Year In Review: The best movies, new and old, I saw in 2022

January 15 or so is officially the cut-off point for posting “year in review” stuff, isn’t it? After that, it gets a little embarrassing, I reckon.

So, in just under the wire is a look at my ten favourite movies I’ve seen in 2022 (keeping in mind I haven’t gotten around to some of the big Oscar contenders like Tár, The Woman King and The Fablemans yet), plus, in the spirit of my occasional Movies I Have Never Seen feature, the ten best movies from any time that I finally got around to seeing in 2022. And… action! 

Best 10 Movies of 2022 (alphabetical order)

The Banshees of Inisherin – A friendship breaks down on a small Irish island and Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson and Kerry Condon deliver astounding performances in a bitterly funny, gorgeously filmed Irish fable of love and grotesque revenge.  

The BatmanAnother superhero movie, but the first one that actually makes Batman a detective, with Robert Pattinson’s none-more-goth Bruce Wayne balancing on the knife’s edge between being too much and not enough. I’d love to see one superhero flick that doesn’t end with an explosive CGI orgy, but this one hits the mark far more than it misses. 

Everything Everywhere All At Once – Michelle Yeoh is the Queen in any universe, and we should all bow down before her. 

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – It’s bigger, broader and less restrained than its predecessor, but Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc remains a joy and Edward Norton as Elon Musk is bloody hilarious.

The Menu – A pitch-black satire about a night in the restaurant from hell, blunt and gaudy and yet right on trend at mocking this weird non-stop viral world we live in. 

Mister Organ – The overwhelming theme of this year’s best films seems to be the abuse of power, but this spiralling rabbit-hole of a documentary by NZ’s David Farrier makes it all feel far more personal, creepy and violating by focusing on one very unpleasant man’s doings.   

Nope – Jordan Peele’s movies are consistently surprising and exquisitely staged, and the simmering unease created by this sort-of alien invasion story sticks with me. Like Get Out and Us, the more you think about it the more you see going on behind the immediate story beats. 

Guillermo Del Toro’s Pinocchio A better fairy tale you won’t see all year, unafraid of exploring loss and death but also hilariously funny, and with stunning old-school stop motion animation. Far better than any of Disney’s rather dire “live action remakes” of their classic cartoons. 

RRR – The best action movie of the year is this frenetic Indian epic, with a sense of joyful fun and dazzling scope and anything-can-happen energy that seems missing from most carefully machined Hollywood product.

Weird: The Weird Al Yankovic Story – I saw UHF in the theatre in 1989 and finally, decades on, we get the next best thing to a sequel, with an uncanny Daniel Radcliffe taking us on a wild ride through Weird Al’s life, perhaps with a few exaggerations. A joyfully silly gift of a film for Weird Al fans and anyone tired of bloated self-serious biopics.

Tied up around #11: Black Panther Wakanda Forever; Clerks III; Decision To Leave; Elvis; The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent; Triangle of Sadness; The Northman; Fire Of Love; Top Gun: Maverick; Prey.

The 10 best movies I finally saw for the first time in 2022 (in chronological order)

Wages of Fear (1953) – An all-time tense thriller about angry, restless men willing to take on an impossible job just to survive. 

Johnny Cool (1963) – I watched this pitch-black slice of noir in memory of the late Henry Silva, and he stars with an all-star oddball cast (Sammy Davis Jr! Jim Backus! Bewitched’s Elizabeth Montgomery!) in a gangster tale that’s far darker and sleazier than its Rat Pack-era trappings would have you believe. 

Playtime (1967) – I’ve been getting into Jacques Tati a lot this year, and his comedy is like an intricate whimsy machine – immaculately staged, formal and gentle, yet always with something unforgettably spot-on to say about us crazy human beings. 

El Topo (1970) – A surrealist western that is a relic of the hippie era but also a passageway into a dreamlike, horrible world of quasi-heroic quests that never truly end. 

Blue Collar (1978) – Harvey Keitel and Richard Pryor as down-and-out autoworkers who embark on the most inept robbery ever, and a portrait of a bruised and struggling American dream. 

The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) – Music as madness, music as escape, music as addiction, and one of the best music documentaries I’ve ever seen

Smash Palace (1981) – A gripping and raw New Zealand drama starring the late, great Bruno Lawrence as a desperate man making all of the wrong decisions to fix his messed-up life.  

Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986) – Objectively, not a good movie, I know, I know. But yet, I finally got around to watching most of the schlocky, silly series last year, and this one – slasher horror polished to a machine-like gleam – is the giddily exploitive and slightly self-mocking peak of the lot. 

Hereditary (2018) – Finally got around to Ari Aster’s terrifying horror movie about family trauma and it’s just as disturbing as I dreaded it might be. I want to watch it again, but I also kind of never want to watch it again. 

The Worst Person in the World (2021) – This Norwegian film starts as a self-aware ironic romantic comedy in the mode of Fleabag and becomes something more powerful and ultimately rather unforgettable.  

