John Wyndham

Fearflix 47

ATTACK THE BLOCK

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Joe Cornish the writer and director of Attack The Block was educated at the independent, expensive and exclusive Westminster School.   This means he acquired knowledge and understanding amongst the British elite and that his family had more than a few bob. But Cornish was fortunate. Because London has had fifty years of gentrification, he grew up in a comfortable home that was situated alongside working class areas. In London the wealthy now fulfil the phenomenon that first appeared in the 1937 Bogart movie Dead End. The rich jostle alongside the poor.

At the beginning of Attack The Block a female white nurse called Sam walks past expensive residences and returns to her temporary home in a tower block. Londoners will understand the significance of her journey and note the geographical proximity of the rich, who have affluence and promise, to the others, who are expected to know their place and avoid resistance and protest. The almost final line of the film is a policeman saying to a black kid, ‘Don’t resist me.’

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Attack The Block is funny which is no surprise because Cornish began life as a comedian and because the success of Shaun Of The Dead inspired the producers to try a similar trick. Most of the comedy in both films arises because the characters are confused by inexplicable events. There are no role models or manuals for an apocalypse, and experience of black hairy monsters that have teeth that glow in the dark is limited. The characters in Attack The Block are not only confused, their responses to what is happening reveal the limits to their lives. Attack The Block may be sympathetic to its working class heroes but they are not self-sufficient. The education of the silly and uncool white middle-class teenager is important. He is the only one who has any clue as to what may be happening. The rest can do no more than remember movies and TV programmes.

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If this sounds like the usual middle-class scorn for ordinary people, Cornish does make fun of everyone. This includes the black kid who thinks MI6 is called Section 6, the exhausted parents glued to the television and oblivious to what their children may be doing outside their front doors, the wasted drug dealer, the desperate hard man, clueless policemen and the middle class nerd who wants to be accepted by black teenagers because he thinks they are an authentic alternative to his privilege.

There is division between the sexes in Attack The Block but it is not considered as sharp or as worthy of attention as the gap between the social classes and the conflict between black and white. The four teenage girls, though, are a hoot and almost steal the film.   Although dopey their sneers are robust defence mechanisms. Fortunately for the plot the girls relent and add to the mayhem. But as impressive as the comedy is in Attack The Block the two moments that stress the class and division in British society are what make the film important. These moments appear at the beginning and the end of the film and, although not didactic, they are bold indeed.

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On her way home Sam meets five black teenagers. The leader carries a knife, and the five attempt to mug Sam for her money. This shocks and impresses because we realise that these muggers are intended to be the sympathetic heroes of the film. When Sam describes her attackers to others, she calls them monsters. Her progress within the film consists of understanding that the teenagers, for all their flaws, are neighbours and human beings. The second memorable moment occurs close to the end of the film when the British flag is used as a positive symbol and plays a part in the survival of a key character. The message of the film is clear. Despite our differences we are all British, the rich and poor and the white and black. We need to accept that our neighbours, whoever they are and whatever their resentments and ambitions, are human beings. This mix of social criticism and nationalism is familiar, and so is the message. Brutalised people trying to survive in an unfair society should not make us waver from our commitment to national identity.

Samuel Fuller the maverick American director used his films to make the same point about the USA. He also criticised his society. Middle-class hypocrisy is exposed in The Naked Kiss. In that film his heroine is a bald female prostitute, admittedly she looks great when she grows hair.  In Shock Corridor and The Crimson Kimono American racism is dissected by Fuller. Yet the same man insisted upon national unity and loyalty. He did this because he considered patriotism not an emotional indulgence but a practical requirement for the survival and prosperity of that society. The Americans in the films of Samuel Fuller are not curious about alternative political philosophy. Indeed, few of them read. They are contemptuous of ‘reds and commies’. Not everyone, especially in Britain, liked the films of Fuller. Dilettantes who belonged to the same generation as the parents of Joe Cornish condemned Fuller as a fascist. The final film of Fuller was White Dog and it told the tale of a dog-owner who trains his dog to attack and kill black people. The film is a masterpiece and refutes any half baked notions about Fuller and fascism. His films, though, can make an audience uneasy and ambivalent. Fuller is not always sensitive.

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The childhood of Cornish meant that he was buffeted by working and middle-class communities that were alien to each other. Cornish may or may not be a devotee of Samuel Fuller but, torn between communities, he is entitled to have the same concerns about identity. Cornish has been lauded and has avoided the scorn Fuller suffered. No one has called Attack The Block fascist and neither should they do so but those who feel uneasy by the appearance of the Union Jack near the end of the film have their reasons. It is not difficult to imagine a British fascist watching the film and rethinking the target audience for his movement. Humour and wild chaos have made Attack The Block a cult film but the appearance of the British flag, however disquieting, takes it to another thought provoking level. Neither does the film have liberal internationalist sentiments. Sam and her boyfriend intend to travel abroad and help the poor in the underdeveloped world. Pest, the white teenager in the group of muggers, asks why the British middle class prefer to help poor foreigners rather than those within their country. Sam Fuller would have approved of the outburst by Pest, and, of course, so would a few fascists.

