Night of the Dead 2014

Night of the Dead XIV

A Leeds institution; Night of the Dead is a horror movie marathon that runs through the night, ending in the middle of the next morning and featuring a mix of horror films, shorts, games and banter. It is one of the highlights of my year and like previous years I’m going to talk a little about the movies that were screened there.

Before that though, a brief word about the event itself. This year had a lot of changes for Night of the Dead, some good, some not so good. The event started almost 2 hours earlier than normal (and still overran! The event organisers summed it up neatly right at the start. “We won’t be on time because we thought ABC’s of Death 2 was 90 minutes long and when we got the film it was 2 hours and 5 minutes so that’s thrown the schedule right out.”) and was held on a Friday, both of which I felt were good ideas.

Less good was that it was held later in the festival causing it to clash with Thought Bubble, Leeds’ massive comic book convention which I also normally attend. Also in the loss column was the lack of Gip, one of the two regular presenters and a charismatic shouty Irish man beloved by all. He also attends Thought Bubble and chose it over NOTD this year. He was replaced, for some of the night, by Dom Brunt better known by most as Paddy from Emmerdale. A Leeds resident and massive horror film fan (he’s even directed and starred in a former Day of the Dead entry, Before Dawn) Dom was a fine choice but lacks the easy charm of Gip. Also he had to leave at 3 in the morning. In fairness to the man he was going on holiday the next day and had already delayed joining his wife on holiday for 3 days because he got the dates for the event wrong but still, less banter and fun than previous years.

This was the first year sponsored by Shameless Cinema, a small press distributor specialising in rare exploitation and B-movie films. They supplied a ton of prizes for the presenters to give away. So many in fact that by the end of the night they just resorted to giving everybody who was left a prize. I walked away with about £50 worth of DVD’s so I probably made a £25 profit on the event.

The biggest change though was in the style and content of the films chosen. Leeds International Film Festival asks audiences to rate the films shown and the offerings at Night of the Dead routinely end up in the bottom 10. In fairness this is because the offerings at NOTD are usually fucking terrible but then that is something I love about it. As a massive fan of shit schlock NOTD provides me with a chance to see some really obscure shit schlock. In previous years the hosts have pleaded with us to be nicer to the films but asking for sympathy from the NOTD crowd is guaranteed to backfire. However, I think they’ve started to worry about their bad reputation since attendance has been down and so this year they’ve decided to butter us up. There is usually one horror comedy and it is usually the best film of the night so this year they decided, fuck it, all horror comedies. And so 4 out of the 5 films we saw were horror comedies.

As a fan of horror comedies I did enjoy the films more this year but I kind of miss the shitiness of previous years. NOTD is a really unique experience, equal parts great and awful, like all good bad things it is hard to do intentionally and I would hate for NOTD to lose their special qualities by chasing the audience.

 

ABCs of Death 2

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I haven’t seen the first ABC’s of Death yet but since this isn’t a film in the conventional sense that doesn’t matter. Boz from The Little Pod of Horrors has seen both and assures me that the sequel is better than the original by a country mile.

For those who don’t know the high concept here is that this is a series of 26 shorts, one for each letter of the alphabet, each directed by a different director and with each director given full creative freedom to do whatever they want except that they must include their letter and they must feature a death.

As you can imagine this is an extremely difficult film to talk about. Almost all the shorts rely on some kind of twist and they’re all less than 5 minutes long so talking about the plot even briefly tends to spoil the short. Even worse, the titles come at the end of the short and they’re usually some kind of last twist or final gag revealing a new layer on the short you just watched so you can’t even use the titles most of the time.

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Nonetheless I will do my best.

Despite being nominally a horror film almost none of the shorts try for tension or scares. There is lots of gore and traditional horror subject matter but most of the films are blackly comic. Of the shorts that did try for horror I would say K is the most successful with a genuinely creepy moment in the middle that I haven’t seen before. S also works as a tense piece with a really nice twist.

Of the more humorous shorts though it becomes really hard to pick a favourite, almost all of them are funny and in different ways to each other. A, B, E, O, P, T and Y all made me laugh. Special mention though has to go to G, M and W. G is just, amazingly bonkers. The kind of thing where you watch it, have no idea what you saw but are glad you saw it. It represents possibly the most surreal 5 minutes of cinema I have ever seen. W is a parody of He-Man that doesn’t go where you are expecting it to but is full of great little observations. M, M is just gleeful. M was this year’s wildcard so it was open to any film maker to try and come up with a short and I can confirm that they made the right choice.

 

On the bad side, a couple of shorts are just kind of there, not overtly creative, not funny and not scary. N, V and Q in particular. F is probably the worst short in the film, it thinks it is profound and clever despite being mostly dull and uninteresting. Finally special mention has to go to L a short in which I have only the vaguest of ideas as to what actually happened.

Housebound

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The best film I saw this year. A clever little horror comedy from New Zealand,  Housebound tells the tale of Kylie (Morgana O’Reilly). Kylie is a young tearaway with drug and alcohol problems. We’re introduced to her trying and failing to crack open an ATM with dynamite and a sledgehammer. After being arrested she is sentenced to house arrest at her Mum’s house, something neither she nor her Mum are entirely happy about.

Kylie is a horrible little shit. Rude, lazy and openly hostile to everyone and everything she has pretty much no redeeming qualities but her Mum still loves her and wants to help her turn her life around. Kylie, however, seems more interested in figuring out some of the mysteries in her Mum’s old house, especially once she finds out it used to be an insane asylum and becomes convinced that it is haunted.

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Talking much more about the plot would do Housebound a disservice because one of the strengths of this film is that it continually surprises you. At several points the film totally upends both the kind of film it is and the story you thought it was telling. And not only are the twists unexpected and surprising but they all make perfect sense and play fair with the audience. Also some of the turns the plot takes are really funny, particularly when one character suddenly reveals that they know a hell of a lot more about ghosts then they’re letting on.  You need to see Housebound, it is just that good.

Every other aspect of the film just works. The acting is uniformly superb, the jokes are funny and the scares are effective. And that in particular is rare. Most horror comedies are really just black comedies, or comedies with gore. It is rare that a film tries for scares and gags and rarer still that it succeeds but Housebound unequivocally does. This is even more surprising when you consider that its director Gerard Johnstone’s first film. Based on this he has a successful career ahead of him. He has an unobtrusive style but as a storyteller he gets every single thing that needs to work, working.

And its even more of a success when you consider that Housebound has an unlikeable protagonist. Unlikeable protagonists are somewhat in fashion and whilst they can be done well they are really hard to pull off. But Kylie is in enough danger and has enough charisma to work as a protagonist even as she acts like a shit to everyone she knows.

Housebound is simply a must see, the best horror comedy I’ve seen since Evil Dead 2 and probably the best horror film I’ve seen all year.

Dead Short Competition

In another change to previous years, rather than the shorts being spread out throughout the night this time they were all shown as a chunk. The reasoning behind this decision was that that for the first time we were invited to vote on our favourite short.

Normally the shorts are easily the best part of NOTD but this year they felt a little lacklustre. It might be because we watched ABC’s of Death earlier but nothing in the shorts measured up to the insane fun of G or M from that movie nor was there anything a tenth as good as Fist of Jesus.

And yes I have brought that short up just to have an excuse to link to it again. I love it that much.

That said none of these shorts were bad either and most had something to recommend them.

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Waterborne gives us what I think is a cinema first, zombie kangaroos, and not much else.

How To Make A Nightmare was the only truly terrible short. It was pretentious, dull, over long and confused.

Slut, a 1970’s period retelling of little red riding hood, was well shot and acted and evoked the period beautifully. It ends wonderfully too.

Invasion from Moustache on Vimeo.

Invasion told a very slight story and was mostly just an excuse to show off the rotoscoped animation of Hugo Ramirez and Olivier Patté. It does look very cool though.

EXTREME PINOCCHIO Trailer (English ST.) from Alcibal Productions on Vimeo.

Extreme Pinnocchio basically transports the entire Pinnochio myth to an inner city in France complete with midgets, transvestites, paedophiles, drugs and a garbage truck/whale. It has a wonderfully lived in grimy feel, some good gags and some memorable visuals but it is faaaaaar too long at 23 minutes and drags in places.

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M is for Mobile was a failed entry in the ABC’s of death open slot. I suspect it was rejected for being too short but it is very funny with a great twist.

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Bon Appetit doesn’t have any new ideas but it does have style.

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Sequence of Death was “mind blowing” – that’s a pun.

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Liquid is a Takashi Miike style Japanese psycho-sexual body horror that basically exists because the word liquid, when said in a Japanese accent, sounds a lot like re-kid. It has a nice central idea but isn’t scary or particularly stylish and its amazing how quickly a short can wear out its welcome.

This was the sole film for which we had the director present this year who came all the way from Tokyo to see his movie premiere at 3 in the morning. Fair play to him for dedication but it’s a shame for him to come so far and not win. I did get a chance to talk to him and learned that interestingly one of the actresses in his film is a famous porn star, but not the one who is naked for almost the entire running time.

The three really good shorts were Mouse X, Cannibals and Carpet fitters and Safari Heat.

Mouse X was one of the only shorts to try for overt scares rather than black comedy. It is inexplicable. A man wakes up in a chair with a bible, he sees a mouse on the floor, sees  a hole that lets him escape to another room and quickly realises he is in some kind of time recursion interacting with himself at different points in time. The film is amazing at creating a sense of almost existential dread by refusing to answer any of the many questions it poses. It’s also stylish and has a great soundtrack which very subtly and effectively ramps up the tension to a spine chilling climax.

In contrast Cannibals and Carpet Fitters isn’t especially clever but it is charming. The tale of a battle between some cannibals and two ordinary carpet fitters in the west country of England has a sly deadpan sense of humour and stacks of likeability. It won the contest and I’m not surprised. In fact I kind of want it to be turned into a TV series where every week two ordinary blokes in the West Country battle supernatural horror.

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What should have won though is Safari Heat, which defies explanation. Telling you anything about it will spoil the experience except to say it is a parody of Miami Heat, done in Claymation and set in Cape Town. However it quickly transforms into easily one of the most bizarre and amazing things I have ever seen. Sadly, I couldn’t find any version of it online to show it to you.

 

Wolf Cop

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It was a testament to how good the offerings were this year that Wolf Cop wasn’t the best movie. In year’s past it would have easily been the best thing they screened but this year both Housebound, ABC’s of Death and, in a weird way Street Trash, delivered better results. Still, Wolf Cop wasn’t a bad film so much as a painfully average one.

With a title like Wolf Cop guess what this is about? Yes, it is about a werewolf cop. Specifically it is about a werewolf deputy who has to clean up his small rural town from the twin threats of organised crime and satanic shape shifters. Oh and he’s like Popeye but with booze instead of spinach.

