The most embarrassing MP in history

 

In 1977, when my family moved to the town of Peebles in the Borders region of Scotland, I discovered that the Member of Parliament for our new constituency, which was Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (later to become Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale), was one David Steel.  39 years old at the time, Steel was the relatively young and fresh-faced leader of the Liberal Party, which is now the Liberal Democratic Party.  Initially, the knowledge that I was represented in Westminster by the leader of the UK’s third largest political party made me feel a bit important, even if I didn’t have a clue what his party’s policies were.  I suspect that a lot of the people who voted for him didn’t have a clue either.

 

In the 1980s, however, the Liberals entered a political alliance with the Social Democratic Party, led first by Roy Jenkins and then by Dr David Owen, in the hope of creating an election-winning centrist alternative to Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government.  This hope was never translated into reality; and Steel’s reputation, meanwhile, went downhill fast.  This was largely due to the satirical puppet TV show Spitting Image, which in the mid-1980s decided to depict Steel as a pompous but ineffectual squeaky-toned midget who was constantly manipulated and bullied by a Machiavellian and contempt-dripping David Owen.  (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwGvgC-r4IE.)  Steel is on record as saying that his Spitting Image puppet became so embedded in the British public’s imaginations that it seriously harmed his credibility among voters.

 

At www.capitalbay.com

 

Ironically, despite the uselessness of his puppet caricature, it was the real David Steel’s ruthlessness that ended Owen’s political career.  In 1988, after disappointment in the previous year’s General Election, he forced Liberal and SDP members to vote on a proposed merger of their parties, against Owen’s wishes – and when majorities in both parties approved the merger, Owen was finished.  However, Steel was by then yesterday’s man too.  He stepped down as leader of the newly-created Social and Liberal Democrats later that year and gave up his Westminster seat in 1997.

 

During the height of Spitting Image’s popularity, it was slightly embarrassing to have as your MP someone whom most people knew as a pygmy-sized, pipsqueak-voiced latex gargoyle who was browbeaten and tormented on TV every week by David Owen.  However, that was nothing compared to the embarrassment that befell Peebles following the fifth review of the Boundary Commission for Scotland, which in 2005 saw fit to transplant Peebles and its hinterland from the Borders region and onto an area to its immediate west, creating the Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency.  A rural territory populated by obviously rightward-leaning farmers, this new entity elected to Westminster the Conservative politician David Mundell.  It was the only Scottish constituency to elect a Conservative MP.  That’s right, there’s only one Tory MP in Scotland and he’s representing me.

 

Now, each summer at the Agricultural Show held in Peebles’ Hay Lodge Park, the Conservative Party invariably sets up a tent and The Only Tory MP In Scotland sits inside it, ready to press the flesh with his constituents, should any flesh present itself.  Passers-by at least have the opportunity to point and crack a well-worn joke: “Look, there’s the Rare Breeds Tent.”

 

However, being represented by The Only Tory MP In Scotland is not the biggest embarrassment in the political history of Peebles.  The other day I was doing some research on the Internet and I happened across the incredible story of Captain Archibald Maule Ramsay, who became MP for the town in 1931, while it was part of the Peebles and Southern Midlothian constituency.  In that election Ramsay’s majority was nearly double that – 17,435 votes to 9,185 – of his closest opponent, the Labour Party’s Joseph Westwood, who’d been the sitting MP.  (By the next election, however, Ramsay had obviously lost much of his lustre for the victory-margin over the Labour candidate was reduced to less than 1,500 votes.)  Ramsay was a member of the Scottish Unionist Party, associated with but not properly a part of the Conservative Party in England and Wales – only in 1965 would it become the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and turn into a regional branch of a Britain-wide Conservative Party.

 

Scottish-born but educated at Eton and then at Sandhurst, Ramsay entered the army in his late teens, was seriously injured during World War I, and after leaving the military in 1920 became a company director.  He also became involved in conservative politics.  Deeply religious, Ramsay may have crossed the line from being merely right-wing to being extremely right-wing in response to what he saw as the terrifyingly atheistic and anti-Christian nature of communism.

 

During the Spanish Civil War, reacting against the anti-Catholicism of the Republicans (who were getting support from the Soviet Union), Ramsay became an ardent supporter of General Franco and founded a right-wing organisation called the United Christian Front, which confronted “the widespread attack on the Christian verities which emanates from Moscow.”  Alongside this growing horror at godless communism was a growing anti-Semitism.  He became leader of the British branch of another organisation, the anti-Jewish Nordic League, which operated as an upper-class counterpart to the more proletarian British Union of Fascists.  By the late 1930s, Ramsay had well and truly entered a paranoid fantasy land where all bad things in life were the result of Jewish conspiracies funded by Jewish money.  In parliament, he agitated against the then war minister Leslie Hore-Belisha, a Jew, whom he claimed would “lead us to a war with our blood-brothers of the Nordic race to make way for a Bolshevised Europe.”

 

By 1939 he’d launched another organisation, the secretive Right Club, which attempted to bring together under one roof all the extreme-right groups in Britain – “all the patriotic parties” as he described them.  The club’s logo consisted of a picture of an eagle killing a snake and the initials P.J., which stood for ‘Perish Judah’.  Among those in Ramsay’s orbit at this time was the Irish-American fascist William Joyce who, later as a naturalised German, would become the Nazi propagandist known by the nickname Lord Haw-Haw and would hang for treason in 1946.

 

Ramsay, who’d been a guest at London’s German Embassy in 1938, was not happy when Britain declared war on Hitler’s Germany on September 3rd, 1939.  The following day, he wrote a poem (which was then printed and distributed to sympathisers by the Right Club) that began: ‘Land of Dope and Jewry / Land that once was free / All the Jew boys praise thee / Whilst they plunder thee.’

 

While he made increasingly anti-Semitic outbursts in parliament, the wartime MI5 took an interest in the Right Club’s activities.  Their interest was particularly piqued by Ramsay’s knowledge of the New British Broadcasting Service, a German radio station beaming Nazi propaganda into the UK – in a speech in parliament, Ramsay announced the station’s exact broadcasting times and wavelength, thereby giving it free publicity; and by a scandal involving the interception of messages between Churchill and Roosevelt and the possible passing of information to the Italian government.

 

It was no surprise when in May 1940 Ramsay was arrested under an emergency statute, Defence Regulation 18B, and placed in Brixton Prison alongside other potential pro-Nazi subversives like Oswald Mosley.

 

After four years of confinement in Brixton’s F wing, where he spent all but two hours of each day in a small cell, Ramsay was finally released in September 1944 – the authorities waited until after the D-Day landings before letting him go.  He returned to Westminster and took his seat again in the House of Commons as if nothing had been amiss.  However, according to Ramsay’s Wikipedia entry, the only thing of consequence he did during the remainder of his career as an MP was to table a motion calling for the reinstatement of the infamous Statute of the Jewry, originally enacted in 1275 by King Edward I.  Among other things, the 1275 statute had decreed that all Jews in England should be identifiable as Jews by having a yellow badge attached to their outer garments.

 

Ramsay’s constituents in Peebles, it should be said, had long since lost patience with him.  Back in 1939, when Ramsay’s anti-Semitism had finally bubbled up in public view, eleven Church of Scotland ministers in County Peeblesshire had sent a letter to the Scotsman newspaper denouncing his views.  After the outbreak of war, letters in local newspaper the Peeblesshire News were questioning the MP’s integrity, to put it mildly.  One correspondent opined that his speeches “might have been written by Dr Goebbels himself.”  And although Ramsay’s local Scottish Unionist association in Peebles and Southern Midlothian disowned him at the time of his arrest, the Peeblesshire News still had strong words for them: “This stain on the constituency should have been and ought to have been averted by Peebles Unionists.  In this hour of national trial, we ought to have been saved from such dire calamity.”

 

While Ramsay was incarcerated, the constituency’s needs were attended to by another MP, David Robertson, who for some reason represented the constituency of Streatham in London at the other end of the island.  And it was no doubt a relief for the town, which had lost some 70 inhabitants in the war, when Ramsay didn’t contest the seat again in 1945 and it was won by the Labour Party’s David Pryde.

