It’s that time of year again, when innocent pumpkins are slaughtered and mutilated in their thousands and children dress up as murderers, ghouls and monsters in order to blackmail sweet confections from total strangers. Tell me this isn’t better than Christmas!

Horror movies have provided the inspiration for costumes for many a year. Watch the streets on the 31st and you’ll find a variety of contemporary icons of the macabre in miniature form. However, it’s a fair bet that the majority of Halloween costumes will represent four of horror’s most enduring and classic monsters; Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy and the Werewolf. So, in honour of Halloween, here’s a potted history of The Big Four, from their origins to the best that celluloid has given us in their name.

Origin

The vampire has its origins in a plethora of myths throughout Eastern Europe. These myths evolved from a variety of sources, such as premature burials, pre-psychology lunacy and diseases like porphyria and rabies. John Polidori’s The Vampyre, in 1819, first devised the character of the seductive, gentlemanly vampire, elevated beyond the dirty and decaying creatures of folklore. However, it was Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, and the subsequent movie adaptations, which really pushed the vampire into mainstream consciousness. Taking the name from that of Vlad Dracul (Vlad the Dragon), and his son Vlad III (The Impaler), who would used the name Dracula, Stoker created one of the most iconic characters in literary history.

Movie highlights

F.W. Murnau’s 1922 Nosferatu was the first movie adaptation of Stoker’s novel. Well, sort of. With no copyright permission, Murnau simply changed the names of all the characters and rewrote the ending. Count Dracula now became Count Orlock, and was portrayed by the terrifying Max Schreck. However, no-one was fooled and Stoker’s widow succeeded in suing Murnau, who was ordered to destroy all prints of the film. Fortunately some survived, and Nosferatu still stands as one of the finest adaptations of Stoker’s novel to date.

Perhaps the most iconic Dracula performance was that of Bela Lugosi in Universal Studio’s 1931 Dracula. As with most adaptations of the novel, the story and details were altered significantly. Having played the character on stage, it is ironic that Lugosi only got the part after Todd Browning’s original choice, Lon Chaney, died. Lugosi spoke very little English at the time and had to learn his lines phonetically, but his accented delivery became the standard for corny Dracula impersonations forever. After he died, poverty stricken and largely forgotten, Lugosi was buried in his cape.

When Hammer Studio’s joined the fray, with Christopher Lee as the titular vampire, they made even more changes to the narrative. Jonathan Harker is now a vampire-hunter rather than a solicitor and is turned into a vampire before being killed by Van Helsing. Still, Lee is charismatic and engaging as the seductive Count, a role which would ultimately become something of a millstone to the actor. Lee would not return for Hammer’s next Dracula movie, but did make a further six movies as the character with the studio.

In 1992, Francis Ford Coppola’s effort, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was an attempt to create a more faithful adaptation of the original novel. Certainly, it adhered to Stoker’s book more than the movies before it, even if it did take the liberty of making Dracula the Vlad III, rather than simply a character inspired by him. Gary Oldman’s charming Count grows younger throughout the movie, as he does in the book. Few actors could retain their dignity while wearing a wig that looks like a huge ass, but Gary manages it. Luckily, he has Keanu Reeves’ dreadful English accent to attract the derision.

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Origin

Created by Mary Shelley in her novel Frankenstein, published in 1818, the story of Victor Frankenstein and his attempts to create life from death is the original cautionary tale of the dangers of man playing God. Driven by a thirst for knowledge, Frankenstein takes the bodies of the dead and creates a monster beyond his control; one which will ultimately spell his doom, and the doom of those he loves. Widely considered to be one the first entries in the Science Fiction genre, Shelley was only 18 when she wrote it, supposedly after a nightmare. That was some bad dream she had, it has to be said. Frankenstein is bleak, violent and tragic. Yay.

Movie highlights

Edison Studios, the production company owned by Thomas Edison,  produced a 13-minute-long Frankenstein that was the first ever adaptation of the book for the screen. Made in 1910 by J. Searle Dawley, it featured a particularly bizarre looking monster, played by Charles Ogle, and has great curiosity value if nothing else. Check out the early special effects during the creation sequence, as Dr Frankenstein seemingly creates his creature from a skeleton. Not for the last time, Shelley’s tragic story was given a happy ending.

Universal Studios went the same way for their classic interpretation of the tale in 1931. Boris Karloff is perhaps the most iconic monster, originating the square head and neck bolts. Why a man made from bits of other men should have a flat, square head is beyond me, but it looks pretty cool. Director James Whale followed his Frankenstein with Bride of Frankenstein, a superior sequel in that the monster was made far more sympathetic than he appeared in the first movie; an interpretation much closer to the novel. Elsa Lancaster’s hair is probably the most memorable ‘do in cinema history.

Hammer Studios added their own spin on the tale with The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, with Christopher Lee as the monster. While wisely ditching the square head, the movie does deviate even further from the source material. Victor Frankenstein is now a murderer as well as a creator. Played by the imcomparable Peter Cushing, the character became increasingly more evil with each subsequent sequel, even to the point of becoming a rapist in Frankenstein Must be Destroyed, which is still regarded as the best of Hammer’s many efforts in the series.

