The Stuff of Nightmares

According to Douglas Winter, in his 1982 anthology Prime Evil “Horror is not a genre, like a mystery or science fiction or the western. It is not a kind of fiction, meant to be confined to the ghetto of a special shelf in libraries or bookstores. Horror is an emotion”.

Stephen King once said “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones”.

Perhaps fictional horror provides us with a relatively safe space to inhabit the fear (without the genuine threat) of real horror.

The horror genre essentially revolves around the questions of “What is human?” versus “What is inhuman?”

I heard screenwriting guru John Truby give a talk about genre a number of years ago in London. His view was that horror generally comes from something inhuman trying to act like a human being. The monster is the hero’s greatest fear made physical.

And the best horror stories often tend to involve a “flip” of what is human and what is inhuman, so that somewhere in the story the monster becomes the hero and the hero becomes the monster to fully mine the idea. (For example, Frankenstein).

Horror is also a very metaphorical form and horror archetypes stem from different fears.

Werewolves and vampires stem from the “fear of the animal” – the fear of animal passion and the loss of control. (This genre is all the more popular in a repressive world. Could that, perhaps, have some connection to that fact that a devout Mormon ended up writing a best selling vampire book series?).

A scene from “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

Zombies, on the other hand, represent a “fear of the machine” horror – a fear of the loss of identity and individuality.

A scene from the “Resident Evil” computer game

These archetypes never really seem to go away, but rather undergo periodic reinvention and surges in popularity according to the relevant societal context.

For me the best horror film ever made is “Jaws“, the story of a giant man-eating shark which terrorises a (fictional) summer resort town called Amity, in New England. I first watched it on video (back in the dark ages, obviously), as a twelve year old, one Saturday afternoon.

It scared the living crap out of me, but I still thought afterwards that it was probably the best film I had ever seen.

When Jaws came out in 1975 it scared the living crap out of a lot of other people as well, and was a massive hit. It also cemented the idea in public consciousness of sharks as monsters lurking in the ocean, waiting to devour us – an idea that is still taking much effort to change.

The film taps into a strong preexisting primal fear – the horrifying fear of a very real animal which has the power to shred a human body or swallow them whole. Even with the knowledge that shark attacks are incredibly rare, and much less commonly fatal, the nature of a shark attack can provoke a lot of fear in most of us.

One thing Jaws exploits very well is the fear of the unknown, or the unseen. Often what we imagine can be more terrifying than what we see and director Steven Spielberg tapped into this fear by denying his audience any clear visual of the shark – especially not in its entirety – until late in the film. The use of music (that iconic theme by John Williams whenever the shark is around) and objects being moved by the shark through the water (e.g barrels that Clint, Hooper and Brody attach to hunt/kill it in the second half of the film) are used instead to let the audience know that the shark is lurking and present.

In part, this could be an example of what Sidney Lumet meant when he said “For any director with a little lucidity, masterpieces are films that come to you by accident”.


A short film about the infamously problematic mechanical shark in Jaws, called “The Shark that Didn’t Work”.

A highly unreliable mechanical shark – which was often out of action, and already forcing the film well over budget – made it necessary to shoot in ways where the shark in the story was only hinted at.

Years later, Spielberg remarked, “The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen“.

Another gift the mechanical shark’s perpetual failure gave to the film was time and focus invested into strong naturalistic performances. As Spielberg put it “The more fake the shark looked in the water, the more my anxiety told me to heighten the naturalism of the performances.”

Clint’s famous speech about the SS Indianapolis in a scene from Jaws.

Often in horror films the characters and relationships are highly reduced because the hero/es spend/s so much time running away from or fighting against the monster.

One of the things that truly sets Jaws apart from most other horror films is the naturalistic responses and moments of touching believable humanity in its characters.

Brody’s famous “You’re going to need a bigger boat” moment in a scene from Jaws.

In my opinion this is still a film, especially a horror film , that comes closer to answering the question of “What is human?” than many others.

As Peter Biskind wrote in ‘Between the Teeth’ in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media No. 9 (1975) “Jaws flatters us by holding out the promise that such triumph over unspeakable terror is within the reach of us all”.

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Sidney Lumet – “All great work requires self-revelation”.

“For any director with a little lucidity, masterpieces are films that come to you by accident”.

“All great work is preparing yourself for the accident to happen”

Sidney Lumet (25/6/1924 – 9/4/2011) was one of the greatest directors in cinema history and also my personal favourite.

