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Alien (Ridley Scott, USA, 1979) March 23, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Film reviews, Artfully Deranged, Feminism, Genre, Audience , 6 comments

Dir. Ridley Scott; Written by Dan O’Bannon; starring Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto

My introduction to Ridley Scott’s space opus came sometime after being bowled over by James Cameron’s sequel. I guess it must have been around 1990, before David Fincher released the third instalment of the Alien saga. My ignorance of Scott’s sci-fi horror had to do with the fact I wasn’t born when it was first released in 1979, and partly because my mother had withheld the video from her impressionable son’s eyes; possibly fearing permanent psychological damage. This fear didn’t last long, since my determination to witness the Alien’s first cinematic adventure far outweighed her parental guidance. Coupled with the fact Alien was one of my Mum’s favourite movies, it wasn’t long before I was another devoted fan of Alien, Ripley, and the space-horror franchise. And, for the sake of not undermining my mother, I can safely say there was no psychological damage causedat least, that’s what my shrink tells me.

My first impression of Alien was one that appears the going trend. Quite honestly, it was one of the most frightening experiences of my movie watching life. Director Ridley Scott concocts a claustrophobic, uncompromising cinematic experience that bottles up all that is good about the haunted house movie and delivers it with teeth sharp enough to cut through the screen and take your arms and legs off. From the minute the opening credit sequence starts (bringing you out of your home comforts - that include a reassuring open fire and a locked door - into the unending expanse of outer space), the hieroglyphic letters appearing slowly and methodically onscreen offering no sense of hope, you’re left exposed, alone, vulnerable.

Alien was developed in the mid-1970s, the brainchild of film school graduate Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon had worked with John Carpenter on what would become simultaneously the most successful student film and the worst professional film ever released theatrically - Dark Star. The film, a precursor to O’Bannon’s Alien, saw a group of astronauts bidding to stay alive aboard a spacecraft housing a rather nasty but ultimately timid looking alien creature. After O’Bannon left film school and saw his next project fall flat on its face, he turned to friend and producer Ronald Shusett for help. Together, they fleshed out O’Bannon’s concept and started shopping it… [MORE]

Rating: 5/5

Top 10 Horror Films of the 1980s May 7, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, Top 10s, Artfully Deranged, Genre, The Film Industry, Audience , 54 comments

To see the Top 10 Scariest Horror Film Moments - CLICK HERE

Where there is no imagination there is no horror.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

The success, both in terms of the comment generated and the amount of visitors, this Top 10 list enjoyed is in no small part inspiration for my new site www.top10films.co.uk. Accessed HERE, the site includes hundreds of Top 10 film lists across a wide variety of topics with the purpose of providing you with a great choice of films to watch based on anything from a simple theme, to a genre, a time-period, or even special interest lists including world renowned filmmakers’ Top 10s.
Check out this feature with bells and whistles - video clips, interviews, and trailers!

I vaguely remember my introduction to the horror film. My cousin was visiting, the curtains had been drawn on a sunny afternoon, and John Landis’ An American Werewolf In London had been placed in the VCR. I was seven years old. I recollect that evening, and for many nights consequently, I hardly slept. There was something under my bed, and there was even something in the closet, I knew it too well. Of course, it was easy to see since I’d cry bloody Mary if anyone tried to turn my light off. Could I keep my eyes open? It was becoming more difficult, all I could see were those green hills shrouded in the black cloak of night, and the warning: ‘Stay on the road. Keep clear of the moors,’ delivered in that Yorkshire twang. Bryan Glover’s short, controlled outburst – probably his unusual form of goodbye – ‘Beware the moon, lads.’ Then our hero David and best friend Jack are stranded. They’ve wandered off the path, there are no lights around, no one to help. They hear a sound, distant at first but growing louder. Could it be a dog, no, it sounds much bigger. Then the screams, the tearing of flesh, the quick cuts and extreme close-ups; we see a gun fire, all goes silent, and the darkness pervades.

I grew up as part of the video generation. Cinema was changing again – attendances were down and people were far happier watching videos or catching re-runs on television than they were venturing from the comfort of their own home. By the early 1990s, eighties babies were beginning to enjoy cinema beyond family movies, cartoons and the Wizard of Oz. In Britain, this audience - post-1984 Video Recordings Act - wanted to find their niche and what better place to start than the forsaken shelves of the video nasty. Bootleg, grainy copies of The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tormented young minds, while the horror film cemented its place firmly in cult circles. This fervent popularity from both adults and teenagers for the horror film encouraged the industry (especially Hollywood) to produce some wonderfully surreal, engaging and stylish pieces of cinema. We saw the rampant emergence of the ‘Slasher’ movie from Wes Craven and Sean S. Cunningham, gore and special-effects from Tom Savini, the body horror of David Cronenberg, the dreams and nightmares of Clive Barker, the cross genre comedy-horror from John Landis, Tom Holland, and Dan O’Bannon. There was franchised sequels, villains-as-heroes, gothic homage, iconic theme music, lunch boxes, action figures and other cross-promotion. Indeed, the horror film was as much derided as it was loved. But the eighties produced some of the greatest examples of the genre following, and certainly inspired by, the fears and trend-setting new traditions of the new-age horror from the seventies.

The genre has failed for years to get recognition from a critical standpoint. Much of the recognition it did receive was negative – throughout the 1930s and 1940s, horror movies were thought to be harmful to society and many local authorities banned films they deemed unsuitable. During the 1950s, Hammer Studios used negative press and liberal scare tactics to promote their films, and it was as much the backlash from politicians and critics that helped cultivate underground following for the genre. However, by the late 1960s, there was a trend beginning in France that saw critics warming to the genre, and by the time Carlos Clarens and Ivan Butler’s books were released, there was a new feeling that looked at the films as serious art forms. Instead of lambasting horror movies as detrimental, even dangerous, to society, writers were beginning to look at the long literary traditions that had first inspired these films. And they also investigated the history and transformation of the genre since the first examples were seen in such German expressionism as Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. By the 1970s every critic who wanted a name for themselves had written about the horror movie, whether their point of view was positive, negative, or indifferent. Most importantly, horror had become a mainstream commodity with the obvious example being Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It isn’t surprising that the seventies produced the best and most influential films of the genre (The Exorcist, Halloween, The Wicker Man, Dawn Of The Dead), with audiences, the art form, and the industry all benefiting from this budding type of film.

Yet, the eighties was a period not far behind the previous decade in terms of quality output. Certainly, the genre was much more diverse with self-reference, parody, and hybrids such as Kathryn Bigelow’s brilliant Near Dark, showing what could be done. On top of that you had some lovely original pieces of cinema with such films as Dan O’Bannon’s special-effects homage to Romero The Return of the Living Dead, Joel Schumacher’s coming-of-age vampire flick The Lost Boys, and beyond Hollywood with the Dutch/French production The Vanishing, and stylistic Italian director Dario Argento’s Tenebre and Inferno. Indeed, the vibrancy for the genre in the 1980s came from films which embraced and celebrated horror. Prime examples would be the self-referential Fright Night, gore-fest The Evil Dead, Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste, John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing, and Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock-inspired Dressed To Kill. It has been said the eighties was, much like very early film, the cinema of attractions. It pushed the boundaries of the medium to new frontiers, backed by Reagan’s forward-thinking plans. Director’s thought visually, and nothing held their creative minds back. It was the period where dreams and nightmares were displayed on screen more realistically than had ever been seen. In effect, there appeared no better time for horror (much like science-fiction during the same period) – with its otherworldly themes – to prosper on a grand scale. In a sense you’ve got to thank George Lucas because with Star Wars he reintroduced audiences to escapism, which had somewhat been lost during the dominance of social-issue and character studies of the seventies.

