Trilogy of Terror: Hot Fuzz (2007)

Like its predecessor Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz is a buddy comedy masquerading as a genre pastiche. But unlike Shaun of the Dead, it’s at times difficult to distinguish from the films that inspired it.

Whereas that earlier film built an entirely independent narrative about its characters that just happened to unfold alongside a zombie apocalypse — and whereas The World’s End built an entirely independent narrative about its characters that just happened to unfold alongside a body-snatcher invasion — Hot Fuzz is actually what it seems to be. Overall, it’s not a pastiche; it’s a film that has jokes in it, but otherwise fits snugly into one well-defined genre.

Which makes it feel like an outlier in the Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. It’s not a cop film that keeps encroaching on a smaller, more personal film; it’s a cop film. In fact, it’s a cop film that keeps getting encroached upon by a slasher film, a whodunit, and a film about a murderous cult.

Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End are both small, quiet films about characters coming to painful terms with who they are, told through the lenses of bombastic, apocalyptic tales that import familiar tropes and set pieces for our characters to trip over and butt up against.

But Hot Fuzz is a cop movie, through and through, and our characters don’t so much trip over and butt up against imported tropes so much as they incorporate them into their understanding of what’s going on. (They’re cops, after all. It’s what they do.)

All of which probably sounds like I’m coming down hard on Hot Fuzz, but I’m not. I’m a big fan of the trilogy, and, for my money, Hot Fuzz is the best of the batch.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Not my favorite, mind you. I won’t beat around the bush; that honor belongs to Shaun of the Dead, which I just find to be funnier and more charming overall. Hot Fuzz is the more accomplished work, and it hangs together more naturally than Shaun did, but I think those things come at the (relative) expense of the things I enjoyed most about Shaun.

With Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright made a great cop film. That’s an accomplishment, but with Shaun of the Dead he made a great film called Shaun of the Dead.

In that case, it was a movie in a league of its own, standing as a monument to its own accomplishments. In this case, Wright proved he could do what others have already done, and do it just as well.

Impressive, but that holds the film back from hitting the way that Shaun did. Its sights are set necessarily lower.

The World’s End, as long as we’re ranking, is easily my least favorite, so tune in for what’s sure to be a fair and balanced review next week.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

So, there, we’ve definitively and without room for argument ranked the films. Now we can actually start talking about this one.

Hot Fuzz again sees Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in the lead roles, and — wisely — they both play very different kinds of characters than they played in Shaun of the Dead. This allows the film to feel less like a follow-up and more like something that should be judged on its own merits (for better or for worse). That’s as it should be, because wherever you’d personally rank it in the trilogy, it’s an exceptional and rewarding film in itself.

Pegg is again our protagonist. Here he plays Nicholas Angel, a restlessly devoted police officer whose adherence to the letter of the law costs him his relationships, his friendships, and — as the film begins — his job in London.

The London scenes are the most outright parodic, which definitely gets the audience laughing and receptive, but there’s still some nice world building that occurs here, particularly as Angel’s superiors (played in succession by Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan, and Bill Nighy) are called in and dance around the issue a little less each time, resulting in Nighy coming right out and saying that Angel’s being transferred because he makes the rest of them look bad.

His new post is Sandford, Gloucestershire, a small village whose humble police force — to put it politely — Angel makes look even worse. Here he’s partnered with Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), a simple oaf who takes a fast shine to Angel’s professionalism and experience, and who becomes very quickly the only one Angel can rely on.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s a great setup, and Pegg and Frost inhabit their characters thoroughly. In spite of our memories of shlubby old Shaun, who needs the literal collapse of society to shock him out of his malaise, Pegg is completely believable as supercop Angel.

His youthful appearance might seem a bit out of place on box art and in stills, but in the film it serves only to heighten his talent and devotion to the job. He’s not a man who’s spent a full career becoming a great police officer; he was a born police officer, as we learn when he tells Danny about his police pedal car. This is his calling.

Which is also Angel’s problem.

In addition to the interference it causes with his personal life, Angel isn’t happy. He knows nothing of the world outside of policework, and can’t even say goodbye to his ex-girlfriend without slipping into investigation mode. (To be fair, they were at a crime scene at the time.) His life becomes painfully lonesome and empty the moment his shift ends, and when he’s on duty his talents go unappreciated, resulting in London shipping him off and Sandford tormenting and bullying him.

There’s only one thing he’s good at, and it’s something everybody resents him for.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Well, everybody apart from Danny, whose relationship with Angel isn’t just the centerpiece of the film, but its sincere, impressive emotional core. As great as Pegg is — and he is great — in this movie, it’s Frost’s Danny Butterman that stands out as the most impressive creation.

Shaun had more than a passing similarity with Pegg’s role in Spaced. They were both aimless slackers who had more ambition than they had motivation, and they were content, ultimately, to get older without necessarily growing up. Angel, obviously, is the exact opposite; he was born a grizzled professional, and couldn’t begin to imagine idle time. (Prior to meeting Danny, he ain’t even seen Bad Boys II!)

Frost’s character here, however, hearkens back to his character in Spaced: Mike Watt.

Both Mike and Danny are in some “lower” branch of service to their country (Mike in the Territorial Army, and Danny in a rural police district), but long to join the ranks of the big leagues (the real Army for Mike — who can’t enlist due to an injury — and the “proper action and shit” of big city police work for Danny).

And in each case, they’re disarmingly fragile, desperate for acceptance and respect.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Danny is far more than a re-painted Mike Watt, though, especially since Mike had friends. He’d still fall apart, but he had a group that needed him. He had a place. Danny does not. At least, not at first. And his growth over the course of the film — from ambling boob to hero who is willing to sacrifice himself — is easily the most significant growth experienced by any character in the trilogy. Danny’s arc is human, painful, hilarious, and adorable.

Danny growing from comic-relief-fat-guy to effective law officer would be enough, but what really gives it heft is the fact that it also tests his loyalty. He is, after all, the son of department head Frank Butterman…who clashes politely with Angel over his interpretation of a recent spate of deaths.

Angel feels they’re related homicides, but Frank reminds him that Sandford is a quiet town. Accidents happen. There’s no reason to jump to conclusions.

The rest of Sandford’s finest agree with Frank; they’ve worked here far longer than Angel, and haven’t seen any evidence that this is something to get worked up over.

Danny, however, listens to Angel. He helps him identify collections. He even spends his birthday combing through evidence with him (a more significant suggestion of Danny’s growth than it probably seems). And, ultimately, he sides with Angel over his father, culminating in what’s sure to be the most affecting homage to Point Break in film history.

Frank, it turns out, is the murderer. Kind of.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

The film takes its time getting around to the deaths, which works to its great favor. The overt parody of the early scenes give way to a fish-out-of-water (or big-cop-in-a-small-town) film in which Nicholas Angel must re-learn his role as a police officer in a context that doesn’t need — and is not receptive to — his heavy hand.