 

The main event in Ramsay’s post-political life was the publication in 1952 of his autobiography, The Nameless War.  In it, he makes lunatic but typically Ramsay-ian claims such as that John Calvin, expositor-in-chief to the Presbyterian churches, had actually been called Cohen – and guess what religion he’d really been; or that Oliver Cromwell had been a Jewish agent who’d executed Charles I in order to facilitate the Jews’ return to England.  Ramsay died in 1955.

 

At www.npg.org.uk

 

For more information on a figure from my town’s political history whom most folk would prefer to forget, check out these articles:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archibald_Maule_Ramsay,

http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/PRramsayA2.htm

http://vnnforum.com/archive/index.php/t-25392.html

 

Jamie’s got a gun: film review / Django Unchained

 

At long last – here’s that Django Unchained review…

(c) Columbia Pictures

 

According to a recent article in the BBC news-website magazine, a quarter of the cowboys in the old American West were black (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21768669).  Indeed, the black lawman Bass Reeves is thought to have inspired the character of the Lone Ranger; and the experiences of another black man, Brit Johnson, were the basis for The Searchers, the novel by Alan Le May that John Ford filmed in 1957 and arguably made into the greatest western movie of all.  But if you watched such movies any time between the silent era and the 1970s (when the western perished as a major cinematic genre), you’d be under the impression that the American West was entirely populated by white people.  Well, apart from those pesky Red Indians, who tended to all get shot anyway.

 

Going by the movie history of the Wild West, in fact, there was only ever one black person who lived there.  That was the great American-footballer-turned-character-actor Woody Strode, who appeared in American and Italian-made westerns such as Two Rode Together (1961), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), The Professionals (1966), Boot Hill (1969), Chuck Moll (1970), The Deserter (1971), The Revengers (1972), Keoma (1976), Lust in the Dust (1985) and The Quick and the Dead (1995).  In 1968 he turned up in that rarest of beasts, a British-made western, Shalako, and the same year he appeared in the epic opening scene of Sergio Leone’s generally epic Once Upon a Time in the West – another contender for the title of greatest western ever.  Strode was a close friend of John Ford, the genre’s most influential director, who in 1960 cast him in the title role in Sergeant Rutledge, a western-cum-courtyard-drama in which a black sergeant in the US Cavalry in the 1880s is falsely charged with the rape and murder of a white woman.

 

Other than Strode, the black presence in western movies was negligible.  A few were made specifically for ‘coloured’ audiences in the 1930s, and a few ‘blaxploitation’ ones (usually starring the indefatigable Fred Williamson) were made in the 1970s, but that was about it.  Things only improved when the western no longer existed as a continuing genre, thanks to sporadic retro-items such as 1985’s Silverado (featuring Danny Glover and Joe Seneca) and 1992’s The Unforgiven (featuring Morgan Freeman).  In 1993 Mario Van Peebles directed and starred in Posse, about a group of black ex-soldiers in the late-1890s West – a story told in flashback by an old man played by none other than Woody Strode.  Despite its honourable intention of representing the ‘8000 black cowboys’ whose stories Hollywood ignored, the critical consensus on Posse was that it wasn’t very good.

 

It says it all that the most popular film from the western’s classic era that was both upfront in having a black hero and unflinching in showing the racism he was subjected to was none other than the 1974 Mel Brooks spoof, Blazing Saddles.  In Blazing Saddles, the ridiculous townspeople of Rock Ridge, threatened by an evil railroad company, are more concerned about the skin pigmentation of their new sheriff (Cleavon Little) than they are about their town’s impending demolition.  It says a lot for Little’s good nature that he hangs around and tries to protect their shithole town against the villainous railroad-men.

 

But now we have Quentin Tarantino’s new western, Django Unchained – yet another Tarantino ‘pastiche of already disreputable genres’, to quote that cultural Lord Snooty in the Guardian, Adam Mars-Jones (http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jan/25/django-unchained-lincoln-tarantino-spielberg).  The Wild West in Django is pretty black.  The main cast is largely black (Jamie Foxx, Kerry Washington and the inevitable Samuel L. Jackson), there’s a black-related theme – slavery, which was a rather big phenomenon in 19th-century American history, although for some reason most makers of western movies seemed not to notice it – and the soundtrack features some black musical genres, including blues and rap.  And this being Tarantino, the N-word is sprayed around in the dialogue as liberally as the bullets are in the shootouts.

 

I’ll start by getting my main criticism of Django Unchained off my chest, and the problem is the same one that spoiled my enjoyment of Tarantino’s previous movie, Inglourious Basterds: an ultimate failure of logic.  In the last reel of Basterds, we were expected to believe that in a cinema building where Hitler, Goebbels and pretty much the whole leadership of World War II Germany had gathered to watch a film, the Nazis would post two — yes, two — guards.  Obviously, the underwhelming security presence made it easier for Brad Pitt’s men to liquidise the enemy.  Tarantino would no doubt throw up his hands at this criticism and exclaim, “Hey, it’s set in a fantasy universe!  That sort of mundane detail doesn’t matter!”  But even as a fantasy movie, Basterds needed some internal logic.  And actually, earlier in the film, the Nazis had been shown to be paranoid about spies and infiltrators.

 

About a half-hour before the end of Django Unchained, the title character, played by Jamie Foxx, finds himself entirely at the mercy of vengeful forces that are ready to cut him into small pieces.  Yet they don’t.  After a wholly unconvincing reason is given, Foxx is allowed to live (and fight) another day – which goes against everything we know about the forces ranged against him.  The audience is left with the impression that Tarantino’s creativity failed him.  He just couldn’t think of a better way to get Foxx out of this tight scrape.  And in fact, it would’ve been better if Tarantino had simply ended the movie there, as Django feels at least half-an-hour too long anyway.

 

With that reservation out of the way, though, I can say that Django Unchained has much to enjoy.  Like Tarantino’s best movies, it contains both the sublime and the (knowingly) ridiculous, at times in the same scene.  A sequence involving a night-time raid by a group of prototype Ku Klux Klansmen invokes D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 epic Birth of a Nation before turning into an episode of comic idiocy that Mel Brooks could have concocted for Blazing Saddles in 1974.  And as usual with Tarantino too, the dialogue crackles.  While characters soliloquise and verbally spar, you feel you’re being treated to a sumptuous aural banquet of garrulity.  (That sounds like a phrase Tarantino might write himself, actually).

 

It helps that the actors spouting the dialogue are excellent.  As Dr Schultz, a German bounty hunter who frees Foxx from captivity and enlists him first as an informant and then as a partner, Christoph Waltz is at least as good as he was in Inglourious Basterds.  Here, he convincingly portrays a character who, despite being a state-sanctioned murderer, retains enough humanity to take Foxx under his wing and retains enough romanticism to eventually help him search for his wife, who is still kept as a slave.  It helps that Foxx’s wife, played by Kerry Washington, is called Broomhilda, a name that reminds Schultz of the quest of Siegfried in German legend.

 

Broomhilda, it transpires, is a slave on a huge southern plantation called Candyland, owned by one Calvin J. Candie, who is played by Leonardo DiCaprio.  Now probably like many discerning cinema-goers, I’ve been biased against DiCaprio in the past – the DiCaprio-mania that swept the world after he sank beneath the icy North Atlantic in the big movie of 1997 made me a bit prejudiced when it came to assessing his acting abilities.  But he is very good here, playing somebody who is both rottenly racist and rottenly decadent, but containing, just about, a streak of gentlemanly charm.

 

When Django and Schultz infiltrate Candyland on their mission to rescue Broomhilda, they manage to manoeuvre around Candie – but they fall foul of Stephen, the wily and poisonous ‘senior house slave’ who, despite his skin colour, might even be pulling Candie’s strings on the plantation.  Stephen is played by Samuel L. Jackson and this may be the best performance he’s provided for Tarantino, which is saying something.

