Pat’s Halloween Letter

Hey folks

Some of you will be reading this on Halloween night 2017. That’s when I’m writing it. This isn’t a post I wrote a while back that’s been stored in a buffer. I’m sitting typing these words with a lit Jack O’Lantern outside our door, and the sounds of kids laughing in the street outside.

Halloween used to be shit when I was a kid, growing up in the UK. We knew it COULD be good. We’d seen E.T., and marvelled at the kids roaming around in costumes. There was NONE of that for us. There was a vague awareness of the holiday, in that the TV would show a horror movie or two (I fondly remember watching the airing of Ghostwatch in a hotel TV room packed full of terrified students a few years later, when I was at Uni) but that was about it.

Britain just didn’t GET Halloween, and the first Trick or Treater who ever knocked on my door was in 1994. Just one angry looking teenager in a non-costume. I was a bit surprised, simply because it had never happened before. I gave him an apple, (which was all I had in the house except beer and cigarettes: I was only 20 myself) and he sprayed the words ‘fuck off’ on the side of my house. So, not the greatest initial Trick or Treat experience.

It kind of carried on like that for a good few years, with the only people roaming around being older kids who really wanted to throw stuff at peoples houses whether treats were forthcoming or not. And that kind of sucked even more than when nobody knocked at all. It was a rocky start to the holiday.

Slowly but surely, though, the nation started to get it. More kids started Trick or Treating, and the majority of the angry late-teens kind of vanished in embarrassment, not wanting to be seen doing something that kids a third of their age were doing. Nowadays, frankly, the whole thing rocks. At least round these parts: I imagine that mileage may vary depending on where you’re based.

Anyway, this Halloween we decided to make my mysterious ‘lost’ movie, THE HOUSE ON THE WITCHPIT, available for one night only. The links are up (at the time of writing) on the front page of the Jinx Media website – Choose your option from Amazon or Vimeo. Come tomorrow, we’re deleting the movie and the Halloween 2017 version will never be seen again, just like the version that we premiered in at Horror-on-Sea in 2016 (which I promptly destroyed onstage after the premiere). We do this stuff because it’s fun. If you choose to spend Halloween night with our film, I hope you enjoy it. We’re very grateful for your support, and hope you find our odd little spookshow a worthwhile diversion on this crisp autumn night.

Witchpit 34 artwork

But that’s enough plugging stuff. After all, an awful lot of you will be reading this after Halloween has long passed. Besides, I’m in reflective mood and don’t want to launch into endless sales pitches.

Still haven’t decided on exactly what flick we’ll be watching ourselves this evening. Probably Boys in the Trees because I keep hearing amazing stuff about it. Either way, I’ll be curling up with a glass of red and quietly cheering the fact that Halloween isn’t shit in the UK anymore.

I’m going to be taking a little while off from my social media accounts after tonight, so if you follow me on Twitter (or Facebook or whatever) you’ll probably find I’ve gone silent.

It’s ok. Don’t worry. Just like every good Halloween boogeyman, I’ll be back.

My name is Pat Higgins and my conscience is clear.

End of Part One.

TrashHouse hits Amazon Prime!

And here’s where it all started.

Back in the first few weeks of 2004, we rented a warehouse in Shoeburyness and shot an insanely ambitious locked-house horror movie on cheaply built sets that still had the paint drying on them. It was an insane learning curve, back from the days when digital filmmaking was fraught with difficulties and precious few routes through which to get assistance. We laughed, we cried, we made a load of mistakes and got a certain number of things right.

The result was TrashHouse, a cheerfully odd midnight movie which a certain section of the cult movie audience still hold in a lot of affection. A bunch more people absolutely hated it, of course, but if it was designed for a mass audience it would scarcely be a cult movie, would it?

When I wrote the first few lines of the script, I was working in a branch of Blockbuster Video (remember them?) in Westcliff. The day the movie came out on DVD, (on a surprisingly wide release for such a small movie), I walked back into that branch and saw a copy on the shelf. If I get ten days that good in my life, I’ll have done alright.

It’s got jokes. It’s got (somewhat rubbish) zombies. It’s got chainsaws. It’s got a weird monologue about a man who thinks he’s a dolphin. It’s got three seconds of gratuitous nudity. It’s got Gary Delaney, who’s now one of the UK’s best comics and is on Mock the Week all the time. It’s got a sequence in black and white, with a laugh track. It’s got the amazing Amber Moelter. It’s got some appalling CGI that looked iffy even in 2004. It’s got practical blood splashing up the walls.

It’s got a whole load of love and good intentions bubbling in its crazy soul.

It’s on Amazon Prime, free for subscribers, right now. So please go and watch it if it sounds like something you’d enjoy.

Oh, and it’s got this kick-ass new artwork from the mighty Paul Cousins.

trashhouse_2016

My name is Pat Higgins.

I made TrashHouse, and my conscience is clear.

 

Filming in a Haunted Asylum

I’m not a believer in the supernatural.

I’m a rational kind of guy. I love writing about ghosts, demons and the possibilities of experiences beyond what we comprehend, but the blunt truth is that I don’t believe in any of it. I’m not a guy to get rattled by dark corridors or abandoned buildings.