Why I’ll always be a Sylvester Stallone stan

The joke in 1982’s Airplane II: The Sequel flashes by briefly in a movie crammed full of them. There’s a scene early on with Sonny Bono in an airport terminal shop. In the background, you’ll get a brief glimpse of a movie poster – an aging bald man slumped in a poster advertising Rocky XXXVIII

At the time, Rocky III had just come out and the idea that Sylvester Stallone’s boxer would be punching away for years to come seemed hiiiiii-larious

That joke was made four decades ago, and there hasn’t been another Airplane movie since. But the butt of the joke, Sylvester Stallone, is still sneering and punching across the screens, in Rocky movies and more, with his latest project the enjoyably retro gangster TV series Tulsa King

It’s weird to say that one of the biggest movie stars of all time is underrated, but that’s how I’ve always felt about Stallone. Stallone has been a little bit of a joke in many circles. He’s easy to parody. Who hasn’t imitated a punch-drunk boxer yelling “Yo, Adrian” or Rambo’s monosyllabic grunts? 

But he’s also been a massive success, and despite how uncool it sometimes felt to admit, I can’t help but like the guy. 

I grew up as part of the Rocky III generation – the first of the franchise I ever saw and the one where it exploded into true ’80s excess. I got the wits scared out of me by Mr. T’s Clubber Lang, felt sad for Mickey, and pumped my pubescent fists along with Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger,” which 40 years on I still listen to whenever I want a jolt of pop-tastic rock anthem inspiration. 

I’ve always been more of a Rocky man than a Rambo man – while in the right mood I dig the heaving gung-ho machismo of John Rambo, his movies always felt a little more tangled up in right-wing politics and America-first jingoism. Few of Stallone’s movies are really subtle, of course. (The man did make an action movie about arm-wrestling called Over The Top, after all). 

Rocky, though, I’ll go to the grave defending, even Rocky IV, one of the most gloriously absurd ‘80s action movies. The series went from gritty uplifting realism with the first movie to steroid-pumped cheese and right back to some combination of the two with the excellent Creed sequels. Rocky, it turns out, contains multitudes. There’s a reason Airplane II made a joke about Rocky XXXVIII and not, say, Conan The Barbarian Part 33. Sometimes it seems he’d go on forever.

Of that ‘80s action hero pantheon of Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris and the like, Stallone is the only one who’s been nominated for Academy Awards.  His acting isn’t broad in scope, but darned if it isn’t effective when he works at it, such as his terrific performance in 1997’s Cop Land or the Oscar-nominated return of Rocky Balboa in Creed.

Looking back now at Rocky winning Best Picture over Network, Taxi Driver and All The Presidents’ Men in 1977, it perhaps wasn’t the most durable choice – I admit the other three are all objectively better movies – but still, I kind of love the underdog glory of Stallone winning Oscars for Rocky, a character who’d slowly move from realistic to cartoon and then back again. 

He’s also made a lot of terrible movies – Stallone’s worst movies are pretty darned bad, but often oddly fun to watch. The 1986 franchise non-starter Cobra (which originally began life as Beverly Hills Cop starring Stallone, of all things) is like a template for all the over-the-top bad-assery one things of when they think ‘80s action movies. A cascade of one-word thrillers starring Stallone dot the 1990s – Daylight, Cliffhanger, Assassins, The Specialist. They blur together, and many are dire, but then you get a gem like Demolition Man or the blunt, testosterone-filled throwback fun of the recent Expendables series. Still, whoever thought of casting Stallone as Judge Dredd is hopefully working at an IHOP today.  

Decades into his durable career, Stallone knows his strengths. In Tulsa King, his first TV series, the 76-year-old Italian stallion still dominates the screen, looking more and more like some kind of ancient Greek statue come back to life, or a still-hulking figure carved out of ancient oak. This antihero drama from the creators of Yellowstone is not groundbreaking television but it is a hell of a lot of fun watching Stallone’s take on a classic fish-out-of-water tale as an aging ex-con Mafioso from New York starts over again in Oklahoma.

There’s something curiously life-affirming about a senior citizen Stallone, beating the crap out of anyone who gives him lip, gurgling lines in a voice now so deep and craggy that it seems to emanate from the bottom of the sea.  

The joke was that Rocky 38 would feature a withered old Stallone gamely defending his title one more time, tapped out and pathetic. The reality is that in the end he’s just about the last man standing of those ‘80s action icons. Stallone at 76 could still kick my ass and most people I know, drop a cheesy one-liner about it and probably go another five rounds. Long live the Italian stallion. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #21: Revenge Of The Ninja (1983)

What is it: The greatest movie of all time* that I somehow never managed to see until now? Possibly! I don’t know how I’ve missed it because I’m a sucker for gloriously cheesy ninja action, but 1983’s Revenge of the Ninja is quite possibly the platonic ideal of what a ninja movie should be – an over-the-top mash-up of very loose takes on Japanese culture with Hollywood gloss, sloppy violence and masked men running amok. Ninjas had popped up in movies for years, including some classic Shaw Brothers kung-fu flicks, but it was in the eighties where they truly were everywhere. The 1980s, in my mind, were all about ninjas – in Chuck Norris movies, in gloriously bad rock musicals, in movies that combined Flashdance-style aerobics with ninja action, and of course in teenage turtles who were also ninjas. How inescapable was the ninja? My brother had a pair of nunchucks at one point and both of us managed to severely injure ourselves with them. 