 

A few people, including the afore-mentioned Adam Mars-Jones, have pointed out that for all the ballyhoo about Django Unchained being a western with a black hero, Django spends a lot of time hovering passively in Schultz’s shadow and letting the German make the decisions.  However, the film charts Django’s progression from slave to free-spirited gunslinger, so it’s a necessary stage of his development that he spends time as the bounty hunter’s apprentice.  It’s later in the film that he starts to think for himself and becomes proactive.  (Proactivity is something that I wish Kerry Washington’s character had more of, though.  For much of her screen time she merely stands around looking worried.  At one point she even faints.  For a Tarantino heroine, she is disappointingly un-kick-ass.)

 

Another criticism I’d defend Django Unchained against is the charge that it treats a serious subject, slavery, in an inappropriately cartoonish manner.  The movie undeniably has cartoonish qualities, especially in its later stages when bullets fly in ever-increasing quantities and ketchupy exit-wounds spurt with ever-more frequency.  But the film’s depiction of Candyland gives it some psychological weight.  In the warped society existing under Candie’s roof, the relationships between the oppressor and (a few of) the oppressed have become tangled.  Candie is terrifyingly brutal towards his human belongings but he can’t exist away from their company either.  Meanwhile, Stephen is a slave but, with his master, he conspires to be a monster to his fellow slaves.

 

In a speech Candie delivers in one scene, he recalls how his father was shaved every day by Stephen’s father with a cut-throat razor, yet the latter was never tempted to dispatch the former with a sudden flick of the wrist.  Candie explains this using the phony science of phrenology, claiming that blacks are inherently submissive thanks to the shape of their skulls.  But as we see Candie and Stephen connive, we realise that the real reason was probably a morbid symbiosis that has passed from fathers to sons.

 

Before signing off, I should say that Django Unchained is a treat for film buffs thanks to the number of old movie tough guys and character actors who appear in cameos or even micro-cameos.  Watch carefully, with your finger on the DVD-player pause button, and you’ll spot James Remar from The Warriors (1979) and The Cotton Club (1984); Don Stroud, whom I haven’t seen since he got impaled on the prongs of a fork-lift truck in the Timothy Dalton Bond movie, Licence to Kill (1989); Russ Tamblyn, who played Dr Jacoby in Twin Peaks back in 1991 and played Riff in West Side Story thirty years before that; Bruce Dern, who should need no introduction from me; Robert Carradine, brother of David and Keith – the three of them played the Younger brothers in Walter Hill’s 1980 western The Long Riders; Tom Savini, the famous gory special-effects man who worked on George A. Romero’s zombie movies; and John Jarrat, the Australian actor who played the psycho-killer in Greg Mclean’s terrifying 2005 film Wolf Creek.  Oh, and if you’re a connoisseur of old, crap 1980s TV shows, the guy who played Matt Houston and one of The Dukes of Hazzard are in it too.

 

Incidentally, here’s a guide to those black westerns, such as they were, that were made before Django Unchained: http://www.whogottherole.com/featured/list/western-cowboy-movies-you-never-herd-of-23307.

 

From www.intothewildunion.blogspot.com

James Herbert: 1943 – 2013

 

From www.jamesherbert.org

 

A while back, I wrote about how the late Danish war novelist Sven Hassel “increased literacy levels substantially among young males who would otherwise not have opened a book in their entire lives.  Not that Hassel… ever got any thanks from Britain’s educators.  His X-rated novels of German-Soviet conflict on World War II’s Russian Front were the sort of items you furtively traded with your mates in school playgrounds, well away from the prying and prudish eyes of teachers.”  Change the line “X-rated novels of German-Soviet conflict on World War II’s Russian Front” to “X-rated novels of apocalyptic horror in the shabbier parts of 1970s London” and that statement would equally well apply to the author James Herbert, who sadly passed away the other day at the age of 69.

 

I was 13 when I bought a copy of Herbert’s second novel, The Fog, drawn by an irresistible reviewer’s comment on its back cover: “For goodness sake don’t leave this on Aunt Edna’s chair!”  An accompanying quote from the book itself was good too:  “Out of the yellowish fog a man appeared.  His eyes were fixed straight ahead and his lips were frozen in a smile.  In his hands he carried the severed, still bleeding head of his wife.”  A few mornings later, sitting in my form class at school, I passed the book to the boy sitting next to me and instructed him to read a chapter that I’d read the previous evening – a chapter in which a group of boys at a posh boarding school go murderously insane and start beating and torturing their teachers to death.

 

I’d actually felt sick after reading that chapter, though by the next morning I was fortified and ready for more.  Anyway, I spent the next five minutes smugly watching my classmate as the colour drained from his face.  A final exclamation of disgust (“Yeee-uuuck!”) indicated that he’d reached the chapter’s last sentence.  That would’ve been the bit where the snotty deputy headmaster gets castrated with a pair of hedge-clippers.

 

(c) New English Library

 

Four years later, I’d left school and was backpacking / hitchhiking around central and northern Europe in the company of a similar-aged guy called Andy, who was from Stevenage.  At one point, Andy-from-Stevenage and I got into a furious argument about The Fog – by then we’d spent whole days waiting around entry roads onto various Autobahns without getting lifts and we’d managed to argue furiously about everything under the sun.  Andy-from-Stevenage’s beef with The Fog was that it was silly – especially the bit in it where an airline pilot goes murderously insane (too) and, to get revenge on his wife’s lover, flies his passenger-filled jet-plane off course and smack-bang into a London skyscraper where that lover works.

 

“Jet-planes flying into skyscrapers,” raged Andy-from-Stevenage, “that’s too far-fetched!  That’d never happen in real life!”

 

Herbert’s first novel had been The Rats in 1974.  Despite a hostile review in The Observer by a young Martin Amis, who considered the violence in its pages “enough to make a rodent retch… and enough to make any human pitch the book aside,” the Great British public bought it in droves.  (Before The Rats’ publication, Herbert had worked at the same advertising agency as Amis’s chum Salman Rushdie.)   Though rats certainly weren’t a new idea in horror fiction and films, Herbert’s novel had two great strengths – even if, like all his work, it was essentially pulp fiction.

 

Firstly, as the son of a fruit seller in London’s East End and someone who’d grown up around the corner from Reggie and Ronnie Kray, Herbert clearly had first-hand experience of the character-types and the localities in his book.  The story reeked of gritty and seedy authenticity as the rats – a strain of giant, mutant flesh-eaters – swarmed around disused canals, derelict buildings and plots of waste ground, preying on winos, down-and-outs, grubby comprehensive school kids and Jamaican immigrants working in the London tube.  (Later in the book, they graduated to eating middle-class people).  Secondly, Herbert’s approach to horror was a different one from that used by earlier British horror writers, such as the gentlemanly and clubbable Algernon Blackwood or Dennis Wheatley.  Unlike them, he left nothing to the imagination.

 

(c) New English Library

 

A year after 1975’s The Fog, which recounts what happens when a vaporous and madness-inducing chemical weapon leaks out of a laboratory and floats around southern England, Herbert penned his first novel of the paranormal, The Survivor.  This had supernatural forces unleashed in the Berkshire town of Windsor after a devastating plane-crash there.  One set-piece in the novel describes nearby Eton College – real-life alma mater of David Cameron and Boris Johnson – succumbing to a demonically-orchestrated fire.  Along with the gory boarding-school episode in The Fog, this suggests that working-class Herbert had a low opinion of England’s private-education system.

 

Meanwhile, The Spear (1978) was an updating of those old Dennis Wheatley occult thrillers like The Haunting of Toby Jugg and They Used Dark Forces where the Nazis dabbled in black magic to help their war effort – for topicality, Herbert threw the Arab-Israeli conflict into the mix.  Between The Survivor and The Spear, he wrote Fluke, a fantasy story narrated by a dog suffering from troubling flashbacks to a previous life in which he’d been a man.  (Eventually, he meets a wise badger who explains to him that, basically, the Buddhists had got it right.)  Even Fluke contains a streak of grotty Herbert realism, though, with his canine characters spending their time hanging around London junkyards, eating garbage and doing the dirty with on-heat bitches.

 

(c) New English Library

 

Herbert was not initially popular among traditional British horror writers and fans, no doubt because he upset cosy and middle-class notions of what horror should be about.  For somebody steeped in classic British tales of the uncanny like Charles Dickens’ The Signalman or M.R. James’s Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad, being subjected to the gnawed-off faces and exploding heads of The Rats and The Fog was probably akin to how bearded, cerebral fans of progressive-rock bands like Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer felt in 1977, when they first heard Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols played loud.

