This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Greatest Halloween Movies

This might not seem like a particularly original post, but most 'Top Ten' Halloween movie lists are just an excuse to slap up ten favorite horror flicks. But is that all Halloween is about? Since its arrival on the shores of the US in the hands of Irish immigrants, All Hallows' Eve has metamorphosed into a holiday that embraces all things gruesome and terrifying with a plethora of newer traditions that are almost solely confined to the US. While that's all well and good, what about the roots of the festival? And what movies can we find that are associated with these oldest traditions?

Originating in the Celtic parts of Europe (i.e. Britain, Ireland and Gaul) Halloween (or 'Samhain' as it was called in Ireland back then) heralded the beginning of the dark half of the year and was a night when the spirits of the dead (presumably both good and bad) could return from the Otherworld to visit the places and people they knew in life. When Christianity grew in strength under the rule of the late Romans, the newly formed church naturally frowned on such pagan beliefs, connecting them with devil worship and other un-godly things (which must have been news to the Romanised Celts). In an effort to replace these heathen customs with their own mythology of saints, the festival was renamed 'All Saints' Eve' or more commonly 'All Hallows' Eve'. Also, the church's seemingly innate fear of women with spiritual power (or any kind of power in society) led to the concept of witchcraft (after all, if these priestesses and healers were not Christians, they had to be using their mystical powers for evil, right?)

And so there we have it; a pagan seasonal festival connected with spirits returning from the realm of the dead and doorways into other worlds layered with a Christian mythology of demons, witchcraft and the big, bad man downstairs. In these more secular times, the fusion of cultures and beliefs has become inseparably entwined. But what present day movies reflect this strange witch's brew of mythologies?

Well, for over a century horror movies have fed on the gothic, the supernatural and the demonic. But not all of them. Some rely on the psychological or the problems of society and others are just in it for the gore. So for a list to properly represent the true spirit of Halloween (in my opinion), some parameters need to be defined.

1. A Halloween movie must deal with the supernatural (except in a very few cases which will be discussed further). So, while the likes of 'Psycho', 'Jaws', and the various slasher franchises may be considered great movies, they don't fit the bill in this case.

2. Halloween is all about the dead returning to the realm of the living. So no werewolves, aliens or monsters of earthly creation. On the other hand ghosts, vampires and zombies (the gothic rather than the scientific kind) are in.

3. The 'doorways into other worlds' concept is a much used one and really ties in with what the Celts believed in and their traditions surrounding Samhain. While this could potentially cover a huge amount of ground, other worlds such as Hell and the realm(s) of the dead etc are perfect territory.

4. Arguably, Halloween is as much a Christian concept as a pagan one and as the early church made connections between Satan and heathen happenings, why not represent this too? Demonic possession, devil worship and satanic cults are hardly in short order in the world of movies.

5. Oh, and as this blog deals with 20th century pop culture, all films must be pre-2000.

After much thought, I have assembled the following list. All films are in alphabetical order (saves me having to pic a favorite, see?)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Remember the hype surrounding this one? Many people thought it was the real deal and as this 'missing footage found in the woods' gimmick was ultra cheap to film, it remains one of the most profitable movies of all time.

I'll go ahead and admit that I wasn't scared into convulsions by this, but it remains damn well eerie to this day. The invented mythology surrounding the alleged witch of the nearby woods is effectively done and the gradually deteriorating friendship of the three protagonists as they get more and more lost really portrays the feeling of hopelessness which is terrifying in itself. And then they find that old house in the woods...

The Crow (1994)

Top marks for spotting the one film on my list that isn't a horror movie. Nevertheless, The Crow is a fantastic tale of a spirit brought back from the land of the dead to right the wrongs on Devil's Night (aka Halloween). The fact that a crow acts as the guiding link between the living and the dead is a real nod to Celtic mythology, displaced as it is in the hellish urban landscape of 1990's Detroit.

What could have been a simple action/revenge flick typical of its decade was really elevated by the gloriously noirish production design. Steamy, rain-slicked streets reflect the fires of anarchy as the resurrected Eric Draven chases down the hoods who raped and murdered his bride to be, caked up in goth trappings and following the titular bird all the way to the top of the criminal ladder.

Dracula (1931)

I said vampires were fair game in my intro, so I'll go ahead and add the most influential vampire flick of all time. We can argue which of the countless cinematic versions of Stoker's classic is the best until the cows come home, but you can't deny the cultural impact of Bela Legosi's opera-cloaked count who has influenced everything from breakfast cereal to Sesame Street.