Revenge of the Ninja is the middle part of what’s been dubbed the Ninja Trilogy by omnipresent ‘80s cheese film factory Cannon Films. I had seen its quasi-prequel and sequels, 1981’s Enter The Ninja (in which a white Italian spaghetti western star is cast as a master ninja) and 1985’s utterly amazingly kitschy Ninja III: The Domination years ago, but somehow I had never managed to see Revenge. (None of these movies actually have anything in common other than the same insane aesthetic and the casting of Japanese actor Sho Kosugi, who only really stars in Revenge of the Ninja.)

In Revenge, Sho is “Cho,” whose entire family except his infant son are killed about 30 seconds into the movie by ninjas. Foreswearing violence, Cho moves to America to start a new life by selling dolls (!). Unfortunately, he ends up unwittingly becoming partners with a heroin dealer (!!) who is also a master ninja (!!!). Things go downhill from there, but it ends with a kick-ass 10-minute ninja battle on top of a skyscraper, which, really, is all I’ve ever wanted out of cinema. 

Why I never saw it: Sheer, blind ignorance to one of the shining lights of the cinema art form, I guess. To be fair, my peak ninja phase was in 1984 or so, and pre-internet, if you missed a movie and it wasn’t showing on cable TV, you might just never see it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Honestly, if I were 13 years old and seeing this for the first time, I’d tell you it was the greatest movie ever made. But in somewhat settled middle age, I’ll still tell you it features everything I ever wanted in a ninja movie. 

Worth seeing? Man has created the pyramids, the Mona Lisa, the symphonies of Mozart. But there’s few cultural achievements that can equal a good ninja movie. Revenge of the Ninja features a small child getting a throwing star to the face in its first five minutes, to give you an idea what kind of movie we’re talking about. Revenge features constant bombastic martial arts battles – man versus ninjas, small child vs. ninjas, small child vs. woman, ninja vs. what appears to be a group of Village People cosplayers, ninja’s mother vs. ninja, ninja vs. ninja. It’s all given propulsive energy by director Sam Firstenberg, with just the right amount of overacting, preposterousness and violence. Ninjas throw smoke bombs, display inexplicable hypnotic powers, and unleash flamethrowers in mid-fight. What more does a man need out of life?

For 90 minutes, Revenge of the Ninja features copious revenge and ninjas. It does what it says on the can, and never pretends to be anything more. Frankly, this should replace Die Hard as everyone’s go-to Christmas movie. There aren’t any Christmas scenes, to be fair, but we all know Santa Claus probably uses ninjas instead of elves to get the job done, don’t we? 

* Note: This review may contain a few mild exaggerations.

Sight and Sound’s Greatest Films of All Time 2022: It’s all good to me

I love a pop-culture list. I don’t get annoyed at lists, because they’re a great way to discover new things. For a film nerd, the release of the once-a-decade Sight and Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll of critics and film buffs is a bit like an early Christmas.

I like the Sight and Sound poll because its ten-year gaps force us, in a culture that never stops speeding along, to slow down and take stock. Cinema is barely more than a century old after all, and this poll has always felt a bit more sturdy and authoritative than year-end magazine lists and listicles. That’s not to say it’s always “right,” but it’s always worth reading.

Would Hitchcock’s amazing Vertigo continue at the top as it was in 2012, or would Citizen Kane, which topped the poll for decades, return? The answer was neither. Fascinatingly, at the top position was a film I’ve only barely heard of, the 1975 Belgian film Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by director Chantal Akerman, which, fitting that lengthy title, is a 3-hour plus drama. Who saw that coming?

The poll seems to have taken a large leap forward this year rather than the more stagnant aura it once had – Kane topped it from 1962 to 2002, for instance. I’m sure certain corners of the internet are howling that Hitchcock and Welles were pipped by a woman, but I’m totally cool with it. I adore Hitchcock and Welles and as fun as these lists are, nothing has changed about that for me today. But I do get to (eventually) check out Jeanne Dielman, and hey, I might discover a movie I totally love in the process.

That’s the true beauty of lists like Sight and Sound for me. I grew up on Police Academy movies, but there’s so much more to cinema too. I was introduced to Yasujirō Ozu’s heartbreakingly good 1953 drama Tokyo Story because of its high placement on previous lists. I’ve discovered many more movies because of lists like this or the late great Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” features.

There’s some great progression from 2012 on the 2022 list, which features far more women and Black and minority creators than ever before. Some absolutely stellar more recent films have inched up – David Lynch’s masterpiece, 2001’s Mulholland Dr., is now in the top 10, the newest movie there, while very recent movies like Parasite, Get Out and Portrait of a Lady On Fire are included. Others are gone – Lawrence of Arabia and Chinatown dropped from the top 100, but that doesn’t make them any lesser in my own eyes.

Film ain’t a contest to me, and I don’t care if your list puts Jaws above Kubrick’s 2001 or you think Adventures in Babysitting is the best movie of all time. We love what we love, and in an increasingly vile and argumentative internet, that bears remembering.