 

It didn’t help Herbert’s image that his books’ success spawned a wave of badly-written and even bloodier imitators.  In his wake, a whole paperback sub-genre became known in the book trade as ‘nasties’ – this was years before the term was used in relation to films, as in Britain’s ‘video-nasties’ hysteria of the early 1980s.  Among the writers cashing in were Shaun Hutson, whose breakthrough novel was Slugs.  The most charitable thing that can be said about Slugs-the-book was that it was better than Slugs-the-movie-adaptation.  (“Now maybe,” says one movie character, “just maybe, we’re dealing with a mutant form of slug here, a kind that eats meat!”)  There was also Guy N Smith, who was both a pipe-smoking countryside game expert and a schlock-horror writer.  When he wasn’t writing novels about giant carnivorous crabs – Night of the Crabs, Killer Crabs, Crabs on the Rampage – he was penning non-fiction tomes like Ferreting and Trapping for Amateur Gamekeepers and Moles and their Control.  Actually, I love the idea of Guy N. Smith, even if I never cared much for his books.

 

It wasn’t until 1981, when Stephen King wrote Danse Macabre, his academic study of the horror genre, that Herbert finally got some respect in the field.  In Danse Macabre, King said approvingly of Herbert that he “does not just write, he puts on his combat boots and goes out to assault the reader with horror.”

 

Around the early 1980s I lost interest in James Herbert, largely, I’m sure, because I was no longer a sensation-hungry teenager.  The Dark (1980) seemed merely a supernatural retread of The Fog, while Lair (1979) was a perfunctory sequel to The Rats.  I have to say, though, that his third rats novel, Domain (1984), which was set in a near-future London after it’d been decimated by a nuclear attack, was about the bleakest and most gruelling thing I’d ever read.  (Even in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the human survivors of the holocaust didn’t have to contend with giant carnivorous rodents.)  And during the 1980s and 1990s, Herbert’s books became increasingly concerned with supernatural themes and lacked the lethal edge of his earlier eco-horror ones.  That said, people whose opinions I respect say that Creed (1990) and The Others (1999) are good.

 

Those 1970s novels would’ve made great films.  Indeed, they appeared during a time when filmmakers like Gary Sherman (Deathline) and Pete Walker (Frightmare) were moving British horror movies away from the realm of gothic costume dramas and making them more contemporary, more nihilistic and more graphic, just as Herbert was doing in fiction.   But soon afterwards, the British film industry all-but-disappeared down the plughole.  John Hough, who’d directed the well-regarded Twins of Evil and Legend of Hell House, hoped to make a film of The Dark, with a script by the famous horror-movie starlet Ingrid Pitt (who was actually a good friend of Herbert’s), but the project came to nothing.  The Rats and Fluke were eventually filmed, but in North America, losing the working-class London ambience that’d made the books distinctive.  The Survivor was filmed in Australia and thus it didn’t work either.

 

Ironically, the film with the strongest flavour of his books isn’t a James Herbert adaptation at all.  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later feels like The Fog without the fog – at least during its first half, when Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris fight off the crazed victims of a military-engineered virus in an abandoned London.  And during the scene in the tunnel, where Murphy, Harris and Brendan Gleason encounter a tide of scuttling rats, it’s obvious which 1970s horror paperback Boyle and his scriptwriter Alex Garland are tapping into.

 

Incredibly, considering the unsavoury things that went on in his books, the establishment saw fit to honour Herbert a couple of years ago by giving him the Order of the British Empire.  Perhaps somebody in the Royal Family had accidentally left a copy of The Fog on the Queen’s chair.  (And perhaps the Queen had enjoyed the bit with the hedge-clippers.)

 

At www.megaton.us 

 

In 2009, I read a James Herbert novel for the first time in nearly a quarter-century.  This was after I read a piece by the Guardian columnist Charlie Brooker, in which Brooker seemed to imply that Herbert’s mid-1990s novel ’48 was better than the George Orwell literary classic 1984http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/mar/09/charlie-brooker.  Knowing Brooker, I suspect he was only half-joking when he wrote that.  My curiosity piqued, I tracked down a copy of ’48 – which is set in a parallel universe in the year 1948, after London has been devastated by a ‘blood plague’ unleashed by Hitler in the end days of World War II.  A tiny band of uninfected survivors are pursued around the empty, crumbling city by a larger band of infected and vampire-like survivors, who believe that by consuming the uninfected ones’ blood they can rid themselves of the plague before it kills them.  (The bad guys are led by a former associate of Oswald Mosley and style themselves on Mosley’s blackshirts.)

 

Reading like a cross between Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend and an Alastair Maclean war novel, I was surprised at how enjoyable ’48 turned out to be.  Admittedly, Herbert’s meat-and-two-veg prose style was never going to win any literary awards.  But it was hectically paced, its characters underwent just enough development to maintain the reader’s interest in them, its descriptions of a devastated 1940s London were convincing and it made shameless use of the city’s landmarks – Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge – when staging its action set-pieces.

 

It would, incidentally, make a pretty good film.  Are you reading this, Danny Boyle?

 

Nixon – even more evil than we’d thought

 

(c) The Guardian

 

It’s fair to say that after the break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters at Washington DC’s Watergate Complex in June 1972 and the subsequent, failed efforts by President Richard Nixon’s administration to conceal their involvement in the crime, Nixon was never going to be remembered in the history books as a nice guy.  Indeed, some people have accused him of being the very opposite of ‘nice’.

 

For example, the doyen of ‘gonzo’ journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, raged that “(b)y disgracing and degrading the Presidency of the United States, by fleeing the White House like a diseased cur, Richard Nixon broke the heart of the American dream.”  Thompson wrote this in 1994, just after Nixon had expired.  In the same article, Thompson opined that that the former Republican president’s body “should have been burned in a trash bin”; or that at the very least his casket should have been “launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles.”  (http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1994/07/he-was-a-crook/308699/.)

 

However, newly-declassified recordings of private conversations held by Nixon’s predecessor in the White House, Lyndon B. Johnson, suggest that we have another reason to malign Nixon, apart from his role in the Watergate scandal.  From conversations recorded in 1968, Johnson was aware that Nixon had sabotaged peace negotiations held in Paris, aimed at ending the Vietnam War.

 

Fearful that a Vietnam peace agreement would scupper his chances of winning the presidential election against Democrat (and then Vice President) Hubert Humphrey the following year, Nixon secretly persuaded the South Vietnamese to withdraw from the negotiations.  They were led to believe that they’d get a better deal under a future Nixon presidency.  Johnson regarded Nixon’s manoeuvrings as being treasonable, but decided not to make them public, even though this would have wrecked Nixon’s presidential candidacy.

 

For one thing, Johnson’s own methods for obtaining this information had been dodgy – indeed, Nixon-like: the FBI had bugged the telephone in the South Vietnamese Embassy, where Nixon had furtively opened a channel of communication.  Also, at that time, it looked like Humphrey would win the election anyway and Johnson didn’t see the point of airing Nixon’s dirty laundry in public.  But as things turned out, Nixon won the election by 0.7% of the popular vote.  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21768668).

 

Arguably, by sabotaging the 1968 peace talks and quite likely prolonging the Vietnam conflict for another half-dozen years, Nixon had responsibility for the 21,000–22,000 American deaths suffered during the post-1968 fighting.  And God knows how many more hundreds of thousands of North and South Vietnamese perished during that period – to say nothing of the Laotian and Cambodian deaths.

 

It also makes me wonder how a cessation of Vietnamese hostilities in the late-1960s would have changed history’s perception of Lyndon B. Johnson.  As it was, he left office with his country stuck in the quagmire of Vietnam and with a cloud hanging over his reputation – a reputation that, considering what he did for Civil Rights and considering how he pushed the ‘Great Society’ programme, would otherwise have been pretty good.