That sounds fun doesn’t it? It sounds like Teen Wolf but with gore and dirty jokes. It sounds like it’ll be over the top silly, campy fun in the style of Troma, Sam Raimi or even Family Guy.

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And to be fair to the movie there is a stretch lasting about 20 minutes in the middle where it delivers exactly on that promise. Our titular lupine cop (Lou Garou, because this movie thinks it is far cleverer than it is) starts tooling around town in a modified wolf mobile, ripping the faces off crooks, stealing liquor and making puns (“who are you?” “The fuzz!”) and it is glorious.

Unfortunately it takes a long time to get to that point and the build up to the payoff is just, not very interesting. I understand you need to have highs and lows, you can’t just do balls to the wall gore and gags from start to finish (although counterpoint, Evil Dead 2) but that doesn’t excuse the build up being boring. Wolf Cop lacks likeable or funny characters so all the character establishing stuff in the beginning is just a chore to sit through. Then it delivers what it promised us, and then far too quickly that part is over and we get a predictable and tension free climax or various people running around the woods.

I will give it credit for this though. I cannot remember seeing a penis metamorphosis in a live action film before, so kudos to wolf cop for that.

Street Trash

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Street Trash defies a conventional critical approach because it is singularly unconcerned with mundane things like plot, characters or motivations, not when it can be shocking you instead. This isn’t a film, it’s an assault. Street Trash hates you, the viewer, and does everything in its power to provoke you to either getting up and walking out or giving in and laughing at it. If it were a sound it would be a child saying every swear word it knows until you either slapped it or couldn’t help it and giggled.

You certainly can’t call it a good film but a bad film? Bad by what standards? It isn’t telling a story, it isn’t trying to scare you, it isn’t trying to move you or connect on an emotional level. Street Trash has one ambition, to make you go, “what the fuck am I watching?” And it achieves this. It really successfully achieves this.

Describing the plot is a little bit like describing a particularly grimy fever dream you once had. Street Trash doesn’t really tell a story from beginning to end so much as it presents a series of vignettes of what life was like in New York in the 1980’s if you were scum. Among the various vignettes we have: 2 brothers living on the streets to escape their abusive ‘nam vet dad and their arguments with each other, a black guy stealing from a supermarket, another ’nam vet who has flashbacks and rules a junkyard like a kingdom, the gang rape of a mob boss’ girlfriend, a sweet junkyard employee who seems to care for one of the 2 brothers and is sexually harassed by her boss and a cop with anger management issues trying to sort out all the mess. Some of these plots will intertwine and resolve but mostly what happens in this film is pointless meandering that (the filmmaker) thinks is either gross or funny or both.

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The main plot in terms of memorability, if not running time, has to do with viper. Viper is a drink that causes anyone who drinks it to melt.

Yup, melt.

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A liquor store owner finds it behind a loose board in his basement and deduces it must have been there since prohibition. Well, bums will drink it at a dollar a bottle and he’ll have made a profit so why not? He has no idea it will make people melt of course, and neither does anyone else until Mike Lackey, who is sort of our protagonist, has a lucky escape from drinking a bottle himself. He then uses it to get revenge on anyone who did anything bad to him for the preceding 80 minutes.

Viper is set up early in the film and for the first 15 minutes reoccurs periodically to remind us it exists and to get some of the “plots” (biggest fucking scare quotes you can imagine around plots there people) moving. Then it disappears from the film entirely until Street Trash decides it needs an ending and sets about melting all the bad guys. Nearly every plot thread is unresolved , no ultimate point was made and no sense of closure is given.

Street Trash is a fucking terrible film and yet, I can’t say I’m sorry I watched it. And not because it’s so bad its good either, it’s too slow and in all of its technical respects, weirdly, too good to qualify as a bad movie. You get the sense that if James M Muro wanted to tell a decent story, he could. He just has absolutely no interest in doing so.

No, the reason I liked Street Trash is because I got to see some things I have genuinely never seen before. I haven’t seen a bum melt into a toilet and I’ve got to say here, the melting effects were really well done. No realistic but certainly evocative. I’ve never seen a gang rape played for laughs. I’ve never seen a game of penis keepaway.

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My favourite part of the whole film was a minor character who worked for the Mob Boss. He was some punk kid that clearly hated the menial job he was doing and hated the Mob Boss, so he let’s bums gang rape the Mob Boss’ girlfriend. There’s an amazing scene where the Mob Boss and the Kid are sitting in the police station arguing. The Boss is threatening to kill the kid and the kid is insulting the boss. The angry cop sees this and pulls the kid to one side asking why he is insulting a man who can have him killed. The kid says it’ll be okay because the cop can put him witness protection and as the cop slowly shakes his head the dawning look of realisation the kid’s face as he puts together just quite how badly he fucked up is priceless.

I think, ultimately, I have to recommend Street Trash. You won’t like it, buy you won’t forget it either.

Oh and as an aside, we got to see this movie on film! A rare treat and the scratches and grime on the print really added to the atmosphere of early 1980’s urban decay. If you are going to watch this then watching a print version at 6 in the morning in a theatre full of horrible people is definitely the way to do it.

Septic Man

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So let’s get the obvious joke out of the way. What a load of shit!

Here’s how Septic Man was sold to us. This was the mystery film at this year’s screening and it was described thus. A guy falls into a massive septic tank and starts to slowly mutate. Sounds like Toxic Avenger right, only with pooh? You think that that’s the first act and then this shit monster is going to go out and get revenge against the people who put him in the septic tank?

Here is what actually happens in Septic Man.

There is a city, it has a disease, a plumber is asked by a shady cabal to fix the sewer system (by himself for some bizarre reason!) whilst the city is evacuated. He does so but then gets trapped in a septic tank with some dead bodies. As he is stuck there he slowly starts to mutate. Lou Ferigno and his insane brother live at the water treatment site and won’t rescue him. Then Septic Man’s wife shows up and mercy kills him.

After Act 1 when he eventually gets stuck NOTHING FUCKING HAPPENS!

NOTHING!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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You can do films where the protagonist is trapped in one location. 127 Hours, Buried, Phone Booth hell Saw is basically this. It’s an idea that’s more appealing in the abstract (writers love high concept writing challenges like this because writers find restrictions to actually be freeing) than it is normally well executed. Phone Booth sounds like a great idea for a drama but getting 90 minutes out of it is tricky.

That said you can do it. The trick is to find something to fill up the time with. Flashbacks to how the hero got here, cutaways to the outside world as they try and track down our hero, watching our hero as he tries every clever and desperate method to escape his situation. You can even have a person there for them to talk to and write dialogue that reveals their character. If you’re particularly lazy you can throw in some dream sequences to fake out the audience.

But you have to do something.

Septic Man vaguely flirts with the idea of doing all of these things  but it quickly decides it can’t actually manage to pull them off, gives up and defaults back to what it likes to do best; shadowy shots of an ugly man, in an ugly room, sitting.

Fully 50% of this film’s running time consists of looking at a dude being sad.

If that sounds like something you’d enjoy then Septic Man should be right up your alley but I despised this film. It ranks amongst the worst films I have ever seen. Not because it is technically bad but because there is nothing there. It’s a blank space where a film should be. It’s the cinematic equivalent of staring at a toilet wall. It’s like a bowel movement that lasts 83 minutes where you don’t have anything to read, boring and excruciating.

I literally have nothing nice to say about this utter turd of a film.

So that was NOTD 2014. 2 good films, 1 meh film, 1 film that was certainly memorable and 1 of the worst cinematic experiences of my entire life. That’s a marked improvement on last year which, as I said earlier, is kind of a mixed bag. I strongly recommend Housebound though, you will not regret it.

Night of the Lepus (1972) Directed by William F. Claxton

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Bad movies are bad for all sorts of reasons but mostly they are bad for technical reasons. Bad acting, bad direction, cheap sets, lousy dialogue, laughable effects, plot holes, etc. Rarely is a film bad because of a bad concept. Oh bad ideas are common, but they’re usually part of a concept that would have broadly worked. Plan 9 from Outer Space is predicated on a secret alien invasion using our own dead against us, that’s kind of neat. It’s just every single thing that follows on from that premise that Ed wood and company get wrong.

No, the collaborative nature of film and the high cost of production means that most truly bad concepts die before they manage to jump through the many hoops needed to get a film financed, produced and distributed.

Which is what makes Night of the Lepus such a rare treat. This is a film, ladies and gentleman, predicated upon the high concept of giant mutant killer bunny rabbits.

Giant, mutant, killer bunny rabbits.

Let that sink in for a bit.

Multiple people heard that idea and thought, yup, that’ll work. There are 57 people credited with working on this film and at least 4 of those (the director, producer and two screenwriters, yes two of them!) are personally responsible for the thought process.

“Giant, mutant, killer, bunny rabbits. Why not?”

The mind, it boggles.

Now some of you bad movie aficionados are probably squirming uncomfortably now thinking, hang on Adam, this must be a piss take right? This is like 8 Legged Freaks or Slugs or something else patently ridiculous where it really is a satire or at least a parody of monster movies?

I don’t blame you for thinking that. In my experience when you come across a truly bad idea usually the creators know it and have done it on purpose. Also bolstering this argument is the fact that the novel it is based on is a satire with an anti-war message.

But if this is a joke then it is a work of deadpan genius to rival Andy Kauffman. Every single thing in this movie is played 100% down the line straight. Even better it is portrayed with a seriousness and gravitas unique to 70’s “message” films. This isn’t just a film about giant mutant killer bunny rabbits that takes itself seriously, this is a film about giant mutant killer bunny rabbits that thinks it is important!

Our film starts with Rory Calhoun (yes, that guy who is always walking and talking) murdering a horse.

Okay, in fairness it actually starts with Rory Calhoun riding a horse, the horse tripping on a rabbit hole and Calhoun euthanizing him with a rifle. I suspect this is intended to make us hate the rabbits because they caused the death of a horse but it doesn’t. It makes me think Rory Calhoun is some kind of emotionless human robot who kills horses without being even slightly broken up about having to do it.

And actually in further fairness I skipped the prologue which features news footage of people exterminating rabbits, mostly in Australia. The footage of hundreds of rabbits running panicked against rabbit proof fences being chased by men with sticks and guns is accompanied by frightening music and a voice over intoning how devastating ecologically rabbits have been in parts of the world.

Now intellectually I know this to be true and I have no moral opposition to the culling of rabbits to protect farmland. Hell I eat rabbits. But watching adorable little bunnies running for their fucking lives while giant, half-glimpsed human forms lunge at them with sticks menacingly does not make me scared of the rabbits.

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Which is a problem the film never solves. They try, they try really hard. Over the course of this movie we get every horror trick in the book. We shoot rabbits from low angles, in the dark, with menacing strings. They even shoot close ups of the rabbits impressive front teeth that they’ve smeared with tomato ketchup. And all I can think is.