The genre, which would continue to diversify into the nineties (postmodernism in A New Nightmare in 1994, which led to Scream and the revitalisation of the Slasher film; and the digital video revolution and use of new media with Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez’s masterful manipulation of the audience with The Blair Witch Project), still retained a very distinct set of conventions that primarily challenged normality and distanced the real from the unreal. Reading many different theorists views about how the horror film works makes for wide reaching, and often, very politically motivated ideologies, but it’s interesting nonetheless. There’s a school that believes American horror is dominated by the struggles created by consumerism, patriarchal social relations, and family struggle, and that the location of the horror is in the home and our way of life. Others believe the monsters prevalent in horror films represent institutional fears, like the affect the church, government, or the police can have on breaking or changing familial tradition, while some writers look at the way the audience is manipulated through the aesthetics of the films by the way they play on the insecurities that defy rational explanation. There are also people such as Stephen Neale who believe the genre satisfies a fetish for violence and terror that is inherited by the society and cultural structure we live in, while feminist theorists argue the genre is dominated by misogyny and the ‘female’ as victim.

Whether you find yourself agreeing or disagreeing, the fact remains that the horror film is, and has been, a very popular genre for audiences. Despite its early critical backlash, the genre has been important as far back as the 1930s when Universal produced Dracula and Frankenstein amongst others, which were so well received by audiences, it enabled the company to become a major Hollywood studio. In the 1940s RKO created many films including Cat People, which pioneered a style which would be imitated by filmmakers for years to come. Instead of showing the monster, filmmakers used off-screen space, sound, lighting and deep shadows, character reaction, and the ambiguity of the audience’s imagination to produce stylish and emotionally impacting movies. Independent production prospered in the 1960s with the most influential film being George A. Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead, which led to a new respectability with Roman Polanski’s mesmerising Rosemary’s Baby, and the best film the genre ever created, William Friedkin’s terrifying The Exorcist.

For me, the best decade for horror was the 1980s and that’s why I present my top 10. Below, you’ll also find my Top five favourite moments:

10. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985, USA)

‘’Apparently your generation doesn’t want to see vampire killers anymore, nor vampires either. All they want to see slashers running around in ski masks, hacking up young virgins.'’

Top 10, why?: Tom Holland’s superb self-referential horror-comedy is both delightfully funny and darkly sadistic, wryly telling the story of a teenager who knows a Vampire has moved in next door but no one believes him. A standout performance from Roddy McDowell is the centre point of a film that simultaneously celebrates and parodies the genre. This unique film inspired a lot of the post-modern sentiment later seen in the 1990s.

Critic quote: ‘…it’s hard to get into this movie and not have a little fun…’ (Nadd Yapp)

External review: Absolute Horror


9. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987, UK)

‘’We will tear your soul apart'’

Top 10, why?: The film embodies the idea of nightmares displayed on screen as Clive Barker creates a terrifying vision of hell on earth.

Critic Quote: ‘I have seen the future of the horror genre, and his name is Clive Barker.’ (Stephen King)

External Reviews: British Horror Films, Blog of the Rotting Dead


8. The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988, Holland)

‘’The only way to tell you, is to make you share the exact same experience'’

Top 10, why?: Sluizer’s film is about pacing and atmosphere. He plays with audience expectation (even telling us who the killer is half way through) and concludes the film with one of the best and most devastating conclusions to any horror film ever made.

Critic Quote: Sounds like an overworked premise for Alfred Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes), Roman Polanski (Frantic), or Jonathan Mostow (Breakdown), but The Vanishing quickly veers into new and intriguing territories. (Matthew Kennedy)

External reviews: Bright Lights Film Journal, Combustible Celluloid


7. The Return Of The Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985, USA)

‘’Did you see that movie, “Night of the Living Dead”?'’

Top 10, why?: Dan O’Bannon’s homage to Romero is fun, pacy and full of great production design and prosthetic effects. The film was essentially fighting against Sam Raimi’s excellent sequel to The Evil Dead, but I decided to go with O’Bannon’s effort because it’s a more polished affair with several good performances.

Critic Quote: ‘It’s kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.’ (Roger Ebert)

External Reviews: Dr. Gore, Apollo Movie Guide, Club IGN


6. The Fly (David Cronenberg, 1986, USA)

‘’What am I working on? Uhh… I’m working on something that will change the world, and human life as we know it.'’

Top 10, why?: Anchored by a brilliant performance from Jeff Goldblum, director David Cronenberg continues his investigation into the renowned body-horror, as Goldbum’s Seth Brundle attempts metamorphosis but it all goes wrong when a house fly gets caught up in the machine. As Brundle struggles to find a cure to his problem, he falls deeper in love with Geena Davis’ concerned Veronica. When he learns that his body structure is becoming that of a fly, the fruits of his new powers soon challenge his own sanity, and his own survival. The Fly is one of several great horror films made in the eighties by Cronenberg but it stands out because it his most accessible, and probably most accomplished piece of work.

Critic Quote: ‘It’s hard to watch; not only because it takes a strong stomach to cope with the necessarily gruesome special effects but because the emotions depicted are so honest and direct that they eventually becomes overwhelming.’ (Mike Sutton)

External Reviews: Reel.com

5. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987, USA)

‘’We keep odd hours…'’

Top 10, why?: Near Dark has always fascinated me because it’s a horror film that only really works within the constraints of the genre based on the audiences expectation and understanding of the gothic, and of past vampire films. It’s almost a western love story, with the premise setting the scene for two star-crossed lovers from distinct families that cannot mix. It’s the Romeo and Juliet of the vampire world. The film features half the main cast from James Cameron’s Aliens, with Lance Henrikson, Bill Paxton, and Jenette Goldstein all working together again, and Paxton and Henrikson are superb in their roles as rogue bloodsuckers. This small-budget film was a given an awful marketing campaign that saw it fail at the box office, and also saw Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys become the remembered vampire film of 1987. However, Bigelow’s beautifully paced tale is a fantastic film because it was the most unique horror movie of the 1980s, and looked at the gothic story from a completely different point of view than had been seen before.

Critic Quote:Near Dark is the best vampire movie you’ve never heard of…’ (Rod Armstrong)

External Reviews: My full review, Horror Movies.com, Alex Jackson, My New Plaid Pants (for an interesting take on the film), Grave Robber


4. A Nightmare On Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984, USA)

‘’Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep.'’

Top 10, why?: It says a lot that this is the only teen slasher film to make the top ten. Wes Craven’s excellent film, much like Clive Barker’s Hellraiser, embodies the idea of a nightmare on screen. It’s also backed by a brilliant premise that has a killer who can only hurt you while you sleep. Fantastic!