With that in mind, I want to tell you a few things about our 2006 shoot for the movie KillerKiller.

We shot in the then long-disused building then known as Warley Hospital. Nowadays, the site is a posh housing development known as The Galleries.

Before it was Warley Hospital, it was known as Brentwood Mental Hospital. Before that, back in 1853 when the building first opened its doors, it was known as Essex County Lunatic Asylum.

Attitudes towards mental illness in 1853 weren’t, of course, quite as enlightened as we’d like to think they are nowadays. “Treatments” included lobotomies and electro-convulsive therapy. Not only that, but ideas of who actually constituted a ‘mentally ill’ person were flexible enough to include an awful lot of people that society would rather just keep out of sight; everyone from unwed mothers to soldiers suffering from PTSD.

So places like Warley ended up having some fairly horrible things happen in them. Over a century and a half, even the recorded incidents make for grim reading. God knows how many worse things went on that nobody will ever know about. If ever there’s going to be a building to store up bad vibes, it’s going to be a place like that.

This wasn’t really something I thought about when I locked down the location, I’m ashamed to say. I was far more concerned about budget; the fee for shooting in the building was pretty huge for a film shooting on such a tiny budget. I was worried about how we were going to afford the location for long enough to get a huge amount of footage in the can. In the end, we did this with a mixture of good planning and dumb luck; we shot with available light rather than lighting set-ups, and the building was so cinematic anyway that the footage ended up looking pretty great now matter how quickly it was shot. We shifted complex ‘kill’ sequences to non-Warley locations where we could take our time a little more and somehow got everything we wanted in the can over a mere three days of filming at the former hospital.

By the end of those three days, however, all those things that I’d never even considered were beginning to get under my skin.

By the end of those three days, quite frankly, I was more than happy to wave Warley goodbye.

Our wonderful photographer Debbie Attwell discovered dozens of torn-off butterfly wings inserted between the bricks in the chapel. We would regularly find scrawled messages or carefully folded pieces of paper with troubling pictures on them tucked away behind radiators or whatever. The phrase ‘I Am Not Alone’ gouged into one of the walls (which can be seen in the first montage of the hospital in the finished film) wasn’t added by an enterprising member of our production crew: it was already there.

And then there was the incident with the footsteps.

KK4small

Like I said, not a superstitious guy, so I’ll stick to the facts.

We were about to call action on a scene, when we heard footsteps in the next corridor over. These were loud enough that all of the crew heard them, and loud enough for our sound recordist to shake his head as a ‘no go’. They got louder until they stopped abruptly on the other side of the door from the room in which we were filming. Irritated, I probably called out something like “You might as well come through now” and we waited.

My lovely DoP Al Ronald went to investigate when nobody came through. As I’m sure you can guess, there was nobody there.

It sounds so Scooby Doo and hokey. It sounds ridiculous. But that’s what happened.

KillerKiller – A Look Back Behind the Scenes from jinxmedia on Vimeo.

I also became increasingly convinced that I could hear whispering voices in the corridors of the building. This was probably an auditory trick caused by the wind whistling through the cracks, but, goddammit, once I thought I heard panting about a foot away from my ear. Enough to make me spin around like I’d been stung.

I’m not even sure what these are examples of. Weird acoustics in an old building? An over-active imagination triggered by the fact that we were shooting a gory horror movie in a location that had seen an awful lot of unhappiness?

Soon after the film came out, a few enthusiastic souls started suggesting that they could see ‘orbs’ in the final film (specifically in the scene starting 31:43 on the special edition, for those interested), which made me chuckle a little because I’m pretty goddamn sure that those floating orbs are dust kicked up by the chair that gets thrown against the wall in that scene. On the other hand, since I’m the dude swearing blind that I heard footsteps with no source that vanished into nowhere, who the hell am I to judge what others perceive?

After three days I was unreasonably happy to be leaving the most cinematic location I’ve ever filmed in. I still don’t believe in ghosts. I still believe in science over superstition, logic over legend.

But if I never hear a panting sound a foot away from my ear again for as long as I live, that’ll be just fine.

– Pat Higgins

 

KillerKiller: The Special Edition is available NOW to rent and purchase on VOD. Click through the trailer below.

KillerKiller – The Special Edition (2014) from jinxmedia on Vimeo.

Retro Novelisation Covers!

Here at Jinx, we deeply love imagery that harks back to the horror that influenced us growing up. The final chapter of Nazi Zombie Death Tales is pretty much my love letter to rubber puppet horror movies like Ghoulies and Gremlins, and the office is covered in framed uk quad posters of genre movies of decades past.

The pulp horror novels and anthologies of the 70s and 80s hold a special place in my heart. They represent not only my own awakening to the genre, in many ways, (as an adolescent, I was permitted to read Herbert and King long before I was aloud to watch films with forbidden ratings) but also a family connection. My late uncle Tim Stout was a contributor to the Pan Book of Horror and author of a novel called The Raging; although he didn’t care for the pulpy cover the novel was given, I flat-out loved it as a kid.