Eerie and atmospheric (check out the superbly gothic crypt scene complete with rats and insects in which the stench of decay can practically be smelled), the film was the first in a long line of Universal Studios monster movies which remain popular subjects for Halloween costumes to this day.

The Exorcist (1973)

Widely regarded as the most terrifying movie of all time, The Exorcist (along with Rosemary's Baby - 1968) was largely responsible for the shift in horror movies from gothic crypts and haunted houses to the demonic terrors of the modern world. Telling the tale of a young girl possessed by a demon and the plight of the elderly priest to expel the evil entity is the ultimate in the glut of satanically themed movies of the 1970s.

Essays have been written as to why this is so effective as a horror movie, so I won't over analyse here. All I'll say is that it is the corruption of innocence along with the hideous, puppet-like contortions of a young girl that makes this film just as horrific today.

Halloween (1978)
You knew this was coming, right? I said that I would explain the inclusion of any films with non-supernatural themes, and well, the clue is in the title. The atmosphere and festivities of Halloween in American suburbia are the backdrop here as an escaped psychopath returns to his home town and begins offing teenagers with the aid of a large kitchen knife. Why? We shall never know, but the concept kickstarted a trend in the horror genre that would dominate the next couple of decades.

Surprisingly bloodless, John Carpenter's classic film was an exercise in suspense and the terror of not knowing what is lurking in the shadows. Slasher films before this had been set out in the sticks (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and in sorority houses (Black Christmas) - both 1974, but Halloween put the masked killer right in the backyards of American suburbia.

The Haunting (1963)

It took me a long time to choose this over The Innocents (1961) as the greatest haunted house movie of all time and I'm still not sure I made the right decision. This was back when atmosphere and eeriness made a horror film rather than blood and cheap shocks. Based on Shirley Jackson's novel, the film follows a nervous young woman who is invited along with three other guests to stay at the forboding Hill House by a psychologist interested in the paranormal.

The fact that it was filmed in black and white only adds to the chilling sensation I get when watching this; the shadows are deeper, the faces more expressive. And that scene with the face in the wallpaper really gets me.

Hellraiser (1987)

Based on director Clive Barker's own novel (The Hellbound Heart), Hellraiser tells of a man who acquires a mysterious puzzle box which opens a gateway into another dimension. His earthly flesh taken by the Cenobites who dwell there, the man's ex-lover (his brother's wife) learns what has happened and begins a chain of murders that will bring her lover back from beyond the grave.

At a time when the horror market was saturated with slasher sequels from the US, Barker brought the British touch back and created a horror character (Pinhead) just as iconic as the Freddies and Jasons of the genre.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Radiation from a downed space probe causes the dead to rise up from the grave. A group of vastly different people find themselves under siege in an abandoned farmhouse and must use their wits to stay alive.

What, on the surface, might look like a science fiction movie fuelled by Cold War fears of atomic technology (and mind control) is in fact one of the most influential examples of the 'dead back to life' theme ever. George A. Romero's gritty and cheap independent movie started a trend of low budget zombie gore fests that has continued to this day. Archetype-bending concepts (the hero is black) and a brutally abrupt ending make this film a cut above the slew of imitators that followed.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Washington Irving's American classic gets the Hollywood treatment in this wonderfully atmospheric version. Police Inspector, Ichabod Crane visits a small Dutch settlement where the legendary Headless Horseman is relieving the townsfolk of their heads, one by one. Piecing the mystery together, Crane notices a pattern in the killings and begins to suspect that there may be some human involvement.

If I had to choose a favorite Halloween movie, I would go for Sleepy Hollow. Tim Burton's gloriously gothic take on Irving's classic reeks atmosphere and perfectly sets the mood for the season. Eerie mist cloaks skeletal trees, the blood is as bright and as lurid as in any Hammer Horror (a comparison increased by appearances from Christopher Lee and Michael Gough) and the pumpkin head motif is used to full effect.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Investigating the disappearance of a little girl on a remote Scottish island, a deeply Christian police officer uncovers a heathen community with some very sinister traditions.