It leads to some great comedy, as you might imagine. His first night in Sandford sees him clearing a local pub of its underage patrons, leaving the owners to seethe at him while he enjoys a cranberry juice in their now empty establishment. It’s both funny and important to the way the plot develops.

While Angel adheres to the letter of the law, the pub owners appeal to the spirit. They argue that it’s better to have the kids in there, where they can be supervised, than out drinking on their own somewhere, causing trouble or getting hurt. In other words, they’re breaking the law, yes, but they’re doing it for the greater good. (The Greater Good.)

This is the conflict the film sets up; Angel’s unwavering respect for the law as written, and Sandford’s understanding of the law as a roadmap to a more pleasant society. Structurally speaking, Angel should end the film by learning to loosen up, and respecting the human element above legal mandates.

Instead, we learn that it’s not Angel who needs to loosen up at all; it’s the villagers, who dispose of or murder unsavory characters in order to preserve the respectable image of Sandford. The letter of the law is set up, initially, as the too-harsh avenue of interpretation, but the film shows us that it’s actually the other way around; respecting only the spirit of the law is what leads to atrocity.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s an exaggerated outcome, to be sure, but the fact that Hot Fuzz is a comedy means there’s no need to dismiss it as slippery-slope panicky nonsense, even if it does feature a bloodthirsty cadre that kills people for having annoying laughs or for thinking about moving away. Whatever larger points it’s making about the letter/spirit debate apply only to its own universe.

The killers in question are the Neighborhood Watch Alliance, operating under Frank Butterman. That’s the kind of reveal that requires a lot of misdirection, which Hot Fuzz manages to be both really good at, and frustratingly sloppy about.

I can sum up where it works in two words: Timothy Dalton. Admittedly there’s a lot of misdirection that the film handles well, but Dalton’s character is misdirection on legs, and he’s absolutely perfect at it.

He plays Simon Skinner, the owner of the local supermarket, and he introduces himself to Angel by saying he’s a slasher…of prices! From Angel’s very first day on duty, Skinner knowingly toys with him. He delights in it. He knows full well the oily, sneaky bastard that he is, and it’s an awareness that fills him with pride.

He loves being a shit.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

At first he’s likely just attempting to assert himself. He’s an important figure in the town, and he wants people to be so strongly aware of that that they cower from him.

In fact, we see that he has this exact effect on other characters in the film, in particular George Merchant and Tim Messenger, two of the NWA’s later victims. (The latter immediately deflates when Skinner enters the scene, and it’s such a perfect moment of acting for Adam Buxton, shifting from mindless, sunny reporter to beaten little brother in the blink of an eye.)

Skinner drives smugly by crime scenes, making sure Angel hears that he’s listening to music related to the crime. He drops knowledge he shouldn’t have. He winks and leaves Angel behind, knowing that he’s both piqued the young cop’s suspicions and also left him nothing to work with.

He plays a game during this section of the film — which drifts smoothly into legitimate slasher territory — and it’s a game he relishes.

Why? Because he knows he can’t lose.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Skinner sets himself up as the prime suspect, establishing himself in that role well before there’s even a death to investigate. And he does this for the purposes of misdirection. As long as Angel suspects him — and Skinner ensures that he does — the rest of the NWA is safe to carry out their business. And should Angel ever feel that he’s pulled enough evidence together to take Skinner in, as he does at one brilliantly handled point in the film, Skinner has his supermarket surveillance tapes to clear him of any wrongdoing.

He’s a decoy, and an incredible one. He’s involved with the killings, and indeed sets himself up to seem like the killer himself, which is ultimately what keeps him and the rest of the cult safe. The more he frustrates Angel, the less Angel has an idea of what’s really happening.

This misdirection comes to a head in the aforementioned arrest scene, which sees Angel laying out all of the evidence and connections he’s found, working carefully and deliberately through a complicated theory that positions Skinner as the one link between all of the victims, the single person who would benefit from their deaths, the only one in the entire village with the means, the motive, and the madness to pull it off.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

…only he didn’t do it.

Angel’s defeat is one felt by the audience, which makes it easy to miss the fact that Wright (and co-writer Pegg) spun not one but two satisfying mysteries out of the same set of clues and plot points.

The first is the false one that Angel outlines here. Every detail fits, and a shorter film could have ended with Skinner’s arrest without it seeming cheap. (That movie probably wouldn’t be as funny, though.) The only reason it doesn’t work is that the filmmakers say it doesn’t; information that is yet to be revealed will throw light from another angle over what we already know, and cause it to cast a very different shadow: Frank Butterman and the NWA are working together as a murderous team.

That’s impressive writing. Even the best mystery writers have difficulty making their own pieces fit together. Raymond Chandler was famously asked by the filmmakers adapting The Big Sleep who killed one of the novel’s characters. Chandler replied that he didn’t know.

So for Wright and Pegg to spin a mystery that doesn’t just add up but that adds up in two different ways…that’s a hell of an achievement.

But that’s also why Hot Fuzz is maddening. Two solutions requires two climaxes. Hot Fuzz has what feels like around 30.

It’s the kind of movie that ends again and again, but then keeps going. And while the first 2/3 of so of the film is tightly and intricately constructed, the final stretch feels loose and in need of editing.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It feels like Wright and Pegg wanted many things to happen in Hot Fuzz, and so spend their time building toward those things. That’s not a problem; in fact it’s impressive that — if this is true — the buildup was so masterful, and all the time spent sewing seeds was actually riveting and fun. But it does mean that their big set pieces toward the end don’t seem to have had as much thought put into them. Wright and Pegg worked hard to get us where we needed to go, but once we get there, there’s not much to see.

Of course, that’s an odd thing to say about a climactic shootout that spans the entire village and ends with Timothy Dalton piercing his jaw on a spike, but the problem is that there’s little else at play. It’s a shootout…and that’s almost all it is.

There are small touches (the villagers standing where Angel met them on his first morning; the fact that Angel uses creative non-lethal takedowns in every case), but we’re still just watching a shootout.

In Shaun of the Dead, we were never just watching a zombie movie, but Hot Fuzz definitely becomes an action film for a too-long stretch. And that’s disappointing, because this is a creative team that is fully capable of working on several levels at once. The slasher movie also being a cop movie is an example of how well they can handle tonal discrepancy, but here we slide right into action gear and…just kind of stay there.

It also doesn’t help that the film comes to a dead stop multiple times, with one character or another insisting that the action halt so they can deliver some kind of speech…only for the action to swell up again. In fact, three times Frank is the character who does this.