Perhaps the most faithful screen adaptation is Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in 1994. While still altering certain narrative details of the original novel, all the important elements are kept true to the source. Robert De Niro’s reanimated patchwork creature is not only a rampaging monster, but a thinking, reasoning man; both victim and threat. The novel’s ending was kept, with all its snowbound tragedy and pathos, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein also looks gorgeous. Definitely my favourite interpretation of Shelley’s novel, and sadly underrated.

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Origin

Egyptian mummification can be traced back as far as 3300 BC, but the idea of the reanimated mummy is a little more recent. Edgar Allen Poe’s 1845 short story Some Words with a Mummy is possibly the first instance of such a character in fiction. Arthur Conan Doyle devised the notion of the reawakened mummy as a tool of vengence in his story Lot No. 249, in 1892, and Bram Stoker’s 1903 novel The Jewel of Seven Stars concerned an archaeologist’s attempts to revive the mummy of an Egyptian queen. But it was the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922, and the subsequent deaths of many of those who found it, that brought the idea of Egyptian curses into the mainstream.

Movie highlights

The first mummy movie, entitled Cléopâtre or Cleopatra’s Tomb, was made in 1899 by the great pioneer of the moving image Georges Méliès. It is 2 minutes long. However, up until the thirties the bulk of mummy movies were comedies. It was Universal who brought on the horror with the 1932 The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff as the revived priest Imhotep, blending into contemporary Egypt after 10 years and searching for his lost love, Princess Ankh-es-en-amon. Or someone who looks like her, anyway. You know how it goes.

Christopher Lee took on the role in Hammer’s The Mummy, released in 1959. Tall and imposing, Lee makes a particularly creepy mummy. Unlike Karloff’s, Lee’s mummy is a silent, relentless killing machine and much scarier as a result. Hammer continued a run of mummy movies, using Stoker’s The Jewel of Seven Stars as the basis for Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971). Of all Hammer’s efforts, it’s The Mummy’s Shroud that sticks in my mind from childhood as the scariest. I haven’t seen it since so apologies if you watch it and it sucks.

Dawn of the Mummy, a low budget movie made in 1981 by Frank Agrama, is not a great movie but it does feature one of the creepiest mummies put on celluloid. Played by an uncredited actor who is skinny as hell and about 8-foot tall, the mummy of Sephriman is the best thing about this movie. Again, however, it’s been a long time since I saw it. Interestingly, what Dawn of the Mummy did that no mummy movie had done before was to latch onto the George Romero inspired undead fever and put zombies into the mix. Sooner or later someone was going to do it.

Possibly the most imaginative use of a mummy, and my personal favourite of the genre, is Don Coscarelli’s 2002 Bubba Ho-Tep. The residents of a retirement home are being terrorised by a mummy, and only the aged Elvis Presley and a wheelchair-bound black man who claims to be JFK can save the day. Featuring an inspired turn from Bruce Campbell as the geriatric King, Bubba Ho-Tep took the mummy movie full circle, back to comedy again. Together with Stephen Sommers more adventure orientated mummy trilogy, it may be some time before this character regains its horror status.

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Origin

The werewolf has its origins in various myths scattered throughout the world, going as far back as the Ancient Greeks and possibly beyond. Many of the tales share a connection to vampire folklore and origins. Pagan rituals involving the moon and the wearing of wolf skins, carriers of rabies, legends which built up around the savage, fur-wearing Vikings, and stories of children raised in the wild have all contributed to the belief in lycanthropes. Greek mythology tells the story of cruel Arcadian King Lycaon, who was punished by Zeus by being transformed into a wolf. The werewolf has appeared in folklore and fiction longer than any of the other classic monsters.

Movie highlights

Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935) was the first movie to feature the werewolf in its best known form, as a man who involuntarily transforms into a wolf during the full moon.  This was followed in 1941 with the superior The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney Jr. as the titular character. Chaney plays Larry Talbot, who returns to his family home in Wales after the death of his brother. He is bitten by a wolf while defending a woman from it. Soon he finds himself having to sit in the make-up chair for four hours a day. Chaney reprised his iconic role four more times, but never to such success.

Hammer Studios only ever made one werewolf movie, The Curse of the Werewolf in 1961, with Oliver Reed. Based on the 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore, the film moves the story to 18th Century Spain. Reed plays Leon, born on Christmas Day and cursed to become a werewolf at every full moon unless his spirit remains pure. Or something. Frankly, who cares? We just want the werewolf and when we finally get it, after a very long build-up, it’s a classic. Few people are as convincing when running around growling as the late Oliver Reed.

The werewolf genre suffered something of a slump for a long while, until Joe Dante hit with The Howling in 1981. Special effects guru Rick Baker created startling new transformation effects for the movie which he then went on to perfect in John Landis’ An American Werewolf in London in the same year. Quite simply the best werewolf movie ever made, this story of an American student infected by a werewolf while backpacking in England was also the first to have a lycanthrope that looked more like a wolf than a man.

