sitting together working on the script, people would just shout out certain eccentricities that I have and put them into the script. But as soon as I hired an actor I realised that this was a mistake, particularly since he’s an actor who loves that kind of thing and I didn’t want to give him that comfort. And so, fortunately, he agreed not to do that and he even rejected some of the things that remained in the script.

Road to Nowhere is actually based on quite a simple story if you look at it a certain way, but on first viewing it can be a rather baffling experience.

I never thought of it as difficult or delusive or anything. We’re seeing this movie within the movie out of sequence but there is so little to that story, and actually we see the same scene over and over again. I didn’t expect it to be as hard to unravel as it turned out to be for some audiences.

It’s very film noir in its look and spirit.

Yes, and this is something that does attract me. The fact that no one can ever figure out the most difficult movies of the genre, like The Big Sleep for example. Even Howard Hawks said he could never figure it out. But that never bothers me, because I’m not really interested in figuring things out. I’m interested in entering into a dream world, it is partly my own dream and partly the movie’s dream, and I’m just letting things go and I’m going with it. That’s the way I relate to Road to Nowhere, and I unconsciously expect the audience to do the same thing.

Was it easier for you to have your daughter producing the film than, for example, Roger Corman?

Roger Corman was a good producer for me because he left me alone. My daughter was much better though because she not only left me alone, but she kept me unaware of the financial crisis and anything that would not be part of my creative process. She kept me really isolated so I could do my work. And she did her work, she was great.

Do you need complete isolation in order to work?

I don’t want to be worrying about things that are unnecessary for me to worry about.

Roger Corman produced several of your early films. How did the collaboration come about?

My wife at the time was an actress working with Roger, so I met him socially and he invested a small amount of money in a theatre company that we had. And when this theatre was disbanded because we lost our venue after it was sold and converted into a movie theatre he said that we should take that as sign and I should start making movies. He asked me to do one and there was no looking back after that.

Your most critically acclaimed film to date, Two-Lane Blacktop, failed at the box office in America at the time of its initial release but has long reached cult status. Where you disappointed that it didn’t become the breakthrough film for you that it was meant to be?

I don’t remember it as such. I was angry that they did such a bad job of distributing the film. Especially because it was a big thrill for me to see the success of Two-Lane Blacktop in London at the Islington Screen on the Green. So much so that I invited my London agent to come to the screening and then he couldn’t get in because it was totally sold out. That was fun. But in the end, I just went on to my next project which, I think, never got made. Well, most of my projects didn’t get made [laughs], but I just kept plunging on.

When you did Cockfighter, it also failed commercially on release, but then Corman tried re-editing it. Where you aware of it at the time?

Yes, Corman did recut the film in a version called Born to Kill, which is weird because chickens are not born, they are hatched. I knew he was doing it. But luckily the original was restored afterwards, when they put it out on video they asked for the original version. So there’s now a good DVD version available in the States.

Of all the projects that never got made in the end, is there a particular one that you are hoping to still be able to do at some point?

I am currently working on an old script but, yes, there is another one that I was hired for by Bert Schneider and Paramount in the early 80s, which is one of my favourites.

What’s the story?

It’s a film noir as well. It was written by Lionel White in protest at the fact that Stanley Kubrick wouldn’t hire him to do the screenplay of Lolita, so he wrote his version of it as a film noir. I have the script, though first of all I need to persuade Paramount to sell me the rights. But I really hope to do it some time.

You’ve also been teaching film for several years now. What’s the main advice you give to your young directing students?

To be honest, I think teaching film is pretty much a sham. It’s something that can’t be taught. So one of the first things I tell my students is the same advice the director gives in Road to Nowhere, which is, if an actor asks, ‘How do you want me to act?’, you say, ‘Don’t’. Students are trained by the system and by other teachers to direct, and I always say to them, ‘Don’t’. Most great directors don’t direct, you don’t direct actors. Like Clint Eastwood said, ‘How can I tell Morgan Freeman how to act?’

What was the first thing you have learned in your career?

Fortunately, I learned very early on not to expect that pre-planning would lead to anything, which was very interesting. And so instead of staying up all night and doing little storyboards, I get a good night sleep and I trust that I’m going to be inspired once I get on the set. And most the time that works!