Anyway, I’m happy to spend weeks poring over the list, which now includes at least 35 movies I’ve never seen. Film internet will be debating, arguing, praising and condemning the Sight and Sound list probably until the next one rolls around in 2032 (assuming we’re all still here). Me, I’ll be watching some movies.

Marvel’s 70s movies and TV comics: Licensed to thrill 

The older I get, the more weirdly specific my comics-collecting fetish gets, diving into strange corners and alleyways, like weird romance comics and the gut-wrenching final issues of series

Licensed comics based on existing properties are as old as the medium (believe it or not, kids, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis could once sustain long-running series) and I’ve always had a weird yen for Marvel Comics’ exuberant movie and TV comics franchises of the 1970s. 

Marvel has had a huge run of licensed comics that kicked off with the huge success of Conan the Barbarian although for many in my generation, their excellent Star Wars series was what hooked fans for a lifetime. (I’ve dabbled in the many, many Dark Horse and later Marvel Star Wars comics over the years, but for me, still, the only “real” Star Wars comics are the original 107-issue Marvel run.)

Beginning in the mid- to late 1970s, Marvel licensed comics were EVERYwhere – toy lines like Shogun Warriors and Micronauts and ROM, movies like Planet of the Apes and Battlestar Galactica and Godzilla

The licensed titles were often advertised in the pages of other comics I already read, and I usually hadn’t seen the source material they were based on, so things like the brief seven-issue run of Logan’s Run or the real-life stuntman The Human Fly always intrigued me. Who were these characters side-by-side with Thor and Iron Man? Why was there a comic about them?

The Marvel licensed comics of the 1970s were all over the map, quality-wise, but they also had a sense of freedom. ROM spun an entire epic cosmic war out of its cheap plastic toy inspiration, and Marvel’s Godzilla brought us the immortal image of Godzilla shrunk down to human-size and skulking around Manhattan in a trenchcoat. The licensed comics never felt like they had to be particularly faithful to their sources, so you got things like Star Wars’ immortal, somewhat controversial Jaxxon the rabbit that you can’t imagine Disney/Lucasfilm would ever permit today. 

There were a lot of strange creative chances taken by Marvel in the 1970s when it came to licensing comics – such as Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space Odyssey being very loosely adapted and expanded upon years after its release by Jack Kirby, (a bizarre combination that shouldn’t have worked but somehow did), or rock star Alice Cooper getting a horror-tinged one-shot comics tryout.

So anyway, this weird completism is why I ended up buying the entire brief seven-issue run of Man From Atlantis for cheap recently, because it’s one of the few ‘70s Marvel licensed series I’d never read. I don’t even LIKE the TV series, really, and honestly Marvel publishing what was always basically a bargain-bin version of their far cooler character Namor the Sub-Mariner seemed weird. But hey, the comic was written by Marvel’s go-to licensed comics guy, the underrated Bill Mantlo, and art by Frank Robbins, whose loose-limbed antic figures appeal to me more now than they once did. The comic is actually fairly fun underwater antics with a far higher budget than the TV series had – and more inventive than its source. 

Licensed comics are still very much about today – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the indefatigable Star Wars, Transformers, Star Trek, GI Joe, Conan and much more carry on telling stories that go far beyond the source material, yet when I pick them up they always seem a bit constrained, somehow. Maybe the big difference is that when those Star Wars and Godzilla comics were on the stands 40 or so years ago, you couldn’t just hop online and watch a Star Wars movie. You had hazy memories of cinema visits, and the tie-in comics provided a valuable map back into the entertainment you dug. Licensed comics allowed you to return to these worlds, again and again, when it wasn’t quite so easy to do so. 

These days, with so much of everything everywhere all the time, a licensed comic seems somewhat less unique than it once did, and more just a part of the flood of content washing over us all. Hey, but that’s cool – I’ve still got quite a few issues of Micronauts to track down. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #20: El Topo (1970)

What is it: The first “midnight movie,” the surrealist “acid western”, “the weirdest western ever made.” Director Alejandro Jodorowsky’s  extreme cult hit El Topo was a groundbreaking, aggressive statement that helped to change cinema, taking western movie tropes and turning them into a bizarre, questing meditation on morality and enlightenment. Populated with grotesque images and moments of startling beauty, it’s soaked in blood, disorienting with its casting of real-life disabled or maimed performers, and the kind of movie all the film cognoscenti say that you really must see at least once. So, finally, I saw it once. 

Why I never saw it: For a movie that’s legendarily strange, El Topo has had a difficult path to actually being easy to see. It got tangled up in legal wrangling and was only released on DVD in 2007. The first of Jodorowsky’s films I’ve dipped into, El Topo is often called Jodorowsky’s ‘most accessible’ movie. I’m a fan of weird, but weird is very much in the eye of the beholder, ain’t it? (I still recall a date who I took to the Michael Bay movie The Rock talking about how strange and weird it was afterwards. Reader, we did not date again.) I love my Lynch and Cronenberg but am fully aware I’m a mere babe in the wild, vast woods of weird cinema, and have to admit I wasn’t quite sure what to expect with El Topo.