In 2002 Neil Marshall reinvigorated the once again flagging genre with his debut Dog Soldiers. Pitting six British soldiers on a training mission in the Scottish Highlands against a pack of indigenous werewolves, Marshall’s movie made magic with a limited budget and a talented cast. Dog Soldiers took its cues from An American Werewolf in London by using humour to sharpen the horror. The werewolves themselves, returning to the bipedal variety, were well executed and the location was especially spooky. Dog Soldiers proved that there’s life in the old genre yet.

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I got tagged by Peter at Magic Lantern Film Blog for this Meme. The mission? Come up with 15 filmmakers that helped shape the way I look at motion pictures. These are the filmakers whose movies not only inspired (or fanned the flames of) my passion for cinema, but taught me the rich language of the genre. The education never ends, of course, which is why I love it so much.

I’m running late, due to a two week holiday, but here I am and here it is. Enjoy, discuss, mock or admire.

1. Steven Spielberg

If you were to perform some crazy chemistry experiment and dilute cinema down to its purest form you would probably end up with a Steven Spielberg movie in a test tube. You can write him off as a bubblegum filmmaker if you like, but few directors can boast such a distinctive style and absolute grasp of the visual medium as this guy can. Able to inject his work with simple human warmth or terrifying human cruelty with equal ease, Spielberg understands his audience and how to entertain them. His influence is everywhere, in a generation of talent, and his adoration for the moving image is tightly woven into every frame he shoots. Absolutely peerless.

Signature movie: Raiders of the Lost Ark

2. David Fincher

One of the most striking and unique filmmakers to emerge in the last twenty years, Fincher’s lens peers into the darkness and brings it to life. He survived the studio and star nightmare of Alien 3, picked himself up and moved from strength to strength. Unlike many of his imitators, Fincher combines style and content, making intelligent and brooding films. Innovative title sequences, dizzying camera work and stark imagery that burns itself into the mind are the hallmarks of a Fincher movie. That, and his often surprising project choices. Frankly, he’s the only director who could make me interested in seeing a movie about Facebook.

Signature movie: Fight Club

3. John Carpenter

Carpenter has waned considerably over the last twenty years, and yet I still look forward to his upcoming The Ward simply because this could be the movie where he gets his mojo back. And Carpenter with his mojo is a force to be reckoned with. With Halloween, Carpenter demonstrated a mastery of suspense that few have matched. Of all the carbon copies that followed, not one ever measured up. And they’re still trying 32 years later.

Signature movie: Halloween

4. Alfred Hitchcock

Obvious choice, of course, but how can you avoid this one? Hitchcock may or may not have been the greatest filmmaker of all time , but he was certainly one of the most inventive. Without Hitchcock there might never have been the Dolly Zoom, director cameos, the slasher movie or Brian DePalma. Hitchcock constantly came to blows with the censors and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable, plausible and possible in filmmaking, paving the way for modern cinema.

Signature movie: Vertigo

5. Francis Ford Coppola

If you need a lesson in the pitfalls and insanity of filmmaking, look no further than the CV of Francis Ford Coppola. From the daily battles with studio execs which haunted the production of The Godfather (where Coppola was often shadowed by a replacement director in case he was fired) through the Hurculean task of getting Apocalypse Now made (a production so troubled it got its own documentary), to the single-minded madness of One From the Heart (the cost of which eventually bankrupted him), Coppola is the guy who gets what he wants on film, at any cost.

Signature movie: Apocalypse Now

6. Martin Scorsese

The little guy with the big talent, Scorsese is the director you would want as a mentor. A walking encyclopaedia of cinema, he talks with the same frenetic pace that his movies use to tell their stories. With incredibly long tracking shots, slow motion zooms, fast zooms and quick cuts, Scorsese’s camera is an extension of the man’s boundless energy and is rarely still. He is also one of the industry’s best arrangers of soundtrack music, always choosing the perfect song to complement his scene.

Signature Movie: Goodfellas

7. Ridley Scott

His style has mellowed a little of late, his movies becoming grander in scale, but early on in his career Scott was one of the most visually unique directors around, producing two of cinema’s most influential Science Fiction films. Taking a B-movie script called Star Beast, Scott added his inherent eye for design, a desire to elevate the movie beyond the B, and gave us the outstanding Alien. He followed this with Blade Runner, which set the standard for visions of the future for years to come. Design has always played an important part in Scott’s work, and it is an area in which he excels.

Signature movie: Blade Runner

8. John Hughes

As a kid developing a passion for movies in the 80s, it would have been impossible for me not to include the late John Hughes in this list. Hughes was a capable talent behind the camera, but his true strengths lay in his screenwriting, his ability to coax career-best performances from his teenage casts and the warmth he instilled into his movies. Few filmmakers before or since have possessed Hughes’ skill for representing teenage angst without falling into the more patronising traps of lesser efforts. Hughes was a man of his time, who struggled when that time was over, but he was the best at what he did.