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With these influences in mind, I am absolutely delighted to present a series of novelisation covers for three of our movies, designed by the brilliant Random Elements. Please go and visit their Facebook page for even more brilliant artwork. Without further ado, here they are.

Oh, who am I kidding? You already scrolled down and peeked, didn’t you?

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TrashHouse: The Uncensored Truth

I was born in 1974. Movies were always my love and passion, ever since seeing Star Wars on the big screen on opening night at the Southend Odeon. It was December 1977, and I was three years old. In that same year, my amazing mum also took me to see the rerelease of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I talked about in this blog entry over here. We also went to see Bambi, because, hey, she was a dutiful mum and that’s the drill. It was the sci-fi stuff and the rubber monsters that stuck with me, though.

From that point, I knew I wanted to make movies. I think I was muddled about the process for a few years; early on, I thought I wanted to act but this was because I believed films were made in real time. I knew it was all fake, but I think I thought that Sam J Jones would receive the Flash Gordon script, memorise it and then turn up at the studio. He’d spend 90 minutes running away from explosions, snogging Melody Anderson and wearing a t-shirt with his own name on it, and then he’d just bask in the glory when the flick got released.

As soon as I realised this wasn’t the case, I knew I wanted to be a film director.

Life gets in the way, of course. After university I ended up in a variety of jobs, from cinema usher through to video shop assistant and then through to being a customer services trainer in an internet company. I punched the clock, but I knew these weren’t the things I wanted to do. I never stopped thinking about directing movies.

Somewhere along the way, I started doing stand-up comedy. Because this was the late nineties to early noughties we’re talking about, no clips of this phenomenon exist online. If the Kickstarter project hits its total, I’ll post one. Anyway, the stand-up part of my life collided with the internet company part of my life, and I set up Jinx Media in 2003 as a company dedicated to delivering short stand-up clips to mobile phones.

The window during which this was a viable idea was incredibly short. One day, it seemed like delivering video to phones was just too hard from a technical point of view. The blink of an eye later, phones could get onto the web and a custom delivery system (let alone one that charged) looked utterly pointless. The idea missed its window, and I was left with a company with no purpose.

And we had a few grand in the bank.

Suddenly, it looked like the time had come to make the movie I’d dreamed of for so long.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, I’m telling you by way of context because of the video that awaits you at the end of this blog entry.

The short version: in 2004, (as you probably know if you’re reading this), I made a movie.

We had a small budget, very little practical experience and no connections. I advertised for cast and crew on the internet. I hired a warehouse, we built sets out of wood and I filmed a ludicrously ambitious script on a mini DV camcorder.

The movie was called Trashhouse.

TrashHouse_DVD

It ended up getting a wide DVD release in the UK. I had the joy of walking into the branch of Blockbuster that I had once worked in, and seeing multiple copies on the shelf.

Kim Newman in Empire magazine said it had ‘Clever ideas but dodgy tech credits’.

While we went about our insane quest, we let filmmaker Mike Borland film everything we did. A cut-down version of Mike’s documentary ended up on the DVD.

What follows, for the first time, is the full uncensored version of that behind-the-scenes documentary.

It’s filmmaking 2004 style; no DSLRs, no video blogs because such things just didn’t exist. No YouTube, no Facebook. Editing footage at home was only just becoming possible. I cut the whole goddamn film on a PC with a 20 Gig hard drive.

There’s a lot of love going on here. For better or worse, this was where it started.

Love,
Pat
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Guest Blogger: Avri Klemer on Spookin’ 2

Pat’s movies are fun.

This does not surprise me in the least, because Pat is fun. Pat and I go way back, back to a time when I had short hair. A time when we would stand around the playground discussing the previous night’s Moonlighting or Max Headroom episode. When we would watch cheesy movies (often starring Judge Reinhold) and play 64k computer games to review in our own photocopied magazine that we sold to our classmates.

When, one afternoon in our preteens, we made a movie.

Spookin’ 2 – written / produced / directed by Patch Higgins (as he was known then) – remains my one and only screen credit. It has never appeared on my CV, never been seen by anyone beyond its stars (all three of us) and our immediate family. But, man, was it fun.

If there was a Spookin’ Part 1, I never saw it, but Spookin’ 2 was filmed on a big old handheld camcorder – I don’t even recall if it held full size video cassettes, or fancy-shmancy minis. The plot is a thing long since lost to drinking, dancing and age. Something about one of us being a ghost trying to scare the others out of the house.

But what I do remember, quite vividly, is the free and easy way we shot what we laughingly called the special effects. There was to be no post production, no editing, just whatever Pat captured behind the camera. In my adult head I hear him yelling “Perfect!” after every take, but I’m sure that didn’t actually happen. When he wanted to film me “phasing” through a wall, this is how it went.

Pat had me run full speed at the wall.. He hit PAUSE on the camera, then waved me out of shot. Then he hit RECORD again. We’d move into the next room where he would shoot the blank wall, press PAUSE again, wave me back into shot and I’d run away from the wall when he yelled “Action”.

The final product looked exactly as good as you imagine it would, but the thing anyone could see was how much fun we were having.

