Wednesday, 23 December 2009


There'll be parties for hosting
Marshmallows for toasting
And carolling out in the snow
There'll be scary ghost stories
And tales of the glories of
Christmases long, long ago…
So sang Andy Williams back in 1963 in the festive hit ‘It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’, and indeed Christmas has always been a time for spooky yarns, with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol being both the most famous Christmas tale and the most famous ghost story of all time. However the tradition no doubt dates back further into the mists of history, for what better time of year is there to gather around the fire and tell tales of revenants and spectres than when the days are shortest and the nights cold and long.

However aside from Dickens and the myriad versions of his classic that abound, one of the greatest authors of ghostly fiction, M.R. James shares a strong link with the Yuletide festivities. Indeed the majority of his weird fiction was written to be read aloud upon a Christmas evening, with the lights are low, the fire banked, and the port doing the rounds. Of course the rise of the idiot lantern largely spelt the end of storytelling as a common social activity. However all was not lost, as television in the UK has frequently revived the festive tale of terror, and frequently in the guise of works if not by the good doctor himself, then certainly inspired by his writings. So settle back in your favourite armchair and join me for a look at the spine chillers of Christman Past...

Our journey begins, oddly enough with an edition of the BBC’s arts documentary show Omnibus screened on the 7th of May 1968. Previously there had been other adaptations of some of James’ tales on both British and American TV, however none of these had screened over the Christmas season. And none packed the wallop of ‘pleasing terror’ that the Omnibus film Whistle And I’ll Come To You did. Directed by Dr Jonathan Miller, this short terrified TV viewers and was so successful that it is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the subsequent A Ghost Story For Christmas strand of festive programming.

Based upon based on James’ Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, and starring the highly respected actor Michael Horden, this short film still stands up as one of the best of all the James adaptions and quite rightly regularly turns up with a respectable placing in most frightening moments countdowns to this very day. Beautifully shot in moody black and white, Whistle captures the essence of M.R. James perfectly – the period setting, brooding landscapes, suspect antiquities, and the learned fellow who falls afoul of malevolent supernatural forces.

Now the gentle reader may be wondering why this piece aired as part of the Omnibus series – a show that usually featured documentaries on the arts. Part of the answer lies in the fact that this was the age when television becoming more experimental in general, but in the main the reason is that Miller’s film is not just an adaptation of James’ story but also a critique of it at the same time. Miller has stated in interviews that he finds the gentlemen’s club atmosphere of James' stories, reeking of port and stilton, and populated by middle and upper class chaps somewhat cloying.

And in the spirit of so many politically conscious sorts who were decrying the class system in the late ‘60s, in spite of belonging to the ruling classes they despised, he therefore chose to deliberately emphasise certain aspects of the story. Parkins, the lead character, is portrayed as the almost stereotypical upper class twit of the bumbling academic variety. He is shown to be self absorbed and insulated from ‘real’ life by his scholarly and privileged background. And the haunting itself may be read as a psychological breakdown of this fusty, repressed fellow intead of an encounter with some dire spectral being.

And it is an approach that works marvellously, with the story operating on several levels at once seamlessly. And whether you favour the social/psychological interpretation or whether you prefer to take the piece as a straight traditional ghost story, it is equally effective either way. But in truth, the reason why this film works so well on multiple levels is less to do with Miller’s intelligent academic spin on the tale than elements that were actually already there.

Firstly, it should be noted that this blurring of psychological and supernatural events in already present in many of James’ tales. Miller may have thought he was doing something radical here but in fact the “was it a ghost or something in his own mind” trope is a surprisingly old spin of the ghost story. Indeed as far back as the 1870s, Sheridan le Fanu was penning tales that offered the same options of interpretation, Green Tea being perhaps the famous example. And tellingly, James believed le Fanu to be the master of the supernatural tale, editing Madame Crowl’s Ghost & Other Tales of Mystery the definitive collection of le Fanu’s short weird fiction.

Secondly, although a cursorory glance at his biography may suggest that James was exactly the kind of crusty old scholar he so often wrote about, the truth is somewhat different. Although it is true that James never strayed far from the halls of academia and was prodigiously erudite, there was more to Monty (as his friends knew him) than a socially awkward fellow lost to the wider world in a dusty bubble universe of books, monographs and brass rubbings. He was a keen traveller, a bicycle enthusiast, member of numerous clubs and a lover of games of all kinds; in fact Monty was so gregarious, friends and colleagues were amazed how he found the time to conduct all his socialising and gaming and yet still pursue his academic works with impressive rigour.

In the light of this, one begins to realise that the bibliophile fogies and the stolid antiquarians that feature so often as his protagonists are not as Miller assumes, exercises in veiled autobiography, but are likely drawn from real people Monty encountered during his life. And it’s worth remembering that his tales were written to be read aloud to an audience of his peers, and hence there is a great deal of wit and humour in James’ tales. So it’s not a stretch to imagine that some of his characters would be in fact caricatures, subtley ribbing figures well known to his audience.

However, none of the above detracts from the film itself, and indeed Miller may be forgiven his ignorance of both the history of the ghost story and James himself as at the time legitimate literary attention had not been paid to either. Furthermore, it may be argued that in making Whistle And I’ll Come To You, Miller brought James’ works back into both the critical and the public consciousness, in much the same way Nigel Kneale’s BBC adaptation of 1984 elevated awareness of Orwell’s seminal political sci-fi novel.

It is a truly wonderful piece of film making. Horden’s performance is simply superb and Miller’s direction is flawless, delivering beautifully composed shots that play with light and shadow, and scenes that are exceedingly uncanny. And seemingly, in blowing that ancient whistle Horden and Miller not only called forth that spectre with the “intensely horrible face of crumpled linen” but also a host of other malign spirits from the vasty deep...

And lo, three years later on Christmas Eve, viewers were treated to a new James adaption – this time of The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. Helmed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, Stalls is a wonderful version of Monty’s tale, drawing on the considerable expertise of the BBC drama department – and on televison at the time, no one did period pieces better than the Beeb. This time shot in colour, Clark perfectly presents the tale of a clergyman troubled by some curious wooden carvings.

The production was a great success and Clark was called back to produce another tale for the following year. And so the Ghost Story For Christmas series was born. But furthermore, Clark’s lush rendition of Robert Hardy being tormented by the vengeful dead obviously hit a chord as 1972 turned out to be a bumper years for festive supernatural telly...

First out of the gate, on Bonfire Night (November 5th), was Don Taylor’s The Exorcism. This short teleplay was screened as part of the anthology series Dead of Night and tells the story of a couple celebrating Christmas with a couple of friends in their newly renovated rural cottage. However the original inhabitants of the farm house are less than impressed by the new, higher class tenants...

Now not only is The Exorcism rather scary – and again often turns up in lists of terrifying TV – but also it is somewhat unusual as it may be one of the only Marxist ghost stories ever produced! It’s a superb piece of 70s television, as equally grounded in the serious drama tradition as it is in the supernatural genre, and its mix of class concerns and ghosts work wonderfully well together, giving it a weight of intelligence we see too rarely in television these days.

Christmas Eve the same year, also brought the return of Lawrence Gordon Clark and A Ghost Story For Christmas, this time with a version of A Warning To The Curious. Here we have the story of Paxton (Peter Vaughan) who is searching the wilds of East Anglia for a long lost Saxon crown. Although still very faithful to the original, here Clark has modified the ghostly manifestations; rather than the more elemental and nebulous apparitions found in James’ story, Clark opts for portraying the ghost as the watchful spirit of a rustic farmer. And it’s a concept that works well for the screen, with Clark making excellent use of the windswept East Anglia landscapes in which the silhouette of the guardian of the crown appears.

Plus this story and its adaption have inspired a rather wonderful little tribute site by Dark Fall creator Jonathan Boakes – check it out here.

The final part of '72's triumvirate of terror came on Christmas Day night, courtesy of director Peter Sadsy and Nigel Kneale. Like much of Kneale’s work, The Stone Tape explores the point where science fiction meets the supernatural, with all his usual thought provoking finesse. The story concerns a group of scientists who set up in an old manor house to research new recording mediums only to discover that the ancient building has a few recordings of its own...

Yet again this television film is famous for terrifying audiences down the years and still packs a punch today. However like Kneale’s other works, such as the Quatermass quartet and Beasts, its real power lies within the intellectual and imaginative meat he places on the bones of genre hokum.