Interview by Pamela Jahn

Everybody Dies

Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


Because of the nature of this article, it is impossible to give a spoiler alert for specific films. By simply naming the film, the spoiler is already done. So readers are hereby warned. I have made sure, however, that the most recent film I have used is from 2008 and so these are all films you have had a chance to see.

There is a definition of the difference between comedy and tragedy, which I think comes from the marvellously named Northrop Frye. It goes something like this: tragedy says ‘everybody dies’ and comedy says, ‘ah well, life goes on’. In tragedy, everybody (usually) does not die. We always have our Horatios, to ‘draw his breath in pain’ and recount the story of what happened. In cinema, likewise, Horatios abound; survivors of massacres and shoot-outs, who live on older and wiser, like on-screen audience members. Think of The Wild Bunch (1969) and Deke Thornton, played by Robert Ryan. He is the only original member of the gang to survive. Their bloody finale is a battle he witnesses, but does not participate in. His arrival also retroactively justifies their suicidal decision. Had they survived, they would have been forced into a fratricidal showdown with Deke and his bounty hunters. As is also the case in Red River (1948), a third party antagonist allows a much more painful family quarrel to be sidestepped.

Westerns and War Movies

When everybody dies in a Western, it is partly because as a genre its ruling theme is one of loss and decline. They Died with Their Boots On (1941) is still startling to watch today as Errol Flynn’s cavalry unit is wiped out. However, that was the portrait of a massacre, a massacre that itself went on to both erase and justify other much larger, much more destructive massacres: a genocide in fact. Once upon a Time in the West (1968) begins with death – the three waiting gunmen are dispatched with brilliant abruptness – continues with death – the massacre of a family and sundry hired guns – and ends with the death of the three male protagonists: Frank is killed on camera, Cheyenne’s death is indicated through the soundtrack and Harmonica’s is implied – he has in fact been dying from the very first shoot-out. As in The Wild Bunch, an old masculine way of life has died as civilisation and a new female-dominated space persist. Claudia Cardinale survives to run her business, perhaps to tell the tale, but probably secretly relieved not only that her tormentor is gone, but likewise her quasi-rapist saviours.

The West needs its men to die. Likewise war films demand high body counts, and the death of the main protagonists can be almost total. Of course, death is valued and figured differently in different genres. In a war movie, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), the meaningless deaths that begin the film are substituted with the meaningful sacrifices that conclude the film. Captain Miller’s last words insist that his death and the death of practically his whole squad be given meaning and in that way somehow redeemed. ‘Deserve this,’ he tells Matt Damon’s Private Ryan, and obviously in doing so the audience, whom Spielberg and historian Stephen Ambrose explicitly wish to remind of the heroism and sacrifice of the ‘good’ war. We are all being reprimanded. Even bad wars (Vietnam, Somalia) can be turned into life lessons. Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) both succeed in turning their whey-faced young innocents into hardened real men, usually via the meaning(ful)less deaths of their comrades in arms. But here we stray. People die during a war, lots of people, but not everybody. In fact, as with Saving Private Ryan, war movies see events from the perspective of survivors.

Although not a war movie as such, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List approaches the Holocaust from this perspective. And here this emphasis threatens to distort the actual subject. If all you knew of the world was gained from watching Schindler’s List, one could be forgiven for thinking that as bad as the Holocaust was, it wasn’t difficult to survive as long as one had a kindly Nazi to hand. Spielberg’s lucky Jews even survive the gas chamber – being led to a shower room which, despite a false alarm, is actually a shower room. Compare this to the little seen The Grey Zone (2001), directed by Tim Blake Nelson. Here, the Jews who make up the subject of the film are not lucky, nor innocent. The sonderkomando are prisoners who are responsible for seeing to the day-to-day mechanics of the gas chambers and ovens under the watchful eye of the German guards. It is they who usher in the prisoners from the train to the bathhouse; they who calm fears with lies, and they who lock the doors and then loot and burn the bodies. A Jewish pathologist working with Mengele is given special treatment, but anguishes over his decisions. Quarrelling with a fellow prisoner, he says he might bring something good out of all this and is rebuffed. ‘You give the killing purpose,’ the prisoner (played by Daniel Benzali) growls. Giving meaning to death is the most immoral reaction. The same prisoner, in organising a revolt, makes it clear that his aim is not escape, but sabotage. Survival, rather than being an imperative, becomes morally dubious. As Vasily Grossman writes of a sonderkomando in the same situation: ‘he was dimly aware that if you wish to remain a human being under fascism, there is an easier option than survival – death.’