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D’awwww, look at his widdle nose twitch.

So, human robot Rory Calhoun (sporting the full denim tuxedo) is upset that his farm is full of rabbits, as well he should be. He decides to exterminate them but not for human robot Rory Calhoun the ways of his father, just drop loads of cyanide down all over the place. No, human robot Rory Calhoun is going to try and do this in a more sensitive ecologically friendly manner. He calls in De Forrest Kelly (alright folks, everyone get your dammit I’m a doctor not a [blank] jokes ready) who hooks him up with Stuart Whitman, another old western star playing a scientist.

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When we meet Whitman he continues this film’s trend of all of its heroes being bastards to animals by shaking a box full of bats. Why is he shaking a box full of bats? Well apparently he has isolated the noise bats make when distressed and he hopes to be able to use it to corral them away from crops and livestock using sound. Now the canny among you might be thinking; “A ha! This is clearly exposition for the thingy that will stop the giant mutant killer bunnys in the film’s climax.”

Nope, no this scene serves no purpose except to set up that Whitman is a man who will casually just shake a box of bats for the express purpose of pissing them off.

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Our heroes ladies and gentlemen.

So Whitman sets about trying to come up with a solution to the rabbit problem. His idea is to breed a rabbit that is singularly uninterested in sex then introduce them to the native rabbit population where they will breed with the natives and pass on the gene for not wanting to breed.

You don’t have to be an expert in biology to spot the somewhat massive flaw in Whitman’s plan there.

However Whitman’s plan swiftly becomes irrelevant. Having not much luck with his asexual rabbits he decides to inject one of the rabbits with a mysterious vial of liquid. How mysterious is it? Well apparently even Whitman has no idea what it will do.

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So the mechanics of how our mutant bunny escapes into the wild are thus (somewhat paraphrased)

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Little girl who is not adorable: Daddy don’t inject that bunny with the mysterious liquid. He’s my favourite.

Bat torturer: Uh huh. (ignores his annoying daughter)

Little girl who is not adorable: *pouts*

Little girl who is not adorable: Mommy, can I have a rabbit?

Janet Leigh (yes, Janet Leigh who regrets being in this turd and boy can you tell from her performance. In the fine tradition of Famke Jannsen Leigh only agreed to star in this because it was near her house.

Anyway)

Janet Leigh: Bat torturer, can our annoying little girl have a rabbit?

Bat Torturer: Sure, just don’t take the one I injected with a mysterious liquid.

Little girl who is not adorable: Okay.

Little girl who is not adorable: *proceeds to take the injected rabbit, then take a random rabbit from elsewhere and put it in the cage marked, mysterious liquid rabbit*

THE VERY NEXT SCENE

Little girl who is not adorable: Whoops! (drops rabbit)

So then boring shit happens so we can build tension (giggle snort) until the giant mutant killer bunny reveal. Boring shit is interspersed with our first rabbit attack which is amazing in its lack of subtlety.

Here is my recreation. (again, somewhat paraphrased)

Truck driver: (stops truck, gets out) Boy I need to stop this truck right here in the middle of the desert. Yesiree bob, its time to stretch my legs. Whoooo. That feels nice. Well, I guess I better check that my cargo of carrots and cabbages is still all there (opens door of truck) Yup, all the carrots and cabbages are still in place. That’s right, boy I’d be in trouble if anything ever happened to my carrots and cabaaaaaaaaagh.

(man is eaten by rabbits)

End scene.

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So more boring shit happens and the next brilliant scene is where Bat torturer for some reason is attending the autopsy of the truck driver. (Or it might be a prospector, frankly I couldn’t give a shit). Said medical examiner is, refreshingly, black. Thus making him the only black person in the movie as well as the only person aged between 10 and 50. He is also the only actor who clearly realises this is a terrible idea and has decided to ham it up and have some fun. A particular highlight is his delivery of the line that he can’t rule out the possibility of a vampire attack!

More boring shit and then Bat torturer, human robot Rory Calhoun and Deforrest Kelly (dammit Jim, he’s a doctor not a rodent exterminator) set out to end the rabbit menace. Their plan is to find the cave they’ve been living in, collapse the cave entrance with dynamite and then go get some beers.

The plan is jeapordised a bit when Bat torturer decides he wants to have a look at the monsters before they go extinct and nearly gets himself eaten for his trouble. This gives us our first good luck at the rabbits and along with the special effects achieved by just shooting real rabbits that have been smothered in tomato sauce from a low angle we also learn that this film will feature men in bunny suits!

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Sometimes the bad movie gods see fit to reward me.

So other than Bat torturer being kind of an idiot (although, yeah I’d be curious too) the plan goes off without a hitch.

The problem with the plan is that it didn’t really account for the fact that rabbits can burrow

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Dun dun dunnnnn!

And at this point, about an hour into the film just turn it off. You have seen everything this movie has to offer both from an ironic “oh my god how dumb is this” aspect and from the perspective of the story itself. For the next half hour all we are treated to is endless slow motion footage of bunnies running around miniature sets interspersed with boring human robots reciting bland dialogue at each other. There is zero tension, zero movement in the plot, zero character development just rabbits, rabbits and more rabbits.

This footage is hilarious at first, the combination of old skool cheapo special effects with the just terrible idea to make cute rabbits scary is absurd. But the joke dies a swift death and yet the rabbits cavorting just keeps…on…happening.

Mercifully the film finally ends when the heroes concoct a plan to chase all the rabbits towards an electrified train track and shock them all to death. This happens in glorious close up for a loooong time during which every viewer is made supremely uncomfortable about how unhappy those bunnies appear and start wondering if a “no animals were harmed disclaimer” is going to appear.

It does not, which is the only scary thing about this abomination.

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The Orphanage (2007) J. A. Bayona

The Orphanage Tomas

(Spoilers)

As an adult Laura (Belen Rueda) returns to the orphanage where she grew up. She brings along her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) who is a doctor and their adopted son Simon (Roger Princep) who has HIV, although he doesn’t know that yet. Early in the film though he discovers both secrets about himself and a little boy that was already lonely and withdrawn becomes even more detached from reality and content to hang out with his imaginary friends.

The Orphanage Carlos

Laura and Carlos meanwhile want to turn the Orphanage into a boarding school for disabled children but that plan seems unlikely when, at the grand opening party for the school, Simon disappears. The rest of the film is concerned with finding Simon, finding out what happened to him and the other children at the orphanage and what is going to happen to Laura and Carlos now.

The Orphanage is chock to the brim with creaky old horror clichés you’ve seen a million times. Creepy children, masked silent killers, mysterious old ladies, psychics and huge old empty houses. But these are all clichés for a reason. They scare us. And The Orphanage deploys these tired old tricks with a wit and sophistication that resurrects them and makes most of them work again.

It also brings some new cards to the table, mostly in that Bayona understands a key thing about good horror, it isn’t what’s there, or even what isn’t there that is scary, but what might be there. The Orphanage is very good at playing the suggestion game, hinting that something may be there without explicitly revealing it and letting the audience’s imagination fill in the rest.

In particular this film loves doors. The Orphanage, both the film and the titular building, is chock full of doors, opening slowly or closing suddenly, doors behind which could be anything but you’ll never know until you open them. The Orphanage is also filled with shots framed in such a way as to leave large parts of the screen visible but not clear. Characters are forced into the sides of the frame so the focus is on a door, a cave, some curtains or any object that could be concealing something unsettling. The effect is off putting as the audience assumes the focus of the shot to be the important part of the shot and so we’re constantly expecting something to happen.

The Orphanage Swing

Yet almost always, nothing does.

 

Almost always.

 

Bayona’s other good trick is turning the camera into a malevolent spirit. In a few key scenes Bayona moves the camera like a person moves their head, bobbing up and down slightly and turning to look at different objects in the room. Whereas normally the camera cuts or zooms to look at important objects in a setting here the camera gets up and walks towards it. The effect is to create the impression that the camera is watching Laura; that it is some kind of force with personality and consciousness. In particular the scene of Laura playing some Spanish version of “What’s the time Mr Wolf” with ghosts is terrifying not because of the ghosts but purely because of how the camera takes in the scene.

So The Orphanage does some old tricks well and in a genre as full of crap as horror can be that is enough for me to recommend giving this flick a watch.

The Orphanage Laura

But The Orphanage also got me thinking, how important to the effectiveness of the horror is the possibility that what we’re watching might be real?

That might sound like a stupid question. This film has ghosts in it, ghosts aren’t real and neither are monsters, vampires or serial killers that invade your dreams. Surely reality is unimportant for a horror film?

But The Orphanage is very cleverly constructed so that whilst it unequivocally has ghosts in it as far as what the audience sees, there may not be any ghosts within the reality of the film’s world. Laura is the only character who ever sees a ghost, she doesn’t see one until she suffers the traumatic loss of her son* and every time she sees a ghost their appearance is of someone whose facial features she was recently given in a more innocent context. Everything ghostly in this film could quite easily be in Laura’s head. This is a woman who just lost her son so the idea that she’s having some kind of breakdown and seeing hallucinations is not only likely but it makes considerably more sense than the supernatural explanation.

Crucially nothing in the plot of The Orphanage requires ghosts. Everything, even Simon’s disappearance, has a perfectly natural explanation.

And this got me thinking that many of my favourite Horror films, and certainly the ones that scare me the most effectively, also offer the possibility that nothing supernatural occurred. At least for the first half of the film anyway.

The Exorcist plays its hand pretty clearly towards the end but for most of the film the idea that Reagan’s suffering is purely mental illness is entirely logical and no less horrifying because of it. The Descent, one of the scariest films I’ve ever seen, has no supernatural elements for more than half its running time but the tension is built around a very real fear of being lost, being stuck and having nobody who can rescue you. The American version of The Ring is put together like a detective story with the main character following logical clues until at the end logic ceases to have any meaning in their world. The Haunting (the original), Nightmare on Elm Street (and especially a new nightmare), Don’t Look Now, Suspiria; some of the most unsettling and frightening films play with the barriers between reality and madness.

This blurring of reality and madness evokes the uncanny. The uncanny is a Fruedian concept inextricably tied up in any critical reading of fantasy and horror. At its simplest it can be said that it is an instance where something can be both familiar yet alien at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. The usual example given is that of a doll, the image of a human and yet at the same time not a human and so possessed of an uncanny quality. If you’ve heard the term the uncanny valley, referring to how CGI representations of humans seem unsettling whereas more stylised animated characters do not, then it is basically the same idea.

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Analysis of the uncanny tends to focus on uncanny objects; dolls, doppelgangers, doubles and other things not beginning with d. However, I wonder if it might also apply to the fictional reality of the text.

If a text posits itself to be real or at least a reflection of the real world but somehow a reflection that is wrong then it becomes a double of reality as we experience it but possessed of an uncanny quality. And that is very unsettling.