As a child he acted in the Yiddish theatre (his parents were both distinguished actors in Yiddish theatre) and on Broadway. After serving in World War II, he directed plays and taught acting. He directed more than 200 television dramas (for CBS from 1951 – 1957) before making his debut as a movie director with the acclaimed Twelve Angry Men.

A scene from “Twelve Angry Men” (1957)

Robert Berkvist of the New York Times wrote of Sidney Lumet, saying

“Social issues set his own mental juices flowing, and his best films not only probed the consequences of prejudice, corruption and betrayal, but also celebrated individual acts of courage.”

His impressive body of work includes such films as

The Fugitive Kind (1960)
A Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962)
The Pawnbroker (1964)
Fail Safe (1964)
Serpico (1973)
Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Network (1976)
The Verdict (1982)
Night Falls on Manhattan (1997)
Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007).

The movie trailer for “Dog Day Afternoon” (1975)

Though he certainly made more than his share of them, not every film he made was a masterpiece. And he was completely honest about that.

“I’ve done two movies because I needed the money. I’ve done three because I love to work and couldn’t wait anymore. Because I’m a professional, I worked as hard on those movies as on any I’ve done.”

Brian Baxter wrote in Lumet’s obituary for The Guardian newspaper

“It is arguable that, had he not been so prolific, Lumet’s critical reputation would have been greater. Certainly, for every worthwhile film there was a dud, and occasionally a disaster, to match it. But Lumet loved to direct and he was greatly esteemed by the many actors – notably Al Pacino and Sean Connery – with whom he established a lasting rapport”.

One of things I admire most about him is not just that fact that he made so many truly incredible films, but also his very approach to doing the work itself.

“I don’t know how to choose work that illuminates what my life is about. I don’t know what my life is about and don’t examine it. My life will define itself as I live it. The movies will define themselves as I make them. As long as the theme is something I care about at the moment, it’s enough for me to start work. Maybe work itself is what my life is about.”

“I’ve been accused of being all over the place, of lacking an overwhelming theme that applies to all my work. I don’t know if that’s true or not. The reason I don’t know is that when I open to the first page of a script, I’m a willing captive. I have no preconceived notion that I want the body of my work to be about one particular idea. No script has to fit into an overall theme of my life … Whatever I am, whatever the work will amount to, has to come out of my subconscious. I can’t approach it cerebrally. Obviously, this is right and correct for me. Each person must approach the problem in whatever way works best for him.”

All the quotes here from Sidney Lumet are taken from his excellent book “Making Movies” a professional memoir drawing on his 40 years of experience as a movie director.

An iconic scene from Sidney Lumet’s film “Network” (1976).

Dr Seuss – a little bit of nonsense and a fair bit of wisdom

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities”.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind”.

Theodor Seuss Geisel (2/3/1904 – 24/9/1991), also known as “Dr Seuss“, published 46 children’s books during his lifetime, and his work has inspired 11 television specials, 4 feature films, a Broadway musical and four television series.

He claimed to have adopted the name Dr Seuss so that he could save his real name for the Great American novel he would one day write, but that may have been untrue. He was always more interested in telling a good story to the media than a true one.

While his books are always highly imaginative, and with whimsical rhyming (in anapaestic tetrameter), they often also touch on significant themes.

” With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they’d snort,
“We’ll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!”

Prejudice, stereotyping and snobbery in “The Sneetches”

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot,
Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Bullying, prejudice and environmentalism in “The Lorax”.

“A person’s a person, no matter how small”.

Prejudice, intolerance and the “mob” mentality in “Horton Hears a Who!”

“You have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes,
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
You’re on your own and you know what you know,
And you are the guy who’ll decide where to go”.

One of my favourites is “Oh, the Places You’ll Go”, his last book published before he died. While it’s fun and fanciful, it’s also honest and inspiring and reads like he was passing on a special wisdom about life as he neared the end of his own.

It has been an absolute joy reading these books, which I loved so much as a child, to Zali and watching her fall in love with them, too.

The pair of us recently also stumbled across a wonderful Dr Seuss website called Seussville.com and have had hours of fun on there. Definitely worth checking out for Dr Seuss fans, big or small.

Life’s Too Short (and unreality TV)

I’ve recently fallen in love with Warwick Davis. Well, in love with watching his fantastic television series “Life’s Too Short” anyway.

Life’s Too Short” is a BBC mockumentary series following the life of Warwick Davis, “a showbiz dwarf”, who is trying to revive his Hollywood career, while going through divorce and trying to make enough money to pay off a gargantuan tax bill (courtesy of his friend and chronically inept accountant Eric, who Warwick can’t bring himself to fire and actually appoints as his divorce solicitor because he can’t afford to hire anybody else).