Pat has (somewhat) bigger budgets these days and (waaaaay) better equipment at his disposal. He’s also learned more than a little about his craft. With each passing movie he makes, the plots become tighter, the effects more impressive, with everything in service to the great god “storytelling”.

Not to mention that the quality of performers at his disposal are light years beyond whatever I could conjure up for the camera, even when I could remember the one liners.

What is undeniably the same however, what is visible on the screen that has not changed, is how much fun his actors are having.

I want to see more actors having fun with Pat’s words, his ideas, his sensibilities. Take a look at the recently launched Kickstarter for his new movie, Evil Apps. Throw a couple of pounds, dollars, euros at it if you agree it looks like fun. If it’s not your thing, please share it with those you think might appreciate it.

I don’t want to see another big budget, 3D, IMAX blockbuster in the movie theaters.

I want to see something fun.

—–

Avri Klemer is a published boardgame designer, an unpublished novelist, a singer and a nice guy.
His new blog is an exploration of “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die.”
He and Pat have been bouncing pop culture off of each other since 1985.

—–

PS. Pat here again. We’ve never had a guest blogger before, and I’d like to thank Avri for writing for us. I’m so grateful that I’m not even going to mention that he was actually in Spookin’ 1 as well, even if he can’t remember it. I tried to find a copy to pull screengrabs, but haven’t had any luck yet. I’ll keep looking.

 

Little Shop of Horrors: The Theatrical vs The Director’s Cut vs The Workprint

I’m reeling a little.

This morning, I was lecturing about screenwriting in general (and pleasing your audience in particular) and I mentioned the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors. I spoke about that notorious test screening where the “Would you recommend to a friend?” cards allegedly came back with only 13% of affirmatives, dictating that the original “Everybody Dies” ending got the chop and a new, cheerier ending was added to the flick. I spoke about the pros and cons of tailoring your product to the whims of your audience. I spoke about whether a black comedy needs to end like a black comedy, or whether it can give the audience a happy ending without compromising its moral integrity.

I spoke about all of these things with mixed feelings, because I’m a massive Little Shop of Horrors fan who is also a deleted scenes obsessive and yet my feelings about that original ending are decidedly muddled.

Frank Oz has spoken quite eloquently about the problem with the original ending, in terms of the way that theatre and film pack very different kinds of punches. The power of the close-up, man; we see Audrey’s eyes welling up as she pictures Somewhere That’s Green and, Goddammit, we want that character to get her happy ending. Audrey and Seymour dying in the version that has now been released as the Director’s Cut is still a serious bummer, and following it up with what feels like *endless* footage of the planet getting destroyed means that the ending feels drawn-out and kind of mean spirited. What plays as an upbeat black joke in the theatre feels downbeat when stretched out so far. Having been delighted to get hold of this ‘Director’s Cut’ initially, I’ve now watched it a bunch of times (sometimes with groups of students) and the chill that apparently fell upon that Orange County test screening nearly three decades back still falls across people watching it for the first time. I don’t think it’s the content, I think it’s the execution; I’d reached the conclusion that after the novelty of the bleak ending wears off I’ll probably end up going back to the theatrical. That, for all its tonal inconsistency, the upbeat ending somehow still works better.

After the lecture, something weird happened. I googled the test screening to check I’d got a couple of my facts right and chanced upon the LSOH Wikipedia page. In amongst all the things I already knew, there was a mention of the ‘lost’ full version of Meek Shall Inherit.

Ok, here’s where my deleted scenes obsession kicks in. I was not only aware of the full version, (which even Frank Oz seemed to have forgotten about, judging by a couple of comments he made a few years back), but I had a handful of stills that were in this book. Also on my hit-list as far as deleted scenes went was an alternate version of the feeding sequence involving Orin’s severed head, which I’d seen a still from in Cinefex magazine back in ’86 and I’d always wondered how it would play tonally. Neither of these scenes were in the deleted scenes compilation on the Blu Ray, and I’d become convinced I’d never seen them.
Then I noticed a recent amendment to the Wikipedia page, which said that the Meek Shall Inherit full version (including a dream sequence where Seymour turns into a plant) had appeared online. Less than a minute later I found it (thanks to the miracles of Google). I’d barely recovered from watching it when I clicked the text beneath the clip and found links through to two more videos of deleted scenes from a mysterious workprint.

To me, these were the holy grail. We had the plant-dream, we had the severed head feeding.

Little Shop of Horrors: Orin's Head

Amazingly, we had a much shorter version of the ‘Everybody Dies’ ending, as it screened at that ill-fated showing.

Jesus Christ. I watched them all, back to back, *directly* after watching the Director’s Cut (and then the theatrical ending on its own for good measure) so I had the nuances of the released versions pretty locked down in my mind.

See, there’s an incredible lesson for editors lying in the rubble of this wonderful treasure-trove of deleted scenes. I love the theatrical. I’m fascinated with the director’s cut, but it comes off disjointed and mean-spirited in the way everything is so drawn out.

Yet here, in this unseen version that’s more violent than the DC, we can learn the power of tiny changes in the edit. When Seymour feeds the baby-bird-in-a-tin version of Audrey II for the first time, the workprint edit choices stress something that both the Theatrical and the DC shy away from; blood.