Creating this sense of our world but with something wrong is harder than it sounds. You can’t simply say this is our world, but with ghosts, that’s what makes it ‘wrong’ because our world doesn’t have ghosts in it. The experience might be different for someone who believes in the supernatural but as a staunch sceptic and rationalist myself the moment a text goes, btw this is all ghosts, it marks itself out as another world, a fictional one. It emphasises the point that what it is depicting could never happen to me and that creates a barrier between me and the experience of the protagonist, a sort of fictional safety net protecting me from the horror.

No, the wrongness has to be implied more subtly and the film has to present it as an option that could still happen in our reality. The events of The Orphanage could happen in the real world, we could lose a child, we could be driven mad by the experience, etc. But they also have the shape of something much weirder. In fact that shape seems to work better than the rational explanations. Keeping the possibility of rationality alive means the fictional safety net never gets deployed, it means that the fictional world possess a sense of the uncanny and it means that everything I am watching probably won’t, but does have the potential to, happen to me.

man's fear

Sometimes I lay awake at night and imagine my bedroom door opening and something horrible being revealed standing in the doorway. It’s not something I lose much sleep over, it’s a fear I can rationalise away. I lock my doors, I’ve gone to sleep every night for 28 years and a murderer hasn’t been in my doorway, the odds are I’m safe.

 

But, still, there could be something there.

It is this fear that The Orphanage most acutely invokes for me.

 

*People who have seen the film at this point will be pointing out that no, she totally sees a ghost before Simon dies. Tomas, the film’s main spectre, shows up at the party and pushes Laura into the bath before Simon disappears. Except, it might not be Tomas. Tomas is distinguished by his sackcloth facemask but at the end of the film when she finally finds Simon he is also wearing Tomas’ facemask. The little boy who pushed her into the bath could easily be Simon wearing Tomas’ mask.

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Long-time readers of this blog know that I’m a sucker for limited editions, unusual flavours and basically turning any familiar food into something new! Especially Kit-Kats.

I was therefore a perfect mark for Walker’s “Do us a flavour,” campaign. A couple of months ago Walker’s set up a website that lets users invent their own new crisp flavours. This website did not publicly display the entries because Walkers has learned something from when they tried the same experiment in America earlier this year and got entries such as:

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And my particular favourite.

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There is in fact a tumblr devoted purely to these parodies.

6 flavours were chosen as winners and have now been made are on sale. Another website located here lets you vote for your favourite and the winner will receive £1 million plus their flavour will become a permanent part of the range.

So enough wittering, what do they taste like.

Hot Dog with Tomato Ketchup

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Ketchup flavour crisps have been knocking around for a while now and are somewhat controversial. For me, the mix of tangy vinegar and sweet tomato works well on a crisp and is at least as good as prawn cocktail (another not uncontroversial choice but one with staying power at least). Others though find ketchup crisps to just be wrong on every level.

These are still mostly sweet and taste of tomatoes but they lack the vinegar kick of most ketchup crisps. Instead they have a meaty under current that is probably the hot dog. They’re surprisingly savoury too, still very sweet but not as sweet as I’d expect. I can’t say they astonish me though, they’re just somewhat average tomato flavour crisps.

Pulled Pork in a Sticky BBQ Sauce

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The last time I visited the States was in 2003 and that was the first time I ever tried pulled pork. I was instantly smitten with it. Moist, tender, meaty, flavourful, juicy and just delicious in every way imaginable. Going back to the U.K. I didn’t think about it again until Man vs Food began airing on these shores and introduced Brits to the full plethora of creative and delicious ways Americans have invented to kill themselves with diabetes. It was revelatory, and now, about 4 years later, pulled pork is everywhere slathered all over menus like grease on a pig. It’s like piri piri all over again.

Whenever you see X meat with Y sauce flavoured anything assume that the main thing you’re going to taste is the sauce. These are no exception, they taste like sweet BBQ sauce. And since sweet BBQ sauce is basically tomatoes and honey they’re not dissimilar to the Hot Dog flavour. A bit fruitier and much sweeter but not very interesting.

Chip Shop Chicken Curry

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I’ve had chip shop curry flavour crisps before. Growing up , for a very limited time, there existed Beano* themed crisps and being a comic obsessed kid I wanted them. Amongst the frankly bizarre flavours on offer was chip shop curry and to my mouth they tasted like some kind of exotic masterpiece.

I have loved chip shop curry ever since. Chip shop curry, for the uninitiated, bares only the faintest of resemblances to Indian food. It is basically gravy with the meat juice replaced by generic curry powder, the tiniest whiff of turmeric so as not to frighten old ladies with its foreignness and enough yellow food dye to make this season’s Norwich home kit. As tastes have adapted it has gradually got spicier and more like actual curry but I still seek out the truly naff stuff. There is something about the way the claggy fat on a chip allows it to cover the inside of your mouth with the spicy goo and then when you drink a hot, sweet cup of tea the whole inside of your mouth tingles in response. I love it.

Norwich 13 14 Home Kit

It should be noted that most of these crisps are sort of lightly dusted in their flavouring powder and so the colour is still predominantly the light brown of a crisp. These though, these are stained brown with the masses of curry powder dumped into the bag or bright yellow where the turmeric hits them. I’m pretty sure Walker’s didn’t bother creating any kind of flavour powder here but instead just bought a job lot of curry powder from a cash and carry and said, that’ll do. And it does, by heavens it does. Do they taste like chicken chip shop curry? Oh heaven’s no! Do they taste like Bombay mix? Yup, exactly like Bombay mix. They’re basically crisps drowned in curry powder and that is no bad thing my friends.

Sizzling Steak Fajita

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Whereas the pulled pork in STICKY BBQ SAUCE tasted of the sauce and the chicken CHIP SHOP CURRY tasted of curry this steak fajita does actually have some slight beefiness to it, enough that if asked what flavour these were supposed to be without knowing you would probably guess correctly. Mostly though they taste of two things. Firstly they taste like fajita seasoning mix, the blend of cumin, coriander, cayenne and other spices beginning with c that you use to season Mexican food. Again, I suspect that part of the reason this flavour was chosen was that Walker’s didn’t have to do much more effort than ordering a job lot of pre-mixed seasoning from Old El Paso and then knocking off early for a long lunch.

The second thing they taste of is green peppers. They have a really, really strong green pepper flavour from the first taste to the after taste. Consequently they’re quite bitter which is an unusual flavour for a crisp. Not a bad flavour, just an unusual one. They’re also super savoury. I checked and they’re not really any saltier than the other flavours but Christ, you wouldn’t know it to taste them.

Overall though, I like these. Bitter and savoury is kind of unique for crisps and it works surprisingly well.

Cheesy Beans on Toast

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Out of 6 flavours I cannot believe we had 3 that basically amounted to, tomato. It’s not like tomato is a universally loved crisp flavour either, it’s actually quite divisive.

These are horrible, just gross. They neither taste of cheese nor beans nor cheesy beans. They don’t even really taste of tomato. If blindfolded and asked what these were I might plump for foot sweat, rotten onion or maybe, just maybe that plastic they make fake vomit from. These are foul, avoid!

Ranch Raccoon

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Walkers are jumping on the Guardian’s of the Galaxy bandwagon I see.

Guardians of the Galaxy Mummyboon Rocket and Groot 3

You loved his antics in the movie, but what does he taste like?! This could be a whole new kind of tie-in marketing. Ratatouille with real rat flavoured crisps for Ratatouille. Penguin flavoured chicken bites at KFC for Happy Feet. Human liver flavoured ice cream for Hannibal! You could really invest yourself in the story when you’ve eaten one of the lead characters.

Kidding aside I am dreading this flavour. Not because it is raccoon. I love eating weird meats and would jump at the chance to eat a raccoon in real life. I’ve personally consumed snake, alligator, jellyfish (it tasted of nothing), sea snail, kangaroo, various insects and hot dogs before now.

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No I am apprehensive because these are in ranch dressing and creamy crisp flavours are of Satan. I am a firm atheist and whilst I’ve seen no evidence that god exists, the existence of cream cheese and chive flavour crisps certainly strongly implies that old scratch has a job at Walkers somewhere.

Well I can’t tell you if they taste like raccoon but they sure don’t taste like ranch dressing. And whilst that might be a relief these are disgusting in their own unique way. I actually can’t tell you what these taste like. I’ve tried an entire bag now and my best guess is like something that used to be food but now should be thrown away. To start with they smell bad, like meat that’s juuuuuust starting to turn and after that smell I think that my brain intervenes and shuts my mouth down. I can’t detect any distinct flavours just a big red flashing light in my brain going “warning, warning spit this shit out of your mouth at once you moron or we’re going to get e-coli.”

A check of the ingredients reveals this to mostly be parsley, dried milk and dried sour cream. So I guess when you dry sour cream it starts to taste like rancid meat. That makes a certain amount of sense, why did someone decide to make crisps this flavour?

Final Verdict.

Ranch Raccoon is almost intriguingly bad. I urge you to eat it just to have a point of comparison that will help you appreciate normal food all the more. Cheesy Beans on Toast however is both boring and terrible.

Hot Dog is okay, Pulled Pork is marginally better and basically the same thing. It’s a slightly more complicated flavour and less obviously tomato.

Sizzling Steak Fajita and Chicken Chip Shop Curry are both far and away the best. In both cases they’ve basically just drowned the potatoes in spices but since I like spices and since there are a lot of conflicting and complementing spices going on they’re a winner for me.

In the end though there is a reason Bombay mix is already a thing. The Chip Shop flavour is basically Bombay mix and that has to be the winner.

*The Beano is a children’s comic available in the U.K. with a series of short humorous strips. It was launched in 1938 and has been telling pretty much the same jokes ever since. It may once have been ground breaking and artistically inventive in the 60’s and 70’s when it was the U.K.’s answer to MAD but it hasn’t been good in the 28 years I’ve been on this earth. Still, as a kid with no taste, I loved it!

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I’m not a huge fan of Gatchaman having only seen a few episodes of the original series (although I have somehow managed to watch all 3 dubs accidentally) but the show had a transformative influence on me. Gatchaman is the first anime I ever saw and even as a dumb kid I recognised at once that the animation, storytelling and character development were leagues beyond anything I was watching from western animation at the time.

I was therefore very enthusiastic about Gatchaman Crowds. An update of the Gatchaman concept of teenagers in bird themed costumes fighting aliens, done with modern day animation and storytelling conventions and a cool social media gimmick? Sign me up, that sounds great.

Gatchaman Crowds starts off by delivering pretty much exactly what I wanted from it. The first episode introduces the team, the concept and the villain. Hajime Ichinose is a high school girl obsessed with stationery, art and craft. When we first meet her she is having a serious geek out moment over a new notepad she has bought.