Does it measure up to its rep? The big question for every viewer of El Topo is whether or not it’s just a procession of cruelty with no deeper meaning. When the subject is nothing but “people are terrible,” it gets old, fast. El Topo starts off feeling a bit like a particularly dark spin on the whole “lone gunman wreaks vengeance” plot, following the man in black and his inexplicably naked young son (Jodorowsky himself plays the gunman) as they discovered a gutted village filled with dead people, track down the corrupt bandits responsible and execute them. The gunman then abandons his son for a rescued hostage and ends up on a surreal quest through the desert to kill four gunmen legends and become “the best there is,” a quest that gets increasingly stranger. In the end, the gunman disappears and is reborn years later in a cave, bleached white and now a mystical holy man who can’t quite escape his violent past.

While it’s hefty with the DNA of John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Django and other western icons, to me it also shares an awful lot with books like the dark, biblically violent Cormac McCarthy novel Blood Meridian, which also sees the west as a seething quagmire of man’s worst instincts, or of Robert Bolaño’s epic 2666, which turns an unflinching catalogue of murders into something stranger and deeper. If anything, I have to admit that El Topo wasn’t quite as weird as I imagined it might be, especially in its more grounded first half. Where it sticks, however, is the insinuating ugly beauty of its vision, where Jodorowsky stages violence with an icy calm eye as men, women and even children are gunned down, and in the end, we’re not certain if he’s saying life is worth nothing – or worth everything. There’s precious little hope in its final moments, suggesting an endless circle of violence and thwarted redemption.

Worth seeing? On one level, El Topo probably doesn’t seem quite as groundbreaking as it might have 52 years ago. We’ve had plenty of deconstructionist westerns: Clint himself in Unforgiven, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man and much more, and plenty of weird, brutal cinema. Yet despite its more grotesque flourishes, El Topo is still a singular, fierce vision. His use of real-life amputees and dwarves is confronting, as is the brief animal deaths and sexual violence. Jodorowsky claimed back in the ‘70s that he really raped his actress co-star in one vivid, violent sequence, although he’s since walked that back as a big-mouthed publicity stunt. Either way, El Topo is still a triggering film, but it has value as some kind of warped mirror on society. Seen 50 years on, yes, El Topo does seem madly self-indulgent, frequently sadistic and exploitative. Yet it’s also hard to stop thinking about some of its imagery. I’m a sucker for the vision of a man in black, riding across the desert, on his way to who knows where, but knowing there’ll always be blood in the end.

Yes, they suck: My top 13 movie vampires

It’s the spooky season, and Halloween is nearly upon us! What better way to celebrate than lining up a handful of horror movies – since I outgrew trick-or-treat, my favourite way to mark the holiday.

Vampires are a Halloween mainstay, and for my Halloween post, here’s my Top 13 Movie Vampires (many more could have made the list, but I decided to stop with the spooky 13).

Where it all began 

Nosferatu (Max Schreck) Nosferatu, 1922: One hundred years old this year, the first major screen vampire in this not-quite adaptation of Dracula is still horrifying. Apparently some people even thought Schreck was a real vampire! The movie is brisk and terrifying even after a century, and features several shots that are among the greatest in horror history. Sure, you could argue this Nosferatu doesn’t really have a character, but who cares when he’s this scary?

Dracula (Bela Lugosi), Dracula, 1931: The ultimate interpretation of Dracula, so iconic that Lugosi spent the rest of his life both chasing and running away from it. It’s hard to look at a role like this that’s passed into legend with fresh eyes, but watch it again sometime and see how Lugosi sinks his teeth (sorry) into his sexy, strange vampire. Everyone from Anne Rice to Twilight owes him a debt.

Dracula (Christopher Lee) Lots of Dracula movies, 1958-1973: The thing about Christopher Lee is he looked great as Dracula in a whole series of Hammer Films vampire flicks even when the movies themselves were rather sloppy and stilted and had titles like Taste The Blood of Dracula. They even made the mistake of having Lee – one of the best horror voices of all time – nearly mute in several of the movies and his character and competence seemed to change from film to film. None of that really matters, because besides Lugosi, Lee is the finest dark prince ever to play the role. 

Regal vampires

Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden) Dracula’s Daughter, 1936: It seems weird in these days of never-ending franchises, but Lugosi did not return for a proper Dracula sequel. Instead, this ‘sidequel’ introduces his supposed daughter, the gloriously goth Holden. It’s one of the many bashed-out Universal Horror cheapies that barely run over an hour, but Holden’s sultry Zaleska is a striking, strong and modern creation – witness the barely concealed lesbian subtext in one famous scene.

Lestat (Tom Cruise) Interview With A Vampire, 1994: Man, there was an outrage back in the day about Tom Cruise playing Anne Rice’s bratty vampire, but every time I watch this, he seems a little bit better – preening and smug, he blows a sleepy Brad Pitt off the screen. I still haven’t seen the new TV reboot yet, but for my money this flick captures the lush absurdity of Rice’s prose very well. 

Blacula (William Marshall) Blacula, Scream, Blacula Scream!, 1972-73: William Marshall was better than the material in the Blacula movies, which are a silly blaxploitation hoot with few moments of real terror. But boy, did Marshall act the heck out of Blacula, giving a wounded dignity and majesty to his cursed African prince that lifts the movies themselves. His grand booming voice alone ensures a place on this list. 