Hot Fuzz should be savvy enough to realize that this either needs to be undercut in some way, or rewritten entirely. Instead, it just lets it happen. Over, and over, and over again. An inventively shot and written film by an incredible team of talent suddenly, and disappointingly, decides that good enough is good enough.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

As a result, Hot Fuzz feels overlong, and it makes me pick at things I wouldn’t otherwise be very concerned with (such as the strangeness of the sea mine blowing up the entire precinct without hurting anyone inside). It also makes Danny’s sacrifice — taking a literal bullet for Angel — feel less potent than it should. As a mark of his growth, it’s great. As a potential tragic end to the film it’s quite moving. But as it stands it’s several endings too late and the audience is already restless. It still works, but it loses a good deal of its power.

Needless to say, Hot Fuzz isn’t much poorer for dragging its feet toward the end, and I admit that a sloppy landing does nothing to work against the mastery demonstrated by the rest of the film. It’s a great watch with a stellar soundtrack and an incredible cast, and, like Shaun of the Dead, it’s full of internal echo that you may not notice without multiple viewings.

It’s also got the strongest central relationship in the trilogy: that between Angel and Danny.

Evidently an earlier draft of the script had Angel falling in love with a woman in Sandford; when she was written out, many of her lines were given — unchanged — to Danny. This is likely why the scene of the two of them in Danny’s house seems to be building toward a kiss, but it’s also what gives their interactions such affecting power.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

Had Angel been saying these things and opening up this way to a woman, it would have been just another movie relationship. But as it’s Danny, the only human being who treats Angel like a friend, it’s sad, and pretty touching.

These are two people who have each built lives for themselves, but who desperately want to connect. And when they do, it’s something a lot like love.

You know what? To hell with that. It is love. Not sexual or romantic love, but it’s love all the same.

Hot Fuzz is a love story about two men who each find what they’re looking for in each other. The fact that the film at no point plays this for overt laughs is an achievement of restraint, and one I think we could all learn from.

It’s a joyfully gory mystery wrapped in a buddy cop film, with funny things to say about the genre’s conventions and impressive insight into how even a lifelong putz like Danny Butterman can find a place for himself in the world.

Hot Fuzz, 2007

It’s not as tightly constructed or surprising as Shaun of the Dead, but it’s impossible to overlook the many, many things that it does exactly right.

I can’t imagine many Shaun fans were disappointed by this one. If they were, I wonder what it was that they saw in Shaun.

It would be a long six years before we got our conclusion to the trilogy with The World’s End…an understandably divisive film that I look forward to discussing next week.

Well, I say I look forward to it. Let’s see how I actually feel when I write the damned thing.

Arts in Entertainment Author Spotlight: Catie Osborn

Catie Osborn

Over the next few days, we’ll be turning the spotlight over to the authors featured in the Arts in Entertainment series. This is your chance to meet them and get a sense of exactly why you’ll want to read their books. As of right now we are still south of 25% funding, but we can make it! Every dollar helps make a great series a reality, so please support the Kickstarter today to help it come to life. Here’s Catie Osborn to tell you about her book on Titus Andronicus, and to give you a taste of just how great a series this will be.

What made you decide to pitch to this project?

My life is complicated. I’m not famous, except in some small corners of the internet. My areas of passion and expertise are skills and trades that generally stopped existing 400 years ago. I’m going to grad school for Shakespeare and I have a blacksmith shop in my barn. I’m weird. But I am also extraordinarily lucky. I found the thing I love: Shakespeare.

The bummer about loving Shakespeare (and this may come as a shock to you), is that it turns out, most people think Shakespeare is awful.

I have learned this many, many times over. And it makes me sad. Somewhere along the line, people got told that Shakespeare is for Fancy People with Very Nice Monocles and that it’s hard to understand and that it’s boring.

I teach Shakespeare workshops all year long, and the most common complaint I get from people of all ages is that “this is boring and it’s a different language so how am I supposed to understand any of this?”

It is at that point that I usually bust out the first scene of Hamlet, which starts with the incredibly complicated Shakespearean text of “Who’s there?”, and after about an hour, people are usually at least someone convinced that this weirdo with blue hair and really large hand gestures isn’t at least completely wrong.

And so when the opportunity came along, I realized that this was my chance to make, perhaps, some sort of small blip in how Shakespeare is perceived.

Because I really do think Shakespeare is fantastically interesting and engaging — you just have to sort of learn it from someone that knows that. And I was exceptionally lucky in that not only did I first learn Shakespeare from a group of ridiculously enthusiastic people (more on that later), but I’m now in grad school with professors who are experts on teaching and researching Shakespeare, so I’m getting this weird sort of dual education in both how to be awesome at being excited about Shakespeare, but how to also not look like a total jackass whilst doing it.

Then I realized that to make this argument happen successfully, I had to tell the story of how it came to pass that I became such a Shakespeare nerd. Then it all spiraled out of control and I ended up with like 90 pages of….something and then I accidentally got a book deal and now here we are.

Also I figure now I can say that I’m the girl who wrote a book about Titus, which will ultimately lead me to my plan of world domination and authority in all matters pertinent to Titus.

How quickly did you decide on your subject?

12 parsecs. It took Phil Reed 18.

What was it about your subject that stood out to you?

There are shitloads of books about Shakespeare’s works, hundreds of biographies of him as an author and thousands upon thousands of articles about his plays — however, there are like two books that deal with Shakespeare as he relates to the author. And that’s the thing about Shakespeare. Yes, he was perhaps the greatest writer who ever lived, and yes, he was a really, really good poet, but none of that matters if his works didn’t make us feel something. You can’t write about Shakespeare without having a connection to Shakespeare, and that’s the part that most authors shy away from.

So I chose Titus Andronicus because it happens to be my favorite. It’s also, as I’ve said before, widely considered the shittiest one. Which is remarkably untrue if you’ve ever read Timon of Athens, but let’s be real, no one wants to read Timon of Athens. #shakespearejokes

However, Titus stands out to me more than some of the other (admittedly, better) plays because I think it is the one that so aptly illustrates the insane amount of both possibility inherent in the text and how god-awful Shakespeare can be. Fun Fact: Shakespeare is not always good. Sometimes, Shakespeare is really, really bad.

It is also is a great play for looking at Shakespeare. He’s very human in this play. He fucks up frequently in his writing and it’s kind of adorable. Characters mysteriously disappear, the comedy is awful, the main characters are obvious prototypes for later characters, but the structure is there. He’s starting the work of who he will ultimately become. It’s sort of like watching Howard the Duck and knowing that it will ultimately lead to The Avengers.

But, more than that, I wanted to talk about Shakespeare and Titus from my perspective. I’m in graduate school and I am currently writing my thesis (coincidentally) on Titus. I am totally capable of writing fancy-pants articles with impressive vernacular (and I would daresay that I enjoy writing them a great deal), but that doesn’t feel like the authentic me.

I’m really, really doofy. I once didn’t get hired for a job teaching Shakespeare because I was too excited. That’s a true story. So I wanted to make this book authentic. Because I honestly believe that you don’t have to know anything about Shakespeare to get excited about it, or even understand it. It’s not a foreign language, it’s not a mysterious code, it’s just….stories. Stories that still appeal and touch us (heh heh) today.