Signature movie: The Breakfast Club

9. The Coen Brothers

From the release of Blood Simple onwards, the Coens have continually marked themselves out as true originals with a remarkable record of hits. Save for only one or two exceptions, every Coen movie has been both singular and excellent. The next Coen project is always worth looking forward to. As accomplished as screenwriters as they are as directors, you are guaranteed cracking dialogue, inspired visuals and characters that are just a little larger than life. You will also most likely get screaming fat people, repetition of a single line for comic effect and at least one speedy tracking zoom. There’s no movie quite like a Coen movie.

Signature movie: The Big Lebowski

10. Sam Raimi

Joel Coen began his career helping out on the editing of a friend’s debut movie. That movie was The Evil Dead, and the director was Sam Raimi. Made on a shoestring budget, The Evil Dead showcased the arrival of an inspired, and rather crazed, talent. Raimi delivered the kind of camerawork usually reserved for those with far more expensive equipment at their disposal, and a few of his techniques can be seen in subsequent Coen movies. However, Raimi’s anarchic style seemed a little lost in mainstream cinema until the arrival of Spider-man.

Signature movie: Evil Dead II

11. Terry Gilliam

The least seen member of the Monty Python team, Gilliam makes movies brimming with the singular and surreal imagination which was present in his Python animations. Usually working with the most meagre of budgets, allowing him to retain creative control over all his work, Gilliam has sometimes struggled to get his projects completed. However, when they are completed they have a magical style and a sensibility all their own. They usually feature characters whose imagination is too large for the world they live in, crushed by the mechanics of a clockwork society. The irony is clearly not lost on Gilliam.

Signature movie: Brazil

12. Sergio Leone

The man who made Clint Eastwood famous with his trilogy of ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, Italian director Leone took the western genre and made it look ugly. Rejecting the good guy/bad guy set-up of classic American westerns, Leone’s contributions were simply filled with varying shades of bad guy. Even Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’ is merely the best of a corrupt bunch. The characters are unwashed, morally vacant and greedy, the landscapes unforgiving and barren. Leone’s frontier is a harsh place to be. Often utilising both extreme close-ups and haunting long-shots, Leone has long been held by Eastwood as a major influence on his own directorial style.

Signature movie: Once Upon a Time in the West

13.  John Landis

During the 80s, Landis was responsible for some of the best comedies of the decade, including The Blues Brothers and Trading Places, but it was when he introduced horror into the mix with An American Werewolf in London that he really reached his peak. Landis made comedies that looked as good as any of the more high-brow movies, each littered with his unmistakeable trademarks (static shots of watching statues or paintings, and references to ‘see you next Wednesday’). His career tailed off toward the end of the decade, but perhaps the forthcoming Burke & Hare will be a return to form.

Signature movie: An American Werewolf in London

14. George Lucas

As a director, George Lucas is included in this list on the basis of one film, and one alone. But what a film. Star Wars changed everything. It’s impossible to gauge exactly what impact that movie had on the 7-year-old kid I was, but I know it was profound, as it was with almost every kid around my age. Star Wars was like saying hello to the wonder of cinema for the first time. We’d never seen anything like it. There were a few flashes of that directorial skill in the three prequels, but for the most part those films were engineered rather than directed and Lucas would not have made this list based on those. But for changing the way we viewed cinema, his one contribution cannot be underestimated.

Signature movie: Star Wars

15. John Lasseter and Pixar

Before Toy Story, the feature length animated movie industry was sputtering along at an uninspired pace. Disney’s output had suffered a gradual slump in both quality and popularity, boosted only by the success of The Lion King. Pixar, a computer company which was originally part of Lucasfilm, had been experimenting with computer animation for years and entered into a deal with Disney to produce three computer animated movies. Toy Story was the first, directed by John Lasseter, and the rest is history. Not only did Pixar revolutionise how movies were animated, but they also completely modernised the storytelling. Suddenly, animated movies were not just for kids, but were written with a sophistication which could appeal to all ages. Pixar kick-started animation, with other studios quick to follow suit, and they are yet to produce a bad film.

Signature movie: Toy Story

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Okay, my turn to tag. Apologies in advance if you’ve already done it and I missed it.

Cantankerous Panda at Back in the Day

Rory Dean at Above the Line

John at John of the Dead

Dan at Top 10 Films

This blog was written as part of the John Carpenter Week at Radiator Heaven.

The Movie

The Fog (1980) is often overlooked when discussion turns to the best of John Carpenter, yet it is something of an underrated gem, snuggled between the more successful Halloween and Escape from New York.  As a great lover of traditional ghost stories, however, I have always ranked The Fog as my favourite Carpenter movie. It was the very first horror movie that I bluffed my way into a cinema to see, and it scared the hell out of me. I ended up sitting next to the closed door, in the dark, at the bottom of the auditorium. Bad placing in this movie, trust me. Ghost stories are always best kept simple, with simple scares, and The Fog obeys this rule eloquently.

Antonio Bay, a small coastal town in California, is about to celebrate its centennial.  However, on the eve of celebration the town priest discovers a dark secret about the founding of Antonio Bay and the curse that has been put upon it. Then the fog rolls in and brings something else with it, looking for revenge for a 100-year-old crime.