This is the second film to feature on my list that has absolutely no supernatural goings on in it at all. And with good reason. Few films have portrayed the age-old head on collision between pagan practices and Christian arrogance as perfectly as this one. It has been said that the things people do to one another and the things they do in the name of religion can be more horrifying than any monsters or ghouls the mind can imagine and that is the message that lies at the heart of The Wicker Man. Although set during the spring festival of Beltain rather than Samhain (despite being filmed in November), the film depicts a culture not too far removed from the Celtic practices that lie at the heart of Halloween.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Movie Review - Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

A controversial film for many horror fans, Halloween III is probably the most despised entry in the series for many. This would be on account of the fact that it is the only Halloween movie that does not feature masked killer Michael Myers. But is that really such a bad thing? I mean, honestly?

The Halloween franchise suffered a very similar fate as the Friday the 13th series did at roughly the same time. The original concept for both franchises was to do a movie based on something completely different each year or so, making a series that would be something of an anthology of different horror stories. But after the huge success of the first film, Michael Myers, like Jason (despite the latter never actually appearing in the first 'Friday' movie) was revived for the sequel with mixed results. So I have to give credit to the filmmakers of part III for going back to the original concept and making something completely different, despite the fact that this entry is largely ignored by Halloween and horror film fans alike.

Based on a script by Nigel Kneale, the British force behind the classic sci-fi horror Quatermass series (although Kneale went uncredited after disputes with the producers), the story involves the machinations of 'Silver Shamrock' - a company that manufactures Halloween masks.

The film opens a few days before October 31st with a man being chased by some suited Agent Smith types. Evading one, the man winds up in hospital and is able to babble a crazed warning; "They're gonna kill us. All of us!" to a Dr. Dan Challis before he is killed in his sleep by another goon who then sits in his car, douses himself with gasoline and sets light to himself.

Dr. Dan Challis, mystified by the turn of events, is soon joined by 'Ellie' the daughter of the man who was killed. Ellie informs Dan that her father was involved with the Silver Shamrock company, a toy and mask factory based in the small farming town of Santa Mira. Deciding to do a little detective work, Dan and Ellie make their way to Santa Mira where they find the town totally subservient to Mr. Conal Cochran, the founder of the Silver Shamrock company.

Of course the suited goons turn out to be androids and agents of Cochran who plans to kill all the children of America with a TV commercial that will activate special chips fashioned from fragments of a stone recently stolen from Stonehenge, hidden within Silver Shamrock masks. This will cause their heads to dissolve into heaps of bugs, worms and snakes in some sort of parody of the Celtic festival of Samhain. Why? Something to do with pagan sacrifice. At least that's all I could gather from it.

As you can probably tell, the plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense and the film fits more within the territory of sci-fi thriller than gothic horror as its title might lead us to believe. But it's not too bad in a b-movie kind of way, certainly undeserving of the scorn regularly heaped upon it by Michael Myers fans. It's a shame that more stuff from Nigel Kneale's script didn't make it into the film as all the talk of Samhain and the stolen stone from Stonehenge comes across as pretty convoluted in the final film. Kneale's script contained references to ancient demons and gateways to other worlds that never made the final cut. A little more clarity certainly wouldn't have gone amiss.

The film bombed on its release, not helped by the fact that it was up against First Blood (1982) when it opened. Having learned its lesson to not be so damn original, the series picked up with Michael Myers once again in 1988 and hasn't looked back since. Disappointing though Season of the Witch may have been, I think it's a shame that no other non-slasher stories were ever attempted as the series certainly ran out of steam fast.

Friday, October 29, 2010

'Rosemary's Baby' by Ira Levin

Happy Halloween folks! As the great festival for all things creepy, spooky and demonic is this Sabbath, I will be putting out several posts over the next few days celebrating the spirit(s) of All Hallows' Eve. First up; a remarkable novel which played a large part in the popular shift towards all things occult and satanic in the late '60s and early '70s.

Popular culture in the late '60s was vastly becoming obsessed with the demonic. Anton LaVey founded The Church of Satan in 1966. Rosemary's Baby was published the following year and the film adaption came the year after that. The early '70s saw the huge success of novels and movies like The Exorcist and The Omen, as well as more low budget stuff like Hammer's The Devil Rides Out and To the Devil a Daughter. The big bad man downstairs was everywhere it seemed, popping up on magazine covers, paperbacks and movie posters. The cause for a lot of it can be laid at the door of Rosemary's Baby and Roman Polanski's near perfect 1968 film adaptation.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into an old apartment block in New York City. Rosemary wants a baby and Guy is an out of work actor. They get friendly with an elderly couple living in a neighboring apartment and after the mysterious death of a fellow actor, Guy's career suddenly soars. Rosemary soon gets pregnant and that's when things start to get creepy. Horrific dreams plague Rosemary as the new life grows inside her and she becomes convinced that their friendly neighbors are intent on stealing her baby.