Critic Quote: ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street is tailor made for those who like their gore leavened with thought-provoking ideas - something that is a rarity in this genre.’ (James Berardinelli)

External Reviews: Alex Jackson


3. An American Werewolf In London (John Landis, 1981, USA)

‘’A naked American man stole my balloons'’

Top 10, why?: John Landis’ 1981 classic was an easy choice for a top ten spot because it’s one of my all time favourite films. It’s also a horror film that Roger Ebert absolutely hates, which means it has to be one of the best films ever made. Not that I’m trying to have a dig at the renowned critic (I’ve used one of his quotes for Return Of The Living Dead), but I do believe he simply doesn’t get Landis’ film. He seems to believe horror and comedy have lived seamlessly for years, but not like this they haven’t. An American Werewolf In London is equally funny and frightening, and Landis is one of only a few directors to actually make it work. Ebert, while celebrating special-effects maestro Rick Baker’s work on the film, merely disassociates that quality for his overall appreciation of the film. Baker’s werewolf transformation was not only one of the most realistic special-effects ever to be put to celluloid at the time, but it was underpinned by Landis’ superb use of music (the brilliant irony of classic Blue Moon). It works so perfectly because it flirts between a line that doesn’t tell the audience to laugh or cry, and by breaking convention, the audience is left not knowing what might happen next. The sequence makes for the best werewolf transformation ever put on screen, and is one of the primary reasons the film has such a cult following and is regarded by horror fans as one of the best examples of the genre ever made.

Critic Quote: ‘…in the summer of 1981 came John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London, which has, in many ways, set the standard for the modern werewolf movie.’ (James Birardinelli)

External Reviews: DVD Times, Jeffrey Wachs, Chrissy Deberyshire, Darth Jamyz


2. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982, USA)

‘’I dunno what the hell’s in there, but it’s weird and pissed off, whatever it is.'’

Top 10, why?: Much like The Fly, I’d have to question whether to put this in the horror or science-fiction category but essentially they are both horror movies at the most primitive level. The Thing was John Carpenter’s sixth major feature production, and for me, it’s a work that he has never surpassed before or since. He made many excellent movies within the genre through the eighties, but the sense of paranoia amongst his ensemble cast in The Thing makes for wonderful, suspenseful viewing. The blood test sequence in the middle of the film is one of the best scene’s in horror cinema ever put to celluloid.

Critic Quote: ‘John Carpenter may be better known for Halloween or Escape from New York, but The Thing is easily the famed horror director’s best film.’ (Evan Pulgino)

External Reviews: James Berardinelli


1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980, USA)

‘’Here’s Johnny…!'’

Top 10, why?: This was an easy choice for number one. It’s Kubrick’s best film and one of the greatest films ever made, no matter what genre. What I love about the movie is that it gets better with every viewing, and I know the next time I watch it I’ll enjoy it more than the last.

Critic quote: ‘Stanley Kubrick doesn’t anything by halves. What this die-hard perfectionist has created, during the years of post-production work that went on while tucked away in a British film studio, are exemplary pieces of artistic refinement: 2001, A Space Odyssey was a masterpiece in science-fiction, Barry Lyndon set a new standard for historical epics and The Shining redefined the meaning of horror altogether.’ (Der Spiegel)

External Reviews: Alex Jackson, Chris Justice, Robert Castle

Round up

There’s obviously many great films that didn’t make my top ten, notably the Evil Dead’s, Dressed To Kill, The Lost Boys, Innocent Blood, The Howling, The Fog, Christine, Prince Of Darkness, a whole heap of teen slasher movies, Dead and Buried, Manhunter, Tenebre and other European independent films, Bad Taste, Cannibal Holocaust and a lot of exploitative filth, Critters, Gremlins (but I always enjoyed the sequel more), The Hitcher, Scanners, Re-animator, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Silver Bullet, Child’s Play, the list goes on.

I probably realised this before making my top ten, but it confirms that I don’t like sadistic horror films that set out to repulse the audience. You may notice that I’ve chosen mainly mainstream horror films. It’s all well and good making social comments like Wes Craven’s The Last House On The Left, but when a film becomes the director’s perverted wet dream, it isn’t fun anymore. For all that the horror genre does to its audience it should always be fun and entertaining, leaving the viewer with a feeling of adrenaline, not sickness. For that reason, I think the eighties produced some of the best films from the genre (and don’t get me wrong, it also produced some of the worst). They were and still are entertaining movies. The improvement of special-effects may date the films now but the nostalgic feeling of watching them again makes up for that.


Top Five Moments from 1980s Horror

1. An American Werewolf In London – The Transformation

David Kessler tries to keep himself occupied in Nurse Alex’s house when she leaves him to go to work. As night falls, and the full moon comes out, he feels a terrible pain in his chest. His skin begins to burn, and his bones begin to crack, as his body changes into that of a werewolf. The great thing director John Landis does here is to make the whole scene painful to watch and clearly painful for David. This isn’t the easy transformation that had been seen in cinema before. This was bones, and flesh, moulding and changing; it hurt. The scene is very realistic, and the prosthetic make-up effects look better than any CGI would today. Landis beautifully underpins the scene with the blues classic Blue Moon which is sadistically ironic.

2. The Thing – Blood Test

Working out that alien and human blood react to each other, the surviving group conduct a blood test to work out which, if any of them, are alien. Carpenter infuses the scene with paranoia, creating a level of suspense he hangs on to for several minutes as the scene plays out.

3. Evil Dead II – Ash battles his own hand

When Ash’s hand gets possessed, he’s forced to cut it off. However, after the gruelling dismemberment, the severed hand (clearly pissed off at such an action), comes after him in one of the great comedic horror moments.

4. The Vanishing – The final twist and devastating conclusion

The film leaves both the viewer and main character Rex in completely darkness over the fate of his girlfriend. Although, we meet the man who abducted her, we are still unsure whether she is dead or alive. When Rex agrees to take a sleeping pill in order to find out what really happened, he awakens to have all his questions answered. This is one of the best endings to any horror film from the eighties. It’s both devastatingly affecting and cruelly ironic.

5. The Hitcher – They thought it was all over…it wasn’t.

The audience, and the characters, are left thinking the terror might be all over…but it isn’t. Jim leaves his hotel room to find Nash (the girl he had fallen for over the course of the film) tied between a truck and its trailer. If the police shoot the driver, his foot will leave the clutch and the truck will roll forward, ripping Nash in half. In order to save her, Jim gets into the truck with the driver to talk him out of it. He doesn’t succeed.


See video clips, interviews and trailers for the films mentioned above - right here


Inside Out: Body Horror, Films of the 1980s

Final Girls and Terrible Youth: Transgression in 1980s Slasher Horror

Everything I need to know, I learned from 1980s Horror Films

Hammer Horror and British Cinema (1930s to 1970) May 4, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Artfully Deranged, Genre, The Film Industry, Audience , add a comment

Below is an essay I wrote at university attempting to answer the question: What contribution did Hammer make to the development of the British cinema from its beginnings to c1970?. I present it here for anyone wanting some background on the subject. I believe it is historically accurate and the facts are definitely sourced, but the quality of argument and the style of my writing leaves at lot to be desired. My only defense is that it was written many years ago in my first year at University. I do hope I’ve improved since.

The son of James Carreras – Enrique, formed a distribution company in partnership with Will Hinds in 1935. The company was called Exclusive Films and during the 1940’s it produced the occasional few films based on radio characters such as Dick Barton. The company was very much a family run affair, and in 1947 its production activities were rationalised and a new company, Hammer films, was set up. The name came from the stage name of Exclusive’s co-owner Will Hinds, who was known as Will Hammer in the theatre. James Carreras became the managing director; Anthony Hinds (Will Hinds son) became a producer and Michael, son of James Carreras became his assistant. The production company came about at a bad time for the film industry in Britain, with the industry falling into recession as films were not making profit. Hammer though, survived, thanks largely to James Carreras’ ideas for film production taking the stance that if a film would not make profit, then it should not be made at all. With ruthless cost-cutting and a determination to treat films as commercial products rather than simply expressionist art, Hammer was able to maintain itself. In examining how and what ‘Hammer’ films did to the development of British cinema I intend to look at several key areas which are: How Hammer started to make commercial products to make profit over critical praise or artistic merit; how Hammer managed to keep production costs low, something that meant many other production companies couldn’t make profit because the cost of making their films was so high; how Hammer was able to introduce a new genre into British film industry as well as British culture – a genre that had already become very popular in the USA; and finally, how Hammer was able to make films for the international market, branching out British cinema to new countries especially the USA.