We see a horrible shot of the blood gathering at the end of Seymour’s finger as he squeezes and squeezes, which is kind of yuck.

We see blood splashing over the plant’s adorable baby-bird ‘face’, and it’s a pretty horrible juxtaposition.

Bloody Audrey II

Prior to the feeding, we see Seymour laying out all that newspaper to soak up the gore. During the feeding itself, as previously mentioned, we see him feed the head to the plant, like a grim punchline to the sequence before we zoom into the plant’s maw to hear the laughter.

By not shying away from these tiny but unpleasant details, the workprint footage could *only* be leading towards the grim ending. And then, wonderfully, when the grim ending turns up at the end of the compilation it plays like a goddamn dream. Where it was long, drawn out, cumbersome and repetitive on the ‘Director’s Cut’, here it plays like a big bang of giddy, over-the-top monster movie. It’s short enough to pack a wallop, and the ‘punch’ images are actually synched with the ‘punch’ bits of the song. It’s bloody great.

Suddenly, in these few minutes of grainy footage, I can see my favourite version of Little Shop of Horrors. One that works tonally right the way through, going blacker than either of the others but never feeling mean about it. It’s a goddamn morality play, after all.

The last bits of my personal Little Shop of Horrors jigsaw fell into place today, and I love the movie even more than ever. Seems a shame to have to lobby for a new Blu Ray a mere three months after the last one came out, but sod it.

The queue starts here.

PS. I talk a bit about screenwriting and editing in my hour-long show about horror filmmaking, which is embedded for free below. If you regularly read this blog, you’ll already know that and will be rolling your eyes at me embedding it again. If you’re not a regular reader, I hope you check it out. Please note that it has some gore, nudity and swearing and isn’t safe for work. Unless you work somewhere that really digs gore, nudity and swearing, of course.

Gremlins, Poltergeist and The Exorcist: Age Appropriate?

Gremlins came out when I was 10.

My parents were Daily M*il readers (it’s okay, they’ve stopped now. They probably got sick of me complaining endlessly about it from the age of about 15 onwards) and so the first time I ever heard about the flick was from a manufactured moral outrage piece in the summer of ’84, full of details based entirely on a very bloody early draft (which you can find on the ‘net if you look around enough) and bearing little relationship to the finished film.

Gremlins UK Quad

It sounded horrible. The M*il editorial rolled out a list of atrocities (including Mum’s head getting cut off and the dog getting killed) which I couldn’t reconcile with the fluffy picture of Gizmo sitting beside the article. The easily horrified 10 year-old me contented himself with being a bit horrified, and then forgot all about it.

Autumn rolled around, and something odd started happening. Merchandise for the movie began turning up in the shops, and didn’t seem to fit the content that I’d read about in the ‘newspaper’ over the summer. The toys were clearly pitched at my age-group. I thought they looked interesting and fun, but the bleak horrors detailed in that first Daily Mail article also gave them a whiff of darkness, of forbidden fruit. I thought, in other words, that they looked awesome.

Various tie-in books appeared on the shelves at the same time, and I read all of them. From the ‘storybook’ aimed at 8 year-olds through to the George Gipe novelisation clearly pitched at adults, I picked up each one and read every word. I bought every gum card. I knew absolutely everything about Gremlins, every plot twist and every special effects technique, by the time it got slapped with a 15 certificate by the BBFC. Fascinatingly, they have recently released the documents leading up to this decision at this link here.

I taped Film ’84 the night that Barry Norman reviewed the film, and the two short clips that he screened that night were my only window into the movie for the best part of a year. I watched those clips again and again (“Come on Barney, be a good dog”) until the tape was stretched and warbling, but couldn’t see any more as the BBFC had decided that it needed to be kept from me.

It was nearly a year before Gremlins was released on VHS, as was the custom in those days. By the time I finally got to see it, I had reached the dizzying age of 11. A mere few months later, my parents bought me an ex-rental VHS of the movie for my 12th birthday, on the basis that I’d been renting it nearly every weekend and the steep tag of £55 for the ex-rental tape would actually work out cheaper in the long run.

It is, of course, the movie that defines me more than any other. You seen my chapter of Nazi Zombie Death Tales? Well, yeah, the Gremlins influences run deep in that one. The mix of horror and comedy is a constant in everything that I do.

Devil Spider

The BBFC downgraded Gremlins to a 12a last month, meaning that if it were released at the cinema today a 10 year-old could see it accompanied by a parent. 29 years after the flick hit the cinemas, of course, I have a different perspective on it. I’m a parent myself, and I can easily imagine the shitstorm that would have hit the BBFC if they’d graded it PG in ’84 (the only other option realistically available, as it was still 5 years before even the mandatory 12 would be introduced). It’s not just the violence, needless to say, but some of the other wonderfully dark shit too; I wouldn’t want to be the parent who had to comfort a crying 6 year-old after discovering the truth about Santa via the less-than-comforting medium of Kate’s gloriously horrible speech.