The series was created and written by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant from an idea by Warwick Davis, and Davis plays a fictionalised version of himself (described by writer Ricky Gervais as a “conniving, back-biting little Napoleon”. Think David Brent as a dwarf with slightly more charisma, played by an actor with a great gift for physical comedy).

The real life Warwick Davis has actually been married for over twenty years and has two children. (Wife Samantha and children Annabel and Harrison are also dwarves). He runs a talent agency for small people both onscreen and in real life (though I highly suspect that the real life Warwick Davis is far more successful at it than his onscreen doppelgänger).

When Davis was working with Gervais and Merchant on “Extras” (in an episode where he co-starred with Daniel Radcliffe) he told them a number stories about living as a man who is 3ft6″ tall (for example, having people touch him for luck as if he were a leprechaun). This was the catalyst for the show’s creation.

There are also a number of amusing appearances by other film stars and celebrities who play fictionalised versions of themselves which seem to poke fun at popular public perceptions of them.

Johnny Depp‘s (very amusing) attempt to retaliate against Ricky Gervais for his “mean spirited” jokes about Depp and other movie stars when Gervais was hosting the 2011 Golden Globes. (In reality, the Hollywood community were so completely offended that Ricky Gervais ended up hosting the Golden Globes the following year as well).

A very serious Liam Neeson wants to try his hand at comedy. (In reality Neeson said in the short film “The Making of Life’s Too Short” that he worried he would not be able to keep a straight face while doing this scene).

There is something fascinating about actors (supposedly) playing themselves.

Perhaps because it prompts the very natural question “How much of the real human being are we seeing in the character being portrayed?”

In truth, though, that’s probably a question we could ask about almost any performance.

In a scene from an episode of “Extras”, Kate Winslet casually reveals her cynical motive for acting in a film about the holocaust – she thinks she’ll get an Oscar out of it. (Ironically, a couple of years later Winslet actually won her first Oscar playing a former Nazi and Auschwitz guard in “The Reader“).

In a promo for the TV series “Episodes“, Matt Le Blanc is (understandably) bemused at having to audition to play the part of …himself.

In the film “Being John Malkovich“, puppeteer Craig Schwartz (Played by John Cusack) finds a portal that leads into John Malkovich‘s mind. In this scene John Malkovich has a torturous experience after going through his own portal… (Unfortunately, there is a stupid advertisement at the front to of this clip. Sorry.)

In the film JCVD, a 2008 Belgian crime comedy-drama Jean-Claude Van Damme plays a semi fictionalized version of himself – a down and out action star whose family and career are crumbling around him as he is caught in the middle of a post office heist in his hometown of Brussels, Belgium. In this moment from the film Van Damme, lifted above the set, performs a monologue directly to the audience (breaking the fourth wall). It is a surprisingly emotional (if somewhat cryptic) speech about his career, his multiple marriages, and his drug abuse. Is it a rare glimpse of the man behind the action star, lowering his guard and opening up? Or is Van Damme actually a far more gifted actor than his body of action films seem to reveal?

I’m Still Here” is a 2010 mockumentary film directed by Casey Affleck, and written by Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix, following the life of Phoenix, from the (purported) announcement of his retirement from acting, through his transition into a career as a hip hop artist. The fact that the events of the film had been deliberately staged was not revealed until after the film had been released (though it was suspected to be a mockumentary by some beforehand) and throughout the filming period Phoenix remained in character for public appearances, giving many the impression that he was genuinely pursuing a new career.

A promo for “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” one of the popular examples from the modern day myriad of reality TV shows. Mike Fleiss, the creator and executive producer of reality TV show “The Bachelor,” recently claimed that “70 to 80 percent” of reality TV shows are fake. “They’re loosely scripted. Things are planted. Things are salted into the environment so things seem more shocking.” he recently asserted at the Banff World Media festival. But Fleiss also claimed that viewers are “not requiring a pure delivery of non-fiction content…They know it’s somewhat fake, but they’re OK with it.” Does that mean we embrace the idea that “reality” TV stars are acting or playing themselves on some level, too?

Reality TV show “Survivor” has now been running for 25 seasons, and this is actually the intro for season 25 which features the return of many of the most popular and successful former Survivor contestants (or “Favourites”). It is also typical of the Survivor intro template – which seems to deliberately frame the contestants as (heroic, iconic) story characters.