Some musings

Bond, Sex Education and 21st Century Horror

So, Barbara Broccoli has confirmed that James Bond “can be of any color, but he is male,”. Glad to hear it. It makes perfect sense for Doctor Who to be female (I just wish she had a better writer backing her up), but Bond is a man and one who, let’s face it, is unlikely to undergo gender reassignment surgery, despite the interest in same-gender relationships that he alluded to during Skyfall. The character in the books and – controversially in that film – has, at best, a callous, disposable attitude towards women and at worst, he’s an outright misogynist. Moreover, his character is something that recent films have explored in more interesting ways than their predecessors. To change such a fundamental dimension of a character seems a shame.

I like what Broccoli goes on to say in that article about writing new interesting female characters rather than arbitrarily changing a gender. It seems to me, that in the inelegant race of so many franchises to duplicate the stupendous success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the longest-running franchise in film history could do it very easily and well. Perhaps this is what they’re planning with Lashana Lynch’s casting in No Time to Die. Personally, I would like to see a standalone film with a female 005 or 009, say, establishing a new hero who can team up with Bond to save the world in a couple of movies time. It seems like a no brainer to me. God knows there are some obvious candidates: Charlize Theron smashed it out of the park as usual playing an MI6 agent in Atomic Blonde, bringing to mind the darker, harder spy from the Bond novels rather than the movies, albeit she was better than the film she was in (not for the first time). Likewise, the Mission Impossible franchise continues to widdle on Bond from a great height, with every film being better than the last and all of them after the (weak) second movie being as least as good as the best of Bond. Rebecca Ferguson would be a shoo-in to replace the Cruiser as series lead should Ethan Hunt retire or – God forbid – Tom Cruise finally go too far with one of his increasingly insane stunts.

The fact that Broccoli has said that Bond “can be of any color” is great news. Sadly, I think it’s too late for Idris Elba, who would have been perfect (although let’s face it, Trever Noah definitely has a point…). In that case, my pitch would be Riz Ahmed. He’s a great actor, he’s clearly handsome and charismatic enough, he’s played an agent from MI6’s sister service, MI5 in the excellent Britz, and he can do cold and merciless, having already played villains (Bond really needs cold and merciless. Even Roger Moore showed it sometimes!). He’s also currently a year younger than Craig was when Casino Royale came out, making him the perfect age.

In the same article, Broccoli’s co-producer and half-brother Michael G Wilson says that “You think of him [Bond] as being from Britain or the Commonwealth”, so if Ahmed’s not interested there’s a fella who’s just moved to Canada and is looking for work… Better get some acting lessons, Harry.

Quick TV shout-out. Sex Education is back on Netflix for its second series (the link is the trailer for the first series, for those who haven’t seen it). Very, very, very rude (there’s a lot of, ahem, biology…), but the very definition of hilarious and heart-warming. It’s filmed in an idyllic South Wales setting and it’s always sunny, so the warming you feel won’t just be toward the characters. Oh, and the music is stonking.

Okay… in the Midsommar review, I mentioned maybe doing a list of favourite horror films. I worry about such lists, they’re a little arbitrary and I’m bound to miss things out. But as we’ve just entered a new decade and as the state of the world has given us a golden age of horror not seen since the Seventies, I’ve compiled a list of, in my very humble opinion, the best horror movies of the 21st Century so far.

This is based on the characteristics I talked about in that review. Horror films should scare or disturb. The recent crop of more sophisticated horror films with loftier pretensions are represented here, but only ones that have chills at some point. So, by definition, this is a very personal list. Also, there are some notable exceptions. A lot of other lists of this type have featured pictures like Shaun of the Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and Drag me to Hell, all great films. But they’re examples of probably my all-time favourite genre, comedy-horror (hello again, Evil Dead II!), so they don’t really belong on this list, which is about scares. American Psycho came out in 2000 and is a bonafide classic, but despite the gore and the murder, it just doesn’t feel like a horror movie, It’s primary goal isn’t scaring the shit out of you, it’s more a dark psychological/sociological thriller with black comedic tinges. Likewise, another instant classic made some lists: Annihalation (2018). It certainly has horror elements, particularly in certain incredible scenes, and it arguably occupies the hallowed SF/Horror ground of The Terminator or Aliens, but most people wouldn’t describe either of those films as horror either. Finally, there are films like Martyrs (2008) that I have no shame in admitting I plain wimped out of. If a film is an endurance test just to get through because of horrific gore and violence, it’s not really what I’m looking for. Yes, some of these films are gory in the extreme, but the primary goal is fear, not vomit. Again, it’s a personal choice.