I’m not approaching this with the expectation that readers have any idea of what Titus is or what iambic pentameter is or why it’s important. Because it’s not about the scholarship, it’s about how Shakespeare shaped my life. And you don’t need to know rhetoric to hear that story.

What do you hope a reader will take away from your book?

In this book (Jesus Christ I’m writing a book), I’m going to narrow in on Titus because Titus is the constant Shakespearean presence in my life. If that’s even a thing. However, this book isn’t about Titus, necessarily. I’m determined to not make this a thesis. Because that’s not the thing that’s important to me.

I am from a medium-sized area of the midwest called the Quad Cities, which is a group of cities on the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Mississippi river. There are five cities that make up the quad cities because fuck your logic.

In the Quad Cities, there is a small theatre troupe called the Prenzie Players. They started as a group of friends who wanted to put on Shakespeare plays during the winter months, and being poor young adults at the time, they came up with the idea of using found spaces, simple staging and minimal costuming and tech. The focus, they decided would be on the text.

So they learned everything about it.

Their belief and mission statement is that “theatre is not a passive experience”. They talk to the audience, directly, often interacting with them, and use an ensemble directing style. They taught me to look, deeply, at the text– things like that the patterns in the text mattered, that things like repeating line endings meant something significant, and it was up to me to discover it

These are the people that taught me Shakespeare. The thing, though, is that these people aren’t Shakespearean scholars. They are parents and band teachers and yoga instructors and engineers and high school English teachers and microbiologists and waiters and bartenders. They are people who looked at a text and saw potential and explored it until they became accidental experts.

These are the people that taught me to love Shakespeare. Because before I learned that Shakespeare was fancy and scholarly and Very Important Literary Work, before I learned that Shakespeare is hard and you’re not supposed to understand it, I learned that Shakespeare was easy to understand; you just looked at the words.

I learned that Shakespeare is about creativity and passion and the stories his plays tell.

So I moved 900 miles away from the Quad Cities and moved to Virginia. Now I go to school and study Shakespeare in a program that works with the American Shakespeare Center where I study under world-famous Shakespearean scholars and interact with them on a daily basis.

And now I know that the rhetorical term for lines with the same ending is “anadiplosis”, and perform in a theatre where the actors speak directly to the audience and interact with them and have a season dedicated to an ensemble directing style.

And so when this pitch came along, I thought about how the best actor I have ever known is a microbiologist who makes swords in his garage. He isn’t a recognized Shakespearean scholar to anyone but a small company of 20 people in the midwest, but he is just as much scholar as any that I’ve studied with. His work, I think, is just as valid.

And that is the story I wanted to tell. Not an examination of Shakespeare from a fancy-pants scholar’s perspective, but from the perspective of someone who first learned Shakespeare from a group of people who learned their Shakespeare by picking up a copy of Measure for Measure and decided, “fuck it, let’s put on a play”.

That is the Shakespeare I want to write about. That is the Shakespeare I want the readers of this series to take away. Not the boring and impossible to understand Shakespeare that seems to be so commonly taught in our school system today. That Shakespeare is bullshit. This book is a love-letter introduction to the Shakespeare that I first met in 2007 when a community theatre Othello wearing jeans and combat boots looked me in the eye and asked me what I thought he should do.

Since then, I have (quite literally) dedicated my life to Shakespeare. Shakespeare changed the way I thought about the world. Regardless of how high-school emo kid that sounds, it’s true. the profound influence Shakespeare (and Titus) have had on my life present, I think, a different sort of understanding of what Shakespeare is.

I believe in Shakespeare. I want people to see him, his works, these plays, however you want to phrase it — I want people to see Shakespeare the way that I do. I want to share that with people. Desperately.

Your book in seven words:

Titus doesn’t suck and I have issues.

ALF Reviews: ALF to the Future

ALF to the Future

As I’m sure you’ve all seen in your Facebook feeds for months, today is the day Gordon Shumway travels through time.

Right? I think that’s right.

Anyway, star commenter, Perfect Strangers devotee, and all around great fella Casey Roberson contributed his artistic talents to bring an original time-traveling ALF adventure to life. And I hope you enjoy it. It’s everything I’m sure the actual comics were not!

So please enjoy this special installment of ALF Reviews. I assure you it’s far better than anything I have to say about “Wanted: Dead or Alive.”

…far, far better.

(I encourage you to click the images below in order to see them in their full and deserving glory, and check out Casey’s slightly more respectable output here.)

Without further ado:


ALF to the Future

ALF to the Future

ALF to the Future

ALF to the Future

ALF to the Future

Fiction into Film: The Raven (1845 / 1990)

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

The Raven, 1990Am I breaking the rules by covering a TV show? In a word: no, because I make the rules. But in a few slightly more respectful words: maybe, but I think it raises an interesting discussion.

The mere fact that I’ve chosen to spotlight a segment of The Simpsons‘ first Halloween special should tell you that I think it’s as worthy of consideration as anything else I’ve covered here. Then again, the mere fact that I feel the need to open with an explanation says something about the comparatively smaller merit we assign to television.

Had The Raven — this version, this length, this exact cut — aired as a short film in theaters, there’d be no question. But instead it’s a segment of an episode of a long-running television show. A revered television show, but, hey, it’s still just TV.

And I find that interesting. To this day a made-for-TV movie gets less attention and respect than anything released to theaters, and while it’s easy to find examples of TV movies that are downright terrible (hello, Lifetime!), it’s really no less difficult to find terrible theatrical releases.

Yet theatrical films (tellingly, what everyone thinks of when they hear the word “movie”) get some baseline level of consideration that TV isn’t afforded.

Every so often you’ll hear Breaking Bad or Mad Men or some other piece of prestige TV get spoken of in reverent tones — often being openly compared to film, as though that is an inherent compliment — but they’re the exceptions. Bad films don’t tarnish the reputation of theatrical releases, but whenever a great TV show comes around its praise is couched in apology for all of the crap that surrounds it.

The Simpsons is probably the first example of a show that I remember being spoken of in those reverent tones. Perhaps if I were older that show would be M*A*S*H, but, as it stands, it was The Simpsons that I first saw reach out of the television and make the world pay attention.

Those who praised the show still did it apologetically — it was on FOX, after all, which was already known for carrying disreputable programming — but there was a level of seductive danger to it that made us see clearly that it wasn’t just “good for TV,” and wasn’t even just “good.” It was great, and however long it lasted (surely it couldn’t last long…) we’d be talking about it in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, wondering how we were lucky enough to witness something of such undeniable cultural significance.

The Raven, 1990

Those last two words there can’t be over-emphasized. Even if you dislike the show, its cultural significance is not up for debate. The Simpsons, even by the time of this episode, early in its second season, was everywhere.