As a film, The Grey Zone insists that everybody dies. Not only the Jews in the gas chambers, but also the sonderkomando who rebel, and the sonderkomando who don’t (they are exterminated and replaced every four months). The film’s coda also informs us that the Nazi commandant is also executed and the pathologist dies. His wife dies in the 70s. This is the opposite of Spielberg’s coda, which is almost tasteless in its argument that Schindler’s survivors have had lots of babies, as if this was a problem that could be solved with arithmetic. The ending of Schindler’s List is comic – life goes on – whereas The Grey Zone refuses to give the killing extra-narrative meaning and is decidedly tragic. Everybody dies, even the survivors will die.

Gangster and Horror

The most common films in which everybody dies are gangster and horror films. In gangster films, the offing of large numbers of principal characters can easily be explained as the old studio imperative that crime mustn’t be seen to pay (but that this must only come at the end after we’ve had our vicarious vice). It did for James Cagney in White Heat (1949), Al Pacino in Scarface (1983) and the runaways of Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Going back to Jacobean tragedy for a second, Reservoir Dogs (1992) manages to kill everyone, outdoing Hamlet. Mr Pink (the weasel) appears to escape, but the soundtrack leads us to believe he was likely gunned down outside. Likewise, Mr White gets an off-screen death scene. There is no Horatio, no Deke Thornton. The film has a pleasingly classical completeness. The only speaking role who survives is Mr Orange’s superior officer and I like to think that Mr Pink got him with a stray bullet before himself falling under a hail of gunfire.

The Final Destination, Hostel and Saw franchises depend on the wholesale slaughter of their casts, making the inevitability of their deaths into something like a game. The poster line for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – ‘Who will survive and what will be left of them?’ – runs true for a number of horror films. Going one better are the films that tell you from the very beginning that everyone involved in the incidents related in the film has been killed, or ‘gone missing’. Cannibal Holocaust (1980) is an early example of this. We know everyone has died. All that remains is to see how. Likewise in The Blair Witch Project (1999). Here, Horatio is the camera itself and the tapes or footage left behind. The same device is used in Cloverfield (2008).

Where this isn’t pre-agreed, the death of everyone can come as a shock. The most effective examples of this can be found in The Long Weekend (1978) and Open Water (2003). These are both revenge-of-nature films, and the genre implies that someone will ultimately survive to tell the tale. Both films involve couples rather than groups, and so this might lead to their vulnerability. Both films also imply the indifference of the universe to us, and therefore by extension to our need for narrative comfort. Despite its environmental credentials, 1972’s Silent Running shares a similarly terrifying view of the larger indifference of the universe.

Everybody Dies

There is a film where everybody really does die. Not just the protagonists – everybody. The main characters, the bit parts, the non-speaking extras, people who never appear on screen and the audience. Dr Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) is the opposite of Schindler’s List. Whereas Schindler’s List is a tragedy operating in a comic universe, Dr Strangelove is a comedy realised in a tragic netherworld. The implied annihilation is rendered certain by the final shots of mushroom clouds. Even the doomsday machine doesn’t condemn humanity as finally and completely as the sound of Vera Lynn singing ‘We’ll Meet Again’ does. This irony doesn’t work without our accepting our own complete destruction. Other post-nuclear films concentrate on either the fantasy or the nightmare of a splinter of humanity remaining. However unpleasant that might be, life does go on. Dr Strangelove is unique in positing that life does not go on and is even more radically interesting in suggesting that (humanity being what it is) our all ending could be the only happy ending. The often skipped-over subtitle says it all. We love the bomb because ultimately we deserve it. The laughter inherent in Kubrick’s masterpiece is wrought with pain but also indicative of relief. Finally, life does not go on.

John Bleasdale

Some of the ideas in this article were developed with the aid of a discussion thread at and I would like to thank the film scholars who made suggestions and participated in that thread.