The book is less supernatural horror than paranoid thriller and is all the more effective for it. The terror of a mother for her unborn child and the sense that she can trust nobody - not even her own husband - is the real horror at the centre of the story. The comparison on the back to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw is one I can agree with - it is never clear until the very end whether or not it is all just some horrible paranoid fantasy on the part of the protagonist. What's really creepy is just how ordinary the villains are. There are no crimson cloaks, black masses or naked dancing in the moonlight here. Just a group of elderly people who wouldn't be out of place in any neighborhood. They could be living next door to you or I.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Clive Barker's 'Books of Blood' Vols. 4 - 6

Having read The Hellbound Heart and thoroughly enjoyed Clive Barker's self-directed film adaption, I began poking around in second hand bookshops for his fabled 'Books of Blood' anthologies. That's why I only have this second collection (volumes 4 - 6) and not the first.

I'll admit that it took me a while to get into his short stories. The first two entries in this book didn't really do anything for me and I was gradually coming to the conclusion that perhaps (other than The Hellbound Heart) Barker wasn't for me. But in a fit of stubbornness, I picked it up again and read the third story and got really hooked.

The great thing about Barker's work is that it is totally unclassifiable. Breaking away from the restrictions of various horror sub-genres, his imagination is seemingly endlessly original. There isn't one story here that I could sum up in a couple of words and that is probably what gave me a hard time getting into the book to begin with. It's impossible to predict what one might get when starting on a Barker story. But if you allow your mind to be opened up enough by a couple of brushes with Barker, it should be ready for the truly bizarre.

Not all of the surreal ambiguity worked for me though and while several of the stories are off-beat enough to be truly original and entertaining, a few of them were so far out that they had me wondering exactly what the hell was going on.

On the other hand, real highlights for me were Revelations - a great tale of murder and ghosts in a run down motel, Down, Satan! - an exploration of a totally mad and demonic mind, The Forbidden - which inspired the movie Candyman (1992) and the wonderfully morbid The Life of Death. Gore is never something to be shied away from by Mr. Barker and stuff like How Spoilers Bleed had me literally squirming with discomfort - always an interesting experience for one who considers himself pretty much desensitised by exposure to too many horror books and movies.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Movie Review: Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998)

As much as I love the original Halloween (1978), it's been a relatively recent infatuation. The late 70s was a bit before my time. My time was the 90s when Wes Craven's self-referential Scream (1996) had turned the slasher genre on its head after many years of stale sequels and had inspired a new boom in the field of masked killers stalking teenagers. This, the seventh entry in the Halloween series, was the first Halloween movie I saw in the cinema and I can remember thoroughly enjoying it. But like most movies of the 90s, I haven't paid it so much as a second thought since seeing it back in '98. Deciding to watch it again, more than 10 years since its release, I discovered not just another generic Halloween sequel, but a thoroughly well made entry in the franchise and a damn good update on the original.

Largely ignoring the three sequels that dealt with Laurie Strode's daughter and her own encounters with her uncle Mike, H20 returns to Jamie Lee Curtis' character, who is now the headmistress of a fancy private school in California where her 17-year old son (Josh Hartnett) attends. Having faked her death and changed her name to 'Keri Tate' in an effort to throw her murderous brother off the scent should he still, by some miracle, be alive, Strode suffers from recurring nightmares and is pretty heavy handed with the old liquor bottle. During a very well done opening sequence, the home of a nurse who used to work with the now deceased Dr. Loomis is robbed and the file on Laurie Strode (presumably containing details on her new alias and current whereabouts) is stolen. Soon Myers is doing what he does best in an effort to kill his nephew who is now 17 (the same age Strode was when Myers resurfaced the first time).