Bart especially was on magazine covers, t-shirts, and shaved into the back of people’s haircuts. The show was a phenomenon of such significance that people felt the need to fight it. I remember the priest at my church warning families about it. I remember teachers hearing us talking about the show and saying that we were too young to watch things like that. Even President Bush (the much less horrible one) spoke out about how the show was rotting American minds.

The Simpsons wasn’t just some thing on TV that you either watched or you didn’t. It was a show that had power, which is why those in positions of authority were so keen to condemn it. Time deals with fads and fancies quickly enough…but power needs to be defeated.

“Treehouse of Horror” — which contains The Raven — was only the show’s 16th episode, but it was already event television. That’s why Marge, the show’s ethical center, needs to introduce it, and to warn us. She’s not quite out of character, but she’s definitely out of her element. She stands before a red curtain and implores us with seeming sincerity, before the opening credits even roll, not to let the children watch. This wasn’t part of the show…at least, not as far as I could tell. I knew Marge wasn’t real, but it also felt like she meant this.

The Raven, 1990

I was a child watching. And I distinctly remember glancing around the room to see if my parents were going to switch the TV off. Or — horror of horrors! — make me go to bed while they kept watching. I recognize in Marge’s monologue now some dryly funny moments, but to a child this feels serious. It’s a cartoon mom, but it’s still a mom. And she’s warning you. If you go forward you’ll have no-one to blame but yourself.

This is scary, dangerous territory you’re about to enter, and you’re being warned not to do it. Clearly, that only made me want to do it more. And my parents stayed where they were. I wonder still if they were silently figuring out how quickly they could hustle me out of the room if things actually did get too scary or gory.

She ends her monologue with a defensive comment about angry letters — something the show had clearly received a lot of, and something which it would lampoon thoroughly a few episodes later with “Itchy & Scratchy & Marge” — and that’s it. You’ve been warned. You made your own decision.

You’re on your own, kids.

For those who feared the power of The Simpsons, this must have been a true Halloween nightmare spilling into the real world. This show that was already so dangerous — so (for the time) violent, profane, distrusting, and disrespectful — was telling you outright that you’re about to watch the most dangerous fucking thing that could ever possibly be aired on television.

If The Simpsons itself was warning you…what in the world was it going to show kids? What godless stretch of carnage and brutality could ever be in store? What in hell are teachers going to have to put up with the next day in school?

Well, if they were good teachers, they’d be delighted, because their students were about to be exposed to an unforgettable blast of classic American literature.

The Raven, 1990

The Simpsons version of The Raven is a true adaptation. It’s not a parody, though there are jokes in it, and it’s far too comprehensive to be an homage. It’s an adaptation, and that’s why it belongs here. For its trueness to its subject, and also for its sheer novelty. After all, how many shows do you know of that actually did straight adaptations?

Typically when a TV show would mine literature for ideas it would result in something like the endless versions of A Christmas Carol that sitcom characters have endured over the years. The central conceit is there, a few necessarily plot beats are struck, and that’s it. It’s not an adaptation so much as it is the borrowing of a framework. Characters from one universe live out — temporarily — the barest sketch of events from another, and the next week we forget it completely.

Other times you’ll have a more general genre pastiche, such as the war fiction sendup that is Spaced‘s paintball episode, or the noir tinge of The Venture Bros.‘ “Everybody Comes to Hank’s.”

In none of these cases are we dealing with true adaptation. Instead we’re borrowing (or winking toward) recognizable elements.

And that makes sense; airtime is valuable. 30 minutes of somebody’s attention had better be worth it, or they’ll change the channel. That’s why shows undercut or play loose with the material they do borrow. You can tune in to Gilligan’s Island and see the castaways staging a musical version of Hamlet, but you won’t ever see the cast do a straight recreation of The Tempest from Shakespeare’s original script. (However appropriate that might have been.)

And yet The Simpsons does a straight adaptation here, and though they’ve done a new “Treehouse of Horror” special every year since, and have regularly mined the works of others in order to do so, this is the only time they haven’t undercut the original. It’s the only time they presented — rather than parodied — the actual substance of the source material.

And it’s still one of the best things the show’s ever done.

The Raven, 1990

The oddness of getting a straight literary adaptation embedded in The Simpsons is definitely noteworthy. Looney Tunes beat this show well to the literary parody punch with its own animated takes on classic stories (Robinson Crusoe, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Of Mice and Men all spring instantly to mind), but, again, those weren’t adaptations. Aside from anthology series like The Twilight Zone or Masterpiece Theater, in which every episode was a one-off case, straight adaptation simply didn’t happen.

But here was a show that wasn’t afraid of turning its runtime — and its audience’s attention — over to a work of poetry that had been written a century and a half earlier. What did The Simpsons do when it held the youth of America rapt? It did what Lisa does here: it pulled out a schoolbook, and it read to them.

And that’s why The Simpsons was so dangerous: it wanted its audience to think.

It was unconventional TV, but not in the way it was accused of being. It’s not that it contained adult content so much as the fact that it wanted viewers to think for themselves. Its most dangerous idea wasn’t “there is no God” or “don’t trust your leaders.” It was this: we trust you to think for yourself.

It wasn’t an assault on Christian values; it was an assault on intellectual laziness.

That’s what made the show so many powerful enemies.

The Raven, 1990

I’m probably doing the segment a disservice by calling it a straight adaptation. It is, but it’s more than that. It’s thoroughly Edgar Allan Poe’s work, but it’s just as thoroughly The Simpsons.

The latter’s stamp, necessarily, is all over it. The Simpsons had a clear visual style and The Raven must, of course, be filtered through that. Additionally, the voice cast are too recognizable to overlook, with Dan Castellaneta getting a well-earned and well-handled spotlight. (His dual delivery of “Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!” — first in theatrical anger and then in seething frustration — is particularly brilliant.)

But aside from a few cameos and background gags (Forgotten Lore, Vol. II is my easy favorite), the universe we occupy isn’t that of The Simpsons, or even some fantasy variant of The Simpsons. It’s the universe of Poe…the confined, claustrophobic, oppressive, inescapable universe of Poe. No, the Simpsons‘ stamp isn’t the bleeding-through of the show’s comic sensibilities, but of its artistic ones.

David Silverman, who is probably more responsible for the visual direction of the show than anyone else (he honed its style way back when it was a series of skits on The Tracey Ullman Show), had the unenviable task of entertaining children who tuned in to watch their favorite cartoon and found themselves sitting through a poetry recital. It was a no-win proposition that he easily, unquestionably won.

Silverman directed The Raven, and the fact that he could focus on only his five-or-so minute segment meant he could devote more of his attention to making it visually and artistically inventive…an opportunity he clearly took to heart.

