Monster of the week

Don’t know about you, but I know what I’m thinking.

I’ve been spending some time recently watching crime shows and in the last month alone I’ve noticed a recurring theme: that of the pedophile sex ring operated by a bunch of rich, well-connected types.

It first came up in Series 3 of Prime Suspect (1993), which had DCI Tennison investigating the death of a teenage “rent boy.” As the case progresses it turns out that there is a posh sex club that is trafficking in kids but which is protected from investigation because some of the members have powerful connections. Indeed, even high-ranking police seem to be involved.

Next up was “Sidetracked,” the first episode of the first season of the BBC’s Wallander, which aired in 2008 (the novel it was based on came out in 1995). Again there is a sex ring involving the abuse of underage girls, with the police involved in a cover-up.

Finally I watched the first season of True Detective (2014). Once again our heroes are investigating a bunch of murders that seem to point to some kind of ritual sex cult involving wealthy, powerful people (politicians, police, the usual suspects). I’d say more about the exact nature of this cult but very little is explained. It’s an interesting show in some ways, but calling the writing lazy would be to give it too much credit.

Obviously the pedophile sex ring has fully entered the bloodstream of pop culture, becoming a nightmarish part of our collective mythology. As I recall (and my memory here is hazy) such sex rings also pop up in the the Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002) of David Peace and the Lisbeth Salander novels of Stieg Larsson (2005-2007). Both of which were made into series of movies and both of which follow the same script: a club of rich predators who operate above the law, brought down by courageous investigators.

What basis do such stories have in reality? I can only think of the Marc Dutroux case, which was much publicized but only went to trial in 2004. It was also so complex I’m not sure if anyone has figured out what was going on, though the controversy over its handling, which continues to this day, means that it has only grown in the imagination.

It’s hard not to think that the pedophile sex ring involving corrupt police and politicians allied with secretive billionaires is mostly an urban myth and conspiracy theory. One of its more recent manifestations had a child sex-slavery ring being run out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlour (it became known as Pizzagate). Hillary Clinton was said to be involved.

Obviously sex trafficking is real. And it’s also true that such trafficking can involve victims who are under the age of consent. Rich people do pay a lot of money to indulge abusive behaviour. Hence sex tourism, or child prostitution more generally. These are, however, solitary crimes. I find it curious then that pop culture is so obsessed with these rings when it’s not clear to what extent anything like what we see on TV has ever existed. There’s the Jeffrey Epstein story, involving lots of big money and politicians and maybe even corrupt law enforcement agencies, but as far as I know the young women in that case weren’t being kidnapped and murdered.

Why then did the pedophile sex ring become such a popular topos? Is it just a way of feeding a generally held belief that rich and powerful men are almost certainly up to no good? That the 0.1%, with their flunkies and enablers in government, are preying on the poor in the most horrible ways imaginable? The monsters we read about in bestselling novels and hit TV series exist to meet a demand.


I’ll bet he wouldn’t hurt a fly.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been revisiting the extended family — I think that’s a good word — of Psycho movies: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, Brian De Palma’s homage Dressed to Kill (1980), the three more direct lineal descendants Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986) and Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990), Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake, and the 2012 biopic Hitchcock which takes as its subject the filming of the original.

Watched chronologically, these movies go, without exception, downhill. I’d certainly avoid the last two titles. The sequels were actually better than most people were expecting at the time, and though Dressed to Kill has dated badly in several obvious ways it’s still worth a look.

Spare time

H. G. Wells is usually credited with having invented the time-travel story in the 1895 classic The Time Machine. In his book Time Travel James Gleick does a good job putting Wells’s invention in context, though I still wonder why such a rich idea lay mostly unexplored until the twentieth century. Clearly we weren’t waiting for science to catch up to our imaginings, because it still hasn’t (and likely never will).

The novel has been freely adapted on film at least twice, by George Pal in 1960 and again, less successfully, in 2002. I would definitely recommend the Pal version, but if you really want a treat you should look for Time After Time, which has Malcolm McDowell playing H. G. Wells zapping forward to 1970s America in a hunt for Jack the Ripper. It’s a movie that’s not very well known these days but it’s very good.

First as scandal, then as farce

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of movies on American politics: Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush biopic W. (2008); a fictional account of a Democratic primary that gets nasty, The Ides of March (2011); a couple of movies looking at historical political scandals: Chappaquiddick (2017) and The Front Runner (2018); and finally a biopic of Dick Cheney, Vice (2018)

What struck me watching these movies, as I think it would anyone, is how their catalogues of scandal, crime, and cynicism pale beside any ordinary week’s worth of news out of the Trump White House. What sorts of movies are we going to see made about the current administration? I think we’re past the point of parody now.

GOM syndrome

When I recently finished my rundown of Batman movies I had occasion to comment on how Joker (2019) wasn’t so much a comic-book movie as an attempt to remake Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1982), a movie nearly forty years its senior. Despite being so much older, however, I said I found The King of Comedy to be far smarter, fresher, more observant, and original than Joker. This left me to wonder if such a response was the result of my now being a grumpy old man, stuck complaining about how they “don’t make ’em like they used to.”

As further evidence of my GOM syndrome I went on to mention how I thought Gone Girl (2014), another big hit and favoured “water-cooler” movie that tapped into a cultural moment, was inferior, as a movie, to such schlocky genre entries in the psycho-girlfriend canon as Play Misty for Me (1971) and Fatal Attraction (1987).

What made this stick out for me was the fact that I wasn’t picking on tired, junky retreads. Both Joker and Gone Girl were huge box-office hits. Joker won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and led the field at the 2019 Academy Awards with 11 nominations (Joaquin Phoenix winning for Best Actor). Gone Girl received good reviews, made many critics’ top-10 lists, and was also nominated for numerous awards.