Christmas Day the following year saw Lawrence Gordon Clark tackling another James classic, this time his first ever short story Lost Hearts. By now Clark had the director’s chair permanently for A Ghost Story For Christmas, and yet again he delivers the goods. Now there are a great many works of weird fiction that feature spooky infants, indeed it’s almost a sub genre in its own right, however Lost Hearts features some of the most haunting of all child ghosts. And Clark brings them to life perfectly and, unusually for TV of the period, even gets away with including the explicit gore that features in Monty’s original.

The 23rd of December saw yet more James via Clark. This tale features the kind of antiquarian puzzle solving that The Da Vinci Code has turned into a genre all of its own, with a clergy man unravelling the clues to a cache of riches secreted by one of his predecessors. By apart from ancient riddles, this adaption also features a very faithful portrayal of one of James’ typically elemental spirits.

One of the key features that distinguish Monty’s works from the rank and file of typical ghost stories is his conception of the supernatural forces he invokes. Rarely are his ghosts simply the appearance of some one long passed on; often they are insubstantial shapes, beastly chimera or demonic forces. And even when they do appear to be deceased humans, they are nearly always malformed or horribly altered in some fashion. And The Treasure of Abbot Thomas brings such an indescribable ghoul to the screen in grand style.

Upon the same day the next year, Clark brought us his version of The Ash-Tree, a tale of 17th century witchery and revenge. Clark’s conception of the witch’s familiars are truly freakish and disturbing – seriously if you have a phobia of long legged beasties you might want to give this one a miss!

This year saw a departure from the norm, with instead of the usual serving of Monty, we had a vintage slice of Dickens, featuring his other great ghostly work other than A Christmas CarolNo. 1 Branch Line The Signal-Man. Starring the late great Denholm Elliot, who turns in a spectacular performance as the troubled railway man, this is probably my favourite in all the Ghost Story For Christmas series. Not only does it bring Dickens’ memorable tale to screen in masterful style but it does that oh-so-rare thing, it surpasses the original. Somehow the story’s twist end plays out better on the screen and Clark conjures up some striking scenes with a spectral steam engine that linger in the memory a long time after the credits roll.


Having successfully broke away from James’ canon the previous year, these last two entries in the series saw a further departure. These tales are set in the modern day and feature original teleplays not based on any existing work. Now to my mind, this was a serious misstep, and indeed they spelt the end of the BBC tradition of producing A Ghost Story For Christmas every year.

Although not without merit, and directed with all the flair we’d come to expect from Clark, somehow they fail to engage the imagination in the same way and lean too closely into the winds of psychodrama popular at the time. Whereas previous episodes had delivered solid spooky chills, this brace of tales more often invoke general weirdness than any legitimate ghostliness. Of the two, The Ice House works best, with its disturbing oddness recalling the ‘strange stories’ of Robert Aickman. However one cannot help feeling that if they had continued to dip into the library of classic weird fiction and tackled the likes of le Fanu, LP Hartley or H. Russell Wakefield then possibly the series could have continued for several more years with ease.

But although Auntie Beeb had given up the ghost, Lawrence Gordon Clark wasn’t quite finished yet. April 1979 saw him bring another James classic to the screen, this time for the ITV Play House series. Now despite this airing in spring rather than around Christmas, Casting The Runes merits a place in this round up of Yule terrors, as in addition to being directed by a past master of the form, the story itself is set in the deep of winter.

Like the previous adaption of this tale, Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the demon in the US)(1957), Clark relocates the story to the present day and weaves a looser version of the plot on screen. However, like Tourneur’s classic, the results are equally effective, proving that the strength of James’ fiction does not solely rest on its period flavours and glimpses of an England long since vanished.

Now the 1980s proved to be a fallow time for the Christmas ghost story, but Monty was still haunting the googlebox around the end of the year. Children’s BBC produced reading of three James tales through November and December this year. The stories were The Mezzotint, A School Story and The Diary of Mr Poynter.

The 22nd of December this year broug ht a real treat for Monty fans – a lengthy documentary on James produced by his biographer Michael Cox. Hosted by genre favourite character actor Bill Wallis, this film is the ideal introduction to James, his life and works, and is interspersed with clips from previous adaptations as well as some specially filmed dramatic moments. It’s all lovingly done, and is both enlightening and entertaining.

Again in December, the BBC produced more James readings. This time Robert Powell was tasked with the role of story teller, and a selection of favourites were performed and intercut with dramatised inserts. This time out the stories selected were - The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad and The Rose Garden.

Airing on Christmas Eve, this ITV feature length television film was an adaption of Susan Hill’s novel of the same name. Not only was it unashamedly Jamesian but the screenplay was crafted by Nigel Kneale. And Kneale and director Herbert Wise pulled out all the stops, producing a film that left an indelible impression on its viewers. And again this another work that regularly turns up in most terrifying telly lists. In addition to sporting bags of atmosphere, it features one of the most frightening scenes I’ve ever seen – one that will almost induce a heart attack when you watch it, and will return to keep you awake once you retire to bed.

The first Christmas of the new millennium saw the readings continue, but in perhaps their finest iteration yet. This time we had Sir Christopher Lee recounting the tales, but this series took it a step further, striving to recreate the original outings for these stories. Hence we have Mr Lee in period dress in a dimly lit study recounting the stories to a small audience of gentlemen. The four tales chosen to be told were - The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Ash-tree, Number 13 and A Warning to the Curious.

As a prelude to a series of A Ghost Story For Christmas repeats on BBC4, this half hour documentary was commissioned as an introduction to the season. This is a concise exploration of the man and his work, somewhat slighter than A Pleasing Terror but worth viewing for a plethora of notable talking heads including Kim Newman, Ruth Rendell and Christopher Frayling, among many others.

Following the warm reception 2004’s season of repeats had garnered, the BBC decided to revive the old ways and commissioned a brand new adaption of a James classic, to sit as the jewel in the crown of another round of repeats. Director Luke Watson turns out a typically lush period piece and it was a fine return to the traditions and the standards of the old Ghost Story For Christmas series.

NUMBER 13 (2006)
Indeed A View From A Hill proved such a hit with viewers, another was commissioned for teh following Yuletide, this time with Pier Wilkie taking the directorial reins. And although this was another quality production, bringing Number 13 to the screen in style, the revival ended here. Not through any failing on the production team’s behalf but that arch enemy of genre television, the dreaded budget cuts.

However the BBC coffers were mysterious refilled a couple of years later. Perhaps they decoded some obscure reference in a stained glass window or maybe there was sufficient caterwauling at the lack of a new ghost story in 2007. But regardless of the arcane reasons why, 2008 saw a three part series entitled Crooked House, produced and written by The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss. Centring around one Geap Manor, each episode told a different tale from the benighted dwelling’s troubled history.

And Gatiss certainly knows his stuff, crafting a trilogy of suitably eerie fare. And it is highly appropriate that this voyage through Christmas chills should end here with Crooked House. It proves that there is still a place for a ghostly tale amid the festivities, and what’s more, original works can work as well as adaptions of the old masters. A pleasing terror indeed!

Unfortunately only a handful of the above works have been released on DVD. The BFI produced DVD editions of Whistle And I’ll Come To You, The Signal Man, The Stone Tape and A Warning To The Curious but all now are out of print. Similarly The Woman in Black was released on disc and is also no longer available. However Crooked House is still on the shelves, as is Casting The Runes which comes with A Pleasing Terror as part of the extras and a short adaption of James' Mr Humphries & His Inheritance which was produced as part of an ITV schools programme.

As for the rest, there are no plans to release them on disc due to our old friend the rights issues, something that has also sunk any hope of a re-release of The Woman in Black. All of which is a huge shame as a complete BBC Ghost Stories For Christmas boxed set would be a very fine thing indeed. However BBC4 regularly repeats them every year and if you are very very cunning you can find them on the internet as torrents and similar.

However with a new adaptation of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw scheduled to appear on BBC1 between Christmas and New Year this year, it looks like there will be plenty of Ghosts of Christmas Yet To Come...

Saturday, 19 December 2009


When Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol way back in 1843, he could have had no idea that his tale of an old miser beset by a quartet of ghosts would be as well loved today as it was by his original audience. The story of Scrooge is as much an integral part of the festive season as holly, snow and Father Christmas himself, and many scholars have asserted that Dickens’ work is the foundation of the modern Christmas. But also, aside from pioneering our Yuletide celebrations, A Christmas Carol is surely a contender for the title of ‘Greatest Story Ever Told’.

Certainly A Christmas Carol is one of the few classic novels that is nearly always faithfully adapted, and the story is so well told it is pretty much director proof. And the tale is so timeless its themes and its message so universal, that A Christmas Carol will work even if you do tamper with the text and change its setting or characters. Indeed you really have to go out of your way and mount a thoroughly shoddy production to mess this one up.