Hammer is remembered today for its ‘horror’ films, which is a little unfair because it produced many other genres, starting out with dramas and comedies, and also period-action films. Horror movies didn’t even register as half their output. As a matter of fact, only 1/8th of Hammer films were horror, and one of their most famous and appreciated films was the comedy ‘On The Buses’. So why is Hammer so synonymous with the ‘Horror’ film, and more importantly, such Gothic horror characters like Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde? It links back to James Carreras’ idea that a film should only go into production if it is sure to make money. In the 1930’s, the horror genre started to crop up in the USA, and soon became a very marketable and profitable commodity. The horror genre at this time hadn’t appeared in Britain, and there was no indication that anyone was too bothered about it. Twenty years later, in 1954, Hammer Films was struggling and times were bad with the company’s future depending heavily on the box-office of their 1954 output. One of the films produced during this time, was the ‘The Quatermass Xperiment (1954) and it did surprisingly very well. The film was a mix of science fiction and horror, and was produced largely due to the success of the television show it was based on – Nigel Kneale’s The Quatermass Experiment. Additionally, ‘horror’ was beginning to be a more marketable genre in Britain with the rise of horror comics. Many of these comics were subsequently banned, after they were deemed unsuitable for any audience, and this created a ‘stir’ with attention drawn to this new type of entertainment. The idea was simply: try to scare an audience for pleasure. With the political intervention barring people from horror products, demand grew. However, not only did Hammer’s The Quatermass Xperiment offer an outlet for this growing demand, it also utilized the new rating of ‘X’ in its title. This new certificate was for films aimed only at an adult audience.

James Carreras then did his own market research to find out why the film was such a success, asking cinema managers whether it was the sci-fi elements, or the horror elements that were getting people into the cinema. The response was totally in the court of the ‘horror’ aspect, which sent Carreras off to quickly create more ideas, and films in the horror genre. What followed was a ‘spin off’ ‘X – The Unknown (Leslie Norman, 1956) and a sequel ‘Quatermass 2 (V. Guest, 1957). While Hammer didn’t totally discard other genres to produce ‘horror’ films only, their horror output was their most marketable and profitable genre. Such was the money acquired from these films, Hammer stopped producing comedies soon after The Quatermass Xperiment’s success. It should also be noted that during this time television was growing more popular so using a notable television show theme was an iconic reminder that brought people back into cinemas.

It is also worth noting that Hammer Films thrived on the bad publicity it got from certain sectors claiming their horror films were not suitable to be seen, citing the horror and violence as inappropriate. ‘It doesn’t really concern us at all. We’re purely a commercial company, we turn out films we think are fairy tales in a way and we don’t think they offend anybody. We’ve never known anyone rush out after seeing a Dracula and help himself to a pint of blood, or rush off to do a transplant because they’ve seen Professor Frankenstein doing one.’[1] This links with the idea that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Also, the idea of life imitating art is raised which has become a prominent media angle in the 1990’s. Films such as Natural Born Killers (Oliver Stone) and Scream (Wes Craven 1997) have been targeted as causes of high school shootings (eg. Columbine High School) and rape (a woman was raped by a man wearing a mask featured in ‘Scream’). Like these films in the nineties, Hammer Horror were able to gain a cult following because of the media distaste, with people wanting more, not less. In many respects cinemagoers were trying to revolt against the higher powers. In the 1950’s it was likely the revolt was based on class status. Therefore, it could be seen that Hammer horror was a precursor, at least as far as cinema’s involvement, to the decline of a class system in Britain.

We have to look back at Hammer Films history to see how they could make so many films, in small stretches of time and with so little money. After all, it wasn’t over-night that The Quatermass Xperiment’s success transformed Hammer into a production company churning out box-office successes month after month. What did happen however was more interest came from the USA and while Hammer continued to produce various genre films, it was their ‘horror’ films that were the most successful both in Britain, and what would soon become a success in the USA. This is one of the major reasons why Hammer are remembered for ‘horror’ rather than anything else. While their ‘horror’ films were attractive to audiences, they weren’t always of a very high quality in terms of the way in which they were acted, scripted and directed. Additionally, the critics hardly ever praised Hammer horror films – partly due to their exploitive violence, but mainly due to them lacking artistic merit. Therefore, other Hammer films, produced under different genres also fell pray to low quality and poor critical appraisal.

One of the major costs of film production was rental studio space, but Hammer came to the solution of buying a large country house, converting it into a studio and creating scripts to work around the décor and location of the house so that it could be re-used, and wouldn’t require constant changes in production design or locale. ‘The actual cost of buying such a house compared favourably with the studio rentals asked, and with the right story material, the décor of the house could actually provide the sets for the film…’[2] There were of course limitations with using a ‘real’ country house to make films, like for instance, it encouraged the use of 35mm wide angle lenses and the avoidance of panning and tracking shots. Such were these limitations that ‘long takes’, with very little camera movement, became prominent parts of Hammer Films’ mise-en-scene. But as other production companies used mobile sets, moving from location to location, the ‘country house’ idea proved cost effective. For example, Outlook Films using mobile sets made ‘Blue Scar’ (Jill Craigie 1950) for 75, 000 pounds, while Hammer made a couple of movies at the same time for considerably less. ‘Their first, Dr. Morelle (Anthony Hinds 1948) cost 15, 000 pounds, and their second (PC 49) was budgeted at 12, 000 pounds…’[3] With the money they were saving they were able to maintain a stronger foot hole in British cinema by being able to make more films more quickly than their competitors. In making the films on a smaller budget they didn’t have to rely on every one being a success as 1 or 2 profitable moviess was enough to recuperate expenses, and enough to make further films. It should also be noted that Hammer utilised the services of the same actors playing either the same or very similar roles. This allowed them to keep costs down by buying actors for a set amount of movies, and it also created audience anticipation and a cult following of the actors involved. Christopher Lee as Count Dracula regularly appeared and this not only gave Hammer an angle to promote the film (star status), it also gave their output a solid foot hole in British cinema because people started going to see the films because an actor they were familiar with was involved. This did not just work in Britain but internationally as well, and it could be argued that Hammer played a key role in the emergence of ‘star persona’.

However, Carreras was not content to pander to just the needs of Britain, he wanted to expand and get his product seen all around the world. ‘If you’re going to spend x amount on film and your only market is your own and perhaps Australia and South Africa, we think it’s better to make subjects that every country will buy.’[4] The Quatermass Xperiment, did surprisingly well in the USA, which put Hammer into the international limelight. From this, movie deals quickly became available with Carreras signing contracts with Universal, Columbia and United Artists. While Hammer continued to make varied genre films, they ceased making comedies as they were very difficult to sell abroad. Carreras’ method of selling films for the American market was to present an impression of what was needed to get audiences into cinema’s around the world. ‘Before we make a picture we say to ourselves “What will it look like outside of the cinema” and “Is it international”’. One of the main reasons why Hammer comedies did not work was because British humour was very different to American humour, which is reflected in the films produced then, and even now.