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British politicians of today scratch their empty heads over why social mobility in Britain is in reverse.  Attack The Block was made in 2010. That year a new Tory Government was elected. The Government imposed austerity but talked a lot about incentives for the wealthy. Since then seven million British families have become poorer and the income of the wealthiest 10% of the population has more than doubled. After the Tottenham riots of 2011, the same year that Attack The Block appeared in British cinemas, the British Government suspended the rule of law so that it could put people in prison for stealing a bottle of water.  Nobody in authority referred to the poor as equal neighbours. Hostility to immigrants has been nurtured, and the working class has been condemned as feral. The status of the poor is understood by the kids in Attack The Block. The alien monsters are described by one of the teenage gang as ‘blacker than my cousin’.  A national flag can be a dangerous symbol but Cornish suggests that it offers not just hope for the oppressed but insists upon responsibility and empathy from the privileged. He has a point, and so did Fuller. We should, though, be wary. To seek the promise of universal comfort in the Union Jack and wave the damned thing around is dangerous.

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The tower block where the action takes place is called Wyndham Tower and refers to the science fiction writer John Wyndham. There is also a reference to J G Ballard. None exist for H G Welles, which is a pity because the genre of alien invasion began with him. For most of the cast of Attack The Block this has been their finest moment so far. Many were handpicked local kids. Not all of them sound as if they have completed the training course for actors but in an odd way this helps the film. Everyone has a wild edge, as if all are defined by a hidden personal eccentricity and flaw. This includes the two young kids whose wide-eyed action fantasies skirt the main action. The gun waving chief dude is great, and so is his flabby white accomplice whose look of bemused compliance would be beyond a trained actor. Jodie Whittaker, the actor who plays Sam, has theatrical roots and has built an impressive and testing CV since Attack The Block. The male lead John Boyega is now famous and rich after appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Who knows what will happen to Boyega. Presumably Peckham will remember him.

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Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fearflix 39

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED

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The kids are creepy, and the bad news is that every family has to have one. The kids wear odd padded blonde wigs and have eyes that are pure black. And that is when they are being pleasant. When the children lose their tempers, the black eyes glow like light bulbs and the humans around them either self-destruct or crumple. Village Of The Damned appeared in 1960. The informed view is that the 60s decade did not begin in Britain until 1963. That particular decade needed to be defined by the Profumo scandal, the music of the Beatles and the contraceptive pill. Village Of The Damned may have been made in 1960 but its British preoccupations belong to the previous decade. It is a film that was made by people who witnessed the brutality and mass carnage of the Second World War. Cinema audiences shared the same memories.

On its release the movie was praised by critics. Before then the standard of post-war British horror cinema had been poor. Night Of The Demon, which was made in 1957, was one of the exceptions. Village Of The Damned mixes science fiction and mild horror whereas Night Of The Demon is concerned with black magic. The two films, though, have common characteristics. The cinematography is in sharp black and white, the exposition is methodical, the characters are restrained and have much phlegm, Britain is settled, and evil and good manners are compatible.

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The film is memorable but not a classic. In Village Of The Damned the dialogue is functional rather than inspired, and although there is characterisation it exists to support the narrative. The actors are professional but do not relish their roles. George Sanders is the local professor, and Barbara Shelley is his wife. The early domestic scenes of a loving couple are necessary to what follows but both actors are uncomfortable in these initial encounters. Shelley recovers when she becomes the anxious mother but Sanders never convinces as a serious intellectual.

The structure of the narrative, though, is splendid and it compensates for any limits in characterisation. The film has three parts. The first part reveals the mysterious opening incident when everyone in the village faints for a couple of hours. In the middle of the film mysterious pregnancies affect all the fertile women in the village including a distraught virgin and a woman whose husband has been absent from the village for over a year. Finally, the children appear and cause unease.

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The original novel by John Wyndham was called The Midwich Cuckoos. This is a brilliant title but it was rejected by film producers concerned about profit.   Midwich is the name of the fictional village affected by the odd incident. The name suggests a quandary. These people are obliged to live in the middle of what? In fifties Britain modernism coexisted alongside mediaeval tradition, especially in rural life. What would disappear and what would emerge no one knew. Every age experiences a clumsy mix of present, past and future but the fifties were exceptional. War had unleashed technological potential, and modernity required approval. The rise in living standards were welcomed but anxiety about the future was heightened.  In a still conservative society these misgivings had to be kept secret.  Cuckoos are the birds whose calls every child is taught to recognise. Cuckoos arrive and promise a changing world and sunshine. Warm weather may be pleasant but it ignores the individual tragedy and losers that always follow change.