And so, how well any given adaption works is largely a matter of personal taste, and I suspect in many cases, a person’s favourite retelling of A Christmas Carol will be the one that they first saw many Christmases ago. Over the years we’ve seen such stars as Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, George C Scott, and Sir Michael Caine don Scrooge’s nightcap, and we’ve even seen the likes of Mickey Mouse and Mr Magoo essay the role. We’ve also have seen the tale told in modern times (Scrooged), performed by puppets (A Muppet Christmas Carol) and as a musical (Scrooge). And now Robert Zemeckis has entered the fray with a sumptuous 3D, sorry Disney RealD production… And has received a somewhat mixed reaction from critics.

And to all those who have given a “Bah!Humbug!” verdict, may they be boiled in their own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through their hearts. A rather harsh view admittedly, but this is a very fine adaption and I think several factors are befogging their views.

Firstly, I think the decision of releasing the movie to theatres at the start of November was a little too early, provoking that same sense of annoyance one has when one finds the shops full of Christmas tat at the dawn of the eleventh month. Secondly, I suspect that for many the mere presence of Jim Carrey has blotted the productions copybook before they have even seen a single frame – a view I can sympathise with, but with the right director Carrey is capable of subtlety. And A Christmas Carol is one of those cases where his irritating zany energy has been reined in and he actually does some acting rather than just exuberant gurning.

But the major source of the humbuggery appears to be the fact that this is in 3D, and currently it’s very fashionable to moan about Hollywood’s current love affair with the old cardboard specs. And not without justification either; indeed, a great many of the 3D offerings that have flooded theatres this year have failed to set cinema audience’s imaginations alight. Either we’ve had a lot of unnecessary poking the audience in the eye, or films that have been released in the new RealD but haven’t been made with that medium in mind. To take a recent example, Up was trumpeted with much sound and fury as being Pixar’s first venture in the medium yet seemingly there was no thought involved in the decision, with very little use of the 3D effects throughout.

However A Christmas Carol is a horse of a different colour. Having previously dabbled with RealD and Imax 3D previously with Beowulf slightly before the current boom, director Robert Zemeckis has clearly thought long and hard about how to best utilise the third dimension. And this is readily apparent from the outset – the opening ten minutes of A Christmas Carol contains more and better use of the 3D effects than the entirety of Up and co.

It’s also telling that he avoids all those annoying contrived shots that most 3D films sport and exist solely for the purposes of being pointy - no mean feat for a movie set in Victorian England where most of the gentlemen carry walking canes. Instead we have an altogether more subtle use of the technology with mist and snow wafting out of the screen and gorgeous panoramic scenes that use the illusion of depth in a vivid almost painterly fashion.

Now the received wisdom about this version of A Christmas Carol, is that Zemeckis had ‘ruined’ the story by going 3D crazy, inserting all manner of sequences and turning Dickens’ classic into an amusement park ride. But one should always beware received wisdom, as often it is nothing more than the thoughtless repetition of some one else’s opinion. And remember folks, the received wisdom asserts that Frankenstein is the name of the monster and Dr Spock accompanied Captain Kirk on his intergalactic travels!

And in the case of A Christmas Carol, the received wisdom is just as wrong. Now I am very familiar with the original text, and I have to say that this is one of the most faithful adaptions brought to the screen, with several scenes included that many other productions miss out. And some of these scenes that are often missed out, for example the monstrous children that lurk beneath The Ghost of Christmas Present’s robe, and the moment where Scrooge sees the night air swarming with benighted spirits, may well be interpreted as additions by Zemeckis by those who are not familiar with the book.

Similarly some familiar scenes might seem to be embellished for the sake of 3D, in particular Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past. In many productions, it is the norm for this first ghost to be portrayed by a woman, however in Dickens’ original this Christmas spirit is definitely portrayed as male and is described as being a bright and flickery as the Zemeckis screen conception. Additionally, the book has the spirit taking Scrooge flying too, however many other productions opt for another mode of travel into the past largely due to the constraints of budget and available special effects.

In truth, there are only two major instances where the movie embroiders the text for the sake of cinematics. The first is the end of the Ghost of Christmas Past sequence; as in the book, an emotional Scrooge snuffs out the spirit with its own cap but then unlike the text the old miser is jetted skyward. Now this scene is the one most commonly cited by the humbuggers – “I don’t remember any rocket rides in Dickens” they sniff. But as we have already seen this spirit has already taken old Ebenezer soaring through the skies, so it can hardly be seen as breaking the spirit of the text.

The second comes in the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scenes, where we have the hooded spectre pursuing Scrooge down the cobbled streets in a demonic coach. Now while this chase scene is unnecessary strictly speaking to the plot, it does add a burst of excitement to the last third of the film. And it does have a root in the original text – in the book, when Scrooge is on his way to bed before the appearance of Marley’s ghost, Dickens has Scrooge see a phantom hearse galloping up the shadowy staircase. It would appear that Zemeckis has lifted this moment and built an action sequence about its kernel, in the same way that in Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson transplanted the Old Man Willow attack from the unused Tom Bombadil material and wove it into the Treebeard scenes.

Now of the two, this second did feel a little extraneous to me, but I think would have worked better and felt more integrated with a couple of minor changes. To begin with if Zemeckis had had Scrooge glimpse the hearse in the gloom of the stair, that would have nicely set up the chase later. Secondly, I felt the chase should have occurred before Scrooge hears the business men discussing the news of his death. It’s a minor point but it would have flowed better in my humble opinion.

Of course there other minor changes, such as Scrooge being shrunk to mouse size to witness his maid clearing out his worldly goods, and the Ghost of Christmas Present presenting his tour of Christmas Day by making Scrooge’s floor magically transparent. However all these changes both minor and major do not meddle with the body or the spirit of the story. And it should be remembered that Dickens himself was something of a showman, endless touring performing readings of his works (see The Unquiet Dead), and somehow I feel that these touches of visual grandstanding would have won his approval. Especially as the movie is so close to his own words in all other regards.

And perhaps, the biggest potential problem with Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol is that is it so close to Dickens. Much of the dialogue is lifted straight from the page, with no quarter given to the modern ear. More importantly, a lot of the film is very dark in tone and indeed, at times rather frightening. But it has be said, this is how the original is. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, which in all honestly is the American nephew of Dickens’ tale, people often forget that these stories aren't wall-to-wall Christmas cheer; it’s not all snowball fights and festive cheer, most of the narrative is about loss and misery, and it’s only at the end that the seasonal joy kicks in.

I suspect that many may well be somewhat surprised at how dark it is, and having seen the Disney banner and the fact that it is an animated feature would be expecting a jollier, funnier and more child friendly piece. However the fact that the movie sticks close to the original, Victorian dialogue and leaves the darker elements intact is no bad thing in these days of dumbed down culture. Though that said I would stress that this film is not suitable for younger children, as if it doesn’t scare the living daylights out of them, they may find the Dickensian speeches hard to follow.

A bigger issue in staying true to the text however is the ending. Now this version plays out exactly as it was written, but after multitudes of other versions, some may be expecting a far more jolly finale. Countless other productions have beefed up the ending, with Scrooge visiting the Cratchits on Christmas Day and often delivering sack loads of toys as well as the prize turkey, and therefore some have felt that this version that shares the novel’s closing scenes to be a little of a let down.

Now long time readers of my reviews will know that I do favour the faithful adaption, and I really in all good conscience cannot hurl stones at Zemeckis for preserving the end Dickens himself wrote. But equally I must concede the point that it would have been nice to see an expanded ending, with Scrooge playing Father Christmas and tearing up his ledger of debts as he does in the Albert Finney version. But that said, the ending is satisfying enough – after all it worked well enough for the original – and we do get a rather cheeky call back to Back To the Future into the bargain.

As no doubt you’ll have guessed by now, I was very impressed with this version of the classic tale. Jim Carrey played Scrooge beautifully, and performed well in his other roles. Though as a Northerner, I have to say that the Yorkshire accent he affects for the Ghost of Christmas Present wasn’t quite perfect but certainly good enough to pass muster. And there were good turns from Gary Oldman and Colin Firth too.

However where it really succeeds is the animation. Just as Beowulf was a step forward from The Polar Express in the use of motion capture digital animation, A Christmas Carol is another leap ahead. And this time Zemeckis seems to have really nailed it. For me, Beowulf seemed to veer from looking like a video game cut scene at some points to near realism at others; which was somewhat jarring for me. But more importantly, at some scenes looked so near real it was somewhat creepy – the uncanny valley effect. However I had no such problems with A Christmas Carol, as all the characters, although rendered with an impressive amount of realism, were all caricatures in style to a greater or lesser degree. Wisely Zemeckis has limited the complete CGI verisimilitude for the sets and landscapes, bringing us a glorious rendition of Victorian London.