The Raven, 1990

The Raven represents the most impressive animation the show had seen yet, and it’s clear that a great deal of time was spent arranging the scene, blocking the shots, and finding interesting angles from which to watch the story unfold.

Poe’s original poem — yes, poem, but I’d argue it’s just as much fiction as any prose I’ve read — takes place in a single environment. One room. A door is opened, a window is opened, but our protagonist never leaves. There are strong thematic reasons for that, but it’s the kind of thing you can more easily make interesting on the page, where you can spend time in your protagonist’s mind, than you can on screen, where viewers (especially those tuning in to watch a 90s cartoon show) expect visual variety.

Silverman’s environment is a drab and sad room. Deliberately so. Volumes of books line the wall. Atmosphere is thick but decoration is sparse. There’s a fireplace, a chair, and a bust of Pallas. Visually, it’s hard to imagine anything less exciting, and that’s by design. Poe’s source material isn’t the story of external adventure; it’s a dark meditation on inner emptiness. Our unnamed protagonist spends a lonely, torturous night with his memories of “this lost Lenore.” His solitude turns to madness, and that madness ravages him further. He is his own victim in an endless, unbreakable cycle of abusive despair.

So empty is his life that when he hears a tapping, a rapping at his chamber door, he ignores it. “’Tis some visitor,” he mutters, “tapping at my chamber door. Only this and nothing more.” He waits, quietly, for the visitor to leave.

Who is it? He doesn’t care. He’s not interested in company. He waits it out, or attempts to, and only gives in to answering the door when it’s clear that the visitor won’t go away. And so our protagonist spins a limp apology about having been asleep, while we know he was instead hoping that he wouldn’t have to face another human being.

That much of his wish is granted, because, when he opens the door, there is nobody waiting. If he’s relieved he won’t be for long; he’ll receive another kind of visitor soon enough.

And that’s the visual premise of the story. A man is in a room and doesn’t wish to speak with anyone. Making that compelling television seems difficult at best, but Silverman was up to the challenge, all while staying true to Poe’s dreary, lonesome setting, and at no point betraying it.

As we see with the very loose interpretation of The Twilight Zone‘s “To Serve Man” that precedes The Raven — and as we’ll see in every “Treehouse of Horror” to follow — the show is willing to be pliant with its source material. It can take a small, simple story and expand upon it to create something larger, with a more universal impact, for the sake of including more characters or visual and comic variety. A perfect example of this is the “Monkey’s Paw” send-up that they’d do the following year; the original story took place between two characters in their home, whereas The Simpsons ignored those limitations and expanded the premise immensely.

The Raven, 1990

The show’s adherence to the original’s confined setting is a self-imposed challenge. The Raven could have been anything; it’s an adaptation, after all. The only rules are the ones set by those adapting it.

Instead, Silverman and writer Sam Simon (credited alongside Poe) lock themselves in the same room that drove our protagonist insane. Why? Because they believed they could do something incredible with that limitation.

And they did.

In art, limitation is often conducive to inventiveness. If you can create anything and do anything, you often end up at a loss. Infinite possibility is too much possibility. There’s little to cling to. Nowhere to start. No definitive end. That’s why so many stories adhere to so few basic structures (star-crossed lovers, fish out of water, the quest, whodunit, coming of age, and so on). An artist can do anything, but “doing anything” is often ill-advised.

Within a structure, with confines, with rules and restrictions, an artist can narrow his or her focus. When boundaries are set, artists know where they must focus their attention. And when their attentions are focused, they can find unexpected treasures.

That’s why Silverman is all exaggerated angles, all aggressive framing. He’s finding a new melody in somebody else’s tune. He’s using his voice to recite somebody else’s work. He’s finding that treasure.

Silverman’s camera haunts Homer as much as the memories of Lenore haunt him. It seeks him out when he cowers. It stares into his face when he wishes to hide. It looms overhead, out of reach and refusing to blink. It hems him in as effectively as the walls of his chamber, and it casts judgment on him as well. It observes him. It refuses to let him out of sight, where he can actually be alone.

Its behavior is very much in line with that of the raven itself…it’s visual foreshadowing — and enhancing — of the hopelessness and frustration that the titular bird comes to represent.

The Raven, 1990

Reading Poe’s original on its own can feel daunting. While it’s not a difficult poem, exactly, it’s still a complex one. The rhymes are shifty. The repetition is potentially confusing. The dialogue is especially left open to interpretive intonation.

In short, it’s not the kind of thing a child — or even many adults in 1990 — would have understood on their own, even if they had cared to dig it out. It’s a masterful piece of unnerving and insightful writing, but what good is insight that an audience doesn’t experience?

By bringing this poem to life, The Simpsons granted it not only a renewed cultural relevance, but it provided its own frame of reference. These words written 145 years prior suddenly meant something to an entire generation that didn’t know they existed.

And I’m not exaggerating. I ran a quick poll on Facebook to see if I was being unfairly generous to the legacy of this adaptation, but a good number of people indeed said that The Simpsons‘ version of The Raven was their first experience of the poem.

That is to say, I wasn’t alone.

There were kids out there like me who sat down to watch their favorite show and ended up discovering a masterful work of literature that nobody had shown them before.

What’s more, it was no passing lesson. This version of The Raven resonates, probably because it was made easier to understand for an audience that might not have otherwise sat through it.

In addition to the simple fact that it’s being acted out as opposed to being read as static text on a page, The Simpsons provides the cross-generational tones of James Earl Jones as our narrator. Jones’s voice is familiar from contexts as varied as Star Wars and the CNN bumpers, and the length of breadth of his career means that we recognize his voice as both comforting and chilling, soothing and serious, profound and deadly. His was — and is — a voice that doesn’t so much command attention as surround it. Your favorite cartoon may be playing out safely before you, but his is a voice you can’t escape.

Jones’s reading is respectful to the source material. He appears in this episode’s other two segments to tell jokes, but for The Raven he’s all business. He’s reading a great poem, and you’re going to listen while he does so.

Which is good, because Poe’s original can be difficult to parse. The sneaky rhymes are easy to trip over…at least they are when you don’t know how to read them. When it’s being recited for you, by somebody who understands the poem’s meter, it’s a very different experience…a winding, binding, inescapable spiral of madness in the mundane.

The Raven, 1990

Jones gives it breath and helps us to work around the language no child would have understood. He’s not dumbing it down, and at no point does his narration stray from the original text; he’s showing us instead that we can understand the poem even if we don’t understand every word of it. And that’s a valuable lesson: literature is more about how it makes you feel and what it does to you than it is about what it says.

It doesn’t matter if a child knows who Pallas was, or what Poe meant by “the Night’s Plutonian shore,” or what obeisance is. Jones treats every stanza with equal gravity, leveling the field. Word choice is undeniably important, but not as important as a poem’s (or a story’s, or a novel’s) impact. Jones reads on, too dauntless to let anyone in the audience realize that they just heard something they don’t fully understand. And the reason is this: by the end of the vignette, they will understand.