Regardless, I’m certainly glad I got to see the flick at 11. If I’d been kept away from it until actually turning 15, I think the impact would have been slightly dulled. There are certain flicks that you need to see at certain ages for maximum impact. In fact, I was discussing this on Twitter the other day with Danbo12, who asked whether Poltergeist would live up to his expectations (he’d never seen it). I was about to answer an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when I paused; all of my experiences of Poltergeist are filtered through having first seen it in my early teens. Poltergeist taps into the fears of a child rather beautifully; it sums up the fears of the thing under the bed or the scary shadow outside the window better than any other flick I can think of. Approaching it for the very first time as an adult, having left those kind of fears behind and moved onto more tangible concerns, I suspect that it might underwhelm.

The same thing works in reverse for The Exorcist. I know that the last time it was re-released at cinemas, there were certainly a considerable number of teens and yound adults guffawing at the screen and generally screwing up the experience for everyone. It would be tempting to write this off as whistling past the graveyard; as the behaviour of young people very enthusiastically showing off how scared they weren’t in order to look tough. There’s probably a bit of that, true, but I think there’s something else too. For a teenager, The Exorcist simply isn’t a particularly scary movie. The horrors of the movie are pitched squarely at the fears of the parent not the child, and as those under 25 are notoriously bad at empathy (for various interesting biological and evolutionary reasons that I won’t go into here) they’re likely to come out of it pretty unscathed. Show the flick to a 40 year old with a kid approaching puberty, however, and I think you’d fairly quickly kill the idea that the flick has lost all its power over the years.

It’s all interesting stuff. The film we’ll be shooting later in the year, Evil Apps, has two 19 year-old protagonists. It’s a film about technology, social networking and the way we communicate. Having leads much out of their teens would have made no sense whatsoever. You can see me talking about Evil Apps towards the end of the live show embedded below.

I have worried about it, though. If I bring the sensibilities of the things that scare me now and apply it to a film with two teen leads, am I going to be able to make those things translate? Teenagers and 20-somethings are generally a hell of a lot less concerned about where the social networking yellow brick road is leading us than those who grew up in a pre-internet age are, so am failing to target the concerns my own target audience? Will the young leads put off the audience with whom the concerns of the script might otherwise resonate?

I hope not. I hope that the script will tap a common sense of unease for both age groups, and even if it doesn’t there’s a beauty of an exploding head in it.

Right, I’m off to complete my collection of Gremlins bubblegum cards. Tooth decay has no age limit.

Childhood Terrors: Of Scanners, Spider-Man and Teeny Todd

Had a lovely interview over at Southend Radio at the weekend. Most of it should apparently be available soon over at the Horror on Sea Facebook page.

As I mentioned on air, the first time I ever went on the radio I was about seven or eight, and complaining about how much horror posters scared me. Particularly Scanners. There was something about the complete lack of context which utterly freaked out my imaginative child self. Something about the second-by-second breakdown of what will happen to you, without any kind of reassuring contextualisation to place it as a sci-fi concept. For some reason I got it into my head that Scanners was about medication; that somewhere there was a pill that if you swallowed it would make you explode. As a result, it was probably a right bitch getting my 7 year-old self to take a pill for any reason.

Scanners UK Quad

Scanners stayed with me, under my skin. It wasn’t, however, the biggest cause of childhood fear. That honour goes to Ronnie Barker in a blood-splattered dress.

When I was a little kid, I saw the Two Ronnies’ Teeny Todd sketch and it almost unhinged me with fear. It took me days to calm down, and only then because my parents took the time and care to reassure me that it was all just fun and pretend.

Unfortunately, I had a mischievous (some might say rather cruel) Gran. She waited until my folks were out of the room one day and hissed ‘He was real. The demon barber. Slit their throats, he did!’

As a result, I was terrified of getting my hair cut until I was about 11. And distrustful of pies. It wouldn’t take a particularly imaginative psychiatrist to suggest that the whole thing might have planted the seeds for an interest in comedy-horror which has been the focus of more or less everything I’ve done creatively for the last ten years. Weird the way stuff turns out.

teeny_todd1

There’s a video of me ranting about this over on the BBC website back in 2008, whilst ostensibly talking about the Johnny Depp Sweeney Todd. It’s an itch that I can’t seem to stop scratching. I also finally got the chance to see the sketch again a few years back, and I *still* think that it’s tonally genuinely fucking weird and I can see why it got under my skin so badly.

And, sod it, whilst we’re digging around in my psyche for the stuff that scared the piss out of me as a kid, we might as well go one step further.

When I was about six years old, in 1980, I bought a copy of Spider-Man Pocketbook. To this day, I can tell you the newsagent I bought it in and I can remember how excited and happy I was to have a new Spider-Man comic. Cover price of 15 pence, coughed up by my brilliant Mum.  I loved Spider-Man. He was my  favourite superhero and carried with him that odd sense of security that is such an important part of childhood. Kids like to know where the boundaries lie, and I felt I knew the rules with Spider-Man. I knew that his universe could sometimes have slightly scary bits. I knew that sometimes people died. But Spidey’s universe felt comforting despite the bad bits, because your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man would sort it out.