The Ceaseless Noise of Space: Alternative 3

Alternative 3

In 1977, a year after NASA landed its first unmanned probe on the surface of Mars, Anglia Television decided to round off its Science Report documentary series with an April Fools gag purporting to show evidence of a fully-fledged scientific colony being developed in secret on the red planet since the early 60s. It is either unfortunate or enormously serendipitous (depending on one’s perspective on such matters) that an industrial dispute delayed broadcasting from its original April 1st slot to a date several months later and thus accidentally kick-started one of the most notorious science fiction hoaxes since the Mercury Theatre’s War of the Worlds. Like Orson Welles’s earlier broadcast, sound and music played a crucial role in Alternative 3, and when the show’s producers set about deciding upon a composer, they plumped for a certain Brian Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle Eno.

1977 was a busy year for Eno, beginning with live performances with The 801, followed by collaborations with Cluster and David Bowie in Germany over the summer and topped off with the release of his last album of song-based solo material for several decades, Before and after Science. But it’s worth remembering that, having left Roxy Music four years earlier, Eno still only had a small number of production credits to his name and Alternative 3 is one of his first films. Most of the tracks that accompany it on the following year’s Music for Films album were then still just composed for ‘imaginary films’ (even if many of them would later be snapped up for use in actual movies). So despite only a brief mention (‘eerie synthesizer soundtrack’) in David Sheppard’s 2008 biography, Alternative 3 stands right at the pivot of Eno’s move away from rock stardom and towards some supposedly more legitimate and perhaps even respectable trade.

In fact, Eno contributes just one three-minute track to the documentary, and even among the other miniatures of Music for Films it sounds remarkably slight, almost apologetic compared to the grandiosity of the ‘Sparrowfall’ trilogy that precedes it. Just a bed of deep bass drones, with something like the bleeps of submarine soundings and some reversed ‘found sound’ over the top, all drifting in the heat haze of reverb. But its staggered exposition over the course of the film proves a fecund choice.

At first, all we are given is the shimmer of suspended high frequencies, providing, as it were, the question mark that binds together the initial presentation of the ‘mystery’ of the missing scientists. As the plot thickens, so too do Eno’s sound masses: a bass note of menace accompanies the talk of coming environmental catastrophe; a wavering, flanged synth line introduces the NASA angle, soon the beeps of mission control’s dialogue with its astronauts join it; the first springs of melody rise with the lift-off of an Apollo spacecraft, and the suspicion of covert Soviet-American collaboration – in space!

Only, at the very end of the film, with the full story finally revealed – and, with the credits providing the actors’ names, the ‘mock’ nature of this ‘doc’ finally admitted – are we given the full extent of Eno’s piece – and still the music seems to pose an unsettling question mark, as though expressing dissatisfaction with such a neat tying up of loose ends, of the sort later exploited by former Scientologist Jim Keith’s paranoia-baiting Alternative 3 Casebook.

Robert Barry



A Screen One Special drama for Hallowe’en by Stephen Volk, starring Michael Parkinson, Sarah Greene, Mike Smith, Craig Charles.

Ghosts no longer inhabit stately homes and rattle chains. They live in ordinary council houses like that of Mrs Pamela Early. For months she’s suffered strange noises, awful smells and bent cutlery, but is her’s really the most haunted house in Britain? BBCtv turns the cameras on the ghoulies, ghosties and things that go bump in the night.

The Radio Times billing for writer Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch (Lesley Manning, 1992)

Such was the furore Ghostwatch caused after its first and only ever BBC broadcast on October 31, 1992 that the staff of the Radio Times was briefed never to mention the programme again.


Writer Stephen Volk had originally wanted to write a supernatural drama/investigative thriller in which a parapsychologist would be accompanied by a TV journalist as they inspect a contemporary haunted house. He originally pitched the idea as a five-part series, which was rejected until it was suggested it be produced as a 90-minute special. Volk realised that the idea could be reworked so that the investigation would unfold as a live studio broadcast. By doing this the drama would imply that the fictional events of the programme were happening in the audience’s contemporary reality and in (their) real time. However, the BBC was concerned, as Volk explained:

People needed a lot of convincing to do it. It finally got the go-ahead when Ruth [Baumgarten, the programme’s producer] persuaded them that, with so much factual reconstruction-type TV around, if they didn’t do something like this now, then someone else would do something very similar very soon. (J. Rigby, ‘Heads Must Roll: The Story of Ghostwatch’, Shivers no. 29, May 1996)

