By Edward Boff – It’s a common belief that the original is often the best, especially when it comes to films. But how true is that? In the history of modern cinema, many films have single-handedly launched entire sub-genres. Titles that keep turning up on ‘best of’ lists because, while they may not have been the first of their kind, they were definitely trend setters. Edward Boff takes a look at a few of these ‘template titles’ and asks whether they’re still the genre-defining films they once were
By Edward Boff
It’s a common belief that the original is often the
best, especially when it comes to films. But how true is that? In the history of modern cinema, many
films have single-handedly launched entire sub-genres. Titles that keep turning
up on ‘best of’ lists because, while they may not have been the first of their
kind, they were definitely trend setters.
Edward Boff takes a look at a few of these ‘template titles’ and asks
whether they’re still the genre-defining films they once were …
The Birds (1963) & Jaws (1975)
In the wake of The
Birds, came a huge slew of animal attack, ‘nature-gets-revenge’ titles. This wasn’t the absolute first of this
sub-genre but it brought with it a whole new feel and respect for the material,
by eschewing some of the more B-Movie monster movie tropes. After The Birds, Hollywood experimented
with many more animal antagonists but a key strength of The Birds is that the birds
themselves didn’t have a specific reason for suddenly turning against humanity.
One film that learnt all the right lessons from Hitchcock came out just over a decade later. Jaws owes a great debt to The Birds
including sharing a few storybeats: coastal town under threat, the authorities
not believing anything’s really wrong until too late, the gruesome discovery of
a previous victim…. But Jaws is also unique enough to stand on its own two
feet. Its success kick started the
genre once more and spawned a slew of ever worsening sequels, as well as some
seriously bizarre imitators like the Inside-Out-Mercury-Mutated-Bear
from Prophecy. In the end, though, few films can hold
a candle to either Jaws or The Birds. Both are fine examples of how approaching
what was then conventionally B-Movie material in A-Movie fashion can lead to
phenomenal results. As for whether anything has surpassed either film, there
have been a few good nature-revenge movies since (such as Piranha and the 1978 Long
Weekend), but neither ‘originals’ are threatened by the likes of Birdemic.
Night Of The Living Dead (1968)
There had been
zombie films before George A. Romero’s
Night Of The Living Dead, but they dealt with the original meaning of the
name. Corpses raised by dark
voodoo rites as slaves, as in White
Zombie, The Plague Of The Zombies and Plan 9 From Outer Space. Romero’s undead (called ‘ghouls’ rather
than zombies) were a very different creature. Taking a lot of inspiration from Richard Matheson’s vampire novel I Am Legend (and even more from the subsequent film version, The Last Man On Earth), Romero came up
with much of the zombie lore we know today – slow, shambling and stupid
(although that wasn’t set in stone yet), feeding on flesh, those bitten die
then rise … It’s all here together
for the first time. So has the original itself ever been surpassed? Well, for a film made on a micro budget
it’s an impressive achievement, with stark black and white photography and
lighting creating a nightmare in the best Universal
Horror tradition. It’s also a
strongly allegorical film, for an America tearing itself apart over the
civil-rights movement and Vietnam.
But there are moments when the low budget does shine through, like some
very amateurish looking news reports, and the explanation for the undead (a
radioactive space probe to Venus) is something Romero wisely forgot about for
the sequels. While there have been
many fine zombie films since, such as Dawn
Of The Dead, Return Of The Living
Dead and Braindead, this
‘original’ does still rank pretty highly and its impact on the whole horror
genre is undeniable.
Star Wars (1977) (Main Picture)
For many years,
summer was a dead time for films. More of a dumping ground then a tent pole
season. However, with the rise of the baby-boomer generation (i.e. young people
with enough disposable income to go to the movies on their own during school
holidays) all that was about to change.
Technically Jaws was probably the first ‘event film’ of its sort, but
Star Wars was what really codified what a Summer
Blockbuster should be like. George Lucas, like Spielberg before him, was one of the first generation of filmmakers
who were also lifelong film fans and, as such, made the sort of movies that
they wanted to see. In the case of Star Wars, it was an update on the Republican Serial format of Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers, but given full, proper film treatment. The results speak for themselves.