Gatchaman-Crowds Hajime

Hajime is relentlessly genki (a Japanese word meaning cheerful and energetic) almost to the point of obnoxiousness but she’s sweet, kind and enthusiastic. All positive traits that draw a mysterious figure named JJ (played by Katsuji Mori the original Gatchaman leader Ken the Eagle) who meets her in a dreamlike state and pulls a notebook from her body.

Hajime accidentally sees one of her classmates Sugane Tachibana transform into a Gatchaman, a super hero with a bird like costume, as he fights an alien that has disguised itself as a human. Sugane has an ability to wipe the minds of people that see his Gatchaman form but now that Hajime has a notebook it doesn’t work on her. Sugane realises that this means Hajime is also a Gatchaman so he takes her to their base to meet the other team members and reveal their mission.

Gatchaman-Crowds JJ

JJ is a kind of godlike being who creates Gatchaman on planets all over the universe. The Gatchaman are civil servants who protect the people on their planets from extra-terrestrial threats but must do so in secret. On Earth this team has been fighting MESS, an alien intelligence that abducts humans.

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Okay so, set up is basic but very functional. Secret team, wise mentor, super powers; all in service of fighting bad guys. It isn’t the most original idea in the world but hey, it provides a neat framework to hang a fight scene on every week and lots of opportunities to tell good stories. And it works as an update of the old series concept.

That set up lasts until the beginning of episode 2!

That is how uninterested the creators are in telling a by the numbers shonen anime story. All of your expectations, boom, thrown out the window my friends.

What happens at the start of episode 2 (well the end of episode 1 but it finishes at the start of episode 2) is that Hajime transforms into a Gatchaman against Sugane’s orders. Sugane is fighting a huge MESS and getting his ass kicked by it but Hajime hasn’t transformed to help him in the fight but instead to talk to the MESS. Something that everyone else thinks is impossible. However the moment she touches it with her scissor weapon she establishes a way to communicate with it, and when the MESS realises it has been harming humans it stops. See the MESS was only abducting us as a way to try and communicate in the first place, and now it can. Mission accomplished.

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Well, that’s totally overthrown all the set-up, now what do we do? New alien threat? Well kind of. What Gatchaman Crowds is actually concerned with from episode 2 onwards is answering the questions:

What is the point of Super Heroes?

How can we make the world a better place?

What are the different ways in which different groups of people can make the world a better place?

On the question of Super Heroes Gatchaman Crowds represents one of the most radical reinventions of the Super Hero concept I have ever seen. I have now written an entirely separate post to discuss this but basically to be a Super Hero story your story needs to conform to the following criteria.

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  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.
  4. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

Gatchaman Crowds conforms perfectly to all 4 criteria…in episode 1 and then begins dismantling them all to point out why the Super Hero idea is flawed but how it can be re-purposed.

So starting with point 4. The shortened version of this, in Super Hero stories you usually end with the hero punching the bad guy. And so does episode one of Gatchaman Crowds where Sugane uses his sword to defeat some MESS. Genre conventions  thus conformed to, Gatchaman establishes itself as a Super Hero story. But that is the last time that punching will ever be a solution in this series because in episode 2 Hajime tries talking to the MESS and it is immediately shown to be a superior strategy. The G-team has been fighting MESS for 5 years without winning. Hajime talks to them for one day and the problem is solved.

The message is quite simple, communication is better than punching when it comes to solving problems.

Now Gatchaman Crowds is not the first Super Hero work to make this message or to question the usefulness of the Super Hero to solve real world problems. Watchmen, Miracle Man, Squadron Supreme, The Authority, “what’s so funny about truth, justice and the American way?” I could keep going.  The two main conclusions most of these stories fall into is either a) the power a Super Hero has can literally remake the world into a better place and so the hero proceeds to do that (Watchmen, Miracle Man, The Authority) or b) the power of a single man is limited and ultimately being a Super Hero can’t make the world better only maintain a status quo or deal with small threats (any Superman story in which he fails to save someone, almost all Daredevil stories, The Sentry).

You would think with its message of punching is worse than communication that Gatchaman Crowds falls into the b group but really it takes a third path. It’s arguing quite firmly that Super Heroes can change the world but not because they’re super-heroes, just because anyone can.*

This leads us to the second big plot point of Gatchaman Crowds the existence of GALAX and CROWDS.

Gatchaman Crowds GALAX

GALAX is a social media app that, in true visual media tradition, doesn’t work by using words, lists and pictures but instead inefficiently populates a virtual world with virtual avatars that interact within it (see also Oz in Summer Wars). Its main purpose is twofold. Firstly it works to make the world a better place by connecting people based on their skillset and their location. For example, when one character is hit by a car their friend uses GALAX to describe the situation and GALAX alerts a nearby nurse that she should go and help.

GALAX then represents an argument that the world is better when people are doing what they do best for no reason other than doing what they do best benefits all. That is explicitly a Communist idea and like Communism it runs up against a major practical problem. Who decides what your job should be that best benefits society?

Gatchaman Crowds LOAD

Gatchaman side steps the issue somewhat by having the entity in charge of all the decision making be an objective super-intelligent A.I. named X. But that A.I. still had to be invented by someone who created it to reflect their values, and that person is Rui Ninomiya aka LOAD aka the super genius boy who invented X, GALAX, CROWDS and tried to use his intelligence to make the world a better place. And the fact that GALAX isn’t objective but works to reflect the dictatorship of LOAD is not something the series will shy away from.

The other issue Communism and by extension GALAX runs into is how to motivate people to work. Sure some people will help for the sake of helping but not the majority, and not if the job is dangerous or difficult. Capitalism fixes this issue by use of currency as a motivator and GALAX does something similar through the use of gamification. See when that Nurse helped that kid, she got a higher score in her game of GALAX.

Gamification, the idea of turning real world activities into the equivalent of a video game with scores and rewards is sometimes posited as a real alternative economy for the future. The argument goes that when automisation eventually replaces the need for people to work the only way to get them to do the minimal jobs required by full automisation will be to turn work into a game with status and rewards for those who do well at it. Gamification is not some Sci-Fi future though, apps that give you points and badges for working out, organising your life or assisting in charity exist right now and in Gatchaman Crowds they’re the engine that runs GALAX and we see it spring into action when GALAX organises a group of school kids to stop a shipment of tainted milk (???) and they do it for the mix of helping and for the adventure of playing the game.

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GALAX gives the power to improve the world to the people, not to Super Heroes and it goes one step further. LOAD has picked 100 special high scoring GALAX users and given them the power of CROWDS. A variation on the Gatchaman’s own powers CROWDS is a kind of faceless avatar for each GALAX user that inhabits the real world. Huge, strong and indestructible these weird monsters assist in clearing road accidents and rescuing people from a damaged cable car.

The Gatchaman then aren’t the only people with extraordinary power in this universe, anyone can be a Super Hero if they play enough GALAX i.e. if they help enough people.

Point 3 of my definition then, Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people, is gone.

So what about point 1? Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name? Again this is initially true of The Gatchaman and is then discarded. They start out as secret heroes with secret identities but one of the first things Hajime does when CROWDS starts to become a threat rather than an asset is to take The Gatchaman public. She starts a PR campaign harnessing the power of the media (both traditional and newer forms like social and GALAX) to turn the public against the threat of CROWDS and unite people to help. When they were 5 people working in secret The Gatchaman had no chance to stop CROWDS, the only way to stop them is to enlist the aid of others and in doing that their fame and public profile are more useful than Sugane’s sword or Joe’s guns. Again, communication is more useful to fight a threat than punching.

It’s also not a coincidence that Hajime starts her PR campaign at an elementary school. Kids are the easiest hearts and minds to convince but also the most important. The beliefs we hold as children rarely stay with us into adulthood but those that do stand the test of time become our most strongly held principles. Inspiring children is an important part of making the world better and it is as inspirational figures that Super Heroes work, better than as warriors. Especially because kids respond to good vs evil Super Hero stories better than to complicated tales with multiple shades of morality. In both our real world and in the metafiction of Gatchaman Crowds the power of the Super Hero is in inspiring children to do good.

Point 1 is also shredded in Gatchaman Crowds by the fact that EVERYONE has a secret identity. Of course The Gatchaman do but Rui is a boy whereas his alter ego LOAD is a girl. Every user of GALAX has an online avatar, a second identity they can customise and which they show to the world. Even on a more mundane level Joe wears a suit and tie at work and has his hair tied up neatly in a ponytail as he plays the role of civil servant but then when he gets home he slips on cool clothes, lets his hair down, puts a cigarette in his mouth and goes out to the bar. Everyone has multiple identities and roles.

This might be a peculiarly Japanese thing since they have always strongly drawn the distinction between honne and tatemae, home and public, the face you show to the world and the face you only show to yourself. The principle is not alien to the West where we do understand the concept of politeness and not doing things in public you would in private but we’ve also told people to be themselves, express their emotions and be honest whereas in Japan the cultural norms have always been about putting on a false face for the benefit of others. The end result though is the concept of an alternate identity is not exclusive to the Super Hero, it’s an everyday thing for the Japanese. And as social media becomes increasingly the mainstream culture the difference between our real self and a cultivated public identity is becoming an issue we in the West also need to struggle with. What used to be an issue for celebrities and public figures now affects us all.

That just leaves point number 2, Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people, and whilst this is never subverted in Gatchaman Crowds in that The Gatchaman always have their costumes there are plenty of characters with outlandish appearances outside of costume from LOAD’s bunny ears, to the GALAX avatars to PaiPai (literally a talking toy Panda, and the leader of the Gatchaman).

So having completely upended the concept of a Super-Hero the series goes on to ask the question “How can we make the world a better place and what is stopping us?”

Let’s start with the characters who are failing to make the world a better place, the original Gatchaman, the 4 heroes who have been failing to save the world for 5 years until Hajime shows up and fixes everything.

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Joe is the only direct carry over from the original Gatchaman. In that series Joe was the cocky bad boy rebel but one of the more competent and deadly team members. He was the Wolverine to use a TV Tropes comparison. Here he seems set up to be similar, he’s older than most team members, he goes to bars, he smokes and he often shows up late for meetings. He also has one of the more destructive sets of super powers, flight, guns and fire manipulation abilities.

Joe represents wasted potential. With all his powers Joe should be able to defeat the villain easily but he thinks he can’t, and because he thinks he can’t then he doesn’t try to.  He has a lack of confidence and bemoans his lack of ability when the irony is, dude is a Super Hero! Joe stands in for every person who has ever said “I would make the world a better place if I had x power.” Where x = money, time, intelligence, etc. The irony with Joe is that he has the power and still makes the same argument and this should be read as a direct statement to every person who has ever made Joe’s argument. You do have the power to make the world a better place and wishing for more power will not help.