Hammer horror films maintained a British ‘feel’ and generic features that separated them from the American competition. Such things as the exploitation of technicolour via the lavishly coloured ‘country house’ sets; the abrupt endings, very simple narratives; no flashbacks or dream sequences; attention to detail through the use of lingering shots of certain aspects of the mise-en-scene in order to emphasise; and all the films were there to exploit – exploitation of blood, death and the macabre (things people hadn’t seen before), all clearly delineated in trailers, posters and of course in the films themselves. The films ‘in cultural terms were “British” in a very specific way. By and large they were set in a fantasy world of the past or of the future, but only rarely did they deal with the “real” Britain of the day.’ While they didn’t show a realist representation of Britain, the films did analogise ‘the time of uncertainty’. They showed a changing Britain (the critical backlash, the change in rating with the introduction of the ‘X’ rating), and also the depiction of good and evil, which had become a major part in British society with the uncertainty after the second world war, and the threat of nuclear weapons. Also, the changing of Britain’s youth as teens rebelled against authority, (the ‘Horror is bad’ message in the media only fueled a hunger for more).

In conclusion, looking at Hammer Films we see that Carreras and his team not only introduced a new genre to British film culture; and not only made that genre popular and profitable, but they also tapped into the American market with their fantasy tales. Not only this, Carreras’ shrewd selling tactics enabled Hammer to sell more films in America than anyone else, expanding British cinema abroad. To say Hammer revolutionised the British film industry is debatable, but what it did do is produce films that not only stand the test of time today, but also leave a legacy and footprint in the history of British film. British Film today utilises low budget (Trainspotting); ‘star persona’(The Parole Officer – star: Steve Coogan); making generic horror films (Dog Soldiers); breaking norms to create interest (24 Hour Party People – shot digitally; documentary style); using real locations to save money (The Full Monty); shrewd business (Working Title films deal with American studio to produce a number of films: Four Weddings and A Funeral, Notting Hill etc.), all things that can be directly related to Hammer fifty years ago.



The Oxford History Of World Cinema – Antonia Lant – Oxford University Press © 1996

British Cinema History – Creativity at Ealing and Hammer Studios pg. 193 – 207

Authorship and British Cinema – Peter Hutchings – Chapter 12

[1] Creativity at Ealing Studios and Hammer Films – British Cinema History (Curran and Porter) pg. 197

[2] Creativity at Ealing Studios and Hammer Films – British Cinema History (Curran and Porter) pg. 194

[3] Creativity at Ealing Studios and Hammer Films – British Cinema History (Curran and Porter) pg. 194

[4] [According to Carreras] Creativity at Ealing Studios and Hammer Films – British Cinema History (Curran and Porter) pg. 197

Not just another dead soldier: Subjectivity in Saving Private Ryan April 19, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Artfully Deranged, Audience , add a comment

Saving Private Ryan is a very subjective film that paints a glorious view of heroic American soldiers sent to save the world from evil. Whether this is a problem or not is for the audience to decide but it has continually split critics over the merits of the film. However, to examine how the film uses its subjectivity within the narrative, it is possible to look at its focalisation, narrative point of view, and the careful construction and control of spectatorial knowledge.

In Saving Private Ryan, ‘focalisation’ forms a major part of the narrative as it ‘shapes our perception of the fabula [story]’[1]. The way in which it does this is by omitting story information in the plot to create a focal point for the narrative. As we are introduced to Captain Miller, the main character of the film, we are immediately focused on his part of the overall story. This is only a minor part of the focalisation that the narrative creates, because through the suppression of gaps we are quickly told who is on the side of the ‘bad’, and who is on the side of the ‘good’. In the initial battle sequence we know German soldiers must be dying. We see them shooting, yet this is all we see. This suppression of gaps helps focalise the story on Miller and the Americans while delineating a divide between what the plot believes are the good and bad. The gap however is temporary, as we see dead German bodies being searched and/or moved. We fill in the gap that other German soldiers must have died in the firefight previous. Although the gap is suppressed, ‘surprise’ is not its goal which is usually a major use of the suppressed gap. In this case, the gap (which we can imagine would be German soldiers screaming in pain, and dying in much the same way as the Americans) localises our attention on the American soldier’s deaths. It creates a causal relationship in that the ‘barbaric’ German bullets kill the ‘helpless but heroic’ Americans. Therefore when, in this case, we fill in the gap, through the subjective view presented to us, the dead German soldiers are mere trophies of the ‘heroic’ American’s who have survived this long. Because of this set-up, when American soldiers later kill surrendering Germans there is less a sense of reversed-barbarism more an awful feeling of payback. The cause and effect of the events presented in the first battle work on the audiences generic expectations of a war movie, and reinforce the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ divides. As mentioned, it is very subjective as we are told who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’.

‘Retardation’, as David Bordwell describes as a factor of the ‘gap’ in story information, occurs when the plot postpones revealing certain items of fibula information. In this respect, we arrive at the ‘point of view’ of the narrative in Saving Private Ryan. The constant throughout the film is a clear delineation between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, and this is reinforced through retardation. For example, in the initial first battle scene we are given key expositional details. Firstly, the shots of the American flag followed by an old man visiting graves. This is then followed by shots of an empty beach covered in debris, before centering on Miller in the boat. He is wearing U.S army uniform sporting a clearly defined U.S flag. This visual clue alone ties the soldiers in with the opening shot of an old man visiting graves via the flags prominence. Finally, the non-diegetic title of ‘Normandy, 1944 – D-Day’ delineates not only a flashback, but uses audience ideology and their prior expectations to set the scene of America going to war. Our initial belief is that Miller is the old man in the first scene, but as I will discuss later, this is not the case. However, that is a minor detail in that whoever the soldier is, he represents the U.S and quickly it is established that the narrative point of view is on the side of the Americans.

As mentioned earlier when discussing the narrative focalisation through distributed exposition, the audience is continually presented with the ‘heroic Americans’ and ‘barbaric Germans’. Examples include the eventual introduction of the Nazi soldiers as they stare down the barrels of their guns killing U.S soldiers. Additionally, in a later scene Miller and his men decide to secure a Nazi outpost. We are given the information that they go to fight but we only hear the gun battle, we don’t see it. Then the guns stop firing, and we are introduced to a German soldier held at gun point, with one U.S soldier shouting at him, ‘Why did you kill him’, referring to a U.S comrade who had just been shot dead. If we take this as the ‘initial’ scene (the audience hearing the bullets being fired as prior plot events), we are presented with the question of why are we, through Miller and his men, in remorse over the death of one U.S soldier, while two dead German soldiers lie dead in the background? The fact is we don’t ask the question because we are not allowed to – if the narrative hadn’t taken its point of view with Miller, and from the U.S perspective, then such remorse wouldn’t have been so easily centralised with the U.S soldier. A prime example of the point of view being reversed is in Wolfgang Peterson’s Das Boot, where our remorse if firmly centered on German navy soldiers.