The script was developed over a period of months with the ‘final’ version being shot in the summer of 1992. Manning first filmed the long, complex ‘live’ broadcasts from the Early family home, which was then played back on the multiple TV screen walls in the faked studio for Parkinson and Gillian Bevan (playing parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe) to respond to. In this final part of the shooting, both writer and director encouraged Parkinson to develop the script and to ad lib questions that he would ask if it were real. During filming and post-production it was uncertain whether the programme would be broadcast:

Right up until the last minute, the transmission was threatened with being pulled due to corporate nervousness, but we made it by the skin of our teeth. When Ruth arrived from TV centre to report that the BBC phone lines were jammed, we knew we had created an effect far beyond anything we had anticipated. (S. Volk, ‘Ghostwatch Returns’, Shivers no. 101, January 2003)


The programme is a perfect pastiche, a flawless illusion of reality with a tongue-in-cheek sense of drama and narrative: combining a live studio broadcast with a phone-in and cutaways to various outside and on-location broadcasts, the first 30 minutes of Ghostwatch appear to be an actual one-off production that hopes to, in presenter Michael Parkinson’s words, ‘show for the first time irrefutable proof that ghosts really do exist’.

The programme begins by establishing the outside broadcast at the reputedly haunted home of the Early family. Co-hosts Sarah Greene and Craig Charles are at the location with Greene allocated the role of eyewitness in the house while Charles conducts vox pops with the local residents. From then on, Ghostwatch follows the set format of countless news and investigative programmes: Parkinson interviews parapsychologist Dr Lin Pascoe (Gillian Bevan), a dialogue that is interspersed with live coverage from the house, the odd vox pop, live telephone calls monitored by Greene’s real-life husband, Mike Smith, and a counter-argument from a sceptic who offers his opinion, via satellite link, live from New York.

The first successful strategy Ghostwatch deploys is its use of Parkinson, Greene, Smith and Charles: at the time of its broadcast, these four were both familiar and popular television presenters whose presence lent authenticity and authority to the programme. This was particularly true of Parkinson who had, by 1992, become a celebrity through his regular BBC chat show, in part for his willingness to ask the questions others would not. As a consequence he was, in his own way, the voice of the people, a figure whom the audience trusted (1).

As the programme begins its investigation into the haunting, small events occur – the cameraman’s watch stops, the sound of scratching can be heard behind the walls, a damp patch appears, and then heavy clanging on the central heating pipes reverberates through the house. As frightening as these may seem, it becomes apparent that at least one of the occurrences has been faked by one of the Early family’s children, the prepubescent Susan (Michelle Wesson). As Susan claims she was made to act that way by the ghost, whom she has named Pipes, Parkinson tries to round up the show with some concluding remarks from Pascoe. Here Volk uses Parkinson’s persona to the full, as he bluntly questions a distressed Susan and then Pascoe about the hoax. His questions do not necessarily undermine the parapsychologist’s authority but imply that she has been as misled as everyone else. Yet despite Parkinson’s confrontational questioning, Pascoe is unwilling to believe the years of poltergeist activity have been a hoax and she warns, in an ominous tone, that things are only just beginning. This scene reverberates throughout the remainder of the programme for Pascoe’s sustained belief becomes so convincing that she virtually usurps Parkinson’s role as the programme’s voice of reason.

At this point, Ghostwatch shifts from what appeared to be a genuine news programme into a contemporary fictional ghost story as the subsequent dialogue and events are all clearly engineered to generate the maximum amount of tension and fear: there are repeated references to cats scratching at the walls or screaming; tension between mother and daughter and the family and the film crew mounts; lights begin to flicker; the children refuse to leave the house; a picture flies off the wall; a mirror falls and shatters, severely injuring the soundman; the seemingly spectral cats start screaming again and Susan is found to have her face covered in scratches. All are interspersed with live calls to the studio that slowly reveal the horrific truth about the house. Events take a dark turn as chaos reigns and concludes with the abduction of Susan and Greene, both seemingly assaulted and probably killed by the ghost of Pipes.

This graphic escalation of events should have been enough of an indicator to the audience that Ghostwatch was indeed fake, but such was the quality of the programme’s verisimilitude that the spectral events sustained the illusion of reality instead of breaking it. Herein lies the programme’s greatest strength: it mimics the visual language of reportage television so fluently that its fiction is, in some way, successfully incorporated into the illusion. The expected unsteady camera work, the poorly composed images as the cameraman adjusts his framing, the use of cutaways, vox pop and live calls all function to create a genuinely frightening work of fiction while simultaneously declaring it as real. It is the perfect synthesis of technical craft and concept, a true perversion of the language of television.