The defining moment for him as a character is in episode 2 where he is practicing darts. We see him hit the bull with three darts in a row and his friend suggests he should compete but Joe dismisses it out of hand, saying he isn’t as a good as people that compete. This kind of attitude, this feeling like you lack the ability to make the world better is a reason people don’t make the world better.

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Sugane is the most straight forwardly heroic of the Gatchaman. He’s competent in the use of his powers able to easily take down the MESS in episode 1 and he’ll be the main character to transform and take on problems throughout the series. He’s also a good student, he’s always on time to meetings, he does what he’s told and he’s just generally a nice guy if a little bit stiff and little bit of a stickler for the rules. The problem with Sugane is he lacks creativity, ambition and crucially the ability to make decisions for himself. Sugane is always looking to others to tell him what to do, normally PaiPai as the official leader of the team but he also looks up to Joe, JJ and eventually Hajime. Sugane is a soldier basically, he is fully committed to making the world a better place but he wants orders, he wants somebody higher up to have made the decisions and to tell him what to do. He’s probably best summed up by his weapon, a sword. It’s a tool that does one thing and that thing is destroy. Unlike Hajime’s scissors which can destroy or create Sugane only knows how to do one thing and his lack of imagination is why he can’t make the world better.

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PaiPai is a talking miniature Panda because….merchandise? He’s also the leader of the team and often an active coward. He’s like Sugane but even worse. Like Sugane he craves orders but whereas Sugane at least goes out of the base and does stuff PaiPai spends most of his time at home drinking and bemoaning the fact that he’s a coward and a terrible leader. As leader he should be giving orders but as another soldier he needs orders from someone else. And so he looks to JJ, the god of this Universe. PaiPai then represents religious people, who want God to make the world better either directly or at least by giving them instructions on what to do. And like Gods in our world JJ doesn’t talk to PaiPai so he has no new instructions, as such he has to make do with the old instructions even if they fail to take into account the changing situation. PaiPai is everyone who looks to religious authority to make the world better and why that won’t work.

Gatchaman Crowds Pai Pai

He also has a nice parallel with the Prime Minister of Japan, another character who is too scared to make leadership decisions. Both are people in charge and how many times have you said to yourself, If only I were in charge I’d fix everything. However, now they’re in charge they both feel powerless to make decisions and instead look to the people/god for answers about what they should do. It’s another example of how power ultimately doesn’t make it any easier to make a difference.

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Utsutsu and OD are very similar characters hence why they’re paired together often. Utsutsu is a very shy, almost to the point of mental illness, girl with long green hair who hangs out in her underpants because…perverts? OD is a flamboyantly gay man in appearance but is actually some kind of alien. OD is kind of awesome, although his voice is hella grating to begin with (I have no problem with people being camp but that doesn’t mean I have to like camp performers) he tones it down a bit when the voice actor settles into the character and OD is consistently one of the more measured, optimistic and pleasant people in this show. In contrast Utsutsu starts the show practically catatonic able to only say utsutsuhimasu (which can be read as I’m gloomy or I’m sleepy depending on the kanji used). She does grow as a character though gaining confidence in her desire to help others.

Gatchaman Crowds Utsutsu

Utsutsu has numerous super powers. She possesses the ability to make multiple versions of herself and I’m honestly not sure what the symbolism behind that is. Easier to decode though is her other power, with one hand she can drain life, and with the other she can give it allowing her to kill or heal with a touch. To heal though requires her to use up energy. So to heal someone requires her either to kill something else or even risk killing herself. Utsutsu represents apathy, a feeling that nothing you can do will make anything better because it could end up worse for others or yourself, so why even try. This apathy extends to every aspect of her character initially but as she matures in confidence she decides to risk doing harm or even risk her life to help. Apathy is probably the thing preventing most people from making the world a better place I’d wager, a feeling that giving of one’s self to help is a waste of time at best and potentially harmful to you and Utsutsu’s arc comes in realising that the apathy disengages her from the world and risk is necessary to experience joy.

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OD also has powers with a drawback, namely that he is easily the team’s most powerful member and easily capable of defeating the villain Berg Katse. And this is true, in the final episode OD transforms for the first time in the series and kicks Berg Katse’s ass. The issue is that OD is too powerful, when he transforms he risks destroying half the city. OD is a kind of personification of a nuclear option; something we know would be effective but cannot do because there are too many real and important consequences if we did. OD not using his powers is the equivalent of you not quitting that job you hate or leaving a person you don’t love. It is simple to do and undeniably effective but there are good reasons you aren’t doing it.

OD’s arc resolves itself in two ways. Firstly, he uses his powers and everything is fine. The city doesn’t blow up. It’s all good. Sometimes the nuclear option doesn’t have as bad a consequence as you might fear. Like Utsutsu OD allows his fear of consequences to prevent him from doing something and like Utsutsu he learns you get nothing good without risk.

The second way is that it turns out OD transforming and fighting Katse was completely unnecessary to saving the day. He didn’t need to do it. Sometimes the easy but risky way is unnecessary and the safer but more difficult way is better.

Gatchaman Crowds Hajime

This brings us to Hajime. Hajime is pretty much perfect. She’s cute, she’s optimistic, she relentlessly energetic, she’s constantly saying or doing something every moment she’s on screen, people like her and she likes everyone, willing to see the best even in Berg Katse. There is a whole episode of the series where every other character basically tells her how amazing she is.

What an annoying Mary Sue right?

Well, she could be and god knows enough people who have watched Gatchaman Crowds interpreted her that way. Hajime is a real Marmite of a character. If you can’t at least tolerate her by the time episode 2 wraps up then you will not enjoy the rest of this show. But the thing for me that makes Hajime not a Mary Sue is that she ultimately isn’t the one to save the world. That role falls to the ordinary people of the world. What Hajime does do though is bring out the best in others. It is Hajime who convinces Rui to give the power of CROWDS to the common people and then convinces the common people to help. It’s Hajime who convinces the other Gatchaman that they do have the power to save the world. Hajime has only one power as an individual, the power to inspire, but in that power she gets others to collectively save the world.

The defining characteristic of Hajime is that she’s an artist. When we first meet she is massively geeking out over stationery and every moment we see her at home she is making something. Her Gatchaman forms with its scissors and brushes makes this clear, our heroine symbolises art. Gatchaman Crowds is pretty clear in its thesis that communication is what will save the day and what is art but just another kind of communication?

It’s also all very Meta. Super Heroes aren’t real of course so hoping for the power to be one (like Joe) or hoping one will show up to save the world for you (like Sugane and PaiPai) is pointless. It isn’t going to happen. But Super Hero stories are real and the power they have to inspire, particularly children, is as real and as effective at making the world better in the real world as it is in Gatchaman Crowds.

Gatchaman-Crowds civil servants

The Gatchaman are all a small part of a larger group of characters in the story we can loosely class as civil servants. This is made clear by the fact that Joe actually is a civil servant. The Gatchaman are anointed their power by another authority and have to abide by the rules. In this sense they’re like cops, soldiers, firemen and even politicians. They derive power from a system to serve that system. And being part of that system means they are limited in what they can do. The Mayor, the soldier lady and the cop lady all have power, ostensibly more power than Rui, a civilian, do but they can use that power only to maintain the safe running of the status quo. Being granted power by a system means you can’t change that system.

But all these civil servant characters are part of Hajime’s art club, a group that meets up to do literally whatever they want (in an artistic context) with the idea that their free expression will make the world better if only in a small way (decorating areas damaged by an earthquake). The message couldn’t be clearer, all of these servants are more effective at improving the world as people than as their roles, and their roles can only maintain the world.

Gatchaman-Crowds Rui

This brings us to Rui/LOAD. Ultra genius boy wonder transvestite whom is going to level up the world. Unlike the Gatchaman (Hajime excepted) Rui doesn’t have anything stopping him from trying to make the world a better place. He’s already doing it, and doing it quite successfully. With GALAX Rui has created an entirely voluntary system that makes the world better, teaming up the best of people so their individual strengths can be harnessed for the good of all.

It’s a good plan and its working but it isn’t working fast enough. For Rui the main problem is that people still need an outside authority to tell them what to do. They still worship heroes and leaders rather than recognising that the strength lies within them to change the world. And GALAX in its present form is limited in what it can accomplish. Sure he can get a nurse to help with first aid but what can he do to stop a cable car disaster?

So he accepts a shortcut, CROWDS, giant strong avatars given to him by Berg Katse.

Gatchaman Crowds ruirui

With CROWDS Rui can achieve much more, he has real physical power to save more people. He could even go further, he could tear down the government building and declare anarchy, murder criminals, do any of a million things with the power at his disposal. And he fears all that power being under the control of one person. So, ironically, he sets up a series of rules and guidelines to use it. The users of CROWDS, The Hundreds, are handpicked by LOAD to exacting specifications and they can only use their powers when he expressly okays it. This means Rui is now a leader, a dictator in fact with unlimited power that he doles out as he sees fit. He has the best of intentions but he has nonetheless turned into a leader, the very thing he wants to create a world without.

The Hundreds quickly tire of Rui’s self-prevaricating bullshit and when given the first opportunity to rebel, do so, using their powers to destroy the Diet building (where the government of Japan sits) and generally going on an anarchic rampage to try and trigger a revolution in Japan.

Rui/LOAD is another leader character but whereas Rui has the courage and the intelligence to lead he doesn’t want the power and authority that comes with it because he implicitly realises that power corrupts. Rui is an ideas person, he is at his best when coming up with plans and strategies to make the world better but he can’t be the one to accept the responsibility for putting those plans into action. His arc follows that of many revolutionaries. At an ideas stage Rui is full of good plans to improve the world and he quickly attracts followers (a crowd if you will) who agree with him. These followers give him the power to put his ideas into practice and he now has a choice. He can let his ideas go, to be used by others and risk seeing them perverted into something he doesn’t agree with or he can take the mantle of leadership and risk becoming corrupted himself, another authority or status quo he railed against to begin with. Neither solution is ideal and which decision the show ultimately favours brings us to Berg Katse.

Gatchaman-Crowds Berg Katse

Berg Katse is the villain and like all good Super Villains Berg Katse is symbolic of a larger real world problem that the heroes can solve symbolically by punching. Except you can’t defeat Berg Katse by punching him because Berg Katse isn’t an external force, Berg Katse is us. Berg Katse is androgynous and faceless. Berg Katse can literally wear the face of any person in the show and when Berg Katse uses their transformation ability they become invisible, a complete non-entity. Berg Katse represents the dark impulse in every human being, the impulse to strike out suddenly, to stab someone or push them over. An impulse we may have but which we normally ignore. Barge Katse can bring this impulse out and they do it most effectively with The Hundreds. Anonymous figures protected from the consequences of their actions by invulnerable avatars it isn’t a stretch to read The Hundreds as the faceless hordes of internet trolls mindlessly tearing down the art that others create. They may even think they do so in the name of a good cause but they’re misguided at best and malicious at worst as they destroy the world around them. Berg Katse manipulated The Hundreds into doing that because Berg Katse is nothing more and nothing else than the impulse in human beings to destroy, to not make the world a better place but a worse one.