Sadly, that particular issue of Spider-Man Pocketbook wasn’t destined to be a good experience for me. It had an illustration in it that utterly freaked me out; a picture which has been hovering around the fringes of my consciousness ever since.
Here are the basics: a stage magician levitates a volunteer. The man in the air comes to pieces; head and arms floating off. The now-corpse has a horrible blank expression on his face, and someone in the audience shouts out that the man is dead. That’s the way I remembered it, and then last year I found the image and I was pretty goddamn spot-on.

The illustration is at the bottom of this page. To scroll or not to scroll? If you look at it before you’ve read what follows, will my memories become laughable? If you look at it afterwards, will it have been built up way, way too much? I almost feel weird posting it without some kind of warning. I realise that a warning would just be ridiculous; this is a site for grown-ups, featuring various unpleasant elements dealt with in an often frivolous manner. But, fuck it, I’m not going to be frivolous about the picture. I want to talk about it.

I find it a rather strange thing to look at. I found the picture again on Monday 16th April 2012. Prior to that date, I hadn’t seen it since (by my rough calculations) around April 1980, when I would have been six years old.

The picture massively upset me as a child. I can’t help wondering how long I must have looked at it for after opening the comic, puzzling over it, trying to work out what I was looking at. I was certain, before finding the image last year, that my memory must be exaggerating or playing tricks because it just didn’t seem to make sense. Why would such a panel be in a Spider-Man comic? It didn’t fit the universe. I Googled every different thing I could think of that might lead me to the answer. I Googled ‘Murder Magic’ (which is how I remembered the title; my six year-old self clearly missed the ‘by’), I searched for info on the 1980 pocketbooks (and could only find that they held reprints of classic Ditko Spidey), and pulled up nothing. Then, last year,  I found a copy of Spider-Man Pocketbook issue 2 on Ebay. I thought there was only about a 30% chance that it would be the right issue (I remembered the magician image clearly, the cover of the hastily-binned comic was vaguer) but thought it was worth a few quid to find out. I was laid up in bed sick the day the comic turned up, and thus the fact I was vaguely feverish when confronted with the image again after 30+ years may well have added to the impact.
But, there it was.

It’s a reprint of a Marvel Boy story from ‘Astonishing’ comic circa 1951, and was thus almost 30 years old by the time it comprehensively ruined my day in 1980. The fucking thing is *exactly* as I remember it, and still seems incongruous to my eyes in the middle of a very child-friendly Spider-Man comic.

Of course, finding out that it was a Marvel Boy story made it a lot more Google-able, hence the fact that I was actually able to find an interactive
preview of the original issue of ‘Astonishing’ which you can peruse over here (and it’s that version that I grabbed the image at the bottom from). The version in the pocketbook is black & white. I don’t think the colour makes it any more reassuring.

Most things that scare you as a child become cuddly to you as an adult. That Scanners poster that freaked me so badly as a kid was on my wall by the time I was at Uni. I can’t see myself clutching this one to my chest in the same way.

Truth be told, it still creeps me out, and it also makes me feel angry and slightly sad. Much like Teeny Todd, I can trace the threads of Murder by Magic in various creative stuff I’ve done over the years, so I guess it’s given me something back for that ruined afternoon in 1980.

Here’s the image, folks.

Murder by Magic

These things that upset us get carried with us, though, and ultimately become part of us whether we want them to or not.

Hope everyone had a brilliant Christmas, and here’s to an awesome 2013.

PS. Since writing this blog entry, I’ve started buying Spider-Man comics again for the first time in decades. Not sure why. I’ve also performed a live show about no-budget horror filmmaking called Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws and made it available online. There’s an embed of it below. Please check it out, and please spread the word. It’s a bit NSFW due to a bit or gore, nudity and bad language. Hope you dig it.

The Octopus that wasn’t in The Goonies

I think it’s fair to say that it all started with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

My Mum took me to see a cinematic re-release of the 1954 Richard Fleischer version back in the Seventies. Common sense tells me it must have been around 1978, when I was four, but the official date for the re-release was apparently 1976, which would place me at the tender age of two. Either way, I’d seen the ads on the TV and had badgered my already long-suffering mother into taking me. My poor old Mum still had untold delights of genre cinema awaiting her over the next few years, until I reached such an age as I could be safely abandoned in the cinema on my own. The arrival of this date may have ultimately been somewhat hastened by her sense of parental responsibility failing to outweigh her desire not to sit through Krull for a fourth time.

My four/two year-old self had been looking forward to 20,000 Leagues for one reason alone, and that reason had tentacles and a snapping yellow beak. The TV ads for the re-release had focused on the squid fight scene to such an extent that I genuinely think I expected Giant Squid: The Movie rather than the well-meaning Jules Verse adaptation that unrolled before me. Result: I fidgeted. A lot. I suspect that I may have engaged in thoughtful discussion regarding the narrative with my mum; discussion along the lines of ‘Will the squid be on soon?’ every couple of minutes throughout the lion’s share of the running time.