Here we go then, in very rough ascending order:

Wolf Creek (2005)

I thought hard about putting this on the list. Both Triangle (2009) and Rec (2007) are clearly better films, and learning subsequently just how closely Wolf Creek is based on real events has to make you question the taste and decency of it. But the fact is, it just scared me more than those two movies. John Jarratt is absolutely outstanding as Mick Taylor, it’s a truly disturbing performance in a film that just feels horribly, well, real. An Australian fella once said to me (of this Australian film) “Ah, mate, that film is fucked.” He’s not wrong.

Vacancy (2007)

Look, maybe I’m biased (I spend a lot of time alone in hotels), but this was one of those accidental late-night TV discoveries that scared the absolute frigging pants off me. The ending is a bit lame, but the simple concept and execution do enough to add to the always-increasing number of filmic reasons to stay the hell away from American motels. It’s like some bizarre post-1960 Hollywood conspiracy to drive the American tourism industry into the ground. Similarities with any recent bestselling novels are, I’m sure, entirely coincidental.

The Witch (2015)

Robert Eggers takes the freakier, disturbing portions of The Crucible and turns it into a dread-soaked nightmare that brings the reality of living in an earlier age to life. A film that elevates the horror movie to something more profound. Outstanding.

30 Days of Night (2007)

Superior to the comic on which it’s based, this brutal, bloody, nasty answer to the Twilight series makes vampires scary again.

Kill List (2011)

Really not for the faint-hearted, this, from the brilliant British director Ben Wheatley (never made a bad film and, somewhat bizarrely, attached to direct the next Tomb Raider movie) takes the simple and obvious premise that – despite what Hollywood tells us – hitmen are scumbags, then goes into darker and darker territory. Best to know little going in, but be warned, it is extremely gory and grim in places.

It Follows (2014)

Now we’re getting there. No gore here, just dread, fear, and excellent film making. Taking elements of earlier stories, most notably J-horror in the idea of a disease as a curse become manifest, this is a brilliant, stylish experience that will linger with you long afterwards, much like the antagonist.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Yes, the sequels sucked. Yes, it led to way too many inferior found-footage movies. Yes, it led to Mark Kermode rightly ranting about lazy “Quiet… quiet… BANG!” filmmaking on a regular basis, but it’s still brilliant. Again, no gore, just a simple idea done well that will scare the shit out of you as assuredly as skydiving after a laxative overdose. Loved it.

Get Out (2017)

Among other things, this is the best social horror film ever made. I say, ‘among other things’, and frankly one of those ‘things’ is that this is objectively the best film on this list. It’s a masterpiece. It’s an awkward and uncomfortable fact to me that it didn’t scare me as much as some other films, but it is the unquestionable pinnacle of using a genre film to deal with important issues. It is absolutely frightening, it is utterly brilliant and frankly, if you only watch one of the films on the list, it should be this one.

Frozen (2010)

Yep, there are two recent films called Frozen, one the all-conquering Disney cartoon from 2013, the other a brutal, terrifying survival horror from 2010. For the love of God, do not confuse the two on your children’s watch-list unless you want to do untold psychological damage and use their college fund for a lifetime of therapy instead. This Frozen basically takes the botched premise of 2003’s Open Water and turns it into ninety minutes of nerve-shredding “How the hell would I get out of this?” tension. In most other horror movies, you can come up with an answer. In this one, with its all too feasible situation, you’re trapped up there with the protagonists until the bitter end.

The Eye (2002)

Don’t watch the (dreadful) remake. This is the stuff. There’s a quote from Ain’t it Cool News in that American trailer for this masterful Korean film that says, “This is what horror should be like”. Amen to that. If you’ve ever been chilled by a ghost story told around a campfire, this is like someone taking that feeling, distilling it, and mainlining it through your eyeballs. Truly chilling, brilliantly simple.

The Ring (2002)

Okay, so it’s a remake of a superior film, Ringu, but since that came out in 1998, I can’t put it on this list. This American version adds a lot of pretty unnecessary filler and if you’ve never seen either, then I’d recommend the original over this every time. But as remakes go, this is bloody good. And honestly, I saw this first anyway. It remains one of the few films that left me shaken after I’d left the cinema. Once again, the premise is simple. Also, not for the first time on this list, the film story (based directly on Ringu) outstrips the original source material, the 1991 novel by Koji Suzuki, from which it differs in many ways, notably the eventual cause of death. Once again, like most of the higher entries on this list, it doesn’t rely on gore, although it certainly has some shocking, affecting images. Most importantly, however, and the reason this tops the list is the sheer fright. In the poetic profanity of the Big Yin himself, Billy Connolly: Jesus suffering fuck, this is scary!

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