And the RealD process is used magnificently. So far I have been less than impressed with the current crop of 3D movies, which have either been mired in pointy pointy cinematography or made little use of the technology. A Christmas Carol manages to avoid both these pitfalls, presenting us with a movie that delivers breathtaking and imaginative 3D effects and yet won’t look weird when viewed in 2D (see Friday 13th Part 3). In fact, Zemeckis has done such a good job, now the much frothed about Avatar actually has a decent benchmark to be measured against. Indeed it’ll be very interesting to see how closely this 3D race arms will run when I eventually see Jim Cameron’s magnificent octopus*.

And so to conclude this somewhat epic review, I adored A Christmas Carol. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting and it impressed me on many levels– I didn’t count on the 3D being as good as it was, nor did or that this version would concentrate on the atmosphere rather than kid-friendly hi-jinks. And I would have never guessed that this would be such a faithful rendition of Dickens’ original.

Of course it’s not the perfect adaptation, but as I stated at the beginning of this piece, what holds the crown as best version is largely a matter of taste. For every person that holds that the Alistair Sim version is the king of Carols, there’s another that will assert that the Muppets have it. And the true worth of any Christmas Carol is proven over time as audiences revisit it every Christmas time - for example, Bill Murray’s take on the tale, Scrooged, also received mixed reviews on first release but now is regarded as a classic by many. And I think that the passing years will be as kind to Zemeckis’ production, particularly once all the current griping about Hollywood foisting 3D movies on us whether we want them or not all has died down.

But finally, I’ll leave you with this – which probably is better testament to the quality of this Christmas Carol than anything else. At the packed screening I saw, when the credits began to roll something happened that is very, very rare, particularly for UK cinema audiences – the crowd broke out into spontaneous applause…

*’Magnum opus’ for those of you who don’t speak Blackadder

Friday, 18 December 2009

Children's Misheard Christmas Carols

And here's some more festive fun for you all...

A teacher in Atlanta asked her students to write the words to their favourite Christmas Carols. Here are some of the humorous lines she received…

- Deck the Halls with Buddy Holly

- We three kings of porridge and tar

- On the first day of Christmas my tulip gave to me…

- Later on we'll perspire, as we dream by the fire.

- He's makin’ a list, chicken and rice.

- Noel. Noel, Barney's the king of Israel.

- With the jelly toast proclaim

- Olive, the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names

- Frosty the Snowman is a ferret elf, I say

- Sleep in heavenly peas

- In the meadow we can build a snowman, then pretend that he is sparse and brown

- Rudolph the red nosed reindeer, you'll go down in listerine

- Oh, what fun it is to ride with one horse, soap and hay

- O come, froggy faithful joyful and triumphant

Tuesday, 15 December 2009


Once upon a time, before the age of everything being available all the time via the internet and the rise of the DVD boxed set, Christmas belonged to television. Networks saved up all their big movie accquistions to wheel out over the festive season, and producers worked furiously to cobble together a Christmas special, even for the least Yule-friendly shows...

And hence the release of the Christmas editions of the Radio Times and TV Times was a hotly anticipated event, where we all waited with baited breath to see what treasures the idiot lantern would be beaming into our homes.

But the real sign that the fun was to be begin came from the BBC, when a couple of days before Christmas, you'd turn on the old googlebox and suddenly the usual spinning globe logo was replaced with a seasonal replacement. Yes, this was the omen that heralded the start of Christmas.

Of course now, in these days of ever more elaborate. and indeed, ever changing channel idents, this little slice of magic has gone the way of the dodo. But it was mind bogglingly exciting at the time - the evening when the TV when on and you discovered Auntie Beeb had ditched the usual revolving globe, and replaced it with something suitably seasonal meant that after weeks of build up, Christmas was finally here. And every year, it was something new...

So join me now, and take a trip back with the Ghost of Christmas Television Past, as Mr Frank Coleman and TV Cream have a wry look back at the old BBC Christmas decorations...

PART I - 1976 to 1984

PART II - 1985 to 1989

PART III - 1990 to 2000

PART IV - 2000 - 2009

Monday, 14 December 2009


- Where am I?

- You are back in the Village

- Who are you?

- I am Number 2

- Who is Number 1?

- Wouldn’t know, I don’t follow the pop charts

- What do you want?

- We want … information!

- You won’t get it!

- Look, don’t piss me about: did you watch the damn thing or not!

Several months ago, I wrote up my impressions of the lengthy trailer/preview of The Prisoner remake which premiered at this year’s Comicon. And while I was very impressed by the quality of the production, I did have several misgivings – documented here – and, on the strength of that footage, predicted that what we would eventually see was a decent slice of scifi hokum but would probably fall short of being The Prisoner.

However, now having watched all six episodes of this all new Prisoner, I am more than happy to admit that I was wrong. So, to redress the balance, let’s have another looks at the issues that concerned me about the trailer and how things actually panned out in the complete series.

My first niggle was that it appeared that the fundamental dynamics of the story had been significantly dumbed down; that the story would be focused on an action-led escape from the Village rather than the more metaphorical struggle from freedom of the original. It appeared the espionage paranoia had been lost and Number 6 who’d be Bourne-ised – a man on a mission with unravelling his amnesia.

Therefore I was highly pleased to find that the new 6 comes from a shady spy background, this time from the world of corporate surveillance rather the ‘Great Game’ of international governments. Considering how intelligence agencies are more concerned with the threat from within these days, the new background for 6 is very fitting. And just as the original was deliberately vague on the specifics, the new background gives us the flavour of intrigue and rather setting out a clear cut scenario and boiling the mystery away.

And this is an often over looked point – in the original, McGoohan’s 6 is as enigmatic as his captors; we never discover what exactly the information the Village’s masters are so keen to prise from him. Likewise in the new version, Caviezel’s 6 is from an equally murky background; we know he is a surveillance expert and that he has stumbled upon something unsettling but the exact nature of what he does, who he works for and what he has found is shrouded in mystery.
But like the original, we discover enough about the kind of man he is to draw out sympathies. Again he is a character committed to his principles, a believer in honour and possessing a righteous moral indignation. From the trailer, it appeared that the new 6 had been significantly softened and made more of an ordinary guy, but in actual fact in the series he is as every bit as driven as the McGoohan version. Although Caviezel’s 6 is a warmer character there’s still all the anger, stubbornness and steely determination of his predecessor.

I had worried that Jim Caviezel would prove to be a little bland in the role and I did worry that he be out gunned by McKellen’s Number 2. Dramatically the original thrived on the battle of wills between McGoohan and all the myriad Number 2s and I did worry that the remake would miss the subtleness, the playing cat and mouse with either other, and reducing the relationship to a series of shouting matches. As it stands though, the remake captures all the intricacies of the original, with McKellen and Caviezel locked in a complex dance of bluff and counter bluff, each trying to discover each others weaknesses and press their advantage home. Quite simply, it’s marvellous to watch two actors locked in psychological battle.

And I have to say as the series progressed I became more and more impressed with Caviezel’s portrayal of Number 2. It’s a complex and many layered performance and if you are in doubt as to how impressed I was with his reading of the role, please note that I’m crediting him in this review with his proper surname rather than referring to him as ‘Jim Catweazle” as I did in my previous Prisoner piece! But I’ll leave the final word to Sir Ian himself – “You’ll see some of the finest performances from young actors gathered together. And the leading man, Jim Caviezel? Well, to die for.”

As for McKellen himself, well we always knew that Sir Ian would throw in a good turn. Let’s face it, an actor of McKellen’s calibre will is brilliant even when phoning in a performance or stranded in a ropey production. And from the preview footage it was clear that Sir Ian was more than up to challenge of appearing genial yet slightly sinister. However Bill Gallagher’s script gives Number 2 a great deal more to play with and McKellen rises to the challenge and gives the role all the dramatic and emotional weight he can muster.

There is some simply brilliant acting here, the likes of which we rarely see in genre productions. Even if nothing else about this production appeals, or if you feel that a Prisoner remake is an intolerable blasphemy, this series is worth checking out for the performances of the two leads alone.

However aside from 6 and 2, how does the new series’ treatment of the important third character – the Village itself - play out? Now I bitched at length about what we saw in the trailer and felt they’d dropped the ball big time. However in context of the full series the new Village works very well. To start with, in the preview footage, the landscape where the new Village is located in looked very like the wilds of Arizona or Nebraska. But as it is presented in the series proper, the desert setting is far more archetypal than what we saw in the trailer and once again this Village could be anywhere.