Totally ‘80s Vampires

David (Kiefer Sutherland), The Lost Boys, 1987: Come on, who didn’t want to be a Lost Boy after watching the hooligan vampire gang led by Sutherland’s David storming around Santa Cruz, where weightlifting saxophonists wail away the night? Flashier, sexier vampires became a big thing in the ‘80s, and the hair-sprayed, sultry crew led by David were among the vanguard. 

Jerry Dandridge (Christopher Sarandon), Fright Night, 1985: As this list shows, the ‘80s were a terrific time for vampire reinventions. Here’s the yuppie vampire, smooth scarf-wearing Jerry Dandridge, played with memorable charm and snark by Sarandon. The meddling teenager next door is sure Dandridge is a vampire – needless to say, the kids are always right. 

Severen (Bill Paxton) Near Dark, 1987: The white trash dark reflection of that same year’s Lost Boys, Kathryn Bigelow’s vampire western is a magnificently tense and gorgeously filmed story of a band of roaming vampires and the young cowboy who falls in with them, but the whole dang movie is nearly stolen by the late great Bill Paxton’s swaggering, sleazy Severen, a member of the vamp gang who honestly does not give a damn and storms through every situation like a pure creature of the id. He’s terrifying, and hilarious.

Darned weird vampires

‘Space girl’ (Mathilda May) Lifeforce, 1985: She’s a kind of space vampire, and she spends about 95% of her screen time utterly naked in Tobe Hooper’s bizarrely grandiose sci-fi/horror epic. It’s a trashy movie but it’s also so determined to be weird, from an overacting Patrick Stewart to its swirling, cosmic climax. It’s not a very coherent film, but May’s stoic, creepy otherness makes her nude dark creature fascinating.

Jiangshi, Mr. Vampire, 1985: Chinese vampires are weird. This insane Sammo Hung comedy horror introduced mass audiences to the Chinese folklore “jiangshi,” hopping corpses who are somewhere between zombies, vampires and leapfrogs. The vampires in this movie are creepy because they’re so far from what Bela Lugosi made us think of, more animal-like than anything, and its success led to an explosion of wild, weird films.

Not quite vampires

Blade (Wesley Snipes) Blade, Blade II and Blade III, 1998-2004: Wesley Snipes’ attitude-filled vampire killer who’s also a reluctant vampire himself was the first Marvel comics character to actually star in a hit film, and the blood-splattered, over-the-top Blade series is still a heck of a lot of fun, combining action movie energy with gory horror. 

Peter Loew (Nicolas Cage) Vampire’s Kiss, 1989: Cage is well known for going over the top. In Vampire’s Kiss he not only goes over the top, he launches himself into outer space. In this unhinged, extremely black comedy, he’s a yuppie sleazebag who apparently is bitten by a vampire. Cage goes “full Cage” as his character gradually loses his mind, eating cockroaches and screaming through the streets of Manhattan. It’s hilarious, but it’s also one heck of a piece of method acting. You’ll never forget it. 

Honourable Mention: The vampires from What We Do In The Shadows; The Hunger; Let The Right One In; Nosferatu (Herzog remake); Only Lovers Left Alive; Count Yorga; Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

In defence of… The Incredible Hulk (2008)

Weirdly low-profile for a giant green monster, 2008’s The Incredible Hulk is the forgotten overshadowed superhero stepchild of the same movie summer that brought us Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. 

It’s flawed, for sure, and lacks the machine-tooled precision that the MCU movie-making machine has settled into. But when it works, The Incredible Hulk still feels to me like the best Hulk movie we’ve had to date. I think of all the Hulks we’ve seen on screen, it remains the closest to the “classic” Hulk – doomed scientist on the run from his curse, haunted and heroic. Ang Lee’s muddled 2003 film mixed intriguing ideas with a bizarre plot and felt like a Hulk in name only, and in a series of Avengers and Thor movies, Hulk has been more of a superheroic comic sidekick. 

Incredible Hulk opened mere weeks after Iron Man but these days is often lumped at the bottom of lists ranking the 30 or so Marvel movies. Still, nearly 15 years on, The Incredible Hulk is having a weird revival in the MCU – its villainous Abomination portrayed by Tim Roth has returned in the She-Hulk TV series, and the super-smart Hulk villain The Leader, whose heel turn by Tim Blake Nelson was only hinted at way back in 2008, is reportedly set to appear in the next Captain America movie.  Often dismissed in MCU fandom, there’s still a lot I like about Incredible Hulk.

Edward Norton’s tense, nervy turn as Bruce Banner owes a lot to Bill Bixby’s classic stressed-out Banner in the 70s Hulk TV show. The movie wisely skips over the Hulk’s origin in a quick few cuts and jumps to the status quo of Banner on the run from the government, hiding out in a colourful Brazil favela. The South American setting for the movie’s first act is already something a bit different, grittier than the typical superhero movie, and while there’s barely a Hulk to be seen for the first part of the movie, Norton’s haunted portrayal and the sense of impending doom carries the film well. 

