Saturday, 17 November 2007

A capital place for horror.

Seeing as I missed the Halloween blog I've decided to make this one about the darker side of London, or to be precise, the portrayal of London in the world of horror films.
What makes London such a great location for horror films is of course its history,dark
streets and infamous characters from Jack the ripper to Sweeney Todd .Writers like Ian Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd have described London as a growing breathing organic creature, with symbolic locations that seem to be metaphorical portals into the underworld ( Hawksmoor has been accused of building churches around London which show occult architecture and symbology, though I would disagree myself). Even placid Crouch End in North London was transformed into a H.P Lovecraft hell hole by Stephen King in one of his short stories. But what makes London even more scary and strange than its fog filled streets illuminated gaslights, is its sheer normality.
Nothing makes London more scary than when it suddenly stops playing by the rules, when people stop doing the commute to work, when everyone stops what they are doing and stay at home. Think how strange London was the day of the London bombings in 2007, or on a less dramatic way when it snows or the tubes go on strike.Have you ever been up Oxford Street on Christmas day?, everyone should try this at least once while they live in London. You feel like a character from a post apocalyptic movie, alone, slightly uneasy, but happy that you don't have to push through Italian tourists just to get to Oxford Circus.

Many films have used this sense of the norm made strange to feed on peoples fears.But t
here is something particularly resonant about such nightmarish phantasms when placed within uncomfortably familiar British sites, a juxtaposition which has long been exploited by purveyors of the uncanny.In the 19th century, Mary Shelley and Bram Stoker established Britain as the natural home of Gothic horror - with Frankenstein being first published (anonymously) in London in 1818, and Dracula later bringing its eponymous vampire across the waters from Transylvania to darkest Whitby. When HG Wells wrote his classic tale of extraterrestrial invasion The War of the Worlds, he instinctively understood the eerie appeal of having monsters from another planet land on the outskirts of somewhere as ordinary as Woking. Tom Cruise might have battled valiantly against giant tripods reaping post-9/11 chaos in New York in Steven Spielberg's recent blockbuster adaptation, but Wells's late Victorian novel places its first otherworldly appearance squarely in the soils of Horsell Common, a location renowned for its quaint English beauty. Somehow, these outlandish ideas seemed more credible - and disturbing - when played out against the down-to-earth backdrop of Britain.
As a fan of scary movies, I've long been aware of the appeal of horror on the home front.One of the creepiest experiences of my childhood was watching a TV rerun of Wolf Rilla's Midwich Cuckoos. Wyndham had first established himself as a master of strange English science fiction with The Day of the Triffids, famously filmed by Steve Sekely in and around a number of memorable London locations including Charing Cross and Marylebone stations, Piccadilly Circus, and Westminster Bridge.
According to Danny Boyle, it was the opening sequence of The Day of the Triffids, in which a man wakes up in hospital to discover that a meteor sh
ower has blinded his fellow countrymen, which first inspired Alex Garland to write 28 Days Later.

And then there was Quatermass and the Pit, the film which convinced me that taking a trip on the underground would lead you into the very bowels of hell. Originally broadcast as a six-part BBC serial in the late Fifties, Quatermass and the Pit was remade by Hammer in 1967 with a ripping screenplay by original writer Nigel Kneale. The plot concerns a string of ominous discoveries (skulls, skeletons, spaceships) during unspecified 'Central Line extension work' at 'Hobbs End' station.

As demonic artefacts are uncovered, a riot of violent madness erupts, climaxing in an apparition of Old Nick himself over the London skyline. The ingenious twist is that this 'devil' is actually a Martian, an intrusive extraterrestrial ancestor from whom mankind has inherited his innate propensity for violence. ('We are the Martians!' concludes our hero.)

According to Kneale, the inspiration for the story came from watching news footage of the Notting Hill race riots in the late Fifties. But it is the sense of the underground as some kind of portal to the underworld which haunts my memories of this creepy classic.

Since then, umpteen movies, including 28 Weeks Later, have capitalised upon the unsettling potential of the tube, a brooding labyrinth which has come to embody the morbid subtextualgroanings of horror's repressed psyche. According to the tagline for Gary Sherman's 1972 oddity Death Line: 'Beneath Modern London Lives a Tribe of Once Humans. Neither Men Nor Women ... they are the Raw Meat of the Human Race!' Recently reissued on DVD, this oddly cronky tale of cups of tea and tube-dwelling cannibals has become an established cult classic, and remains (strangely enough) an inspirational favourite of Brit-art provocateurs Jake and Dinos Chapman.

John Landis surely had Death Line in mind when he let his American werewolf in London loose at Tottenham Court Road station. It's here that an unsuspecting passenger is stalked and ravaged by the eponymous beastie, providing one of the most memorable sequences in a film which trades heavily on the frighteningly funny disjunct between quaint English locations (Yorkshire pubs; West End porno cinemas; Tower Bridge; even London Zoo) and fantasy.

It's significant that the long-awaited sequel An American Werewolf in Paris proved to be a total flop, mainly, I think, because once you cross the English channel, who cares whether there's a monster on the prowl? Over in Europe, anything goes; it's only here in uptight Britain that the magic formula of horror and humbug really makes sense.