Furthermore I was concerned that the new Village would be an exercise in retro, effectively resetting the series in Pleasantville. As it is though, the reimagined Village does capture the same blend of nostalgia and modernity that made the Port Merion version so memorable. Like the original it is familiar yet strangely off kilter, with its peaked houses and its own distinct styles and fashions.

But there is a notable difference to the first incarnation: this Village is more of a real community, with people actually raising families here. Furthermore there are characters that have been born in the Village rather than shipped there by the powers that be. And although though the Village is less surreal in appearance than the original, it makes perfect sense in the context of the story that it should have a closer relation to the real world than the Mad Hatter’s tea party of the first incarnation.

However, a more realistic community does not mean life there is any less strange. There are still plenty of odd quirks in Village life. I did worry that a less surreal looking Village would equal a more mundane Village but thankfully that is not the case. Rover still lurks to hound those who stray too far but now there are also ghostly glass towers that sporadically appear. And there’s odd little details; off kilter minutia that I won’t spoil here. But one example I will mention is the fact that wraps seem to be the always the dish of the day in the new Village – now this has no bearing on the plot but it’s the kind of background detail that indicates to the viewer that although the Village appears like a normal small town, it’s actually somewhere deeply strange.

So then having done U-turns on every gripe I had about what was presented in the trailer footage, how does the series as a whole play out? And the short answer is very well indeed! As we’ve seen, the changes in this new version turned out to be far closer to the original than I initially expected. And better still, the cosmetic alterations mesh perfectly with the content of the narrative.

At first, the new style may seem a little choppy, but you soon adjust to the new rhythms, and each episode brings new twists and turns. Although this is a mini-series, the construction of the individual parts seeks recalls the episodic nature of the original. And from my sampling of the reviews out there, this seems to have annoyed and confused a lot of folk. However I thought that writer Bill Gallagher has pulled off a neat balancing act in creating instalments that could work as stand alone stories and yet still stack up as a satisfying story arc.

And the story does indeed satisfy. The acid test for any series that poses has mysteries as the backbone of their plots is how they pay off in the end, and the big problem is that too often you get to the end and are presented with a solution that inspires a deflating feeling of ‘oh, so that’s all it was’ rather than a genuine surprise/shock. Now the original Prisoner is the daddy of all these shows that feature a central puzzle, and as I was watching the episodes, I was very conscious of the fact that as good as the production was, if the ending bombed, the game was lost.

Now I must admit I did sort of guess where the ending was going, but in fairness if you’ve spent years reading twist-in-the tail stories you’ll probably be able to make a fair guess too. However working out ahead of time what was actually going on with the Village didn’t harm the end, as the way it unfolds doesn’t present you with a clean and neat explanation of everything that has happen. Rather the end blindsides you with answers that don’t diminish the story but opens the doors to a whole new set of questions. The answers presented tell you enough to be narratively satisfying but leave plenty of room for speculation, and I suspect some of the questions will prove to be enigmatic as the original, even with repeat viewings. And make no mistake, this is a show that when you get the end, you’ll want to start again at the beginning.

Generally it seems that the series has been met with somewhat mixed reviews. Partly this is down to ardent fans of the original being unable to get passed the changes I initially carped about, and partly because it doesn’t make sense. With the regards to former, I would say that it was more important that the new series creates its own iconography rather than slavishly ape the original, but more importantly it stays true to the philosophy of the show.

Although the new Prisoner takes its story in a different direction to the original, in terms of its underlying themes, it not only captures the same spirit but treats the subject matter with the same depth. It may be posing different questions about control, individual freedom and the human spirit but they are questions of equal weight and worth.

And as for the latter charges, would you really want a version of The Prisoner that makes sense! It’s a show that should leave you perplexed. After the final credits rolled and I sat scratching my head and was working my way through a myriad of questions and ideas about the series, I suddenly realised that against all the odds, what we have here is an honest-to-God new version of The Prisoner. Not a lame cash-in, not a Prisoner in name only, but an actual remake that works beautifully, honouring the original and yet presenting something new. It’s not just a rehash of the original but a show that works as compliment and companion to the McGoohan’s series – and that was something I really wasn’t expecting.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009


There will be blood and there will be spoilers!

So here we again, it’s 1986 and Jason’s back in business. You can’t keep a good man down, or indeed in the case of slasher movies, a very bad one. And although Part 5 had been roundly slated for its pretend Jason antics, Paramount still raked it in at the box office and so there was only one thing to do – resurrect everyone’s favourite psychopathic slaphead for Part 6 and watch the cash roll in once more. Proof positive that the only thing that can truly kill a slasher villain is a loss at the box office.

Hence, in a storm crazed opening sequence, Tommy Jarvis, who has regenerated into Thom Matthews, returns to Crystal Lake to make sure that his old enemy is truly dead. And indeed he is - the scourge of nubile teens everywhere is now a mouldering corpse, with worms crawling in and crawling out, and presumably playing pinochle on his snout. But then, in a twist that proves that irony does indeed exist in some areas of the US of A, Tommy accidentally reanimates his foe…

Now, I distinctly remember back in the day reading in Fangoria that Jason was to be resurrected as an undead killing machine, and thinking that apart from being a bit of a U-turn in the series’ direction, leaving Part 5 now looking more like “The False Start” than “The New Beginning”, it seemed like Paramount were trying to Freddy-ise Jason by having him join the legions of the undead. But at the same time, it did pique my interest in the franchise once more; sure turning Jason into a zombie sounded dumb, but it also sounded like a lot of fun.

And indeed Friday 13th Part 6 – Jason Lives is a ball from start to finish. And incredibly, especially for a fifth sequel, the movie turned out to be not just so bad it’s good, but actually entertaining and thrilling for all the right reasons. In short, this flick is way better than any Part 6 of any franchise has any right to be, and even more amazingly, stands up as one of the best entries in the series.

Firstly the movie manages to get the number of leading characters just right. The challenge for any script for a slasher outing is to have enough fodder for your maniac to slaughter but not so many as to make your story telling unfocused and choppy. Director Tom McLoughlin realised that we don’t actually really care about most of the characters in a slasher flick, and so Jason Lives wisely keeps its main cast numbers down to a handful. But it also shrewdly bulks up the body count with plenty of one shot characters, such as policemen and random campers, for our killer corpse to hack down. Hence there are plenty of kills, but without the story line wasting scenes on characters that we know are going to die horribly very soon.

But apart from pacing the slasher formula spot on, Jason Lives, again surprisingly for an umpteenth sequel, actually brings something new to the table. Firstly, the film’s main theatre of operations is the newly re-opened Camp Blood, now re-branded Forest Green in a Windscale to Sellafield piece of local reputation spinning. Now the causal reader may be thinking - “yeah so what! Aren’t they all set at summer camps?” but surprisingly this is only the second film to be set in a camp proper. The original was, the second was at a camp counsellor training centre, and subsequent entries are simply set around Crystal Lake. More importantly though, this is the first film that has a camp that actually has some children present.

Victor Miller, who scripted the first film, has stated that isolation is a key ingredient in the Friday 13th recipe, which is usually why the locations in the series contrive to have a bunch of characters alone somewhere in the woods. And although the inclusion of a horde of ankle-biters running about the place somewhat wrecks this element, there is a good trade off. In Part 4, Jason appeared all the more dangerous and down right evil by the fact he was as keen to off Corey Feldman as he was the rest of the grown-up cast. Hence putting a bus load of kids in Jason’s path ups his threat quotient considerably.

Similarly, although McLoughlin emphasises the camp’s rural location, with plenty of establishing shots and scenes of the brooding woods, there is for once an outside world too. For once we actually see the cops do something other than appear at the beginning, cleaning up the aftermath of the last movie’s massacre, or turning up too late at the end. And aside from being a refreshing change, having Jason square off against the local fuzz boost his menace rating and fear factor. After all it’s one thing to off the usual bunch of teenage stereotypes, but having him take down hordes of armed professionals establishes his new unstoppable undead status and increased powers.

Though all that said, the isolation element is present after a fashion: here it’s more about psychological distance than geographical remoteness. The dynamic is not that the cast are miles away from anywhere, from any help or potential saviours, but that most of them are unaware that they are in danger at all or refuse to believe that Jason is back. So despite a large cast – and this is probably the most heavily populated of all the Friday 13th movies – only Tommy and Megan know that Jason is out there, effectively isolated by that knowledge, and they have to contend not only with a resurrected killing machine but the local authorities getting in their way.