 

I have to say that Johnson’s name has always held negative connotations for me because, at a young and impressionable age, I read Norman Mailer’s fictionalised work of non-fiction Armies of the Night.  In Armies, the Bold Norman recounts how he marched on the Pentagon in October 1967 and told the US government to stop the war in Vietnam.  (To be fair, Norman did have a bit of help – about 100,000 people marched with him, including Allen Ginsburg and Abbie Hoffman, who tried to use concentrated psychic hippie-power to levitate the Pentagon building and ‘exorcise the evil within’: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Mobilization_Committee_to_End_the_War_in_Vietnam.)

 

(c) Penguin

 

Since then, thanks to Mailer’s book, whenever I’ve seen or heard Johnson’s name, a mantra chanted by those protestors at the 1967 march has sounded in my head:  “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?!”

 

After watching the 1979 / Iran-set movie Argo – which I talked about in my previous blog-entry – I remembered how conspiracy theorists have often claimed that Republican forces, desperate to stop any wind from getting into President Jimmy Carter’s re-election-campaign sails and to get Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980, sabotaged Operation Eagle Claw.  This was the mission launched to rescue the US Embassy hostages in Tehran in April 1980, which ended in disaster (and in humiliation for America and for Carter) with a helicopter / aircraft collision and the deaths of eight US servicemen in the Iranian desert.  At the time, supposedly, parts of the CIA were rabidly anti-Carter (and loyal to the agency’s former director, one George Bush Senior); and amongst those involved in the mission were Richard Secord and Oliver North, who’d later be up to their eyeballs in the Iran-Contra scandal that shook Reagan’s presidency.  (http://shermsays.blogspot.com/2011/01/shadow-cia-and-revenge-of-spooks_10.html; http://www.democraticunderground.com/discuss/duboard.php?az=view_all&address=104×629531.)

 

I’m generally not a believer in conspiracy theories, which to me have always seemed like a sort of existentialist comfort-blanket, allowing people to impose order, connections and motives on events that would otherwise seem terrifyingly random, spontaneous and meaningless.  (Belief in magic and belief in religion perform similar functions.)  And with regard to the Operation Eagle Claw allegations, I’ve always found it inconceivable that elements of America’s right wing, no matter how unscrupulous or how dumb they might be, would go to the lengths of sacrificing the lives of their own beloved military, and of making a laughing stock of their own beloved country, in order to achieve their ends.

 

But, if Richard Milhous Nixon provided the template for such people – well, let’s say I’m now beginning to wonder.

 

Tunisia’s new boss – same as the old boss?

 

Last Sunday, a friend and I walked from Tunis’s historical suburb of Carthage up to the pretty, white-and-blue-painted and jasmine-festooned village of Sid Bou Said.  On the way we stopped at the Basilique de Damous El Karita, which was the first Christian monument to be discovered in the area (http://www.robertjewett.com/damous-el-karita-basilica/).  These days, the basilica exists as a pillar-studded field at the side of the Boulevard de l’Environnement — a big, busy road with a concrete drain running along its verge that, despite its name, isn’t particularly environmental-looking.  A little closer to Sidi Bou Said, we visited another early Christian site just off the Rue du Maroc, the Basilique de Saint Cyprien, which offers a fine view of the beach and sea at Amilcar (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tunisie_Basilique_St_Cyprien_2.jpg). The day was bright and warm and the sky was flawlessly blue.  There were even a few tourist-coaches on the prowl, packed with northern Europeans.  I suspect they were from Germany – a country whose holidaymakers have always seemed pretty imperturbable in the face of potential political unrest.

 

You wouldn’t have thought there was much wrong with Tunisia on Sunday, then.  But in fact, on the political, economic and social fronts at the moment, things here seem far from rosy.  Admittedly, a calm has descended since early February, when the assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid spawned demonstrations, strikes and allegations of murderous government conspiracies.  But the calm reminds me of how the Northern Irish thriller writer Colin Bateman, in his 1996 novel Of Wee Sweetie Mice and Men, described Belfast shortly after the mid-1990s peace deal.  The metaphor Bateman used for the newly-negotiated peace that suddenly pervaded the long-suffering city of Belfast was of a ‘skin’ resting on a ‘rancid custard’.  Tunisia’s current calm does feel about as fragile as a custard skin, and the mass of political, economic and social worries it sits upon is pretty unappetising too.

 

So – what has happened here since the dust settled following Chokri Belaid’s funeral?

 

Firstly, Tunisia has got a new government, although it’s composed of the same three parties as the previous government: Ennahdha (the main player), Ettakatol and the Congress for the Republic (the junior partners).  Negotiations to widen the government’s appeal by bringing more opposition parties on board failed.  What is different now is that three ministries that had been in Ennahdha’s control have been handed over to politically ‘neutral’ ministers.  These three ministries include the Ministry of the Interior, which had previously been the responsibility of Ali Larayedh, who is now Tunisia’s new prime minister.  (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21711345; http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/08/prime-minister-designate-names-members-of-new-cabinet/.)  It’s fair to say that during his stint as Minister of the Interior Larayedh did not cover himself in glory, so many people here aren’t holding their breath for the success of his premiership.  Indeed, most Tunisian people no longer seem to be holding their breath about any improvement in their national politics, a state of disillusionment described in the following article:  http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/08/survey-finds-low-levels-of-trust-for-political-leaders/.  (A Tunisian journalist I spoke to recently said flatly that if he’d known how things were going to pan out, he’d never have participated in the revolution two years ago.)

 

From www.alvinet.com

 

I’m no expert on Tunisian politics but, as an outsider looking in at this new government, I can’t see how Ennahdha has benefited at all.  If they really did wish to encourage more political parties into the coalition, they’ve failed.  At the same time, they can’t claim to have consolidated or garnered any more power for themselves, since they’ve given away control of three ministries.  And only a few weeks ago, when former prime minister Hamadi Jebali proposed a non-political government of ‘technocrats’, Ennahdha said a firm ‘no’ to him, causing Jebali to pack his bags.  Yet now, a good-sized chunk of the government is in the hands of political neutrals, which makes you wonder why they bothered to argue with Jebali at all.

 

Meanwhile, three days ago, a 27-year-old man called Adel Khadri set himself on fire on the steps of the National Theatre on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in central Tunis.  By the time the flames had been put out, Khadri had suffered burns to 90% of his body. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-21767594; http://mg.co.za/article/2013-03-13-man-dies-in-tunisia-after-setting-himself-alight/; http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/13/tunisian-street-vendor-dies-morning-after-self-immolation/.)  Depending on which newspaper account of the incident you read, he did this in despair about unemployment in Tunisia or as a protest against the harassment he’d suffered from police officers whist trying to eke a living on the Tunis streets as a cigarette vendor.   Khadri’s actions echoed those of Mohamed Bouazizi in late 2010, whose self-immolation is credited with triggering the Tunisian revolution and by extension the whole Arab Spring.

 

Although instances of self-immolation have not been uncommon among unemployed, poverty-stricken and at-the-end-of-their-tether Tunisian men over the last two years – the BBC news website ran a feature about the phenomenon a while ago: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-16526462 — these have generally happened in less-well known towns in the country’s interior.  But this most recent case happened in the middle of the most public and most photographed street in the capital.  Within hours, pictures of Khadri during the incident’s aftermath, badly burned and clearly in a state of severe shock, were appearing on press websites around the world.

 

Despite being rushed to hospital – the same hospital, ironically, where Bouazizi had died two years earlier – Khadri passed away the next day.  By a grim coincidence, he died just hours before Larayedh’s new government was approved by the National Constituent Assembly.

 

If Khadri’s self-immolation reminded Tunisians of what’d happened just before the revolution (and made them wonder if things had actually improved since then), another recent incident also suggested that Tunisia hadn’t changed much for the better.  A video for a song called Cops are Dogs by a rapper called Weld El 15 came to the attention of the song’s targets, the Tunisian police force, who last Sunday arrested the video’s director and an actress who appeared in it.  Both were accused of breaking Act 125 of the Tunisian penal code, which forbids the population from insulting ‘civil servants’.  The last I heard, Weld El 15 was still at large and had no intention of handing himself in, for the understandable reason that he reckoned the police would beat the stuffing out of him when they got their hands on him.  (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2013/03/12/tunisian-artists-arrested-over-cops-are-dogs-rap-video/; http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130312/tunisia-detains-two-over-anti-police-rap-video-0.)