This sense of realism is further established by apparent mistakes: the cutting to an unprepared presenter; production crew appearing on the stage and ushered off by Parkinson; a video tape being rewound while being broadcast. These are small and seemingly insignificant moments but their inclusion serves to compound the programme’s sense of realism – the audience is aware that technical errors can occur during live broadcasts and so, to a certain extent, expects to see them. As Pipes’ manifestations gain in frequency and strength so do the technical faults to the extent that the live transmission from the house breaks down into multicoloured static and is replaced with a title card that states, ‘Normal transmission will be resumed as soon as possible’. In the context of the show’s reality these glitches take on a dreadful malevolence, functioning not just to create a heightened sense of verisimilitude but working to prove Pipes’ existence: when the programme returns to the house all is seemingly normal with Greene playing a board game with Susan and her sister until Pascoe realises that it is footage from earlier in the evening and that the ghost is well and truly in the machine.

The programme ends in almost apocalyptic fashion, perverted by Pipes into a séance of sorts: a wind blows through the studio, the overhead lights flicker then explode as the ghost of Pipes briefly manifests in the gantry, plunging the studio into darkness. Parkinson can still be heard, mumbling as he stumbles around the studio. The transmission returns and he approaches a camera, reading a nursery rhyme from the autocue, his voice slipping into the possessed drawl of Pipes.


In the weeks leading up to the broadcast, the BBC apparently became concerned that the audience would not be able to distinguish the precisely faked ‘reality’ from actual events and began to make efforts to ensure that the programme was defined as a drama: the aforementioned Radio Times bill described the show as ‘A Screen One Special drama’ while the actual broadcast had the Screen One ident tagged on at the start of the broadcast and the show itself had a full end credit sequence to further imply the fictional nature of the programme. Yet, for all these clear signifiers of the programme’s constructed nature, a significant number of viewers believed the programme was actually happening, there and then, before their eyes: according to a number of articles written about Ghostwatch, the BBC switchboard received approximately 30,000 calls of complaint during the programme’s broadcast. Ghostwatch‘s greatest asset, the central conceit of a perfect false reality, became its downfall. As Volk has commented:

Such is the power, we now know, of the visual language of live TV… None of us had any idea that people’s innate trust in that Crimewatch, 999, Newsnight style could possibly override their common sense and rationality. But it did. (S. Volk, ‘Ghostwatch’, Fortean Times, no. 166, January 2003)

The subsequent public uproar (2) has been well documented (3) so indicative examples need only brief reiteration here:

‘It’s disgusting – the BBC is making a joke of this’, said Peter Jackson of Hove. ‘It’s wrong to show this as if it were true in documentary style’, said Mrs Valerie McVey, Maidstone, Kent, while John Turvey, Euston, North London, stated ‘I was terrified. They really had me fooled by the phone-in and I was in a right state when they showed the girl covered in blood and disfigured.’ (Rigby)

Within these and the many other complaints perhaps lies the truth of the public’s response to Ghostwatch: they were frightened by what they saw because they were misled by the manner in which the fiction was presented to them. As Volk has commented:

The complaints all boiled down to the fact that the viewers hadn’t been told what it was going to be; they weren’t angry at the programme itself, so much as at the BBC for not telling them what it was about. It was perceived as duplicity on the part of the BBC – whom the viewers trust with their lives. (Rigby)

Through its accurate but fictional depiction of a live broadcast and the consequential response of its audience, Ghostwatch raised a single but very significant question: if a programme can be faked to the extent that it deluded a significant number of people, then what else has been faked and what else will be faked? This disturbing proposition was compounded by its transmission on the BBC, the broadcaster whom the British public rely upon for unbiased and sensitive reporting, for seeking out the truth and reporting it with honesty and integrity. Volk has suggested that it is the most significant subtext Ghostwatch offers:

OK, it was a ghost story but it was also about how much we trust what the media tells us. If you put someone on screen and call them Dr Bloggs and they tell you a load of cobblers, then you believe it. But it could be anyone! We don’t really think about the editorial judgments that go into everything, even factual things. My biggest disappointment was that, in all the ‘it shouldn’t be allowed’ furore, no thought was given to what we’d been trying to do. (Rigby)