In Village Of The Damned the children, the Midwich cuckoos, are different, and there will be tragedy. The undiplomatic village doctor is disturbed by the strange eyes of the babies. The children experience rapid growth and demonstrate superior intelligence. Although he realises the children have come from another planet George Sanders, the professor, finds the difference encouraging. The professor is tempted by the idea that his child, or the child that is living in his home, will be cleverer than Einstein.

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Village Of The Damned has warnings about progress but it is never hysterical. The references to the communist world are non-judgemental. It exists as another imperfect social system where the powerful are obliged to make the same difficult decisions about the future. The doubts about what the world will become are universal. Nobody is triumphant in Village Of The Damned. No free market or communist ideology is quoted. Decisions about the future, as the scene with the Home Secretary demonstrates, require thought and the ability to think of the consequences for all.  Minimising damage is more important than victory.

The subsequent confrontational protest about what the modern world had become appeared in the sequel Children Of The Damned. By then the contraceptive pill had been supplemented with marijuana and gloomy hippies had arrived. In Children Of The Damned the alien children are viewed sympathetically.  Non-stoned and puritanical adults kill them.

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Village Of The Damned is not as simple-minded as its unworthy successor. The villagers are not brutish but neither do they endear. From the moment when the villagers faint there are doubts about human status. Fifteen years earlier these humans participated in a worldwide conflict but one whiff of invisible dust from outer space and they are quashed in a moment. At the beginning of the film we see them either collapsed on their machines or at the side of the road. The humans are no different from the sleeping animals. If the horror of the Second World War has persuaded everyone to be peaceful, these uncomprehending creatures will now have to continue without the comfort of conflict or a noble cause.   Resistance provides the hope of survival, and, unable to practise resistance, human beings have no substance and cease to exist. And resistance is more than military combat. Conversation and routine also qualify as organised resistance. It is how we cope with what we avoid acknowledging, our isolation and the destructive nature of time. At the end of the film the villagers prevail but it has demanded more than organised resistance. Sometimes survival requires people in the group, community or nation to be sacrificed. The best of them in Midwich is obliged to sacrifice himself. At that point in the film, when the humans have triumphed, the audience relaxes but the moment that follows is peculiar. Glowing eyes appear in the flames and wreckage. This may have deliberate meaning or be mere tongue in cheek whimsy by a designer. Either way the image is disturbing. Only human beings, and probably the dimmest of them, think they understand what will happen next.

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The British in this film are defined by resistance rather than ambition.   The beauty of Barbara Shelley is important. Her presence somehow represents a whole decade. She is beautiful but ordinary. She has suburban grace rather than charisma and was a woman born to welcome the new comfortable homes. Her clean facial features and neat figure flatter G Plan furniture. The military are a commanding presence in the film but they represent the need for security rather than a desire to conquer.  Experienced in organising resistance the Army shapes society more than is realised. The decisions about future security, the next steps, are made by Army men and not the police.

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The doubts about human status are confirmed when redundant men watch the women they know be used as incubating machines. The men seek solace in the village pub but it provides neither conversation nor solace. These are the gloomiest pub scenes in any film. The protest from the village men is inevitable but ineffectual and embarrassing.  These humans are deluded about their worth and potential.

Misconceived human status has implications for human entitlement. The alien children have one priority, and that is to survive. Like the Nazi supremacists that were defeated, they think they have superior status and entitlement. The conviction the aliens have in their superiority is destructive but humans also have a need to survive and they too have a sense of entitlement. It is this sense that has been sharpened and refined by the capabilities acquired in the destruction that happened in the Second World War. The presence of the military throughout the film confirms modern social ambition. The communities and societies that existed will now also belong to the State. ‘This isn’t a police state yet,’ says a military man, except he pauses before he adds the word yet. The Second World War required communities that had to unite as a nation but the legacy of that unity is the State, and the options for the modern powerful State are troubling.

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Hysteria was taboo in Britain in 1960 but the ‘yet’ was what made everybody anxious. Perhaps it was that anxiety which helps explain the headstrong irresponsibility that began in 1963. Of course, we have made progress since those primitive times, just look at the large phones and small British cars in the film. Today it is different. In 2016 we are anxious not just about the future but each other. UKIP and many of the people who voted to leave the EU hope for a society that resembles fifties Britain.   Some of them imagine independent communities and yearn for the self-effacement and lack of pretension that existed then. The military culture and control and the self-censored doubt are ignored. The rest of us, those who are more critical of Britain and its past, are also anxious.  We wonder about the eyes that we saw at the end of the film.

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.