You can’t defeat Berg Katse. OD fights him and takes his physical form down but even then he is regenerating. You can fight the symptoms of Berg Katse, undo the damage they have wrought but at the end he is still there, inside Hajime’s heart, trapped and repressed but still existing and still capable of manipulating someone again.

Berg Katse, the dark human impulse, is the reason all of Rui’s good ideas were perverted but even though his CROWDS became a problem they were defeated. And what were they defeated by……..?

Us, people, you and me, the common man, mankind.

Gatchaman Crowds is ultimately pretty clear in its philosophy. When asking how different groups of people can make the world a better place it firmly establishes that no individual can make the world better. No matter how much power they have, no matter how many followers they have, no matter how smart they are, no matter how much they want to, no individual can change the world.

The best an individual can do is inspire others to be better (Hajime) through their actions, through their art or through communication. Or maybe they can come up with something very clever that helps others to make the world better (Rui), a strategy, a plan, a new tool. Individuals can contribute to improving the world but the ultimate responsibility and the ultimate power to affect change lies with us.

So Gatchaman CROWDS ends with Rui’s Hundreds taken away from him by Berg Katse, manipulated into causing wanton destruction throughout Japan. And Rui saves the day by giving the power of CROWDS to everyone, creating a system where no one has power that someone else doesn’t have also and inspired by the actions of the Gatchaman and the words of the Prime Minister ordinary people band together to stop the threat.

But it doesn’t end there. Having stopped the threat people now use the power of CROWDS to repair the damage, make lunches for people, make new art, etc. Rui feared giving out the power would have bad consequences, and it did, but giving people that power also had good consequences he never imagined.

Gatchaman Crowds is quite simply a master piece. I have rarely seen a work in the Super Hero genre that so thoroughly interrogated the purpose of the Super Hero both within the fictional context and within the meta-context of why we as readers turn to Super Hero narratives. It was an almost life changing experience for me, causing me to rethink my own assumptions and actually question what I do with my life and how I am contributing to improving the world, or more often how I make excuses not to.

It is far from perfect, as a narrative and as a piece of animation it has technical and structural issues that often makes it a difficult watch. However, as a symbolic work of art this might just be the most important work in the Super Hero genre since Watchmen.

*Also most examples of super-hero stories that question the need for super-heroes to fight foes try to have their cake and eat it too by ending the story with a big fight sequence where the heroes win. This is because you can’t fight genre conventions. Your audience wants to see punching and if you deny them punching they will not like your story. Gatchaman Crowds nearly manages to deny the audience any Super Hero action for its entire run time but it capitulates towards the end. Even so all the scenes of the Gatchaman using their powers are heavily symbolically implied to be a failure on the character’s part that is not helping them achieve their goals.

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Time to get back to my roots!

Nestle has a new Kit-Kat flavour and you know what that means.

Yup it’s time for another dose of “bring pretentious about mediocre chocolate!” WHUT WHUT! (throws up hands)

(realises he is sitting alone in his living room)

(puts hands down)

(sobs once, gently, and quietly)

(takes deep breath)

(steadies self)

(begins)

So the new Chunky Double Caramel is a bizarre beast. It’s a Kit-Kat Chunky divided into only 2 sections, one with a smooth caramel and the other with a crunchy caramel.

Starting with the wrapper then and it helpfully makes this all clear for us with an illustration showing a cross-section of the Kit-Kat and the contrasting caramel centres.

Oh and as a warning from the future, said illustration grossly exaggerates the amount of caramel you’re getting here.

Beyond that I have most of my usual complaints. The wrapper is far too busy with three different logos fighting for space and no attempt at any kind of evocative design. It’s just, how can we fit all this copy on here in the way that looks least crap. It is shiny and gold though.

Oooooh, shiny.

So taste test then and…HOLY SHIT!

When did Kit-Kat chocolate get this good?

I usually moan that Nestle chocolate is soapy, waxy, vaguely pasty, bland and too sweet. This is still very sweet but it’s smooth, creamy and delicious. It tastes way more like real chocolate than any Nestle product I’ve had in years. I mean, it still isn’t great but it is a marked improvement. Well done Nestle.

In contrast the wafer has gone to shit. I’m used to the wafer being inoffensive but competent, it is there to be crispy, nothing more. This wafer though, is soggy. And that’s a big no-no. There is no redeeming a soggy wafer in a biscuit,it’s just inherently unpleasant and it nearly ruins this. And I have no idea why. I’ve written something like 80,000 words on Kit-Kats at this point and I don’t think a soggy wafer has ever been an issue. Was it a trade-off for the nicer chocolate? Is it something to do with the filling?

Anyway onto the caramel. The smooth one is what you’d expect, the standard caramel you get in a chocolate bar. Similar to Cadbury caramel or Galaxy caramel. It makes the whole thing waaaay too sweet but I think it might have been salted slightly which does make the caramel itself taste nice (and might also be the reason the chocolate tastes so much better).

The crunchy caramel is a sort of caramel crème paste filled with bits of hard caramel. It too is slightly salted and the caramel crème itself tastes nice but makes the whole affair too sickly. The crunchy bits do help with the soggy wafer a little bit though so I’ll give the edge to this half of the pair.

Also the word caramel has ceased to have any meaning as I proof read this. Caramel, caramel, caramel.

Caramel.

Caramel.

Aftertaste wise both are hugely chemically and sweet. Like drinking anything with saccharine in it (even though it is pure sugar all the way). Having said that it is soooo sweet that it pairs quite well with unsweetened tea and the tea counteracts the aftertaste quite nicely.

Overall a success! Sweet, salty caramel and much nicer chocolate than I was expecting. Sort out whatever has gone wrong with the wafer and you have a winner here. I don’t understand the half and half gimmick at all though.

Superman Gary Frank Mummyboon

As part of a lengthy piece I’m writing about Gatchaman Crowds it became necessary to define what constitutes the Super Hero genre, and then that short paragraph spun out into an entirely new post.

Because defining what is and isn’t a Super Hero story is actually very difficult.

You wouldn’t think it would be. It is easy to look at the classic Superman as the archetypal Super Hero and go; powers, costume, secret identity, fights Super Villains that there is a Super Hero.

But it isn’t quite that easy. Powers? Batman doesn’t have them and he’s probably the 2nd most famous Super Hero of all time. Costumes? None of the Runaways have them, Smallville didn’t have them, Hellboy doesn’t wear one but these are all Super Heroes. Secret Identity? Everyone knows Tony Stark is Iron Man. Fights Super Villains? Surely that’s set in stone? But then there aren’t many Super villains in Watchmen, in V for Vendetta, in Miracleman and I would argue all of those are Super Hero stories.

The basic problem with defining the Super Hero genre is that genres are a mix of what can broadly be termed iconographic elements and structural elements (or alternatively connotative and denotative).

Star Wars Poster Mummyboon

Iconographic elements refer to the things in the setting that define the genre or sometimes the style with which the setting is portrayed. If you have aliens, ray guns, robots, spaceships, cyborgs, etc then you have a science fiction story. Similarly elves, dwarves, magic, monsters and wizards are all iconographic elements of the fantasy genre.

Iconographic elements are the easiest for the audience to latch onto but they’re sometimes the least useful in determining what genre a particular story is. Star Wars, for example, has space ships and ray guns but it also has magic, is it SF or Fantasy (many would argue it is a hybrid genre like science fantasy or space opera). Alien has aliens and spaceships but that’s a horror film, right? Spaceballs has space ships and aliens but that’s a comedy.

Conan the Barbarian Mummyboon

Iconographic elements are usually only signifiers of the structural elements that determine who the characters are, what the narrative beats will be and what the aim of the story is. For example, you can tell a science fiction without any of the normal SF iconography because SF is always concerned with answering the question “what if?” SF starts from a stand point of asking a question, usually about humanity and our relationship with technology, and then extrapolating out the outcomes of that question. The Man from Earth for example is undoubtedly an SF story, it asks what if there was an immortal man, but is set entirely in one room of a house and features no technology beyond modern day. The answer of “why is he immortal?” might be magic but that doesn’t make this a fantasy. That’s because fantasies, structurally, are concerned with a quest arc. Find this thing or go to this place to achieve this goal (usually defeating the baddie), and the meat of the story is the journey to get the thing or get to the place. LoTR, Narnia, His Dark Materials, Krull, the list of fantasy stories that conform to this template is endless.

Then you get the genres where the purpose of the story is the main thing defining the structure. Horror and Comedy are the clearest example, if the story aims to make you scared, it’s a Horror, if it aims to make you laugh, it’s a Comedy. Horror does have iconographic elements (ghosts, monsters, vampires, slashers) but if you can scare your audience you’ve made a horror whether or not those iconographic elements are in your story.

The thing that makes Super Hero stories hard to define as a genre is the lack of a firm structural element that is shared across them. Because most Super Hero stories appear in comics, and because comics are a serialised medium, creators are constantly having to think up new things for their characters to do.

And that’s hard. So they steal stuff.

They take inspiration from other genres and have their characters shift into that genre for a storyline. In the X-Men alone I can think of Horror stories (the one where Kitty fights a N’Gari alone at Christmas), Fantasy Epics (the Kulan Gath crossover, Inferno, the recent storyline rescuing Nightcrawler from Heaven), Space Opera (The Dark Phoenix Saga), Mythological tales (the time they all went to Asgard), Science Fiction (Days of Future Past), Comedy (loads but “Girl’s Night Out” jumps to mind) and many, many more. The X-Men switch genres with every story and so do The Avengers, The JLA and any other long running Super Hero team.

And this Post-Modern mixing and matching applies to the iconographic elements as well. The Avengers have had on their team Thor (from mythology), The Vision (an SF robot), Dr Strange (a Fantasy magician), Luke Cage (a Blaxploitation character of all things), Blade (a vampire hunter with his roots in Horror) and yet The Avengers is unquestionably a Super Hero team.

This Post-Modern mixing and matching of elements is actually one of the things I absolutely adore about Super Hero comics but it does make it bloody hard to say what is and isn’t a Super Hero.

So let’s go back to Superman and look at those key things we drew out of him and see what is and isn’t necessary to be a Super Hero.

The Key Things from Superman:

Super Powers

Costume

Secret Identity

Saves People

Fights Super-Villains

 

Super Powers

Goku Mummyboon

The presence of super powers would at first glance seem to be the biggest thing making your main character a Super Hero but it’s actually the weakest criteria of them all. There are Super powered characters in plenty of stories that would never be classed as Super Hero, indeed the leads in nearly every Fantasy story written have some kind of extra human ability. Harry Potter, for example, if he was in the Marvel Universe would put on a costume and go fight bad guys but nobody would dream of calling him a Super Hero.