And having our young leads in this position taps into classic adolescent attitudes and feelings; of being misunderstood, repressed and generally devalued by adults. There is a strong theme of this kind of teenage rebellion against their elders, and again it’s surprising it look the series, a franchise featuring and aimed at teens, six movies to incorporate this.

However the biggest new element McLoughlin introduces to the franchise is humour. Now horror and humour certainly share a fence as genres and but any movie missing two runs the risk of ending up of the two cancelling each out. Too much humour and the horror evaporates like Nosferatu at a tanning salon, and not enough humour leaves the comedy moments looking like they’ve lurched in from another movie Blazing Saddles style.

Now Jason Lives has indeed been criticised for the inclusion of humour by some fans over the years. But make no mistake, the movie is not trying to be a horror comedy proper, nor is it removing the Michael out of the franchise. Admittedly there are some scenes featuring very broad comedy; for example the scenes with Jason and the paintballing business men is more than a little reminiscent of that other long running ‘80s franchise Police Academy, which may not reach everyone’s funny bone but there’s also some rather more sophisticated fare on offer too, such as the running gag of asides from two small boys which functions like a Greek chorus of sarcasm, and sly references to Boris Karloff and the James Bond titles.

The comic moments presented serve to add to a splatter of fun to the proceedings, and generally add a little extra entertainment to what usually are the longeurs between kills. This far down Sequel Lane, even the best director in the world would have trouble creating a pedal to the metal horror show, as the concepts of the series have been done to death and the lead villain has transformed into a beloved icon. By this stage, people are turning out for entertainment rather than a real scare and so the script encourages us to laugh along with the movie as part of the usual ride.

McLoughlin shows a deft hand in knowing when to be funny and when to play it straight, so we never have tension punctured by inappropriate laughs. In the main, most of the comedy comes in the first half, and when we hit the action packed last reel the moments of humour serve as a nice counterpoint to the carnage.

And there is carnage aplenty. There are some great kills in this flick, with Jason taking full advantage of his new undead super strength. Plus there are brilliant action sequences – we get car chases, fights on boats and a spectacular RV crash. Although on the surface, the newly reanimated Jason may seem to be reinventing him in a Freddy mould, there’s also a huge dose of the Terminator in his undead DNA – Mrs Voorhee’s little boy is now not just a stone killer but relentlessly unstoppable – neither guns nor wide scale property damage slow him down.

And naturally no discussion of Jason in these pages is complete without addressing the live or dead question. Now I can hear what you are all saying – “Give it up Jim, he’s definitely dead in this flick! He’s deceased! Passed on! He has ceased to be!”. But if I may interrupt the Pythonist liturgy, the old continuity issue does rise from the grave again here. Basically, Tommy plan to defeat Jason involves returning him to his original resting place… And this turns out to be the depths of Crystal Lake and not his maggot filled coffin back at the cemetery. All of which suggests that Jason has indeed been dead from the beginning…

Anyhow I must say I do really like this new definitely dead Jason. It’s a fair point that his resurrection is hokey in the extreme, lifted straight out of the Big Book of Horror Clich├ęs, but it does let us get straight into the mayhem with no faffing about. And we do now have some narrative logic to explain why he’s invulnerable to all damage. But more interestingly, the old struck by lightning routine harks back to the way the classic Universal horrors would revive their characters. And I’m sure this isn’t accidental, as the opening sequence in the graveyard strongly echoes the beginning of Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. And that’s very fitting as Friday 13th Part 6 brings us the most iconic Jason to date.

As we seen in the preceding dissections of the series, the look and even the behaviour of Jason has altered significantly from film to film. But Jason Lives establishes the version most people think of – the unstoppable, slow walking dead man. And though future entries in the original series will tweak the costume and fiddle with his features in the unmasking scenes, from now on the portrayal of Jason pretty much remains the same as is presented in this movie.

However aside from refining all the best elements of previous incarnations, Friday 13th Part 6 presents us with a Jason that is truly mythic. Now he is without a doubt a creature from beyond the grave; he’s not just some disfigured psychopath but homicide personified. Furthermore this film has him being defeated by suitably archetypal means – just as Dracula can only be destroyed by the rising sun or a stake through the heart, now Jason has a similar folkloric method of termination. The whole occult shtick of returning him to his resting place to end the rampage is far more satisfying on many levels than the old looks-down-but-is just-playing-possum-until-the-next-flick-is-green-lit routine. Every classic monster needs an arcane Achilles heel and in this movie Jason finally gets his.

As you can probably tell, this is one of my favourite movies in the whole series. It might not be the scariest (Part 1) or the most polished (the remake) but damn it, it is the most fun. The mix of thrills and humour hits the spot just right and I particularly like the way that McLoughlin has mixed the usual formula with new ingredients. The Universal gothic touches add flavour and colour while the classic teenage themes are a logical fit for the subject matter, and the movie is all the better for it. And if all that wasn’t enough you get the daddy of shock rockers, Alice Cooper contributing three tracks to the soundtrack.

Considering the limitations of time and budget alone, Jason Lives is a remarkable success. The firs two entries in the saga may be better serious horror films, but at heart I feel that Jason Lives is a better all round movie experience. It’s unassuming entertainment all the way, which probably explains why it finds its way into the DVD player on a regular basis after a few drinks. And it proves that contrary to all expectations, there was plenty more to be done with the format and the character. McLoughlin brought us a perfect Jason, recast with the bones of a mythology of his own, a real new beginning.

But unfortunately subsequent directors failed to pick up where he left off. The series was not to hit these heights again…

Friday, 4 December 2009


Yes! It's really really true! Christmas has come early for cinema lovers everywhere!

In a terrific early present for film fans the world over, today Steven Spielberg has announced that his proposed remake of the Jimmy Stewart classic Harvey will no longer be going ahead. Not delayed, not on the back-burner but gone! Nixed! Cancelled!

Harvey is one of those classic movies that really just shouldn't be remade. Some films are just too iconic, and dare I say it, just too perfect to remake. And even though I'd have rather seen Spielberg in the director's chair than a host of lesser hands for a remake, his tendency to veer into the saccahrine would quite possibly end up replacing the magic and charm of the original with cloyingly sentimentality. Personally, I'd have picked Frank Darabont for the job, with Guillermo del Toro running a close second.

However the decison to not go ahead is the right one - and a wise one. If you are remaking a bona fide classic like Harvey, you either recreate the original or do something new with it. The latter obviously runs the risk of removing everything that makes the original work (see Neil Labute's The Wicker Man, and the former is a pointless exercise (Van Sant's Psycho.

So far, the reasons why Spielberg has decided to drop the Harvey remake have not come to light. But I reckon it went something like this....

Monday, 30 November 2009


After the success of the earlier Film of the Decade roundtable 'cast, it was only a matter of time before a companion discussion was mooted. And so, last Saturday night, undetered by rain, hail and the gloom of night, Filmrant's Noel Mellor and myself joined Cinerama maestro Ian Loring on a quest to discover the worst film of the noughties!

And lo there was much bile, great laughter and irrepairable damage to livers all round. Join our brave alconauts and as we explore cinema's Hall of Shame and vote for the Worst Film of the Decade! Grab it here!

Friday, 27 November 2009


Right then, as if I hadn’t rambled enough on this movie – let’s hit the spoilers! And let’s start by returning to have a closer look at the character dynamics on show here. To begin with it worth noting that the Katie/Micah relationship is somewhat unusual for a movie couple. Frequently film couples are presented as one of the following - the happy, loving couple, the often rowing but still passionate pair, or the duo that really can’t stand the sight of each other for a second longer. But what we have here is none of the above and we don’t often see – the couple who have been together a while and are just ticking along – they do care about each other but the relationship is now comfortable rather than brimming with affection or resentment.

And this, I’m sure many of you will agree, is a far more accurate reflection of the reality of a long term relationship than any of the three stereotypes listed previously. And the fact that we can recognise our friends, family and even own relationships in Micah and Katie does give the film a firm grounding in reality that not only draws us in to the movie’s scenario but also makes the scares far more efficacious.

However what is most interesting is the way the dynamics of the relationship lay out throughout the movie. On a second viewing, the first thing that struck me was that from the outset there are signs that their relationship is already cracking before the pressures of the haunting take their toll. In the early scenes, it’s clear that the comfort factor has reached the point where Micah really isn’t paying Katie as much attention as he should anymore. In his mind, as he’s the breadwinner of the pair he’s fulfilling his responsibilities but he’s far more interested in his gadgets and toys than providing emotional support.

Like far too many men in long term relationships, he’s taking everything for granted. And despite being the one holding done a job while Katie is at college, he has in fact regressed and the dynamic of their relationship is more like mother and child than two adults in a romantic partnership. He’s more interested in messing about and demanding attention than noticing that Katie is disturbed and freaked out by the nocturnal goings on in their home.