 

Reading about Weld El 15 gave me a feeling of deja-vu, since his story echoed what’d happened to the Sfax-based rapper Hamada Ben-Amor just before the revolution.  Back at the beginning of 2011, Ben-Amour’s song President, Your People Are Dying led to him being hauled off by policemen loyal to Tunisia’s then ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2011/01/20111718360234492.html).  The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

 

Still, I don’t want this entry to be wholly depressing, so I’ll finish by mentioning one Tunisian news story that cheered me up recently.  It was about students at the Bourguiba Language Institute in Tunis, who late last month tried to film themselves dancing to the Harlem Shake – something that about 90% of the world’s population seems to have done in recent weeks.  Some local Salafists, evidently not fans of the Harlem Shake nor, I would guess, of anything involving music, dancing, fun, laughter or general human spontaneity, invaded the campus in order to stop the filming – and the students, deciding to fight for their right to party, promptly chased those Salafists away again.  (http://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2013/02/80247/salafists-fail-to-stop-harlem-shake-in-tunisia/; http://www.juancole.com/2013/02.)  Yes, there’s hope for the young generation of Tunisia yet.

 

Sixteen modern British horrors

 

As promised in my last entry, here are my sixteen favourite examples of the NWOBHM.  And no, I’m not talking about the New Wave of British Heavy Metal that spawned the likes of Iron Maiden, Def Leppard and Judas Priest in the 1970s: I mean the New Wave of British Horror Movies that’s been a fixture of the British film industry from 1997 onwards.

 

Ravenous (1999).  As an American-British-Czech co-production, Ravenous is at best a borderline British film, though plenty of British talent worked on it – director Antonia Bird, actor Robert Carlyle, composer Michael Nyman and musician Damon Albarn, the latter two providing the film’s unsettling banjo, horn and drum theme (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-9n0EAJve8).  You could also argue whether it’s really a horror film, as it’s equally a western and a comedy (of the blackest hue).  Guy Pearce plays a veteran of the 1840s Mexican-American War who’s re-assigned to a remote military fort in the Sierra Nevada mountains.  One winter’s night, a near-frozen Carlyle staggers into the fort with a horrible tale to tell.  He was a member of a wagon train making its way through the mountains that got marooned in the snow.  The pioneers took refuge in a cave and once their conventional food supplies ran out, the more ruthless among them started to eat their weaker companions.  Taking Carlyle at his word, the soldiers head off to find the cave and put an end to the cannibalistic madness.  What they find when they get there, though, is not what they’d expected.

 

The first half of Ravenous is brilliantly unnerving, but once Pearce and company arrive at the cave the film becomes increasingly comedic – probably because director Bird has nowhere else to take the horror.  Indeed, as Carlyle tries to wean Pearce onto the pleasures of eating human flesh, it turns into a satire about the Ubermensch of Nietzschean philosophy and the dog-eat-dog nature of American capitalism, both of which would come soon after the film’s mid-19th century setting.

 

The Hole (2001).  As the current British government consists of nothing but rich, privileged products of the country’s private-school system, I suspect if I viewed The Hole again today I’d get an extra frisson of pleasure from it.  It tells how a group of full-of-themselves boarding-school brats, who include Thora Birch and Keira Knightly, skive off a study trip by hacking into their school’s computer and removing their names from the trip-records.  Instead, they steal away to an abandoned underground bunker close to the school grounds, planning to hide there and party for the few days while the trip takes place.  Of course, once they descend into the bunker, they get themselves locked in – and nobody knows that they’re there.  Thereafter, things get unpleasantly icky for the obnoxious little gits.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

The Last Great Wilderness (2002).  Scottish director David Mackenzie’s first film is another one that’s a weird hybrid.  It may qualify as a horror film but then again, it may not – although parts of it evoke a certain, much-admired British horror movie of the 1970s.  Also, when I thought the plot over afterwards, I realised it did contain one genuinely supernatural element.  Alastair Mackenzie and Jonathan Philips play a pair of misfits who get lost in the Scottish Highlands.  They wind up at a mysterious lodge run by that fine Scottish character actor David Hayman, which is home to a commune of people suffering from psychological disorders: agoraphobia, nymphomania, etc.  Also, the commune-members are preparing for an upcoming pagan celebration, which seems to involve a large bonfire…  Among its offbeat pleasures, The Last Great Wilderness features a rare latter-day appearance by the great Glaswegian indie band The Pastels.

 

Dog Soldiers (2002).  Geordie director Neil Marshall put himself on the horror-movie map with this rude, crude but enjoyable film wherein a military unit on manoeuvres in the Scottish Highlands (again) find themselves stalked, and then laid siege to in a farmhouse, by a pack of werewolves.  What gives the film its unique flavour is the fact that the down-to-earth English soldiers seem more concerned about the result of an England-Germany football match taking place that same evening than they are about fighting off the marauding werewolves.  (I find it unlikely, though, that the unit’s resident Scotsman, played by Trainspotting’s Kevin McKidd, isn’t supporting the Germans.)  The film contains the best line of dialogue uttered by a werewolf victim in cinema history: “I hope I give you the shits.”

 

28 Days Later (2002): Taking as its cue the various ‘rages’ that’d entered Britain’s vocabulary by the early 21st century – road rage, air rage, shopping-trolley rage – Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic horror explores what happens when a virus engineered as a biological form of rage, which transforms its hosts into wrathful, slavering, hyperactive monsters, escapes from a laboratory.  Many people see the film as a landmark in zombie-movie history because it supposedly ups the danger quotient by having, for the first time, zombies that run.  They don’t just lumber around at two miles an hour and moan pathetically.  However, this annoys me because the zombies in 28 Days Later aren’t actually zombies at all.  They aren’t undead – they’re unwell, though horribly so.  (And to be honest, since then, those decomposing, back-from-the-grave zombies who’ve bounded around like they’ve eaten too much sugar in films like Zombieland and the remake of Dawn of the Dead have struck me as being daft.)

 

I was living in Newcastle-upon-Tyne when the Tyneside, the local art-house cinema, held a preview for 28 Days Later, which I attended.  Both Boyle and scriptwriter Alex Garland were there, introducing the film and answering questions afterwards.  I wanted to query them about the assumption in their plot that if the uninfected humans can stay alive for long enough, all the infected people around them, so murderously berserk they don’t even bother to eat, will eventually starve to death.  “If they’re too crazy to eat, surely they’re too crazy to drink as well,” I wanted to ask Danny and Alex.  “So shouldn’t they die a lot sooner, from thirst?”  But not wanting to piss off the future mastermind of the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, I kept my mouth shut.

 

Dead Man’s Shoes (2004).  Another movie that I classify as a horror film, though it mightn’t really be a horror film at all, Shane Meadows’ revenge melodrama has Paddy Considine playing an ex-soldier who returns to his north-of-England hometown during the sweltering heat of summer, to punish a gang of shaven-headed, beer-bellied and crap-moustached hoodlums for humiliating and tormenting his mentally-handicapped brother.  Considine’s campaign of vengeance begins in a low-key and even comic manner – painting the gang-members’ faces when they’re passed out drunk, for example – but it escalates and becomes deadly.  Then, near the end, there’s a twist that gives you a disturbing new perspective on the lead protagonist.

 

From www.ukmovieposters.co.uk

 

Mark E. Smith, main-man with the surreal, ever-mutating and never-ending Manchester alternative rock band The Fall, says this about Dead Man’s Shoes in his autobiography Renegade: “it isn’t your average idea of Britain.  It’s not Notting Hill or Hugh Grant, and it’s not even Mike Leigh or Ken Loach…  I like the way it captures Britain in the summertime, when some people don’t have enough money to go on holiday and they spend most of their time drinking or doing drugs: walling themselves off…  You can see it in the pubs; men who’ve been out all in the day in the sun with big red faces you could fry an egg on, bruised complexions, looking at you.”