And it’s just as true on the flip-side. Batman is easily the 2nd most iconic Super Hero there is and he has no powers. And he’s not alone, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Shang Chi, all the bat family; there is a long tradition on non-powered Super Heroes.

What all of these characters can do though is something that ordinary people can’t. Batman may not have powers but he is fantastically wealthy almost to the point of being able to do whatever he likes, he has gadgets and weapons ordinary people can’t access, he is amazingly good at martial arts, he’s an acrobat and he’s the world’s greatest detective. There are plenty of reasons you can’t be Batman and it isn’t because your parents are alive.

This is probably the number 1 iconographic element of the Super Hero, off the top of my head I can only think of a single example of a Super Hero with no abilities beyond normal man and that’s Kick Ass, which is sort of a cheat. However I can name plenty of Super powered individuals in other genres so on its own, this isn’t enough.

The Costume

Batman Neal Adams Mummyboon

Of course, you think! I know what Superman and Batman have in common, they both wear capes and underpants on the outside! Surely it is all in the costume. Batman may have no powers but he and all his friends dress up in silly costumes to fight baddies, that’s what makes a Super Hero.

Certainly if you’ve designed a character with a cape, tights and underpants on the outside then without question there is a Super Hero in your story. However, what is and isn’t considered a costume swiftly gets into dodgy territory. The Hulk doesn’t wear a costume, he wears normal street clothes but he is immediately recognisable as the Hulk because he’s huge and bright green. Hellboy doesn’t have a costume but with red skin, a tail, devil horns and an enormous right hand he sure does stand out.

A better way to phrase this would be that Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people. That kind of phrase includes Superman, Batman, The Hulk and Hellboy. It even includes many non-costumed Heroes. The Runaways are probably the poster kids for Heroes without costumes but Nico’s Staff, Chase’s Fistigons and Arsenic’s purple hair and dinosaur give them a distinctive design that would stand out on the street.

Runways Mummyboon

The only examples of Heroes without a distinctive visual that I can think of come from media outside comics like Clark in Smallville and there is a very good reason for this that again is due to the medium. Comics require you to evoke a recognisable character over multiple panels and multiple issues and often drawn by different artists. With the limitations of printing technology back when most Super Heroes were designed you have to do this using only 4 colours and a few quite thick lines. The end result is that Superman’s face can look quite different from artist to artist and panel to panel and it becomes impossible to recognise him just based on the face. So how do you ensure your audience recognises him? You give him something iconic like his s shaped jehri curl and his costume.

In live action though the audience can recognise the actor’s face so there is no need to have these distinguishing visual characteristics. When you start thinking about other comics, comic strip and animation characters though you soon realise that the stipulation “a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.” Is far too broad. For starters it seems to absorb most shonen anime characters. Think about Goku in Dragonball, with his monkey tail and red gi he stands out from the background crowd but nobody would call him a Super Hero. How about Edward in Full Metal Alchemist, very distinctive with his red coat and cyborg limbs but not remotely a Super Hero. Hell you could argue that this rule applies to Charlie Brown, Homer Simpson and Tintin and none of those are Super Heroes.

Secret Identity

Spider-Man Mark Bagley Mummyboon

Ah but the key thing about the costume is that it signifies the Super Hero’s secret identity. Clark Kent puts the costume on and now he’s Superman, not Clark Kent. The world may make fun of Peter Parker but when dons his tights the world will love Spider-Man.

The Secret Identity is a great story telling device creating tension between the private life of the character and their adventures as a Super Hero. It generates a huge number of plot devices that comics have reused for decades; “I have to do an important thing but this villain is attacking the city at the same time,” “oh no, the villain has discovered my secret identity and now can threaten my loved ones,” “oh no, a villain is attacking and I’m in my secret identity, how will I escape to change into costume?”  It’s such a good device for generating plots that it’s been used for tons of stories that have nothing to do with Super Heroes. Hannah Montana for example. In fact it pre-dates the Super Hero going all the way back to at least The Scarlet Pimpernel. Now some argue that this makes The Scarlet Pimpernel the earliest Super Hero (he arguably is actually) but I would say that using this device does not make your story part of the Super Hero genre.

And vice versa, not all Super Heroes have secret identities. In fact at this point I’d wager the majority of Super Heroes do not have a secret identity. Amongst the major marvel Heroes Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Hulk, Black Widow, She-Hulk, all the X-Men,  Captain Marvel, The Guardians of the Galaxy and arguably Thor all have identities known to the public at large. It’s basically Spider-Man and some teenagers with secret identities these days.

But notice I didn’t refer to them as Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Clint Barton and Natasha Romanov. I used their codenames because they all have them. Whether or not their civilian identity is a secret or not most Super Heroes draw a distinction between a personal life and a heroic alter ego. The world may know Steve Rogers is Captain America but he’s not actually being Cap until he puts the mask on.

And notably this excludes a lot of those shonen manga Heroes. Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy are always Goku, Naruto, Ichigo and Luffy whether they’re fighting bad guys or eating food. They don’t have some normal identity they retreat to. Interestingly this doesn’t include most Magical Girl characters or Tokusetsu characters (Power Rangers, Kanen Rider, Ultraman) all of which feel inherently more Super Heroey to me. This idea of an alternate identity then seems crucial to the definition of a Super Hero.

I propose the rule then is “Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity signified by a code name.”

Saves People

Superman Saving Someone Mummyboon

Super Heroes are Heroes, that means they save people.

Really? Have you read a Batman story in recent years? I can’t remember the last time I saw him on-panel save an innocent life. Punch thugs? Yup. Do some detective work? Yup. Catch someone falling off a bridge. I can remember something like it happening in Batman #1 3 years ago but since then, nada.

But there is a larger context to consider here. Batman might not be catching falling civilians or rescuing kids from fires but by his actions fighting villains he is saving people in another way. In the current Year Zero Arc, The Riddler has engineered a situation where electricity isn’t working in Gotham City, outside help is barred from entering and people are dying. By outsmarting the Riddler and defeating him physically Batman puts to an end that situation and stops more people dying. By punching the bad guy he saves people’s lives.

My slightly more nuanced way of putting it would be:

“By their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others.”

Now again, this is massively broad and encompasses nearly every Fantasy, SF, Action and Western protagonist you can name. In fact it’s more a definition of a hero than s Super Hero. But this to me is one of a two part structural component of the Super Hero genre alongside.

Fights Super Villains

The Joker Mummyboon

To me nothing more defines a Super Hero than that they are thrown into conflict with Super Villains. What’s a Super villain you ask?  Well we can apply the same logic for the iconographic elements, if your antagonist has abilities beyond normal people, a distinctive appearance that marks them out as separate to normal people and some kind of alternate identity then you have a Super Villain.

And the conflict between hero and villain is always resolved in some kind of physical sense. This doesn’t have to mean fighting (although, yeah, 99% of the time a Super Hero story resolves in punching) but it can mean the hero making some Superhuman act of endurance, a Superhuman sacrifice, a physical exertion beyond mortal means or outwitting the villain by hacking a thingy, pressing a thingy or inventing a thingy. But the conflict should be resolved as a result of the hero’s own ability to do things normal humans cannot not just by talking nicely, getting the police involved or some kind of deus ex machina.

Doctor Doom Mummyboon

The great thing about Super Villains for me is that they stand in symbolically for the theme of the story. If you’re writing an X-Men story about how racism is bad you can create a Super Villain that symbolises racism and then have the X-Men punch them to symbolise racism being defeated. Is it subtle? Oh Christ on a bike no. Is it satisfying and cathartic? Oh yes!

For me though the fighting Super Villain thing goes hand in hand with the previous point. If your protagonist is punching Super Villains to get rich, score women or to complete their paid job then you’re not a Super Hero narrative.

Structurally then I’d state that the Super Hero narrative is thus:

“Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super Villain antagonist”

That seems pretty comprehensive right, and narrow enough to only apply to Super Heroes?

Yeah…not so much. Whilst it applies to most Super Hero films I’ve seen recently it also applies to most action films I’ve seen recently, as well as a heck of a lot of Fantasy, SF and even some Westerns.

The problem with trying to define a Super Hero story structurally is that the stories go right back to the roots of western literature. Super Heroes are often described as modern myths and I believe this to be true and structurally the idea of turning the subtext into a text that is resolved via conflict goes all the way back to Gilgamesh. As such it has influenced all stories told ever since and so you find that Super Heroes are really lacking in a set of structural elements to call their own.

After much thought then I’ve defined my Super Hero genre test as follows.

Iconographic

  1. Super Heroes have some kind of alternate identity, usually signified by a code name.
  2. Super Heroes have a distinctive appearance that separates them from normal people.
  3. Super Heroes possess the ability to do something beyond those of normal people.

Structural

  1. Utilising their abilities beyond those of a normal person and either by their direct actions or the consequences thereof the Super Hero acts to saves lives or improve the quality of lives for others in direct conflict to the intentions of a Super villain antagonist.

The test works for me like this. If your character possesses quality 1 and at least one other Iconographic element then they’re a Super Hero. Possessing quality 2 and 3 except in rare occasions does not make them a Super Hero. In addition your character must have been involved in at least one narrative that conforms to the structure of 4. If not then yes they are a Super Hero but they are not involved in stories in the Super Hero genre.

So with those rules established let’s do some tests on some core Super Heroes and some marginals.

Superman – 1234

Superman Mummyboon

Batman – 1234

Spider-Man – 1234

Spider-Man John Romita Mummyboon

Wonder Woman – 1234

Wonder Woman Terry Dodson Mummyboon

Goku – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Goku Chibi Mummyboon

Monkey D. Luffy – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Monky D Luffy Mummyboon

Sailor Moon – 1234 (definitely a Super Hero)

Sailor Moon Mummyboon

The Power Rangers – 1234 (also definitely Super Heroes)

Red Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers Mummyboon

Indiana Jones – 234 (not a Super Hero)

Indiana Jones Mummyboon

James Bond – 34 (so we can stop that argument)

Daniel Craig James Bond Mummyboon

The Scarlet Pimpernel – 1234 (so yup, earliest example of the genre I can find)

The Scarlet Pimpernel Mummyboon

The Shadow – 1234 (although a pulp hero he also works perfectly well as a Super Hero, it’s simply an issue of tone as to which aspects of his character you wish to emphasise)

The Shadow Mummyboon

Harry Potter – 234 (and I’m only giving him 2 for the lightning bolt)

Harry Potter Mummyboon

Kane from Kung Fu – 34 (a hero, not a Super Hero)

Kane from Kung Fu Mummyboon

The Bride from Kill Bill 123 (lack of 4 means you could put the bride in a Super-hero story but she hasn’t been in one yet)

The Bride Kill Bill Mummyboon

V from V for Vendetta 1234

V for Vendetta Mummyboon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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