Apart from the awesomeness of seeing Jamie Lee Curtis return to the role that she did so well twenty years previously, The film contains a large number of 'in joke' type stuff that us nerds love. From Joseph Gordon-Levitt's sudden appearance wearing a hockey mask often sported by another psycho-killer from a different franchise to the cameo of Janet Leigh (Jamie Lee Curtis' mother) who was the star/victim of Psycho (1960) alongside the very car she drove in said classic, H20 is just as self-referential as Scream. And, unlike most entries in the genre, H20 actually takes its time with characterisation and exposition. In fact it's nearly an hour into the movie before Michael Myers makes his appearance at the California school to begin his one-night rampage. Curtis is just as great to watch as she was in the original and her quick-thinking and motherly toughness is a breath of fresh air from all the running, screaming teenagers we've seen in pretty much every slasher movie since 1978. In fact the movie spends a surprisingly little amount of time on the teenage victims, instead focusing on the more mature storyline of a mother's over-protective tendencies and psychological trauma of her past. One other plus is the film's musical score. Using John Carpenter's iconic theme tune, the tinkling piano notes of the original are replaced by sweeping brass and strings, making the eternally creepy theme a much grander and more epic affair.

My only real complaints with the movie lie with the character of Michael Myers himself. I don't know what it is but he just doesn't seem as menacing as he was in the original. Despite some shots that bear striking similarity to ones in the original (reflections in glass, appearing and vanishing in the blink of an eye etc) there still seems to be something missing. Also, with all the time taken explaining Laurie Strode's reappearance after her supposed death (mentioned in one of the sequels), you would have thought that a bit of attention would have been directed towards the killer himself. What exactly has he been doing for the last 20 years (assuming that the sequels are now non-canon), and how did he survive the blazing inferno that concluded part 2?

All in all, a great conclusion to the series. Too bad it was all spoiled by the awful Halloween: Resurrection (2002) and the recent remakes. But nevermind Rob Zombie, H20 remains the true successor to the 1978 original.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Movie Review: Friday the 13th Part II (1981)

With Halloween just around the corner, I've been watching a few classic horror films. While the second entry in the infamous 'Friday' series can hardly be considered a 'classic', it's actually pretty good considering how awful the series eventually became. The franchise is also called the 'Jason' series, but strictly speaking, such a series would have to begin with this entry as it is the first appearance of Jason Voorhees who, despite wearing a pillow case throughout the movie instead of his trademark hockey mask, would go on to become a horror icon as famous as Michael Myers or Freddie Kruger.

Good a sequel though this movie is, I can't help but feel a sense of missed opportunity considering how the creators of the first installment originally envisioned a long running 'Friday' series that would focus on a different story with each entry. After all, Jason Voorhees was supposedly dead at the bottom of Crystal Lake, with his appearance in the original movie only a nightmare vision and the real killer being his mother. But various big shots in control of the money side of things demanded that the killer in part 2 be an adult Jason who had somehow survived his childhood drowning incident and spent the rest of his youth living as a hermit in the nearby woods until witnessing the decapitation of his mad mother. Taking her severed head, he builds a shrine to her and starts his own killing spree supposedly on her whim.

That's the more than slightly preposterous set up for the second Friday movie. After the credits we are re-introduced to Alice Hardy, the surviving heroine of the first installment. It has been two months since all her friends were massacred at Camp Crystal Lake and she is now trying to get on with her life and forget all about it. But somebody is not about to let her get off the hook so easily and she soon departs this world via a screwdriver in the temple. I hate it when this happens in sequels. Killing off the protagonist in a post credits sequence really undermines everything they achieved in the previous movie. I felt the same way about Alien 3 (1992) when Hicks and Newt are revealed to have been killed before the credits even started! What a downer!

But I digress. Not long after this gruesome affair, a group of teens are Crystal Lake bound once more. A new training camp for camp counsellors has been set up and soon we are subjected to watching these hopefuls perform various wholesome activities like forest runs, carpentry and cook-outs (all done whilst wearing obscenely small shorts, I might add). Crazy Ralph turns up to do his doomsaying bit and 'heed my warning' speech just as he did in the first film, and of course he goes ignored by the gleeful youngsters. There is also a spooky campfire story which serves to inform us that there are folks about who believe that little Jason Voorhees didn't drown all those years ago and is in fact living in the woods like a savage.

With all that exposition out of the way, the film is free to get on with its killings. First up is poor old Crazy Ralph who is garroted while spying on a couple of teens making out. Don't know why he was still lurking around, but that'll learn him! The following day another couple, inspired by the local tales, decide to check out the abandoned (and strictly off limits) Camp Crystal Lake. All they find is a dead dog belonging to one of the other camp counsellors. A cop catches them snooping around and hauls them back to the training camp for a stern ticking off before getting a claw hammer in the skull whilst chasing a mysterious stranger into the woods on his way back to the station.