Big on atmosphere and complemented by one of Carpenter’s finest soundtracks, The Fog is a glorious exercise in plain, old-fashioned spooky.  Made on a shoestring budget, not unusual for a Carpenter movie, it wasn’t the easiest of productions. Carpenter has admitted that the first cut of The Fog was hugely disappointing, even going so far as to state, ‘This was the lowest point I had come to in my professional career’. Together with his editor Tommy Lee Wallace, he set about shooting additional material, including a new opening scene.

The Scene

Antonio Bay, 11:55pm on the 20th April. Old sea dog Mr. Madchen is entertaining (or scaring the hell out of) a group of children with ghost stories around the campfire. They are five minutes away from the Bay’s cenntenial, and Mr. Madchen has one more story to tell. This one is close to home…

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Why I Love It

Storytelling

The great pleasure of the ghost story is the simple act of telling, or being told, one. Storytelling, around a glowing fire at night, is one of man’s oldest activities. Few movies convey that simple pleasure, and no movie has done a better job than The Fog. Dear old John Houseman, who would tell more ghost stories the following year in the aptly titled Ghost Story, has the kind of tranquil, seasoned voice that could make any story come alive. He certainly does this one justice, even going so far as to make us jump with his fob watch. It certainly got me the first time around, in that darkened cinema, and just look at those wide-eyed kids! Bastard!

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Wide-eyed Kids

There’s a moment, as the kids sit there rapt and attentive, that always makes me smile. Mr. Madchen tells them that the drowned crew of the Elizabeth Dane will come back and look for the campfire that drew them to their deaths. At that moment, they all cast nervous glances to the fire they are sitting beside. A little moment of Spielberg-worthy magic.

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Music

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. I consider The Fog to be Carpenter’s finest work in this area. He uses his synth piano keys sparingly in this opening scene, subtly enhancing the atmosphere. As a backing to Houseman’s fireside tale, it is perfectly eerie.

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The Title Shot

As Mr. Madchen finishes his story, we pan up to see a view of Antonio Bay. Carpenter uses the lonely sounds of a deserted beach, with the wind and the town clock chimes, to chilling effect. And just look at that place. Dark and foreboding, would you want to be there? Not exactly cosy, is it? There is something intrinsically unsettling about a deserted, isolated beach at night. At least there is to me. It is the perfect setting for a ghost story, and Carpenter uses it masterfully in this opening scene.

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Mr. Madchen’s Story

‘Eleven fifty-five. Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before twelve, just to keep us warm. In five minutes it will be the 21st of April.

One hundred years ago on the 21st of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig. And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard.

At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with salt water, their eyes open and staring into the darkness. And above, as suddenly as it had come, the fog lifted, receded back across the ocean and never came again. But it is told by the fishermen and their fathers and grandfathers that when the fog returns to Antonio Bay, the men at the bottom of the sea, out in the water by Spivey Point, will rise up and search for the campfire that led them to their dark, icy death.

Twelve o’clock. The 21st of April.’

They say the best movie soundtracks are the ones that you don’t notice are there. They feature music that enhances a film but never tries to compete for your attention. That’s all well and good, but personally I like the soundtracks that do both; the music that you find yourself humming later on and then buy because it is good enough to survive on its own.

I’ve been listening to soundtracks for as long as I’ve been watching movies, and that’s a long time. Sometimes I’ll listen because the music is excellent in its own right, sometimes because it’s just great music to daydream to, and sometimes because a particular score is the perfect inspiration for the writing of a screenplay. I once wrote an entire script around the music to a single scene in Aliens. Thanks for that, Mr James Horner.

Selecting a paltry five soundtracks from the plethora I admire was no easy task but eventually, after much hand-wringing and begging for forgiveness from the aforementioned James Horner, I settled on my Top Five. These are the soundtracks which I believe best represent the art in all its forms; as beautiful music in its own right, as the perfect enhancement to the story and visuals, and as examples of craftsmen at the top of their game.

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Alien – Jerry Goldsmith

1979

Long considered one of the most successful and enduring movie composers of all time, Jerry Goldsmith has been around since the Fifties and continues to work sporadically today. The story of his music for Ridley Scott’s Alien is one of disagreements and disappointments, but there is no denying the beauty of his work for the classic Sci-Fi/Horror movie. Hired by Scott at the ‘suggestion’ of 20th Century Fox, Goldsmith and the director clearly had differing ideas about how the movie should be scored. As a result, much of the music Goldsmith wrote was omitted from the final cut of Alien. The romantic, sweeping and eerie theme originally written was rejected by Scott and replaced by the composer’s second effort; a simple series of unnerving sounds which, it must be said, are extremely effective. Scott also chose to use a pre-existing piece of classical music for the end credits, further alienating Goldsmith. The original score is available in its entirety, but what remains within the film is deeply unsettling, beautiful and dark. Elements of his original opening theme survive in scenes where the Nostromo lands and takes off, making the process of landing a spaceship seem like an adventure in itself. And, taking the title of the movie to heart, Goldsmith creates ugly, unnatural sounds whenever the creature appears. Don’t ask me what they are, I prefer not knowing.