But Jones can’t take full credit for making the poem easier to parse. No, Silverman deserves kudos for that as well. For starters, I believe fully that a non-English speaker could watch this segment and come away feeling exactly what they should feel, in spite of understanding nothing that they’ve heard. This is due to the atmosphere masterfully conjured and sustained by the direction. The darkened colors…the careful shadow-work…the alternately distant and aggressive blocking. Silverman tells the same tale Jones is telling, and he tells it with a different kind of language: the language of visual cinema.

With his language, he chooses to emphasize certain aspects of Poe’s original. Most significant is the presence of Lenore.

Lenore serves the same purpose in both the original text and on The Simpsons: she’s an urgent, painful absence. But in the text, that’s all you get. Granted, even a careless reader would register her name simply by virtue of the fact that it’s the only character’s name we learn, but beyond that it’s up to us to interpret our protagonist’s feelings for her.

We don’t learn her fate. (She’s “lost,” but that can mean — especially in horror — several things.) We know only that she isn’t present, and that our protagonist does not expect to see her again. Does he feel sorrow, or is it actually something closer to guilt? Was he helpless to save her, or was she never his in the first place? Poe’s work does a great job of leaving these questions — and many others — open, which helps it to resonate among so many. (My Lenore, I am sure, is distinct from yours, dear reader.)

But The Simpsons gives us an answer, and it does it in two major ways. One of them is entirely down to Silverman: whereas the name Lenore appears only a handful of times throughout Poe’s poem, the animated Lenore is a constant presence…a reminder upon the wall, often glimpsed, sometimes dwelt upon, during our protagonist’s lonesome, eternal nightmare. She’s always a presence for him in both versions, but in the animated version she’s a presence for us as well…framed on the wall, an image from a time when she was yet reachable. A reminder not of what once was, but of what will never be again.

The Raven, 1990

The other way Lenore’s role is defined comes not from Silverman, but from the show itself: it’s Marge.

By this early stage in its life, The Simpsons already had strong character development behind it. Lisa’s character was heartbreakingly defined by “Moaning Lisa.” Bart’s struggle for identity and acceptance was solidified by “The Telltale Head.” (Another Poe reference, coincidentally.) And Homer and Marge’s marriage had been explored and tested by “Life on the Fast Lane.”

While characterization certainly fluctuated, we quickly saw these characters become the ones we’d always remember them being. By the time season two came along, we knew and understood them. They were established. They were people. That’s why Lisa has a textbook with her in the treehouse. That’s why Homer goes trick-or-treating and relishes his haul. That’s while Bart restlessly goofs around while Lisa reads her poem, and adds a bratty twist at her expense to the end of his alien story.

And all of this is why Marge is the perfect Lenore; she, like the others, is an established character. We know her, and we know how others feel about her. That is to say, we know exactly how painful her absence would be to Homer.

The Raven might exist outside of the day-to-day Simpsons universe, but its central emotion sure doesn’t. Should Marge ever be “lost,” you can rest assured this would be Homer. Broken. Tormented. Frightened.

A single glimpse of Lenore is all we need to get the picture, but instead we see her frequently. We see her on the wall as the woman Homer loves, the woman Homer doesn’t always quite deserve, the woman who holds his heart and his place in the world. When she’s gone — immediately, unexpectedly — so is his mind.

The arrival of the raven is the final blow to the man’s sanity. He begins amused by the arrival of this silly little bird, but becomes increasingly frustrated by its singular, callous message.


The helplessness of our protagonist is thus externalized. The Raven isn’t a story about a man having to process the consequence of his actions. It’s the opposite; it’s a man who’s done nothing but process that consequence, and now has to face it externally, outside of his own mind.

The Raven, 1990

The bird isn’t here to mess around. Its “flirt and flutter” through the window is no mere quirk of circumstance. Its arrival is purposeful, judgmental, and damning.

Silverman’s direction respects this; as comical as it is to see a bird with Bart’s haircut, it’s behaving in a very serious way. (Its ascension by steps to the bust of Pallas is especially well animated.) It’s here for a reason. It has something to say. And it’s the worst thing our protagonist could ever hope to hear: “Your worst fears?” the raven indirectly articulates. “They’re correct. You’re right to feel as awful as you do.”

The realization is a stubborn one. Our protagonist in both media fails to shake the bird. He fails to elicit any other response. He fails to alter, even slightly, the judgment upon him reflecting the one he’s already visited upon himself.

The original builds to the same ending, in which the raven still is sitting — still is sitting! — on the pallid bust of Pallas just above the chamber door. But immediately before that we get the biggest difference between the two versions: whereas the protagonist of the poem pleads relentlessly, and unsuccessfully, with the bird to leave him in peace, Homer resorts to violence.

This is obviously in keeping with the Simpsons aspect of the telling; we know Homer’s feelings for Marge, and we know just as well (perhaps even better at this point) his feelings toward Bart. The mounting frustration is no less natural here than it ever is when he deals with his (typically not avian) son, and the attack is even preceded by his pre-strangulation catch phrase, “Why you little…!”

But there’s more to the violence than the echo of the main show. Poe’s poem, after all, is simply too long to fit the confines of the act. With commercial breaks and time-slots to be respected, almost half of the poem goes missing. It’s a testament to the quality and the power of the final segment that it still feels so full, but a short burst of violence replaces the long, repetitious, rolling climax of the poem.

Homer might not be the kind of character who will have the patience for a long argument, but his show doesn’t have the time for one, either. As a result, eight of Poe’s 18 stanzas are gone. Another, oddly, survives with only half of its lines intact…presumably a last-minute edit for time.

The Raven, 1990

The children watching at home won’t notice any of the verse missing, but they will notice something they understand: lashing out.

While Poe’s original hinges upon the lengthy, circular nature of a maddened man’s argument with a bird, The Simpsons gave its audience something more tactile. It was a more efficient use of screentime, for sure, but it also made the poem that much easier to understand.

Had Homer — as in the original — simply pleaded with the bird until time ran out (…so to speak…), there would have been a lot of children scratching their heads as a result. That’s not something they understand this character doing.

But they do understand his anger. They’re used to seeing it. They know the effect Bart has on him, and whether or not they comprehend the poem’s ideas of lost love and insanity, they know that the raven — whatever he is, whatever he represents — is this character’s antagonist. And the brief flurry of violence, which leaves Homer broken on the floor, shall be forgotten nevermore.

So what would school teachers have to deal with the next day?

Well, I remember what my teacher had to deal with: her own excitement.

The Simpsons — this social nightmare of a show — had just exposed every one of her students to a masterpiece of American literature. I remember her telling us about Poe as a result. I remember her reading us “The Pit and the Pendulum” soon afterward, probably due to an enthusiastically revised lesson plan.