 

Shaun of the Dead (2004).  The one film of the new British horror-movie boom that’s already treated as a bona-fide classic, Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s much-loved comedy investigates how Britain’s boozy, computer-gaming 20-somethings would react to a George Romero-style zombie emergency.  Its conclusions?  (1) Initially, they’d be too hungover to notice what was happening.  (2) Their gaming skills would come in handy when fighting the zombies off.  But (3) they’d still end up in the pub.  Incidentally, Simon Pegg shares my disdain for running zombies, as this article he wrote for the Guardian five years ago makes clear: http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/nov/04/television-simon-pegg-dead-set.

 

The Descent (2005).  Neil Marshall’s follow-up to Dog Soldiers employs the same premise – a group of people in a remote area menaced by a monstrous foe – but The Descent is far more polished, serious and convincing.  This time, the group are a band of female potholers who enter a little-known cave system in the backwoods of the Appalachians (although the film was shot in the somewhat less wild environs of Buckinghamshire) and gradually realise that they aren’t alone.  The film is at its most frightening in its early stages, as the party make their way through the dark and claustrophobic caves and get hints that something might be in those caves with them, i.e. when the audience use their own imaginations, which can summon up things far worse than what any special-effects or make-up man is capable of.  Inevitably, once the monsters are revealed – hairless humanoid ‘crawlers’ that resemble Gollum after botched plastic surgery – the film becomes less chilling.  But Marshall still does a good job of orchestrating the action to the film’s numbingly downbeat ending.  (At least the ending was downbeat in UK cinemas – I understand the ending of the US version was tinkered with.)

 

Severance (2006).  I didn’t think much of director Christopher Smith’s debut horror film, 2004’s Creep, which was about something monstrous stalking the tunnels of the London Underground and was basically a remake of the 1972 classic Deathline.  While Deathline contained a lot of pathos, courtesy of a lonely and sympathetic Frankenstein-style monster, Creep was just plain brutal.  However, Severance is much better.  It takes several harassed and bickering British office workers (white-collar types who at the time were very familiar to British viewers, thanks to the success of Ricky Gervais’ sitcom The Office) and sends them on a team-building trip to the forests of Eastern Europe – where, in the style of the Walter Hill classic Southern Comfort, they find themselves being hunted down by the murderous khaki-clad members of a mysterious fascist militia.  Severance is as brutal as Creep, but it’s also very amusing, thanks to some good jokes and to the efforts of its cast, which includes Tim McInnery, Laura Harris, Toby Stephens, Andy Nyman and Danny Dyer.  (Wow, I have just written a sentence that contains the words ‘amusing’, ‘good’ and ‘Danny Dyer’.  I’d never expected that to happen.)

 

28 Weeks Later (2007).  Like all good zombie movies (although as I’ve said, the infected people in it aren’t really zombies) Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s sequel to 28 Days Later resonates with what was happening in the real world at the time.  It has the US Army occupying Britain after the epidemic of the earlier film.  The Americans place the survivors in a safe part of London called the Green Zone, their efforts to end the contagion actually lead to it spreading among those who were hitherto uninfected, and their firepower ends up killing friend and foe alike.  Of course, that’s all that George Bush, Dick Cheney, Tony Blair and company managed to achieve in Iraq.

 

Eden Lake (2008).  James Watkins’ gruelling horror thriller is about a young middle-class couple – smug yuppie Michael Fassbinder and his fragrant girlfriend Laura Reilly – spending a weekend at an English countryside beauty-spot.  Their peace is disturbed when a group of yobbish local children intrude.  In the tradition of such things, the antagonism between the couple and the children escalates into violence, torture and murder.  Commentators on both the left and right have condemned Eden Lake for peddling class stereotypes – cosmopolitan middle-class Guardian-readers, nice; tattooed working-class Sun-readers, nasty – but it taps effectively into a common fear.  Fassbender really doesn’t want to confront the kids, but feels compelled to do so in order to maintain his sense of authority, and when they don’t kowtow to him as an adult, he’s really put on the spot.  A million teachers around the world doubtless know the feeling.

 

From www.standard.co.uk

 

My one problem with the film is about its accuracy.  I grew up in the UK countryside and the kids depicted here – hip-hopping, bling-wearing and belonging to at least three different ethnic groups – are not the sort of kids you’d find living in a rural area.  They behave like they’ve just been bussed in from some hard-pressed city estate.  (Maybe their parents won the National Lottery and were suddenly able to buy properties out in the countryside?)

 

Mum and Dad (2008).  The debut of director David Sheil, Mum and Dad is both satirical, as it examines the mores of a suburban English family who turn out to be whackos; and topical, as it has as its lead character a Polish immigrant in Britain (played by Olga Fedori) who makes a living, just about, cleaning toilets at Heathrow Airport.  When Fedori misses the last bus one night, two of her workmates, a friendly but decidedly weird brother and sister, persuade her to come home with them – they live in a house on the edge of a runway.  Thereafter, she finds herself imprisoned by ‘Mum and Dad’, a middle-aged couple who get off on pornography, torture and killing.  Besides the film’s warped social commentary, I like its setting.  Often I’ve been on board a plane approaching an airport and, looking down at the houses huddling just beyond the asphalted plains of its runways, I’ve wondered, “Who actually lives there?”

 

Colin (2009).  A horror movie telling the story of a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie, the titular and hapless Colin, this film became a cause celebre when director Marc Price told the press he’d made it for £45.  Well, it is micro-budgeted, though I suspect his claim that it cost £45 is a bit of an exaggeration.  While the financial constraints result in the occasional longeur – I doubt very much that if this happened in reality, humans would be out on the streets fighting the zombies by firing catapults at them – they often work in the film’s favour, because Price is forced to tell his story as economically and ingeniously as possible.  A good example is when we see a house’s windows covered with newspaper pages – the headlines on those pages tell us how the apocalypse developed, so that Price doesn’t have to show any of this himself.

 

Attack the Block (2011).  Eden Lake was an example of the British sub-genre of ‘hoodie-horror’, which exploits the phobias that Daily Mail readers and their ilk have about an increasingly delinquent younger generation.  Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block smartly inverts this by having as its heroes a band of delinquent kids on a London council estate who fight off an alien invasion.  On Bonfire Night, an alien creature drops out of the sky and into the estate, which the kids – being kids – promptly beat to death.  Then, however, a host of much bigger aliens, composed of shaggy black hair, fang-filled maws and little else, drop out of the sky too.  It transpires that the first alien was a female and the newcomers are males, drawn to her scent and prepared to tear apart anything that gets in their way.  Unbeknownst to the kids (because it’s invisible unless exposed to ultraviolet light), they’re now splattered with a pheromone containing the scent.

 

Viewers over the age of 18 will struggle to follow the kids’ patois (“Bro, da aliens ’uv merked da Feds!”) but they’ll enjoy the adult supporting cast.  This includes Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost as the local drug-dealer, whose fortified weed-growing greenhouse turns out to be the block’s safest location, and Luke Treadaway as a weed-smoking yuppie who overestimates his own street credibility – his attempts to parley with the kids in their own street-lingo do not impress.

 

From en.wikipedia.org 

 

Kill List (2011).  This starts off like a Mike Leigh film, with two men, played by Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley, sitting down for dinner with their respective wife and girlfriend.  Excruciating social embarrassment ensues when Maskell loses his rag at his wife for serving the gravy in a clunky Pyrex jug.  (Like Leigh, director Ben Wheatley encourages his actors and actresses to improvise during filming.)  Then the tone changes as the two men prove to be hit-men, and Smiley persuades Maskell to undertake one more job as a way of ending his money worries.  They find themselves travelling around the country, assassinating people on a ‘kill-list’ at the behest of a strange crime syndicate.  But stranger things start happening – their victims, instead of attempting to flee or plead for their lives, welcome them with gratitude – and the film takes a further swerve, into places really dark and disturbing.  A combination of Leigh, Guy Richie and David Lynch, and also informed by one of British horror cinema’s greatest traditions, Kill List is not for people who like to have their stories tied up at the end with neat conclusions.  But if you’re broad-minded, it’s very good indeed.

 

The Woman in Black (2012).  It’s fitting to conclude with the film that (1) has grossed more money than any other British horror movie since 1997, and (2) has marked the return to high-profile film-making by Hammer, the studio that gave rise to the British horror-movie genre in the 1950s.  The Woman in Black isn’t perfect.  Jane Goldman’s script (based on the novel by Susan Hill) is overladen with incident, though this is a failing that many of the old Hammer horror movies had too.  And it’s clear that much of its box-office success was due not to its quality, but to the presence in its cast of the former Harry Potter, Daniel Radcliffe.  Mind you, I thought Radcliffe was pretty good in his role here.