See also: Chinatown, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and The Omen.

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Edward Scissorhands – Danny Elfman

1990

The fourth collaboration between composer Elfman and director Tim Burton, Edward Scissorhands remains one of the most influential scores of the last twenty years. Elfman began his career in film by scoring his older brother Richard’s movie, Forbidden Zone, and soon after began his creative relationship with Burton working on Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Utilising a 79 piece orchestra and a choir, the music for Edward Scissorhands is rich, dreamlike and perfectly encapsulates the bittersweet themes of Burton’s most personal film to date. In addition, Elfman creates a hilarious tick-tock theme for the bland suburbia into which Edward appears, and a signature bombastic march which touches on the near insanity of the inventor (Vincent Price) and his bizarre machines. Elfman and Burton represent a perfect understanding between director and composer, and even if Burton’s work isn’t always accomplished, Elfman’s usually is. They say that imitation is the highest form of flattery, and it is a measure of this soundtrack’s success that its music-box chimes and soulful choral voices have become the signature sound for fairy tales and Chanel advertisements ever since. It has even been adapted into a ballet.

See also: Midnight Run, Batman Returns and Big Fish.

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The Fog – John Carpenter

1980

John Carpenter has always been a curious rarity as a filmmaker. Not only does he direct and, more often than not, write his movies but he also composes and performs the soundtracks. Not even Spielberg can do that (all praise His name). So, as sole creator of every component, Carpenter’s synth-based scores have always been the perfect accompaniments to the action on the screen. Often using a heartbeat thump as the base, Carpenter’s soundtracks heighten the tension considerably. His most famous is probably Halloween, but my personal favourite has always been The Fog. Carpenter uses very little in enhancing the eerie atmosphere of his coastal ghost story, but every fog horn sound and every light stoke of piano key burrows deep under the skin, priming the viewer for the experience. The thumping sound as the fog rolls into Antonio Bay mimics the pounding on doors, the noise which announces the spectres before they strike. It is one of the greatest horror movie scores of all time, by a composer who fully understands the genre. Carpenter’s band, The Coup De Villes, also provided the somewhat cheesy tunes which play on the radio, or serve as jingles for the KAB Radio station.

See also: Halloween, Escape From New York and Big Trouble in Little China.

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Jaws – John Williams

1975

If you mention Jaws in conversation, one of the first things that will come to mind is the theme tune. Dum dum dum dum, etc and so forth. Effective and iconic as that theme is, it sometimes results in the rest of the soundtrack being overlooked. This is a shame because, beyond the ominous strings which more than compensate for the killer shark’s rather rubbery presence, Jaws enjoys one of the most accomplished scores in cinema history. John Williams has been working in the industry for half a century, and is responsible for some of cinema’s most recognisable theme tunes, including Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Jaws marked Williams’ first collaboration with Spielberg, a collaboration that has now spanned 35 years and 19 movies. By turns haunting, joyous, foreboding and terrifying, Jaws is a master class in writing music to accentuate the moving image. Williams’ strings make the ocean seem filled with dread, he quietly adds atmosphere to Quint’s tale of the USS Indianapolis, and the cheerful sea shanty which accompanies the Orca’s doomed pursuit of the Great White strikes a gloriously upbeat note in the midst of the peril. It was the perfect start to such a successful collaboration.

See also: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars and Schindler’s List.

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The Mission – Ennio Morricone

1986

The chances are there is at least one Ennio Morricone score that you love, and probably more. Morricone has been producing music for film for over 50 years, across a diverse range of genre and language. He gained wide acclaim for his work with Sergio Leone on the Spaghetti Westerns of the Sixties and managed to write a score for John Carpenter’s The Thing which sounded like a Carpenter score. However, when I hear the name Morricone I immediately think of one movie: The Mission. Roland Joffé’s story of Spanish Jesuit missionaries in 18th century South America, and their struggles with the Spanish and Portuguese colonial governments, was graced with some of the most beautiful music ever composed for film. Morricone mixes classical Baroque orchestra, South American Guaraní instruments, Spanish guitars and haunting choirs to magnificent and often heartbreaking effect. The emotional punch of Morricone’s work even filters down to the simple tune which Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) plays on his oboe, a tune later reprised with full orchestra for the track On Earth As It Is In Heaven, which is breathtaking.

See also: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The Untouchables and Once Upon a Time in America.

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The Also Rans:  Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – James Horner, The Bourne Identity – John Powell, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – Warren Ellis and Nick Cave, Psycho – Bernard Herrmann, Solaris – Cliff Martinez.

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There’s an old saying: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s a self-evident adage that the good folk in Hollywood clearly haven’t embraced, as they continue to churn out an endless series of movie remakes. This year has seen the release of Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman, The Crazies, Edge of Darkness and Nightmare on Elm Street, and these will soon be joined by True Grit, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, The Mechanic and Red Sonja. Then there is Let Me In, the US remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In. Together with the numerous sequels that are a regular fixture during a year’s movie output (and I’ve complained about those already), this signifies a remarkable amount of money being funnelled into yet more unoriginal ideas.