Retardation also affects the film’s point of view in a more conventional sense. Before it highlighted the plight of good versus evil - the Americans versus the German’s - the film opens with the old man viewing gravestones, then we are established in flashback and our attention is brought to Captain Miller, a much younger man. This suggests, in story terms, that Miller is the old man, and he is recalling the events of the time he took part in D-Day where many of his friends and countrymen were to die. Therefore, the ‘initial’ scene or as drama theorists call it, the ‘point of attack’ is set up, and our immediate belief is that the following information simply confirms our belief the old man is Miller. Unlike the way in which the Germans are interweaved in the story via distributed exposition, the narrative utilises what the audience believes in order to create a shock or surprise by the end, much like a mystery film. This concentrated exposition is delayed until the end in order to maintain the highest possible level of surprise. As Miller dies we wonder how he can be by the graves, but through a dissolve from the young Private Ryan’s face (a character we meet much later in the story) to the old man’s – (they both have the same forlorn facial expression) – confirms that our understanding of the old man was wrong. Sternberg calls this ‘the rise and fall of first impressions’[2] Bordwell claims that ‘concentrated exposition supplies a strong primacy effect, solid grounds for confident hypotheses’[3], so in using this narrative technique at the end, it could be argued that it attempts to leave the audience with a solidified view on the events portrayed, and that you take away the subjective view expressed throughout. For instance, this could be a technique of not allowing the audience to ask too many questions about a point of view that is excessively subjective and essentially biased. It could be seen as taking the audience’s attention off such elements as the German’s portrayal, as you think about how the plot fooled you into thinking the two characters were one and the same. The narrative acts much like a magician: he/she has you looking at one hand, while he/she hides the playing card in the other. A much more extreme example would be The Usual Suspects (Bryan Singer 1995), yet Saving Private Ryan still uses the technique. In holding back information, then releasing it at the end, the filmmakers have the ability to cause shock and surprise. Not only this, when re-watching the film a now knowledgeable audience would look at it in a different way providing a differing insight, and via the suppression of gaps already discussed, and the ‘surprise’ exposition at the end, the film manages to almost pull the wool over our eyes and centre us on its point of view.

Additionally, like most narratives, the plot repeats to ‘reinforce assumptions, inferences, and hypotheses about story information’.[4] A simple example of this in terms of Saving Private Ryan is the non-diegetic title of ‘Normandy’ telling us where we are. After the main battle, one of Miller’s men puts soil into a small tin marked ‘France’. He places it in his bag next to other similar tins with country names written on in the same handwriting, and with the same blue pen. This suggests he takes soil from each country he visits as a souvenir, and with him taking soil and putting it in a tin marked ‘France’, this infers he is now in Normandy, France. It could also help the audience know that Normandy is in France, for those who did not know. Whereas this sort of repetition reinforces story information, we can relate the repetition of plot information to the narrative point of view. The subjective view of the German’s is repeated because according to Bordwell, by ‘repeating its own commentary’ it adheres ‘to a consistent point of view’.[5] For example, the shot of a German soldier constantly shooting an automatic rifle is shown several times. Later we are presented with the ‘barbaric’ Nazi soldier who swears he did not shoot Miller’s medic. Remorse is shown for the one dead American soldier while two dead German’s lie as mere objects in the background. The ‘heroic’ American’s allow the ‘barbaric’ German to go, however, his ‘barbarism’ is reinforced when he returns in the final battle seen shooting American soldiers dead. Eventually, a ‘heroic’ American soldier kills the ‘barbaric’ German. While we continually see the American’s discussing the morality of war throughout the film, no attention of the plot is given to the story of that particular soldier when he is not interacting with Miller and his men. The soldier could just have easily been discussing the same subjects: why he didn’t want to fight, or whether he actually agreed with the Nazis motives, or whether he was so scared of being killed if he didn’t fight, he just had to do as he was ordered. Therefore, the plot not only repeats information to make it easy to follow the story, but it repeats information to maintain its own point of view.

Finally, in terms of the control of spectatorial knowledge, you have to look for the optical and aditory clues. As already mentioned, we are presented with a very subjective view on the allies involvement during World War II, and our range of knowledge is restricted to the character of Miller (or Private Ryan, if he is recalling what Miller tells him before he dies). In the initial battle scene, we follow Miller’s movements – when he stops, we stop; when he hides, we hide with him. It is our interpretation of what he sees and hears that forms our own judgement. The use of muffled/distorted sound centralises on him, in that we can imagine that is what he is hearing either because his ears have been injured, hence the distorted sound, or an inference to his psychological state in that he is trying to block out the noise. This gives the audience a direct indication that our knowledge of the story is based on and around him.

In terms of the narrative’s communicativeness, Miller may see German soldiers scream out in pain, get blown up, die etc., yet we only see his countrymen get hurt. This subjective view allows us to centralise our attention on him, with the story information of German soldiers dying, being restricted in the plot. This restriction of knowledge forces the audience to stay loyal to the character of Miller. He’s fighting the ‘enemy’ (clearly delineated in the ‘focalisation’ of the narrative), we fight the enemy; he hates to see his countrymen die, but doesn’t care about German deaths – so do we, and so on…

The film however, ‘deviates from its internal norm of communicativeness which becomes a mark of suppressiveness’[6] by showing German soldiers from behind staring down the barrel of a gun, firing continuously looking through the gun’s viewfinder. This, for a slight moment on several occasions, takes us out of Miller’s subjective view and into an objective, yet restricted view of the German soldier. This works on two levels, the first being the objective view which shows us American soldiers getting killed, but it also gives us an obvious reason for their deaths - the German sniper’s bullet. Typical ideology and conventional moral value suggests that killing/murder is wrong so this objective view only reinforces the subjective view of Miller. Secondly, it is still restricted in that all we see is a German killing machine; there are no German deaths, so this again reinforces the main character’s subjective view.

The film uses uncommunicativeness to create tension much like a mystery film hides/chooses not to divulge story information in the plot, in order to create tension when enigmas are revealed. For example, in the final stages of the film, as we have throughout the film, we follow Miller’s men on their mission. The initial quest is complete, however, after a new conflict arises for the protagonist, Miller and his men have to defend a bridge from German attack. The concealment of story information comes in the form of not knowing where the German’s are. We know from character discourse that they are close; we also know they will come close to the bridge. The plot provides us with auditory clues in that we hear German soldier’s talking, and a German general on a loud speaker commanding troops. We are also given optical clues in that we see dust from German vehicles being created near by, and one American soldier looking from a clock tower sees German soldiers mobilising. By not showing us what the German’s are doing exactly, and not allowing us to understand the German’s discourse (for a non-German speaking audience), tension is built – will they find the Americans, will there be a battle, who will survive? This again delineates the narrative’s point of view, because the only reason the tension is not reversed (for example, we feel tension for the Germans), is because we know everything, in terms of the story, that we need to know about the Americans - we know where they are, we know who they are; we know their motives etc.


David Bordwell - Narration In The Fiction Film

[1] Narration In The Fiction Film – David Bordwell – University of Wisconsin Press 1985. Pg. 54-61

[2] Narration In The Fiction Film – David Bordwell – University of Wisconsin Press 1985. Pg. 54-61

[3] Narration In The Fiction Film – David Bordwell – University of Wisconsin Press 1985. Pg. 54-61

[4] Narration In The Fiction Film – David Bordwell – University of Wisconsin Press 1985. Pg. 54-61

[5] Narration In The Fiction Film – David Bordwell – University of Wisconsin Press 1985. Pg. 54-61

[6] Narration In The Fiction Film – David Bordwell – University of Wisconsin Press 1985. Pg. 54-61

Influence of the Hollywood Studio system 1930 - 1940 April 3, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Artfully Deranged, The Film Industry, Audience , 1 comment so far