Now often in ghost stories, we have at least one character who is there to play the sceptic, and in Paranormal Activity Micah fulfils this role. However on watching it again, there is a good deal more going on than providing rationalist expositions for what is happening. It’s not so much a case of the Micah character having a sceptical outlook, but more that he simply isn’t taking any of it seriously.

For example, when things start to escalate and he discovers that the camera has record some of the eerie occurrences, his reaction isn’t one of anger, confusion or denial as you’d expect from some one whose beliefs about the world have been challenged by convincing evidence. Oh no, Micah’s reaction is ‘Cool! Let’s get some more!’ and general pride and smugness that he captured it on tape. And despite now being convinced that there is something doing on, he still fails grasp that the situation is deeply upsetting Katie.

After the psychic’s visit, where Katie reveals that she has encountered similar weird happenings in her past, Micah gets somewhat stroppy (one of the few times he displays any kind of emotional reaction to the situation in the first half) that he didn’t know about it. But really, if he’d had his emotional radar turned on and had been acting like a supporting adult, then perhaps the subject would have come up sooner. He’s angry that Katie has kept details of her life from him, but surely this is an indicator of a wider lack of communication in their relationship. In a healthier relationship, Katie would have confessed that she’d experienced similar phenomena if they had properly discussed it when the current outbreak of spectral malarkey began. But more damning, one has to wonder why the subject hadn’t been broached before – considering they have been together for several years, and most couples end up discussing everything under the sun in the first stages of a relationship, one would have thought that Katie’s past experiences might have come in such ‘let’s share everything’ conversations.

And as the film progresses, another thing that struck me when watching again is the fact that the escalation of the haunting is down to Micah. At first, this simply because he ignores the psychic’s advice and starts playing with the entity, and later when he is finally starting to take the situation seriously, he outright antagonises it. Furthermore it’s also clear that Katie’s gradual emotional disintegration is solely due to the stress of the nightly events but the fact that she’s coping with it on her own as Micah is far too focused on his gadgets.

The situation builds not because the demon is becoming more powerful but because their relationship is crumbling – at first Micah is too busy arsing about to act responsibly, and later because when he does start to take matters seriously he goes down the macho route, calling out the demon and refusing to seek any outside help. Despite acting like a spoilt child for most of the film, when he does take responsibility he takes the worst possible route, becoming very controlling and aggressive and by the time he realises that playing the hard man isn’t going to cut it, it’s way too late.

The movie takes great pains to build into the narrative solid reasons for why they can’t simply leave. It’s repeated emphasised that the entity plaguing them is not a ghost but some demonic spirit, and it’s not the house that haunted but Katie herself. But what became very clear to me on a second viewing is that there was a solution - Katie needed to get Micah away from her…

Now, people in films, and particularly in horror movies, are prone to doing very dumb things. But in the case of Paranormal Activity, Micah is just being the usual idiot meathead who lands all concerned in jeopardy just to progress an ill thought out plot. Yes, he is stupid but this isn’t movie stupidity, its real world masculine emotional retardation. And it’s a testament to both Peli’s script, and as whole sections were improvised, the actors’ performances that there’s enough depth in their onscreen relationship to write a length relationship counsellors report on it. Indeed if The Blair Witch Project was a horror movie with a subtext about film making itself, then Paranormal Activity conceals a study of gender roles and relationship communication breakdowns.

Right so, onto the differences between the festival cut and the theatrical version as promised. There are two main changes, and the first see the version playing in cinemas ditching a scene where Micah shows Katie footage of an exorcism going badly wrong. And while this section provides the movie with it’s one moment of gore, on the whole I felt the movie as a whole benefited from losing it. Tonally, although the scene packs a punch, tonally it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the film and the whole conceit of finding this footage smuggled out of the Vatican online strains the credibility of the scenario slightly.

However the other major change is less welcome. In the theatrical version, we have Katie and then Micah wandering off down the darkened hallway, and culminating in Micah’s body being hurled at the camera and closing with Katie walking towards us, her face demonically contorted. However in the original ending, instead of the corpse chucking, a bloody and seemingly entranced Katie, clutching a knife, wanders back into the bedroom, sits down and begins rocking. She continues rocking throughout the day until her friend calls in finds Micah’s body and alerts the police. The cops show up, only for Katie to snap out of her trance at the worst possible moment and get accidentally shot by the officers.

Now although the theatrical end does round off the film with a big jolt, I felt it was slightly out of place. It was a typical last scare, more suited to your usual Hollywood horror and something of a contrast to the realist narrative the rest of the film had so carefully constructed.

Apart from the stylist differences between the two versions of the ending, the story’s conclusion remains the same, bar one detail. In the original, Katie is dead, but in the theatrical variant the last shot shows a title card that states that Micah was found dead but Katie has vanished. However besides being a better tonal match, the original ending also fits better with a little theory I cooked up.

Having seen Paranormal Activity several times now, I did occur to me that there could be an alternate explanation for the film’s haunting. An alternative interpretation of events could be that there is no demon, and the strange phenomena are actually a retroactive haunting. And what the hell is that I hear you cry. Well if an ordinary haunting is a recording or replay of past events leaking into the present, a retroactive haunting would be the echoes of a future event reaching back in time. Hence the figure Katie has seen standing at the end of her bed is herself, the footsteps in the hallway are those of her own future self. Or if you prefer, future Katie, the Katie who has killed Micah, is manifesting these things, and even throwing in some poltergeist style shenanigans to boot, to warn her past self.

And this does fit better with the original ending. Towards the end of the film, the occurrences one night are of the hallway light coming on by its self and we hear distorted voices. And this nicely echoes the arrival of the police in the first version of the ending. And as this ending has Katie dying, it meshes with the concept that practically Katie is haunting herself.

As stated before, the film makes clear that the phenomena will follow Katie wherever she goes, and this is an elaboration of the fact that supposed real life poltergeist activity is often centred on an individual, often a young woman. And one idea put forward by parapsychologists is that the spooky effects are not down to ghosts, demons or some other species of supernatural being but unconscious telekinesis on the part of the individual. So therefore, perhaps the events in Paranormal Activity are being generated by Katie herself. And to expand into a third interpretation, could it be that the haunting is her unconscious resentment of Micah manifesting, undermining her rational mind to the point where she can act on her subconscious impulse and the murder the insensitive slob? Certainly this third approach does fit well with the relationship subtext we have already discussed.

Now I’m not saying that either of these theories are the real story behind the haunting but it’s certainly fun to watch it with these alternative perspectives. The fact that there isn’t the usual neat unlocking of the story behind the haunting and that the movie’s events are open to such alternative interpretation is proof of the quality of the project. Whether Oren Peli can repeat this feat remains to be seen, but he if continues to develop future projects with the same level of thought, he could well become a directorial force to be reckoned with.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


All spoilers have been exorcised from this review

So this week, Paranormal Activity at last opens in UK theatres. Now this film has been knocking about since 2007, doing the festival circuit and generally getting rave reviews from all and sundry. For those of you who don’t know the story behind the release, it goes something like this…

First- time director Oren Peli shot the film in seven days and with a tiny $15,000 budget. It played several festivals and DVDs were sent out the studios. One of which found it’s way into the hands of Steven Spielberg who loved it and soon after a deal with Paramount was struck, initially to remake it with a larger budget. However audience response and positive reviews meant that ultimately the studio decided to ditch the remake scheme as release the original film in theatres albeit in a new tighter edit.

After a successful internet petition promotion, in which people could vote to have the movie shown in their own city, Paramount very quickly widened the original limited run to a full scale national release, just in time for Halloween. By this point a huge buzz was building about the film, and it thrashed Saw VI at the box office and is well under way to becoming the most profitable independent movie ever. But more importantly, Paranormal Activity has been hailed as the scariest film of all time, something the marketing department has made full use of for the promotion.

Now, roughly speaking movie goers who aren’t fans of the horror genre can be divided into two camps. Either they are the type avoid horror films like the plague as they just don’t see the fun or merit in watching a film that may frighten them, or they are on the “I don’t watch them because they aren’t just aren’t scary” side of the fence. Often those in column A seem to find any horror film they happen to see utterly terrifying and I suspect a certain number in column B are of this ilk and are just putting a brave face on the matter.

However, the column B folks are perhaps closer to the truth – in general most horror films just aren’t frightening enough. However it’s important to note that horror isn’t just about the scares; if I had to define the genre, I’d say horror is a journey into the darkness, exploring the stuff of nightmares -monsters, madness, and murder, phantoms and phobias. For me personally, what keeps drawing me back to horror is that the genre is the place where imagination most closely rubs shoulders with reality.