But when those tentacles finally crept onto the screen, I fell silent. How could I not? I was absolutely and utterly transfixed. The bastard was glorious. I left feeling that I’d seen the single greatest sequence ever filmed, and the tiny seeds of cheerful, fanboy obsession were scattered onto the fertile soil of my pre-school mind. Without seeing that squid attack, who knows? Maybe today I’d be the kind of guy who feels more comfortable with a rugby ball in his hand than a box of popcorn. Maybe I’d have never fallen in love with film. Of course, this being in the days before VHS, it was years before I got to see the sequence again. So, in the meantime, I hunted for memorabilia and photos. But, more than that, I hunted for more movies with enormous rubber cephalopods.

Pickings were pretty slim. A few years later, I fell instantly in love with Warlords of Atlantis and was more than willing to overlook its flaws on the basis of the wonderful stop-motion octopus. I tried, but failed, to find somewhere showing Tentacoli after hearing it luridly described by my uncle, but was delighted when that same uncle (genre writer Tim Stout, who had a novel and a couple of anthologies of short stories published in the seventies and early eighties) pointed me in the direction of It Came From Beneath The Sea on ITV one Sunday lunchtime.

The years passed, and the arrival of VHS meant that I was suddenly able to compile my favourite mollusc moments on one dog-eared tape. I’d sit with play and record set to pause, waiting for the brief arrival of an octopus or squid in countless movies, such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, where I felt that such an appearance would be inevitable. My interests broadened and my tastes became more varied, but the root of why I grew to love cinema in the first place always remained.

I was eleven years old when pre-publicity started turning up for the big Spielberg-produced Christmas movie that year, The Goonies. By this point, I was devouring any information about film that I could lay my hands on. I used to obsessively collect bubblegum cards just to catch glimpses of scenes that hadn’t yet seen the light of a projector bulb. I used to read novelisations that were released before the movie’s launch.

And that was where I found it.

First page of the novelisation of The Goonies. On the inside leaf; a teaser bit of text from later in the novel, designed to whet your appetite. A description of an octopus attacking the kids, in a flooded cavern with a pirate ship floating sedately in the background.

For those couple of weeks, pocket money went exclusively on Goonies bubblegum cards. Early on in my quest, I picked up an index card. I noticed that cards 43 and 44 were listed Tentacles of Death! and The Rockin’ Octopus! respectively. Those were my Grail. I tore packets and chewed neon pink bubblegum until my teeth were falling like rain. Eventually, I got both cards. Tentacles of Death! was actually a split image, meaning there were two pictures on one card. Two smaller pictures, in other words. I squinted and squinted. I even used a magnifying glass. My appetite was most definitely whetted. The Rockin’ Octopus! showed the beast in all its glory, and took my breath away when I opened the packet. I bought the soundtrack album and grooved to the absolutely dreadful sounds of Eight Arms to Hold You by the Goon Squad, the song that I knew would ultimately score the scene.

I can still remember how I felt, queuing to see the movie a couple of weeks later. When it finally hit the screen, I knew virtually every line in advance from all my background reading. My impatience to get to the octopus stopped me from enjoying it fully. Twenty minutes from the end, the kids splashed down into the cavern with the pirate ship. I knew that, at any moment, Stef would start accusing Mouth of groping her underwater, not realising that it was a tentacle brushing past her leg.

Except she didn’t. The kids got on board the pirate ship without incident.

I did a double-take. I simply didn’t understand. I watched the rest of the film in a sort of daze, wondering where my octopus had gone. In the final scene on the beach, when a policeman asked the kids about their adventure, Data piped up;

“The giant octopus was pretty bad. Very scary”

It was everything I could do to stop myself crying.

I went to see the film again the following week at a different cinema, hoping that somehow there’d been a mix-up at the initial screening and that a reel had been missed. When it finally became apparent that all prints were mollusc-free, I wrote to Warner Brothers demanding the scene be reinstated. Or for them to send me a copy, whichever was easier. They didn’t reply. I collected any magazines that might be able to explain the situation, even spending the majority of a week’s pocket money on an imported issue of Cinefex which featured a couple of photos from the scene and, at last, a vague explanation of why it was removed. The word ‘unrealistic’ was cruelly bandied around.

It was another thirteen long years before I finally got to see the octopus scene in any form. During that time I considered various way-out plans to get to see the footage, including applying for a job at Burman Studios (who made the octopus) and asking for a copy of their showreel. I dreamt about the scene more times than I care to think about.

Then, one day in the late nineties, a grainy video clip turned up on a Goonies fan site. It had been video-captured from a US screening on The Disney Channel which reincorporated the scene. I sat and watch it a couple of dozen times, not really able to process the experience or even tell whether I was enjoying it or not. It was a further two years before I got to see it on a decent size screen, (on the final, nowadays inevitable, special edition DVD release), and probably another three for me to come to terms with the truth.

The truth about the octopus scene is very simple and straightforward. It’s crap. It doesn’t work. It’s badly executed, has no logical place in the movie and no pay-off. The flick works better without it.

But that’s a 36-year old screenwriter writing those words, and every time I even think about the subject the 11-year old that I used to be starts crying. And I can’t live with that.

So, the campaign for a director’s cut starts here.

And you can stick the rubber Suicide Squid back into Red Dwarf whilst you’re at it.