The ‘Studio System’ during the 1930s strangled independent cinema and took such great liberties to turn a profit that creativity was severely compromised. The ‘Studio System’ was run by the producer’s that worked within it, and the films that they produced were under their total control. The creative driving force behind movies that were later seen, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, of the directors and writers, was generally lost to the ‘system’. What directors complained about was an objection to the ‘adaptation of Hollywood to a decentralised management system first introduced to American industry by general motors in the 1920s, and itself evidence of the studios assertion of their existence as industry rather than art form.’ (Maltby, 1995. pg. 85) The producers, once assigned to a project, would hire directors and writers to work under them, but as producers supervised all aspects of production from writing and shooting through to editing, writers and directors argued for change and creative freedom that eliminated ‘the involved, complicated, and expensive system of supervision which separates the director and writer from the responsible executive producers’. (Maltby, 1995. pg 83) The Screen Director’s Guild condemned those producers who ‘have little respect for the medium, less respect for their audiences and excuse their lack of imagination by ridiculing it in others.’ (Maltby, 1995. pg. 83) Producers were involved in more than one film at a time, sometimes three or four, so it would seem a perfectly viable argument that their creative involvement should be much less than those writers and directors involved with individual films primarily. Yet producer’s had control over every creative aspect, more ‘control over the development of the film’s story, its script and editing, than any other individual’. (Maltby, 1995. Pg. 85) Certainly the best way to evaluate this aspect of the ‘studio system’ is to look at the auteur directors during the 1970s, and how their films represented their totalitarian belief in how a story should be told through the medium of cinema. Such examples would be Steven Spielberg with Jaws (1975), Francis Ford Coppola with The Godfather (1972), and Martin Scorsese with Taxi Driver (1976), in that as director’s they had final say on how the scripts were brought to the screen, and all closely edited their own films. During the 1930s, many times directors wouldn’t even see the script, ‘it was quite normal practice for him or her to be given a script only a few days before he or she was due to start shooting’. (Maltby, 1995. pg 85) It seemed the job of directing was seen by the studio heads as rather uncreative, and the idea of telling a story was a collaborative process between the producer and the team of production staff, including the writer and director, below him/her. As Frank Capra once said, ‘there are only half a dozen directors in Hollywood who are allowed to shoot as they please and have any supervision over their editing.’ He went on to say that ’80 per cent of directors today shoot scenes exactly as they are told to without any changes whatsoever, and that 90 per cent of them have no voice in the story or editing.’ (Maltby, 1995. pg. 85)

Cinema during the period was less an art form and more a commodity, and to that end, creative license was subdued. Any ‘vision’ or personal identity a director wanted to put on a film was lost to producers taking control away, and the fact Wall Street investors wanted product that was guaranteed to sell, hence formulaic, tried and trusted films, in genres that were popular at the time. The factory line system of production introduced by Thalberg during his time at MGM, meant fast production to maximise product, so time constraints again meant directors had to complete their projects quickly. Gone With The Wind (1939) had six different directors to make sure it was completed, and to further increase the pace of production, action sequences were usually shot by second-unit teams away from main director’s control, and additional scenes and retakes were commonly filmed by different people. Furthermore, any creative freedom a director was given was governed by the Hays Code that was based on the problematic distinction between ‘good’ entertainment and ‘bad’ entertainment. The major principles, such as evil should never be made to seem desirable or attractive, and that good should never appear unattractive, meant that films were to be made to a set ideological standard that which does not account for the varying needs and ideals of the creative people working within, nor does it allow an audience to experience different or unique pieces of art from the medium. In effect, director’s were handcuffed to a system that produced commercial quantity over creative quality, and that made film as an art form more a commodity than an expression of ideas.

Yet, directors and writers were also stifled in their attempts to produce films independent of the major studios largely due to vertical integration. The five major studios had total control over every aspect of the industry, and made attempts to prevent independent films from being exhibited. As the major studios only owned around 3, 000 of the 23, 000 theatres in the America, the independent theatres could make a profit from showing the studio’s major films as well as independent films, so the major’s devised a way to prevent this via block-booking. This attached ‘B’ movie films that were very cheaply and quickly made, with an ‘A’ film that had the stars, the extravagant budget and the obvious audience attraction. Therefore, because the independent theatres needed the ‘A’ films to make a profit, they had to buy the studios ‘B’ films as well, which meant less opportunity for screening time for independent films. The major studios were therefore tapping into the independent market by indirectly controlling the independent theatres output because the independent theatres still needed major studio productions, and therefore the studios made more profit by tapping into a market they did not necessarily own. This can be viewed in two very distinct ways, in that this, what would later become an illegal monopoly, was a solidifying and stabilising business practice that ‘needed’ to be evident in a market recovering from a depression. The major studios, by controlling the market, and controlling the aspects of it, it didn’t own, meant profit and continued growth away from the ‘dark days’ of the depression. The business practice of block-booking secured an additional market and audience to increase profit, however, since the 3, 000 theatres the major studios did own ‘comprised over 80 per cent of the metropolitan first run theatres – that is, the de-luxe town centre houses in the largest cities with seating in the thousands which ran only top features, operated night and day, and generated the lions share of industry revenues’ (Schatz, 1996. pg 221), the ‘Studio System’ was securing its financial stability. However, block-booking was devastating to the independent theatres who had to compete with the studio owned theatres and ‘many smaller companies could not afford this, so were forced to declaim bankruptcy, conversely the major studios enjoyed increasingly growing profits.’ (Hill, 2002) This therefore was very detrimental to small business who had as much right to turn a profit as the major studios. Furthermore, ‘block booking made it difficult for the independents to get their own movies into theaters when exhibitors had already purchased a block of films that would provide the theater with plenty of movies. But even worse, since the independents released their films through the studio-owned exchanges, the independents found that their films were being used by the Hollywood distributors to pawn off low-budget studio B-pictures.’ The Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers (SIMPP) called the practice ‘the root of all evil in the motion picture industry’ (Aberdeen, 2001) and tried to get the block-booking, and also ‘blind-bidding’ process banned. Even though this might have stabilized the industry, the fact it was eventually banned outright in 1948, and all such oligopoly practices like this, is evidence that such a system is inherently unfair. The fact it has remained illegal ever since, goes somewhat to prove SIMPP’s point.

During the 1940s, largely due to America’s involvement in the war and the fact that overseas revenue was dwindling, the studio’s had a demand for top ‘A’ film features and turned to independent production companies and creative talent. ‘By 1941, United Artists strategy for distributing major independent productions had been adopted by four other studios: RKO, Warners, Universal and Columbia. Directors and writers were given more creative control, and whilst they were still governed by the Hays Code and studio executives, some creative license was available. This came about because of the various pressures put on the ‘system’ and whilst the onset of war was a catalyst, the revolt from independent theatres, and writers and directors striving for creative license, Hollywood was changing and it was the ‘end of Hollywood’s lush and profligate period.’ (Schatz, 1996. pg 233) One important aspect that came from this period after 1941, which has continued on throughout the years, was that the Big studios began making less films but produced more ‘A’ pictures as the ‘A class output was increased to accommodate the overheated market.’ The Big Five now concentrated on ‘bigger pictures which played for longer periods and enjoyed steadily increasing revenues.’ (Schatz, 1996. pg. 234) Besides the fact creative license was increasing for both writers, actors and directors, and new genres were being implemented, such as the ‘war film’ and ‘home-front melodrama’, Hollywood was sensing the profitability of single films adapted towards the changing social conditions of the country, and new styles such as ‘combat films’ having a ‘quasi-documentary’ technique, and films with darker, often ‘anti-social’ themes were becoming more apparent and therefore the creative aspect of the art form and medium was finally being expanded. Hollywood was profiting from the war by making films about, or indirectly inspired by the events occurring overseas, and this represents two things. The first is that Hollywood realised it could make profit by tapping into the public’s various concerns and the social status of its people, and secondly, that ‘quality’ ‘A’ pictures geared towards this trend, often with A-list stars and extravagant stories could make more profit than lesser films (the big five cut down on film production from an ‘average of fifty films per year to thirty’ (Schatz, 1996. pg 234)), therefore Hollywood was beginning to make quality over quantity. The importance and significance of this is that it hasn’t changed and since ‘Blockbusters’ became the ‘trend’ after Jaws (1975), modern Hollywood is still relying on ‘common social and political concerns’ to make its ‘A’, big-budget pictures make a profit by tapping into a market willing to accept films that directly and indirectly deal with these concerns. Such obvious examples would be post-9/11 disaster films like The Day After Tomorrow (2004), and American patriotism in Independence Day (1996) – films with obvious appeal, with ‘A’ picture styling (special effects, grandiose plots), that are produced expensively but in less quantity, made to make a lot of profit. The ‘Studio System’ in the 1940s was a changing industry, and its legacy is still evident today.