And although fear is an obvious target, a work of horror may also aim for comedy, suspense, thrills, action and even art – basically horror is a set of symbols and themes that may be employed in a variety of ways to tell a whole range of different types of stories.

But that said, there’s nothing more cherished by the genre fan as a work that genuinely delivers the fear. So when I heard jaded horror fanatics claiming that Paranormal Activity had gotten under their skin and actually terrified them, then obviously this was a must see picture. So much so that I discovered that the movie wouldn’t be getting a British release until the end of November and wanting a good frightening movie for Halloween night, I *ahem* “flew to America to see it” as they say on 35mm Heroes

Yes, yes I know – I’ll be on Santa’s naughty list this year and generally I much prefer to see a film in the theatre or a proper disc rather than some dodgy .avi file, but I did have reasons other than sheer impatience in this case. Firstly, I wanted to see this movie in the best possible setting and considering the buzz surrounding it, I didn’t want to see the movie in a packed theatre where there was every chance of having the screening ruined by idiots. And secondly, although I’d been dodging spoilers with the same fervour Michael Bay avoids sense and restraint, I had gleaned that although the differences in the cuts is minimal, many reviewers felt that the original festival version featured a far better ending and that the screener doing the rounds on the web was this cut.

Now having seen the movie and done a little more research, I can confirm that the changes to the theatrical cut are very minor and although the ending is different, the story remains essentially the same. And I’ll discuss these changes later on in the spoiler section of this review.

Paranormal Activity tells the story of a young couple, Micah and Katie, who are experiencing inexplicable events in their home. Katie believes the phenomena to be a haunting of some kind, whereas Micah is more sceptical. Hence he acquires a video camera and sets out to try and capture some of the odd happenings on film.

Yes, it’s yet another entry into the found footage genre, and in terms of its low budget origins, subject matter, and box office performance, there are obvious parallels with The Blair Witch Project. But, the good news for motion sickness sufferers is that Paranormal Activity isn’t another cavalcade of shaky cam. Although much of the movie features hand held shooting, there isn’t a whole lot of jiggling going on and many shots, including the main action sequences, have the camcorder mounted on a tripod.

But like its predecessor, Paranormal Activity has gained a reputation for being very frightening; a reputation which has grown from a genuine buzz about it from film fans to a huge outbreak of media hype. The tag line “scariest film ever!” is a great marketing shtick but overly hyperbolic. To begin with what actually inspires fear is a very subjective thing – for example if you’re petrified of spiders, then Arachnophobia, or even a cheesy romp like Eight Legged Freaks, will be your worst nightmare. Secondly although it would appear general audiences will flock to see a horror film that is allegedly actually scary for once, trumpeting as the most fear inducing film will serve as a kind of challenge to many viewers who are going to go in determined not to be scared. And this combative approach really isn’t the best way to appreciate a film of any kind – after all you can very easily pick any film to bits and voluntarily take yourself out of the movie. And like the Blair Witch Project before it, I can see the general public ultimately remembering Paranormal Activity as a triumph of hype rather than film making.

Equally those who think a good horror movie should follow the ghost train model and stick with the formula of tits, gore and jump scares will come out underwhelmed. For Paranormal Activity is a movie that slowly unfolds its plot, carefully crafting its characters and attempting to keep everything as realistic as possible. So if you favour good story telling and subtlety over flashy special effects and buckets of blood, there’s every chance that Paranormal Activity will work for you.

An opinion I’ve encountered a lot over the years, often from non-horror fans, is that the scariest things are those that could happen in real life. Now I’d dispute this, as there are plenty of horror movies that feature a real world menace yet no one is ever going to include them in a run-down of most terrifying cinema. One only as to look to the vast catalogue of slasher movies to prove this – many feature a psychopathic but human killer and inspire yawns and laughs rather than heart-stopping terror.

But there is a grain of truth in this view. A more accurate assessment would be that the scariest horrors are the ones that convince the audience that this could happen. For example, the reason The Exorcist was such a box office smash and has terrified countless viewers over the years isn’t because there is a widespread belief in demons but the way the plot is constucted. It’s structured in such as way that all the possible scientific explanations of Reagan’s affliction are scotched one by one, so that by the time the demonic possession takes full effect the audience fully believes that the satanic forces on screen are real.

For Paranormal Activity, director Oren Peli has stated that he extensively researched genuine cases of hauntings and strove to keep all the events on screen as believable as possible. And as some one who has long been fascinated by the paranormal, I can affirm that the events in the movie do reflect accurately the symptoms of a genuine haunting. Everyone knows some one who has a spooky tale to tell concerning strange noises in the night or sighting a mysterious apparition, and Paranormal Activity captures the same tone as such real world ghost stories.

Naturally the found footage enhances the film’s sense of reality. The fact that it was shot in a real house (actually Oren Peli’s own pad incidentally) literally brings the terror home to roost. However other than the recognisably real setting, what really sells the story is the characters. To begin with both Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherstone) looks like real people and their performances are very natural. When casting, Peli looked for actors that would have a good chemistry together and could improvise and this decision pays off in spades.

At its heart Paranormal Activity is as much about Micah and Katie’s relationship as it is about the haunting. Their relationship has real depth and we’ll return to look at this aspect of the film in the following spoiler section. The way the film is constructed, with most of the haunting taking place during the night-time sequences, we get to see the ongoing and cumulative effects of the phenomena on their lives. All to often movies are set in a parallel universe where the characters don’t have bills to pay, jobs to go to and are generally impervious to biological rules such as fatigue and shock. However in Paranormal Activity, Peli has thought through his scenario and shows us the real world effects of having ghosts haunting your home. This cycle of event then aftermath ups the credibility of their situation considerably, and each scene of daytime reflection and reaction in turn makes the next outbreak of weird phenomena all the more frightening.

As for the titular paranormal activity itself, Peli is definitely as student of the “suggest rather show” school. Which is not to say that we don’t see anything, the malevolent force plaguing Micah and Katie do plenty but we only really see the results of its actions. And the film is more effective for it; in a work such as this which is about out fears of the dark, of the unknown if you summon the effects wizards and wheel out the monstrous being in all its latex/CGI glory, the mystery and atmosphere tend to evaporate.

William F. Nolan, author of Logan’s Run, summed up the problems of the full show approach – you can carefully build up tension, fear and threat with an unknown horror but when you finally throw open the door and reveal your monster the audience reaction tends to be one of relief. For example, if you reveal that your terrifying monster is a ten foot tall bug, the audience will be saying to themselves “OK it’s a ten foot insect, I can deal with that - I was worried it was a hundred foot bug!”.

Paranormal Activity gets around this problem by showing us just enough. Although the haunter is never revealed, we see enough of its actions to establish it as a presence in these scenes. And the audience is given enough hints to imagine what it actually is themselves. In not parading spectres on the screen and keeping their manifestations to a believable level, the film generates a sense of unease and the uncanny and effectively turns the audience’s imaginations against themselves. The copious phantasmagoria conjured up in Poltergeist, impressive as it is, is unlikely to engender a fear of coffins rocketing through your floor whereas everyone is scared by the idea of hearing something moving about in your house in the dead of night.

All in all, Paranormal Activity is an impressive little chiller and a fine addition to the canon of cinematic ghost stories. It may have only been shot in a week, but the deft plotting and excellent performance clearly show that a considerable amount of time was spent thinking through the storyline and rehearse the cast. Rather than being constrained and restricted by the low budget, Peli has embraced these limitations and turned them to the film’s advantage.

But of course the big question is – did it scare me? And the simple answer is yes it bloody well did! By the last third, when the haunting is hitting full stride, my heart was going like a demented jackhammer and one moment in particularly literally had my hair standing on end. So is it the one of the scariest films of all time? For me, the most terrifying films as those that literally have given me a sleepless night, and although Paranormal Activity had conjured up a palpable sense of dread and spooked me profoundly, I did sleep like a log. However I must confess that before retiring I made damn sure all my doors and windows were firmly shut and removed anything that might possibly cast an ominous shadow from my bedroom – the last thing I wanted after watching this movie was to awaken in the dim watches of the night to glimpse a figure lurking in the corner of the room or find that my bedroom door had popped ajar.

So although Paranormal Activity has won a place in the hallowed handful of movies that kept me up all night, it definitely came close and I’ve no hesitation in placing it in the top ranks of the second division of frightening films. Of course, your experience may be somewhat different and I don’t doubt that for some of you it may well turn out to be the scariest film you ever see.

Continue to the Spoiler section