But there’s more grumpiness. Around the same time as this I was watching the British-Irish police drama The Fall, which ran for three seasons starting in 2013 and stars Gillian Anderson as a detective tracking a serial killer (Jamie Dornan). I’d heard nothing but good things about The Fall, which isn’t surprising given that it has a rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and received “universal acclaim” according to the survey of reviews on Metacritic. But while I like Anderson and thought the show had a few good moments, I came away from The Fall thinking the story took some silly turns and played up its feminist credentials in a way that was really heavy-handed. I also wondered at how Jamie Dornan got such freakisly large calves, but that’s beside the point.

Watching The Fall made me want to go back and watch Prime Suspect, the police procedural starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison. The first series of Prime Suspect, which aired in 1991, had Tennison trying to break through the glass ceiling in a decidedly sexist (I think even by the standards of the time) workplace while chasing after a serial killer. And again the experience I had was of what a falling off there has been. Prime Suspect, dealing with a very similar story, is much better in every department than The Fall, and is far stronger stuff for being more honest and direct in its treatment of difficult subject matter.

So, what was going on here? Is this all just further proof that the film and television business has run out of new ideas and can only try to remake better films and TV shows from twenty, thirty, or even forty years ago? I think that’s part of it, but it doesn’t explain why these remakes are so inferior to their precursors. In most cases they are more expensive and better produced. Technically they’re very well turned out. But Joker, Gone Girl, and The Fall just aren’t very interesting, at least to me. I’ve seen this stuff done before, and done better. Which is as good a definition of Grumpy Old Man syndrome as any. I guess it’s all part of the aging process.


Always on call. For a sequel.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching a bunch of movies relating to Batman. I say “relating to Batman” because the first and last movie I watched don’t have Batman in them. But the first was only a cheap joke trying to cash in on the popularity of the Batman TV series and Joker just underlines how the villains Batman faces are usually a lot more interesting than Batman himself. I didn’t include Halle Berry’s Catwoman (2004) but it would have been another example of the same phenomenon (the Batman movie minus Batman).

There hasn’t been a great Batman movie, and there have been quite a few very bad ones. For some reason he’s been hard to get right.

The Wild World of Batwoman (1966)
Batman: The Movie (1966)
Batman (1989)
Batman Returns (1992)
Batman Forever (1995)
Batman & Robin (1997)
Batman Begins (2005)
The Dark Knight (2008)
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
Joker (2019)


Yes, it’s Friday. But can you guess which Friday the 13th?

Over at Alex on Film I’ve just finished up reviewing the Friday the 13th canon. I didn’t rewatch these movies all at once. Don’t think I could have taken it.

Fans like to rank these movies but looking back on them I don’t see how that’s possible. I guess the first one isn’t that bad. Betsy Palmer’s turn as Mrs. Voorhees is the (lone) series highlight for me. Some of the later entries had their moments, and they did try to change things up a bit as things went along, but still there’s not a lot here. And the 2009 reboot may have been the worst of them all.

Friday the 13th (1980)
Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981)
Friday the 13th Part III ((1982)
Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985)
Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)
Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988)
Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989)
Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993)
Jason X (2001)
Friday the 13th (2009)

End times

Looking a lot like my hometown.

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching various movies about what’s known as TEOTWAWKI or The End of the World As We Know It. It seemed like a good time.

Most such movies have a common ancestor in Richard Matheson’s novella I Am Legend, though there are earlier literary precedents. It’s just that Matheson’s story tapped into what would become the dominant apocalyptic paradigm: not just the last man on earth scenario, but the war of that last man against all that remains. Hence the zombie apocalypse.

Matheson’s novel was first filmed in 1964 as The Last Man on Earth, and most recently in 2007 under its original title, but its most famous adaptation was 1971’s The Omega Man (not coincidentally, given the genre, these were all star vehicles, with Vincent Price, Will Smith, and Charlton Heston as the last men on earth). Unfortunately, watching The Omega Man again for the first time in years I found it fell short of how I remembered it. It’s really not much of a movie.

The Road (2009) is a more general vision of the end of days, with lots of faux-Biblical mutterings and a muddier more realistic look. I didn’t like it at all. But then I didn’t care for McCarthy’s novel much either.

Red Spring (2017) replaces zombies with vampires, which is actually more of a return to Matheson’s story. It’s hamstrung by a low budget. The Night Eats the World (2018) brings back the zombies and takes us to Paris, which was at least a nice change of scenery. I Think We’re Alone Now (2018) goes in a slightly different direction, being one of the few such stories to posit a last man on earth who is happy in that role. Until others come calling. Though not a great movie, it’s the most interesting of this bunch.

Impossible missions

Don’t let go of that plane, Tom!

Over at Alex on Film I’ve been watching the Mission: Impossible films, with Tom Cruise as super-agent Ethan Hunt. This is considered to be a rarity among movie franchises in that most people think the series got progressively better. I’m not so sure. The later offerings (and the series is still ongoing) have been slicker productions and more expensive but they’ve also been more generic. They have nevertheless, always been entertaining in a Hollywood blockbuster sort of way. Here’s the line-up:

Mission: Impossible (1996)
Mission: Impossible II (2000)
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

Falling down, falling down

Does the name Mike Banning ring a bell? You’d be forgiven for finding it the generic and forgettable name of a Hollywood action hero, which is the Mike Banning I’m thinking of. He’s the presidential bodyguard played by Gerard Butler in the trilogy Olympus Has Fallen (2013), London Has Fallen (2016), and Angel Has Fallen (2019). There are plans for more but I think I’ve had enough. Already I have trouble telling them apart. The perfectly generic and forgettable vehicles for a Mike Banning.