This geocultural quirk perhaps goes some way to explaining the runaway success of Shaun of the Dead, the bastard offspring of American Werewolf, which was described by its creators as the world's first 'zom-rom-com' (zombie romantic comedy). Humorously transposing the zombie riffs of Romero's Living Dead films from Pittsburgh to north London's leafy Crouch End, Shaun of the Dead struck a chord not only with UK audiences, but also with the American cinemagoers who had previously embraced the picture-postcard portraits of Britain peddled in international hits such as Four Weddings and Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary.

In recent years, there has been an encouraging resurgence of dark-hearted, British-set fantasies which have acted as a cadaverous counterbalance to the endless diet of comfortably middle-class Hugh Grant staples. An adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd's terrifically seditious graphic novel V for Vendetta ran into unexpected controversy when its explosive, tube-bound finale chimed too closely with the real-life horrors of the 7 July bombings. The film's release was postponed (officially for 'other reasons'), but scenes of the Houses of Parliament being triumphantly detonated from below by a heroic latterday Guy Fawkes remained intact, alongside images of anarchists merrily swarming across Trafalgar Square.

One of the most impressive films of last year was Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men, a gripping, dystopian nightmare adapted from a novel by PD James (via the legacy of Nigel Kneale) which posits a desolate vision of a near-future world in which human reproduction has become a dying art. Beautifully filmed in battle-scarred, colour-drained hues by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, Cuaron's apocalyptic vision of this grey and unpleasant land charts a grim map of Britain which includes haunting footage of the once-magnificent Battersea Power Station, and climaxes in a Hadean vision of Bexhill-on-Sea which most closely resembles wartorn Bosnia.

Danny Boyle agrees that Children of Men exists within the same tradition as 28 Weeks Later, and points out that both films are significantly directed and photographed by non-British film-makers who are able to observe the strangeness of this land and its culture with the intelligent empathy of an outsider's eye.

'In the end,' says Boyle, 'I think the key thing about Britain is that it's built on this deep, dark ocean of history. There are grassy, picturesque areas of London which you still can't put train tunnels through because they're actually covering plague pits. You just don't get that in America - that dark abyss of the past. And it makes Britain, as a location, very fertile ground for horror.'

So here is my top ten list of the best London based scary movies ,In no particular order as thy say.

  1. The Omen -
    (Richard Donner 1976) An American ambassador in London learns to his horror that his son is actually the literal Antichrist. As if the American embassy ain't scary enough, plus the walk to Putney Bridge never felt safe after this film, especially when the wind rises, I swear I can hea
    r the satanic choir in the background.
  2. Quatermass and the Pit
    (Roy Ward Baker, 1967)
    Demonic Martian relics are uncovered in the London Underground, unleashing a wave of otherworldly madness. No wonder Paul Weller didn't want to go down into the tube at midnight.

  3. 28 Days Later
    (Danny Boyle, 2002)
    From the deserted streets of London to war-torn Manchester, Trainspotting director Danny Boyle and The Beach writer Alex Garland conjur
    e an apocalyptic vision of Britain ravaged by an outbreak of 'rage'. Even though the main character just looks like a late night clubber coming out at 4 in the morning..rave on!

  4. Peeping Tom
    (Michael Powell 1960) This film was nearly banned when it first came out. Censored and cut to pieces it finished Powell's (director) career.He noted ruefully in his autobiography, "I make a film that nobody wants to see and then, thirty years later, everybody has either seen it or wants to see it." Today, the film is considered a masterpiece and one of the best British horror films.The story revolves around a young man who murders women while using a portable movie camera to record their dying expressions of terror. Shot around Goodge street, Fritzrovia area, many of the locations still exist, including the killers den.One of the more famous locations is Newman Passage, with the Newman arms at the end of it. Fancy a pint?
  5. An American werewolf in London
    (John Landis 1981) What can I say... werewolf's,the moors, Nazi zombies, dead friends,London zoo, Piccadilly circus, sex (or blue) cinema with crap films and
    Jenny Agutter dressed as a nurse, what more could a young teenager have asked for.
  6. Children of men ( Alfonso Cuaron 2006) In 2027, in a chaotic world in which humans can no longer procreate, a former activist agrees to help transport a miraculously pregnant woman to a sanctuary at sea, where her child's birth may help scientists save the future of humankind. Amazing Film. Truly fantastic! Mindblowing. London never looked so alien yet so recognisable.
  7. Death Line (Gary Sherman 1972) Beneath Modern London Lives a Tribe of Once Humans. Neither Men Nor Women... no its not underneath the Chelsea stadium. A film that no many people have seen, but never forget, repulsive but very watchable.
  8. Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright 2004) A man decides to turn his moribund life around by winning back his ex-girlfriend, reconciling his relationship with his mother, and dealing with an entire community that has returned from the dead to eat the living.An every day London love story. I knew that there was something strange about Crouch end.
  9. The Day of the triffids (TV-Series 1981) The effects were awful, the directions not that great and the acting very wooden, but when I was a kid this film really put the willies in me...sorry up me.
  10. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick 1971) Nuff said dear droogs.

Be afraid
Lord Monty