Things really get moving when most of the counsellors head out for a night on the town, leaving just six remaining for an evening of arm wrestling, making out and playing video games on some antiquated handheld device that even I don't recognise. Needless to say, they don't quite get the quiet night in they were hoping for.

One of the best things about the movie is it's protagonist. Amy Steel plays 'Ginny' the girlfriend of the camp leader. She proves to be the epitome of the 'Final Girl' archetype - brave, resourceful and smart. Despite a scene where she is hiding under a bed, literally urinating with terror (what the hell was that all about anyway?), Ginny uses her smarts to outwit the killer in the film's conclusion - donning Mrs Voorhees's old sweater and playing mind games with Jason.

Oh, and then there is that final scare which is a retread of the most popcorn-tossing moment in the first movie - Jason's sudden appearence just when we think it's all over. Turns out to be a dream of course, but we at least get to see what he looks like under that pillow case and it ain't pretty.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Movie Review: Cleopatra Jones (1973)

Another Blaxploitation classic here. Overshadowed by the more memorable Coffy (released a month before), Cleopatra Jones is still a huge amount of fun. Both films center on the war against drugs, and whereas Pam Grier played a night nurse on a quest for vengeance, Tamara Dobson here plays a government agent who works closely with the police. The film opens with the spectacular bombing of a poppy field in Turkey on Jones's orders. This results in immensely cheesing off a drug queen called 'Mommy'.

I'm certain that this 'Mommy' character (played by Shelley Winters) inspired the 'Mom' villain in Futurama with her three idiotic sons whom she verbally and physically abuses throughout the movie. Only this Mommy has a rather lesbian penchant for the young ladies under her employ.

Ordering a police bust on an African-American anti-drug centre, Mommy rouses the ire of Cleopatra Jones who launches an all out crusade against Mommy's empire. Things are further complicated by the resignation of one of Mommy's crew, Doodlebug (Antonio Fargas) who wishes to set up his own little crime empire.

There's a lot going on in the film as the kung-fu kicking mama tries to clear her friends' names whilst attempting to frame the crooked cop who is on Mommy's payroll at the same time as evading the various hitmen the crime boss sets on her trail. Also, there's a girl who needs saving - the girlfriend of Doodlebug whose life is forfeit after her hubby is gunned down by Mommy's goons. But with all this happening, the film never gets convoluted and the action doesn't let up for a second. Cleo's car is a beautiful souped up Corvette with a small armoury stashed in the door panels a la James Bond. And the car chase midway through the film is spectacular.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Movie Review: Black Caesar (1973)

A little while ago I was on a Blaxploitation kick and was watching as many movies in the genre as I could get my hands on. As well as the classics like Shaft (1971) and Coffy (1973), I was pleasantly surprised by Black Caesar, a rise and fall type story which we've seen since in stuff like Scarface (1983) and American Gangster (2007), a film which has much in common with Black Caesar.

The film centers on Tommy Gibbs, a tough shoeshine kid in 1950s Harlem. After a savage beating from a nasty Irish cop (which leaves him with a permanent limp), Gibbs disappears for a few years and returns in the shape of Fred Williamson. Gunning for the mob, Gibbs soon has his own territory and is on the up, surrounding himself with a posse of hoodlums and running Harlem with the old tools of fear and respect.

Such a story could easily be a generic shoot em up style film, but Black Caesar has enough heart and message in it to make it more than worthwhile. The main morale in the film (as in Scarface) is of course that money isn't the answer to all problems. This is highlighted in a particularly poignant scene between Gibbs and his mother who has worked as a maid for rich white folks all her life. When Gibbs is finally wealthy enough to buy her the very apartment she has spent so many years cleaning and gives it to her to live in, she is far from happy, claiming that she 'wouldn't know how'.

The film also has a great sense of irony. As with most gangsters, Gibbs loses all sight of what's important in his quest for money and power and at the film's conclusion he is back exactly where he started (he is robbed and beaten to death in the derelict remains of his childhood home by a gang of young urchins none too different from what he once was).

James Brown's soundtrack is also excellent with classic songs of the genre 'Down and Out in New York City' and 'The Boss'.