 

However, director James Watkins invests the scenes where Radcliffe wanders around the corridors of the ominous Eel Marsh House with genuine creepiness.  And I like the concept of the woman in black herself.  As a ghost, she’s utterly malevolent and not-to-be-bargained-with.  And as such – ironically for a studio as deeply British as Hammer – she has less to do with the traditional British ghost stories of, say, Charles Dickens or M.R. James than she has with the vicious supernatural entities that populate the Japanese horror cinema.

 

From www.behance.vo.llnwed.net

 

For a website about modern British horror films, here’s the blog of writer M.J. Simpson: http://british-horror-revival.blogspot.co.uk/.  Whereas if you prefer the older examples of the genre, good, bad and ridiculous, Chris Wood’s British Horror Films website is the place for you: http://www.britishhorrorfilms.co.uk/.

 

British horror movies

 

The problem I had with British horror films was that just as I really got into them, they stopped making them.

 

It happened when I was 13 or 14.   British television – which back then consisted of three terrestrial channels, BBC1, BBC2 and ITV – got the broadcasting rights for a horde of horror films made in the late 1960s and early-to-mid-1970s by British studios that specialised in the genre, such as Hammer, Amicus and Tigon.  These were shown on TV late on Friday or Saturday nights and in the space of a couple of years I must have seen close on a hundred of them.  Regardless of whether its offerings were good, bad or indifferent, I became addicted to this particular wing of the British film industry.  And those actors and actresses who regularly worked in it – Donald Pleasance, Michael Gough, Ingrid Pitt, Barbara Shelley, Herbert Lom, Ralph Bates, Michael Ripper and of course, the legendary triumvirate of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and Vincent Price – became so familiar to me that eventually they seemed like old friends.

 

Today, many of these old British films are regarded as classics by fans of the genre – Plague of the Zombies, Scream and Scream Again, Blood on Satan’s Claw, House of Mortal Sin, Frankenstein must be Destroyed, From Beyond the Grave, Deathline, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Twins of Evil, The Creeping Flesh, Frightmare, Theatre of Blood – and even sniffy mainstream film critics would have to concede that a few of them are quality productions by anyone’s standards: The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, The Innocents, The Devil Rides Out, Don’t Look Now and Hammer’s 1958 version of Dracula (which has just been re-released in a sumptuous three-disc blu-ray version: http://www.cathoderaytube.co.uk/2013/02/british-cult-classics-dracula-3-disc.html).  There are also several that scarcely qualify as good films in any technical or aesthetic sense of the term, but somehow manage to be fascinating through a schlocky joie de vivre (or joie de mourir): Jack Cardiff’s lurid The Mutations, Don Sharpe’s motorcycle-gang-returns-from-the-grave epic Psychomania and Anthony Balch’s spectacularly unsavoury Horror Hospital, which I understand is a favourite of Quentin Tarantino – that doesn’t surprise me, somehow.

 

From en.wikipedia.org

 

That said, a lot of them are just so bad they’re bloody awful: Scars of Dracula, The Deadly Bees, Trog, The Blood Beast Terror, Horror of Frankenstein, The Haunted House of Horror, Curse of the Crimson Altar, The Comeback and Holocaust 2000, to name but an ignoble few.

 

Ironically, while I was discovering them on TV, the British film industry that’d once pumped these horror movies out like machine-gun bullets was in its death-throes.  1981, for example, saw just 24 films of any type made in Britain, which must have been the lowest total since the early days of the silent era.  The Eady Levy, a tax on British cinema box-office receipts that went towards the funding of indigenous films and that helped keep low-budget horror filmmakers in business, was phased out by Margaret Thatcher’s new Conservative government, disdainful of measures that smelt of ‘un-competitiveness’ and ‘subsidies’.  I read a story somewhere claiming that one of Thatcher’s ministers had strolled through London’s Soho district one night and been horrified by the number of British sex films showing in the porn-cinemas there, which had been funded by the levy – and that was the end of it.

 

Even if you scraped together enough money in the 1980s to make a British film, you wouldn’t attempt to make a horror one, such was the hostility towards the genre in Britain at the time.  The early-1980s ‘video nasties’ hysteria had convinced politicians and tabloid newspapers that movies like The Evil Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters were capable of turning impressionable young viewers into drooling psychopaths who’d carry out copycat acts of limb-chopping and cannibalism.

 

Also, Britain’s film-reviewing establishment of that era – which included newspaper critics like the Evening Standard’s Alexander Walker, the BBC’s critic-in-chief Barry Norman, and Leslie Halliwell, whose yearly tome Halliwell’s Filmgoers’ Companion was the most widely-read film guide in the country – were a priggish and snobbish bunch who believed that the British cinema should only consist of worthy historical epics like Chariots of Fire and A Room with a View, with the occasional lefty kitchen-sink drama like Letter to Breshnev thrown in for a bit of subversion.  Anything requiring them to stretch their imaginations beyond their narrow, pre-programmed settings, such as Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or Neil Jordan’s The Company of Wolves, was treated with polite puzzlement and didn’t get proper critical acclaim until years later.  And obviously, they hated horror films.

 

Barry Norman, incidentally, recently published a list of his 49 greatest British films in the Radio Times (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/film-news/9849000/Barry-Normans-list-of-49-best-films.html).  His list included just one British horror film, which was the 1958 Dracula.  I have to admit, though, that this was one horror film more than I’d expect Norman to include.

 

A couple of British horrors saw the light of day during the Thatcher years, including Clive Barker’s ground-breaking Hellraiser (which was predictably but depressingly slagged off by Barry Norman on his TV review show), Bernard Rose’s neglected Paperhouse, and Tobe Hooper’s gloriously bonkers Lifeforce, which had Matilda May playing a statuesque space vampire who stalks around London and the English Home Counties draining the inhabitants of their life-energy – something she undertakes with an admirable single-mindedness, to the point where she doesn’t even bother to pause and put on some clothes.  But generally, the British horror-movie industry had gone the same way as the British shipbuilding industry, coal industry, steel industry and all the other heavy industries that were deemed obsolete in Mrs T’s brave new economic world.

 

From ang.wikipedia.org

(c) The Guardian

 

However, like Dracula at the end of the 1958 Hammer movie – it took Hammer seven years to figure out to bring him back to life, but they finally managed it for 1965’s Dracula Prince of Darkness – the British horror film wasn’t really dead.  It just appeared that way.  I first noticed that the corpse was stirring again in the late 1990s, as horror movies with British settings and themes began to be mentioned with increasing regularity in the film pages of the national press – though they were invariably unheralded and low-budget and the reviews they got consisted of no more than a few lines.  And to be honest, most of them were not very good – Darklands, Proteus, Razor Blade Smile, Wisdom of Crocodiles, Reign of Fire, Deathwatch, Long Time Dead…  But at least somebody in Britain was making them again.

 

In fact, what was happening was the start of a British horror-movie renaissance, one that has continued to the present.  This new wave of British horror is now the subject of a book, Urban Terrors, written by the film journalist and scriptwriter M.J. Simpson, which examines 114 British horror movies made between 1997 and 2008.  (http://www.starburstmagazine.com/reviews/book-reviews-latest-literary-releases/4253-book-review-urban-terrors-new-british-horror-cinema-1997-2008; http://british-horror-revival.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/urban-terrors-list-of-contents.html).  Simpson limits his survey to just over a decade and makes 2008 the cut-off point because, I suspect, British horror films have now become so plentiful that he didn’t have room to include any more.  Indeed, in the book’s epilogue, it’s claimed that another 114 horror films were made in the UK between 2009 and 2011 alone (which is especially impressive considering that if you counted 114 films backwards from 1997 on a British-horror-movie timeline, you’d arrive at 1972).

 

In my next blog-entry, I’ll provide a guide to my own favourite British horror films made since 1997 – sixteen of them in all, one for each of the sixteen years since the second British horror-movie boom started.