The funny thing about remakes is this; more often than not, either the original was so good that there’s nothing you can improve upon, or so bad that it really should have been left alone in the first place. But sometimes, just sometimes, a movie had such potential and was so screwed up in its execution, that a remake seems a valid and worthwhile endeavour. And, yes, sometimes even a movie that was good to begin with is improved on the second attempt. However, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, and more often than not great movies receive the unnecessary makeovers. The popular brand is squeezed for every last penny.

For me, there are two kinds of the more unforgivable remake. Firstly, there’s the simple cash-in remake, where a classic movie is regurgitated for the sole purpose of pulling money from a new generation of cinemagoers who fear movies made before they were born, perhaps because the clothes look silly and the music is embarrassing.  Secondly, there are the translation remakes, where a popular foreign movie is regurgitated for cinemagoers that fear having to read subtitles and can’t deal with a cast that all have black hair. Or something. Both categories are infuriating for their own reasons, but mostly because they very, very rarely do the original any justice.

Then there are those remakes that take the basic outline of the original and change everything else around it, such as the setting and the characters. At least the bulk of these demonstrate a little creativity. Good examples are The Magnificent Seven (The Seven Samurai as a Western), or Outland (High Noon in space).

Of course, a special mention has to go to the recent trend for announcing remakes by alternative labels. ‘Reboot’ is a popular one. Tim Burton coined the phrase ‘re-imagining’ for his appalling Planet of the Apes, perhaps offended by the suggestion that he was remaking anything. He has subsequently ‘re-imagined’ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.

What follows is my list of the five best and the five worst remakes over the years, in my oh-so-humble opinion. You should know, I was planning to avoid using movies that were based on books. To my mind, these aren’t really remakes so much as re-adaptations (Listen to me. I sound like Tim Burton). However, a good friend told me I was being ridiculously anal, so I ditched that restriction. Thanks, Maggie.

Please feel free to comment with your own suggestions.

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The Good Remakes

Always (1989)

Original 1943

Steven Spielberg’s remake of World War II romantic drama A Guy Named Joe shifts the story to modern day North America, replacing bomber pilots with aerial forest-fire fighters. Richard Dreyfuss replaces Spencer Tracey as the pilot who must become guardian angel to his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) and her new prospective man, after he is killed in an accident. This is one of Spielberg’s lesser known movies, released just after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and possibly lost in the wake of Ghost. Always is a reminder that the most successful director of all time can deliver a quietly touching romance just as well as a rollercoaster blockbuster or heavy drama. Dreyfuss and Hunter are quite possibly one of cinema’s cutest couples, and Brad Johnson is entirely likeable as the hapless beefcake trying to heal Hunter’s grief and win her over. Always also features Audrey Hepburn’s final screen appearance, as Dreyfuss’s angelic guide.

The Blob (1988)

Original 1958

Director Chuck Russell, having cut his teeth on Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, made a surprisingly entertaining addition to his CV with this remake of the classic B movie. This version is a lot more fun. With a script co-written by Frank Darabont (who would go on to make The Shawshank Redemption), The Blob retains its popcorn-munching, monster movie credentials, but always manages to stay just the right side of ridiculous. It keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, while delivering a series of entertainingly grisly deaths at the hands, well, pseudopods of the acidic, carnivorous mass which terrorises a small American town. The Blob is just a pure piece of bubble-gum cinema, but also ruthless and a little unpredictable with the characters it disposes of, treating you to some sly misdirection as it dispatches people you could have sworn would be safe. Fun, right?

Dawn of the Dead (2004)

Original 1978

It takes some kind of self-confidence to decide that your debut movie will be a remake of one of horror’s most revered classics. Clearly not lacking in self-belief, Zack Snyder did just that, and the result was one of the best horror movie remakes to date. George Romero’s original, as with all of his zombie instalments, mixes horror movie thrills with social commentary, and Snyder is smart enough to realise that the critique on consumerism doesn’t need to be reinforced the second time around. Instead, the pettiness and pedantry of the human race in the face of extinction is explored in the interactions between the band of survivors, holed up in a shopping mall as the growing number of zombies look for a way in. The script is witty and intelligent, and throws in just the right mix of original material and knowing nods to its progenitor (look out for the appearance of Ken Foree and the Gaylen Ross store).

Freaky Friday (2003)

Original 1976

Before Lindsay Lohan imploded in bratty fashion, she was showing all the signs of a talent on the horizon. Shame. Taking the Jodi Foster role of a girl who swaps bodies with her mother, Lohan was both convincing and funny. Jamie Lee Curtis, who stepped into the mother’s shoes when Annette Bening stepped out, turned out to be the ideal choice to portray a teenage girl in a woman’s body, and matches Lohan for comedy value at every turn. Freaky Friday is a guilty pleasure, to be sure, and not the kind of movie you’re supposed to admit liking during talk of great cinema, but who cares? It’s funny, well-observed and most importantly to this topic, it’s better than the original. Hey, my tastes are eclectic. Deal with it.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Original 1956

Don Siegel’s original adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel was by no means a bad film needing a remake. The story of a man who discovers that people are being replaced by emotionless duplicates, grown from alien pods, was an effective exercise in post-war paranoia. However, when writer and director Philip Kaufman made his own version, he took the paranoia and tension to much greater levels. Donald Sutherland takes the role of Matthew, who along with a group of growing (and then dwindling) survivors, tries to defeat the threat from the alien pods. Kaufman creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of threat and doom from the simplest of scenes, and the score is often a pared down series of noises and hums, which just adds to the unsettling mood. The sense of mistrust between the characters, and the tension as they attempt to move among the pod replicas, unable to display even the slightest emotion for fear of being discovered, is palpable. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has moments that are genuinely horrific, and the final scene will live in your mind for a very long time.