James Rose

1 In his discussion of the programme, Volk has commented upon the believability of Michael Parkinson, stating: ‘One friend of mine, whom I’d told the week before that I had a drama on TV at 9.30 the following Saturday, phoned to tell me that she totally believed it was happening for real. I said, “But I told you I’d written it!” “Yes, I know,” she said, “but as soon as I saw Michael Parkinson I thought you must have got it wrong!”‘ (Volk, 2003)

2 The public’s response to Ghostwatch varied considerably: one complaint received by the BBC was a request for financial reimbursement for a man who had soiled his trousers, in fear, while watching the programme; schools apparently cancelled their lessons on Monday morning to discuss the programme with frightened children; the British Medical Journal cited Ghostwatch as the first television programme to cause post-traumatic stress disorder in children (4 February 1994); and in a much more serious manner, the programme was blamed for the suicide of Martin Denham, yet at the inquest into this death, the coroner did not once mention the programme or the possible effect it had had upon Denham.

3 The public’s reaction to Ghostwatch is recorded and evaluated in Panic Attacks: Media Manipulation and Mass Delusion by Robert E. Bartholomew & Hilary Evans (Sutton Publishing, 2004) and Media Studies: Texts, Production & Context by Dr Paul Long and Tim Wall (Longman, 2009).

London Short Film Festival 2012: Preview

The Last Walk (Jordan Baseman)

London Short Film Festival 2011

6-15 January 2012, various venues, London

LSFF website

On January 6, short films become the capital’s main attraction as the London Short Film Festival returns to the city’s cinemas and some more inventive settings like the University Tent at the Occupy London Stock Exchange Camp. Now in its ninth edition, LSFF continues to offer an ambitious and winningly broad programme with DIY work by emerging talents providing the perfect counterpoint to its industry events and comprehensive retrospectives of more acclaimed and established filmmakers.

The ICA’s Lo-Budget Mayhem screening promises to be an anarchic assortment with an eccentric hand-drawn animation of Hulk Hogan (Peter Millard’s Hogan), an excruciatingly awkward tale of public transport (Naren Wilks’s Journey on a Bus) and a very strange story of motherhood (Matilda Myszka’s Baby Meat). LSFF’s delight in such offbeat offerings will also be in evidence at the Midnight Movies Nightcap event and Salon des Refusés, a specially curated selection of films that did not make it into this year’s LSFF programme. It’s a fun and original idea that should raise interesting questions about what makes a ‘successful’ festival film.

As with previous editions of LSFF, this year’s programme emphasises the sensory experience of watching films. There are several events dedicated to the interaction between music and cinema and various festival strands that present films selected solely on the strength of their cinematography. Leftfield and Luscious, in particular, promises strong work, such as Jordan Baseman’s The Last Walk, which sets a compelling spoken narrative to meditative abstract visuals. The medium of analogue film is also to be celebrated with showcases of work on 16mm and 35mm film. At the Hackney Picturehouse Attic, Suitcase Cinema will present a selection of Cold War archive footage and Screen Bandita will gather together junkshop and attic finds of discarded, forgotten reels.

London itself is another focus of the 2012 festival with two screenings organised in association with the Museum of London in the Docklands: My Community will present a selection of shorts by young urban filmmakers; and London Lives will explore life in the capital through a varied programme of new works. In the documentary strand, another view of urban life is expressed through Hackney Lullabies, an award-winning short by Japanese filmmaker Kyoko Miyake. The film explores the shared experience of immigrant mothers living in Hackney and keeping their original cultures alive by singing lullabies to their young children. The diversity of voices presented in this warm and thoughtful film is mirrored in the programming of the festival itself. Looking through this year’s calendar of events, it is clear that LSFF aims to present a broad social spectrum as well as a wide aesthetic range. The Amnesty Human Rights Action Centre has organised an event to discuss disability in film while the Not the Skin I Live In strand celebrates Black and Asian stories on film. Female filmmakers are honoured with a dedicated festival strand (which includes an excellent, serious, yet witty call to arms about Nigerian women, Radio Amina) and the special event Dirty Diaries, a showcase of feminist porn films from Swedish filmmakers. This attempt to explore and represent all sorts of subjects and filmmakers makes for a lively and exciting programme of events. LSFF looks set to continue the success of previous years, keeping London audiences engaged and entertained.

Eleanor McKeown