However, does the ‘first Summer Blockbuster’ still stand up against today’s films? Well, it definitely holds its own
against the first wave of films that ‘homaged’ it, such as Starcrash, Battle Beyond The
Stars and Message From Space. Whether it does so against all the
major sci-fi blockbusters it helped create, is a more complicated matter. In terms of the Star Wars franchise, A New Hope probably rates as second
best of the franchise behind The Empire
Strikes Back. In terms of great sci-fi films, Star Wars does suffer in
comparison to others in that there aren’t really any “big ideas” at work in the
story. It’s more a fantasy melodrama set in space. In terms of subsequent Blockbusters, many that have tried to
ape Star Wars’ strengths (the heavy world-building and use of Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’
concept), and many have failed. Some have succeeded but did they beat Star Wars
at their own game? The problem is that it’s hard to be objective about Star
Wars. Its influence is everywhere. Just as it was hard to be objective then,
since there was nothing else at the time.
In the end though, it’s still a fun adventure tale for the kid in all of
us. Which is all one really needs with such a film.
The impact and effect
this film had on the entire horror genre cannot be overstated – it wasn’t the
most financially successful independent film for over two decades for
nothing. But is it really the
‘first’ Slasher film? Well, it depends on how specific you
want to be about definitions. In
Italy, the Giallo films had used
many similar tropes for a decade before Halloween. In fact, John Carpenter himself referred to it
as his “Argento Movie”. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre used
many of the same themes too (masked killer, kids killed off one by one, the
Final Girl), as did Canadian production Black
Christmas. But it’s safe to say that Halloween is the film that really
deserves the title ‘genre-defining’, as it was the first to bring all those key
elements together. Today many films follow its lead beat-for-beat. But how has
it stood the test of time?
Extremely well. Although on a narrative level many imitators do things similar
in terms of style and direction, Halloween is unique. Even though it was made on a low budget as an independent,
the film rarely goes down the exploitation route taken by most other slashers.
Its intent is to scare, not gross out. The film’s use of lighting, shadows, the
music and Michael Myers’ blank
Shatner mask all build atmosphere magnificently, and come together perfectly,
especially in moments such as Myers seemingly materialising out of the darkness
right beside Jamie Lee Curtis. There have been some good slashers
since (such as the Norwegian Cold Prey
films) but Halloween still tops all of them for simply remembering that the
first goal of a horror isn’t gore or a body count. It’s to be scary!
Die Hard (1988)
The sub-genre of
action movies that Die Hard launched doesn’t even have a separate name –
they’re usually just referred to as “Die Hard in/on an X”. Over the years, we’ve had X’s that have
ranged from Aircraft carriers (Under
Siege), trains (Under Siege 2),
oblivious to everything that’s going on Sports Stadiums (Sudden Death) to even Air Force One (erm, Air Force One).
Interesting, none of Die Hard’s direct sequels use the initial formula
as closely as most of these do, actually varying things much more. But for many reasons Die Hard still
stands above the contenders.
First, the script is packed full of details and gags amongst the
carnage. Then, there’s superb
action direction by veteran John
McTiernan, who makes great use of the building’s geography for setting up
the big set pieces. However, the thing that sets Die Hard head and shoulders
above all the rest is the characterisation. John McClane (Bruce
Willis) isn’t some completely unstoppable superman like most action stars
of the time. He’s a real working class guy who can still be hurt and still take
real damage over the course of the story.
As such, he’s much easier to feel sympathy for as he faces one of the
most stressful Christmas Eve’s ever.
Die Hard also introduced the concept of having a villain as equally as
interesting as the hero. Alan Rickman sells Hans Gruber
perfectly, mainly through some expert dialogue and wonderful reveals as to his
true motives. It’s notable that
Gruber does get his moment of triumph too when the vault opens to Ode to Joy.
Despite what he does, he’s such a charming character in many ways, that it just
feels right for him to have that moment.
That’s why Die Hard has endured and will continue to do so. It’s a
highly likeable and human hero against a suitably complex and layered
villain. Let’s hope that A Good Day To Die Hard remembers this!
In many cases, the
original will always remain the best.
These genre-defining movies succeed for a variety of reasons but no
matter what new directions today’s film-makers take the material, chances are the
original will always have something to offer that other versions miss.