Aberdeen, J (2001) The Root of all evil in the motion picture industry [online] available from http://www.cobbles.com/simpp_archive/blockbook_intro.htm (accessed 5th April 2005)


Hill, J (2002) Introducing the Classic Hollywood Era [online] available from http://www.un-reel.co.uk/holss.htm (accessed 5th April 2005)


Lee, B (1986) Hollywood University Printing Unit: Brighton


Maltby, R (1995) Hollywood Cinema London: Blackwell


Schatz, T. (1996) The Studio Years, ‘Hollywood: The triumph of the studio system’ – The Oxford History of World Cinema London: Oxford


What’s the formula of the High-Concept movie? March 29, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Artfully Deranged, The Film Industry, Audience , 1 comment so far

Have you ever had a Lloyd Grossman cooking sauce? The makers of said cooking sauce commissioned a survey that yielded the following information: Britons consume four staple meals and that’s about all we can be bothered to cook. According to the Guardian newspaper that would suggest that we eat one of our favourite meals – that being Spaghetti Bolognese – nearly three-thousand times in an average lifetime. Perhaps this says we just don’t like to cook, at least, extravagantly, or that our appetite is less adventurous than we might think. Or maybe we just like the same things. Maybe we want spaghetti Bolognese or Chicken curry or Sausage and Mash every week. We are used to it and the formula is tried, trusted and comforting.

After I finished my Friday night meal of spaghetti in a Lloyd Grossman Bolognese sauce, I placed Samuel L. Jackson’s new high-flying adventure Snakes On A Plane into my DVD player and hit play. After about the hour mark when Mr. Jackson is down in the belly of the plane trying to get the power back on, I had the distinct feeling I’d been here before. No, I hadn’t seen the film and just forgotten about it like some form of random-amnesia that forces the brain to forget average movies. It was the formula of it all that set the déjà vu into overdrive. Well, that and the fact Jackson did the exact same thing in Jurassic Park – they even had walkie-talkies but of course in Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure the aforementioned king-of-cool lost his arm, or was that his body, before he had a chance to radio for help.

That got me thinking – every film we see has a formula. It’s the same with literature, there are basically around eight stories that have been told in thousands of different ways with only character names, locations, and small details being changed (in fact, some theorists believe there are only two main story structures, and others believe there is only one). In cinema the easiest and most identifiable formulas are seen in romance films for example (the boy meets girl, there’s a conflict but they get together in the end) and slasher films (beautifully parodied in Wes Craven’s Scream - teenagers get killed in horrific ways by a seemingly unstoppable killer who likes sharp, metallic murder weapons but final girl defeats the evil in the end). However, the simplest formula comes from those movies that first ‘busted blocks’ in 1975. With their one-line pitch, instant iconography, easy marketability and consumer appeal, and star-name, they introduced cinemagoers to bite-size (quite literally in many cases) movies. It was a gift from the television generation (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Joe Dante, Robert Zemeckis) to American audiences. Welcome to the high-concept movie. They are easily recognisable and much like our formula-diets, easily digested.

So what is a high-concept movie?

Good question because the whole idea of a ‘high-concept’ genre of films is as much debated as whether or not Margot Kidder slept with every major film director of the 1970s. Many believe the fire starters were Spielberg and Lucas with Jaws and Star Wars, but the term may well have been developed from the work by Barry Diller and Michael Eisner at the ABC Network during the 1960s. It has also been argued that the high-concept movie dates further back to the likes of Casablanca and even Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane but this only applies to the idea of identifiable similarities within the films and not the commercial activities that only really became prominent in the late seventies and eighties. Essentially, the high-concept movie is one where the plot can be summed up in a sentence or two, one that has a simple title that tells you most or everything you need to know about the film, and an idea that breeds easy-to-sell marketability. This includes everything from soundtracks and tie-in pop music (think P Diddy’s hit Come With Me for Godzilla), star vehicles and franchises, consumer goods, and dominant, impact-inspired themes (examples would be dinosaurs let loose on the public – Jurassic Park, meteor heading to earth that will destroy everything – Armageddon, Deep Impact).

It could be argued that the high-concept movie has lost its distinction simply because American cinema is now almost totally overrun by films that are made primarily on the basis of profitability. Indeed, has 21st century Hollywood become high-concept and then everything else? The most dominant Hollywood directors of the past twenty years would suggest this – Spielberg, Tony Scott, David Fincher, James Cameron, Stephen Sommers, Simon West, Michael Bay.

In pandering to the needs of the average cinemagoer you get more people into theatres, more people talking about your movie, and therefore more sales. But maybe they are just pandering to that staple diet I was talking about earlier. Every high-concept movie includes very similar things in its formula. There’s a predominant theme of good versus evil which always sells, with the main character having to face a major problem that will always be as big as Armageddon, or a giant sea lizard type-thing attacking New York city, or dinosaurs running riot downtown, or a bus that will explode if it goes under fifty miles per hour. And they also feature the extraordinary – either the character or the situation, but one is so dominant it fights against the other to create obvious and seemingly unstoppable conflict.

It’s quite obvious why high-concept movies are so well liked because they deal with broad themes that are recognisable to any type of filmgoer, who can, whether they are male or female, black or white, English-speaking or not, identify with such themes. Lost love, war, fear, life and death, family, and honour, are all dominant within the films themselves. Examples would include Jaws (fear, death), Top Gun (honour), Pearl Harbour and Saving Private Ryan (war, honour). And in many cases a star-name is used to draw more popularity to the film – Tom Cruise (Top Gun), Bruce Willis (Die Hard franchise), Tom Hanks (Saving Private Ryan).

Another reason high-concept films are easily digested is because they rely on plot over character. For example, Snakes On A Plane describes the plot, the conflict and pretty much everything you need to know about the film. Essentially, that is what the film is about – snakes are let loose on a plane and the characters, including the hero, who in this case is an ordinary man faced with extraordinary circumstances, must survive. Saying ‘bomb on bus’, ‘child alone at Christmas’, ‘lawyer who cannot lie for a day’ or ‘man is forced to live same day over and over again’ would instantly evoke the memory of Speed, Home Alone, Liar, Liar, and Groundhog Day. Yet, if I were to say ‘struggling writer finds inspiration in his wayward but eccentric student’, you might think of Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys, but I could have been referring to Billy Crystal in Throw Momma From The Train. The reason for the ambiguity is because these films are character-based rather than plot-based and the significance is less obvious. The high-concept movie has to have an immediate significance to an audience so Snakes On A Plane works in the same way Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Armageddon, Eight Legged Freaks, Speed, and Twister do. There is an immediate idea of plot, theme, and conflict.

Whether or not critics like high-concept movies, they are here to stay, and they will continue to dominate the box office.

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