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See also: The Thing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Departed, Scarface and The Fly.

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The Bad Remakes

Halloween (2007)

Original 1978

Rob Zombie claims to be a huge fan of John Carpenter’s original, so what he thought he could achieve by remaking it is a mystery. Zombie’s Halloween fails on just about every level, but his biggest mistake is in giving the faceless, implacable killer Michael Myers a complete back story. Zombie spends half the movie doing what Carpenter managed with a five minute opening scene and a few choice Donald Pleasance lines. Do we really care about Myers’ childhood? Does his oedipal fixation make him any more interesting or scary? And does Zombie’s wife have to be in every movie he makes? Zombie’s fascination with redneck family life takes what was an effective, very scary movie icon, and reduces him to just another by-the-numbers moron with a mask and a knife. Also, in leaving himself with much less running time for the actual Halloween story itself, there is none of the build-up and tension which permeated Carpenter’s masterpiece. Zombie’s follow-up, Halloween II, is even worse. Stick with the original.

The Haunting (1999)

Original 1963

Cinematographer Jan de Bont had hit the jackpot with his directorial debut, Speed. With the keys to the kingdom, de Bont went from one turkey to the next, but never sank quite as low as he did with this misguided and badly executed remake of Robert Wise’s supernatural classic. It could have been okay, it might have worked. The sets are gorgeous, the actors do fine, even with a rather flimsy script. The big problem is that The Haunting isn’t scary. At all. In fact, it’s ridiculous. De Bont is too reliant on CGI effects and, quite frankly, animated wooden cherubs, moving beds and rooms that turn into giant faces are about as scary as a character from Toy Story. The tone is clumsy from the outset, lacking any real atmosphere or subtlety. Add to this a final act that is way, way, way over the top and what we have is an anti-horror movie.

King Kong (1976)

Original 1933

When legendary producer and master of hyperbole Dino De Laurentiis announced he would be remaking one of cinema’s most influential monster movies, he promised to deliver ‘the most exciting motion picture event of all time’. This version was to feature a forty-foot, fur covered, robot Kong, which would replace the original’s stop-motion animation and herald a new dawn in celluloid spectacle. However, the movie failed spectacularly to live up to any of its producer’s rash boasts. With a pedestrian script, camp performances and plodding direction, King Kong wasn’t even the most exciting motion picture event of the year, let alone all time. And the forty-foot robot ape, while actually built as promised, was such a dismal failure that it only appeared for about twenty seconds, standing still and lifting an arm slightly. Not much hope of getting that thing to climb the World Trade Center, then. The rest of the time Kong is portrayed by special effects guru Rick Baker in a gorilla suit, smashing around miniature sets like Godzilla. Dreadful.

The Ladykillers (2004)

Original 1955

I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers, so it pains me to take one of their movies and brand it a travesty. However, with The Ladykillers they leave little choice. Once again professing to be huge fans of the original, the Coens took Ealing Studio’s timeless comedy about a group of inept bank robbers lodging with a sweet old lady who turns out to be more than a match for them and moved it from 50s London to contemporary Mississippi. Tom Hanks is the sinister, but charming Professor, leading the band of oddball criminals to their eventual comeuppance. Despite his best efforts he never quite emerges from the shadow of the original’s excellent Alec Guiness. And that characterises the film as a whole. Woefully unfunny, especially from the makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise remarkable body of work.

Psycho (1998)

Original 1960

Possible victor when they hand out the Most Pointless Remake Ever award. For reasons that may never be properly explained or understood, Gus Van Sant, hot off the success of Good Will Hunting, decided to remake Hitchcock’s seminal horror movie shot-for-shot. With Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche as the doomed Marion Crane, Van Sant’s Psycho is a carbon copy of the original and as such can only suffer from the fact that it isn’t the original. The only noticeable difference is the addition of Bates masturbating as he watches Crane through the hole in the wall. You’re left wondering if Van Sant spent 38 years yearning to see Norman Bates spank his monkey, finally deciding to make his own Special Edition where his fantasy could be realised. Anthony Perkins made Bates a tragic, almost sympathetic figure, but for all his talents Vaughn just cannot do the same. Van Sant’s Psycho replicates the camerawork and editing of Hitchcock’s, but utterly fails to replicate the emotional punch. A meaningless exercise.

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See also: Planet of the Apes, The Fog, Get Carter, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Hitcher.