We follow Banner from South America back to America, where he catches up with long-lost love Betty Ross (a great Liv Tyler) and the late William Hurt’s cruel and stern Thunderbolt Ross, as well as a tightly-wound soldier named Emil Blonsky (a coiled and ruthless Roth) who wants to take down the Hulk. When the Hulk does finally appear in broad daylight in a university campus battle, it’s suitably impressive. No, the Hulk doesn’t get a lot of screen time here, but when he does, he leaves his mark. The 2008 CGI is perhaps less smooth than modern motion-capture, but I like the somewhat ravaged, demonic look this Hulk has. 

Incredible Hulk captures the cat-and-mouse game that Banner played with his pursuers so often in the comics, reminding us that the Hulk at his core is a misunderstood monster, not a superhero (and really, not an Avenger despite the movies – in the original Avengers comics, he lasted to the second issue before quitting the group). 

Where Incredible Hulk goes off the rails is in a rushed and silly final act, where Roth’s Abomination becomes a CGI gumby and New York City ground zero in a battle that doesn’t feel like it has any of the stakes or tension of the preceding hour or so of the movie.

Director Louis Leterrier isn’t really A-list – movies like The Transporter or the terrible Clash of the Titans remake – yet the many deleted scenes on blu-ray show he and Norton were trying to make a different sort of movie than it turned into when it was shoehorned into a Marvel Cinematic Universe building block. Norton clashed a lot with Marvel and wasn’t invited back to play the Hulk again.

There are brief moments in Incredible Hulk that feel raw and adult compared to a lot of superhero flicks – Betty calming the enraged Hulk down when he’s frightened by a rainstorm; Bruce and Betty’s fleeting hotel room tryst, ruined when Banner realises, “I can’t get too excited,” or the keen glittering madness in Roth’s Blonsky, which has been erased for comic effect in She-Hulk.  

The Hulk has proven a remarkably protean character in the last few decades in the comics – after settling into the childlike “Hulk smash!” brute for most of the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the mid-1980s writers started experimenting with variations on the Hulk’s dual identity, pioneered by the great, tragically curtailed writer Bill Mantlo when he introduced a lengthy take on the “smart” Hulk – one with Bruce Banner’s intelligence – and perfected by Peter David in his iconic 12-year run on the character where he brought us the calculating Grey Hulk, a “merged” Professor Hulk and much more. Since then we’ve had Red Hulks and Immortal Hulks and Robot Hulks and Son Hulks and much more. There’s so many Hulks. 

Yet, I’m still a bit partial to the simple, crisp duality of the “Incredible” Hulk, a lumbering Frankenstein-ish monster who isn’t inherently evil but is treated that way, and a Bruce Banner whose life is ruined by trying to live with this unpredictable curse. 

To be fair, I like Mark Ruffalo and his charmingly dorky Banner, but too often his Hulk has never quite felt like more than a CGI strongman. His Banner seems annoyed by being the Hulk, not haunted like Norton. The “merged” Hulk introduced in Avengers: Endgame is more awkward and bumbling than the confident version introduced in Peter David’s comics. Endgame skipped past all the settling of the Hulk’s inner conflicts introduced in Infinity War, waving all that off in a time-jump. I simply feel there’s a little too much Ruffalo in the Hulk in his current MCU incarnation and not enough, well, Hulk. 

It’s a big “what if” whether Norton could’ve been good as a Hulk in an ever-expanding, ever-calculating Marvel Cinematic Universe. His portrayal is a bit too idiosyncratic, a bit too “real” to play well with others. But it’s still the screen Hulk I like the most. 

Getting lost in Jim Henson’s ‘Labyrinth’, 36 years on

I’m old enough to remember that Labyrinth was actually kind of a flop when it opened in theatres in 1986, but I recall that I still somehow managed to watch it three times there before it faded away. 

I don’t want to be that guy, but I was into Labyrinth before it was cool, man. 

Jim Henson’s film is a swirling strange dream of a movie, with a grandly absurd David Bowie as the Goblin King and young Jennifer Connelly as Sarah, a girl who accidentally loses her baby brother to the goblins’ realm and has to get him back. I loved it as a kid, and still adore it as an adult, but with a very different perspective on it all now. 

Watching Labyrinth over the weekend on the big screen at the glorious Hollywood Avondale for the first time in decades, it still seems to me a beautifully askew little fairy tale. All fairy tales are written by adults, and all fairy tales on some level are about the end of childhood. 

Several years ago, I watched Labyrinth for the first time in ages and it didn’t land as well – it felt a bit clumsy and halting on a small screen. I realise now that the big screen is a far better venue for Henson’s imagination, where you can appreciate the dazzling CGI-free puppet work and intricate set designs, where Bowie’s haughty sneer and Connelly’s unforced sincerity seem stronger, realer. The puppet characters are a quirky joy, especially the hulking Ludo and my favourite, the frantic Sir Didymus. 

It’s also all proudly weird, which I think is what appealed to me as a teenager – from distorted goblin designs to the cavern full of sentient hands to the creepy Fireys dancing with their separated body parts, it doesn’t feel very Disney-fied like so many young adult fantasies. Bowie takes a character that could be ridiculous (that wig!) and makes him charismatic – it’s hard to imagine possible alternative casting like Sting or Mick Jagger being quite so effective.

Bowie’s mournful songs and Trevor Jones’ score are all more adult and yearning than most kid-movie soundtracks, with Bowie’s “Within You” one of his most underrated, intense love songs. The sexual subtext of Sarah’s coming of age is right up in your face as an adult, because honestly, you don’t cast David Bowie and put him in rather tight leotards without expecting some kind of reaction, do you? 

At the time, Labyrinth was not a success. It barely opened in the box office top 10 in June 1986, beaten by the likes of Top Gun and Karate Kid (franchises that were of course, never heard from again). In Bowie’s career, it was considered part of the long post-Let’s Dance slump that included pre-grunge band Tin Machine and Never Let Me Down. (I disagree, of course, and Bowie’s firm willingness to reinvent himself makes this era stronger in hindsight.)

Yet somehow, Labyrinth endured. Part adult reverie, part teenage girl fantasy, part childhood toy-filled romp, Labyrinth still sits uncertainly next to the likes of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Sarah’s final rejection of the Goblin King still has power – “Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave,” he tells her. She knows better, and chooses her own path. The King’s somewhat twisted affections are rejected.

There’s been talk over the years of sequels, prequels or sidequels to Labyrinth. Frankly, I really do hope it never happens. We’ve a tendency to wring out that ‘80s intellectual property until it’s exhausted, and the intimate pre-digital charm of Labyrinth can only be diluted by shoving it through the unquenchable content machine.

There is more sadness in watching Labyrinth now than there was when I was a teenager, at the other end of the telescope – sadness that the campy, imperious Bowie is gone, that Jim Henson’s dream of puppets ended too young, that we all, in the end, grow up. But there’s also joy, in knowing you were there, once, and nothing can erase the memories of the labyrinth of getting from there to here. 

After 204 years, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein still haunts us

The thing about Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is it’s not the story you think it is.

Mary Shelley was only a teenager when she wrote the book that has led some to call her “the inventor of science fiction.” At the very least, she certainly helped create some foundations for it. However, if you’ve binged on old Boris Karloff movies and are expecting Frankenstein the novel to be the same animal, you’re likely to be a bit befuddled. 

The book has a rather average 3.8-star rating on GoodReads, with critics saying it’s “like watching paint dry” and “tedious.” Published in 1818, it does get off to a somewhat slow start, with a series of nesting first-person narratives from an Arctic ship captain, then Victor Frankenstein, and then finally the monster itself. There’s not a lot of what we jaded 2022 folk would call “action” and a lot of flowery romantic language.  

But once you abandon expectations of a silent Karloff-ian zombie lurking in the shadows and Colin Clive shrieking “It’s alive!”, Frankenstein is still a pretty remarkable book which I return to every few years. It turned 200 years old just a few years back, so keep in mind its voice is almost closer to the era of Shakespeare than it is 2022. It is a novel of ideas and debate, rather than straight horror, although god knows plenty of horrible things happen to Victor Frankenstein and his creation. 

The first time I “read” Frankenstein was in one of those adapted great works of literature children’s books, which stripped the story down to the essentials and ran some evocative illustrations to go with it. These days, my go-to version of Frankenstein is one with utterly gorgeous macabre drawings by the late, great Bernie Wrightson to go with Shelley’s text. More than some classic novels, I’ve always felt like Frankenstein cries out for a little art to complement the wordy text. 

Like Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it’s another classic horror book that is quite different in tone than its many adaptations. So much of our image of what “Frankenstein” is comes from James Whale’s 1931 film – which I utterly adore, don’t get me wrong. Even the idea that the monster itself is somehow actually called “Frankenstein” emerged from those old Universal films. (In the books, he refers to himself as Adam at least once.)

The bones of Shelley’s story still stick with me years later. When I first read it, I was obsessed by the image of Frankenstein chasing his monster across the Arctic wastes that frames Shelley’s story, the idea of monster and creator pursuing each other into the frozen wastelands throughout eternity. I love Shelley’s questing monologues for the Creature, who is the polar opposite of Karloff’s silent, mournful monster. The Creature is violently angry at the world that scorned him but also gorgeously descriptive about his cursed place in it: “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend.” 

One of the most notable things about reading Frankenstein the novel is how all the scientific explanations for the monster’s creation we are so used to don’t appear at all. There’s no Igor, no labs filled with lightning, only a hint of grave-robbing. Shelley is almost coy about how the monster came to be, dismissing the technical details within a sentence or two. She is more interested in the question of duality – are monsters made, or are they created by the world’s reaction to them? The spark her book lit has fuelled a thousand other interpretations and expansions of her dark tragedy. 

Hollywood has taken many, many swings at the Frankenstein story in the past century but never quite captures the book. Kenneth Branagh’s overwrought 1994 film has its moments of fidelity, but still piles on laboratories sparking and its campy excess misses the book’s haunted, spartan tone. 

But I’m happy with that. There’s many great Frankenstein movies out there, but the novel that birthed all these monsters is very much its own animal, two centuries old now and still filled with wonder and horror and mystery about the world around us.