She took advantage of this opportunity; how many times could you tap into your students’ love of something, and leverage it to develop a love of something else? (I recall a similar thing happening a few years earlier, when A Claymation Christmas Celebration featured “Carol of the Bells,” and my music teacher was able to — for the first and only time — teach a song to a thoroughly engaged classroom.)

The Raven, 1990

I’m a literary nerd now. (Did you already know that?) Not everybody who experienced The Raven that night became one, but does that matter?

For children like me, who would grow to develop a passion for writing of all kinds, it was an early seed planted…one that couldn’t bloom on its own power alone, but which would grow ultimately into a defining aspect of my life, my personality, and my ambitions. For others, who still have no interest in reading, it was an indelible experience of something they might never have otherwise encountered.

In either case, the viewer is enriched. There’s a kind of education at work…a swell of knowledge and cultural experience that may have been larger in some than in others, but which was important to all of them.

Lisa reading that textbook during a seemingly inappropriate time is part of what normalized things like that for me. Sure, you were a bit of a dork if you enjoyed reading, but there’s a place for dorks. There’s a reward for study, and self-betterment.

Bart had fun, but Lisa had a brain. And in The Simpsons, as in the real world, there’s a need for both. Each requires the other to exist. Together, you end up in something like a family.

And I have to admit I love the small touch that Bart — with whom so many young viewers identified — is seen at the end of the segment, sitting and listening to a dusty old poem…just as the kids in the audience were.

He might have said it was dull and wasn’t frightening, but he gave it a chance.

He heard it.

And he’s enriched in some small way because of it.

The Raven, 1990

I miss this. The “Treehouse of Horror” episodes are ones folks tend to enjoy. Personally, I like them less than standard episodes, but I’ve always looked back fondly at The Raven.

It was from a time when The Simpsons was so brave it was willing to sub out its standard fare to introduce a generation to some forgotten lore, choosing to spark interest in the works of Edgar Allan Poe rather than focusing on itself. It was an odd move, and one The Simpsons never repeated, but it’s also one of my fondest memories of the show.

And it’s a reminder of the fact that The Simpsons wasn’t just brainy…it was educational. I learned things from watching that show. Sometimes useful things, other times trivial, but the fact is that I was learning, and learning was fun.

I know I wasn’t alone. Just as many discovered The Raven that night, I’m sure The Simpsons is the way many of us learned about Grover Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms. And the meaning of schadenfreude. And which amendment introduced prohibition.

The Simpsons was dangerous television, alright. It was dangerous because it encouraged people to learn…to want to learn. It was a smart show that always seemed slightly more intelligent than its audience, and made you want to catch up with it. “You think these jokes are funny?” it asked. “Just imagine all the ones you don’t get.”

And, sure enough, as I grew up and watched the same old episodes again, I spotted some of those jokes. I understood them. I laughed for the first time at something that flew over my head a dozen times. Why? Because in the years that passed, I continued to learn.

That was the real horror story…the reason so many people were afraid of The Simpsons.

It wasn’t a fad. It wasn’t temporary. It was the kind of thing people would be thinking about and talking about for a lifetime. And, worst of all, it would continuously reward them for doing so. It provided encouragement and a reason for them to educate themselves, to find their own answers, and to forge ahead in unexpected directions with knowledge not that they were given, but which they found on their own.

A nation of TV-watchers who would grow up to think for themselves.

What could be more scary to those in power?

The Raven, 1990

The Raven
(1845, Edgar Allan Poe; 1990, David Silverman)

Book or film? Book. An easy win that speaks far more to the power of the original than any shortcomings in the adaptation.
Worth reading the poem? Yes. It’s The Raven.
Is it the best possible adaptation? If not for the missing stanzas, I’d say yes. Even with the missing stanzas I’ll say yes.
Is it of merit in its own right? It did a great job of positioning The Simpsons as one of the smartest, most cultured shows on television, and it did so at the perfect point in the life of the series: just as concerns arose about its content, and just as more people were tuning in to see what all the fuss was about. 25 years later it remains one of the show’s most accomplished sequences.

Trilogy of Terror: Shaun of the Dead (2004)

So! Trilogy of Terror, a new series that I’ll do each October, in which I take an in-depth look at three related horror films in the run-up to Halloween. They could be films in the same series, films by the same director, films with a common theme, or any relationship, really.

I’m kicking it off this year with Edgar Wright’s Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy. (The Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy, for non-Americans.)

While only Shaun of the Dead is rooted in outright horror, both Hot Fuzz and The World’s End have horror-specific elements among their defining traits, so I’d argue that they qualify as well. Especially since all three films can be easily linked together to form one grander (if not necessarily cohesive) statement…but that’s probably a discussion for later.

I was surprised the first time I watched Shaun of the Dead. I remember seeing advertisements for it and…not being interested, really. I was a big fan of British comedy, but I hadn’t yet seen Spaced (which laid the groundwork for this film) so I missed out on the excitement that I would have otherwise felt.

To me, it just looked silly. There’s nothing wrong with silly, but there’s nothing rare about it either. Dumb comedies were — and continue to be — in ready supply, especially here in America. Importing another felt unnecessary. Seeking it out specifically felt absurd.

But then friends started to recommend it, particularly once it arrived on DVD. I figured that meant it was decently funny. Later on another friend — an independent film-maker that I respect greatly — recommended it, and I realized that it might also be good.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

That’s what I wasn’t prepared for…a genuinely good film underneath the gore and the silliness. Indeed, I’m sure that that’s what most viewers weren’t prepared for.

Great jokes are always welcome, but you expect to find those in a film that bills itself as a comedy. That’s where they belong. They’re why people turn to comedies in the first place.

But great acting, great directing, great film-making…those are less common. Shaun of the Dead gave us all of that instead of what could have been — and what I expected to be — some disposable bit of gory pap.

Watching it for the first time, I was impressed. 11 years later, I’m even more impressed. Shaun of the Dead is a nearly perfect movie in my estimation. It’s funny, it’s insightful, it’s well-made, and it’s confident. There are new layers and details that reveal themselves every time I watch it, and I’ve seen it at least a couple dozen times by now. Every element works, and they work so well that I’m still finding new intricacies a decade down the line.

But what is it? Is it a horror film? A romantic comedy? A parody? Yes, it is. And it’s a lot of other things, too.

Shaun of the Dead shouldn’t succeed the way it does. It really shouldn’t. It has too many things happening at once. It’s tonally all over the map. It mixes high social commentary with low slapstick and expects them both to land. It should be a mess.

But it knows that.

And that’s kind of the point.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

The film, ostensibly, centers on an ill-equipped man attempting to lead a group of survivors through the zombie apocalypse. The film also happens to be about that man getting his relationships in order, sorting his life out, and finding his place in the world. They’re two plotlines that aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but for a comedy that’s a pretty daring blend, especially since neither plot seems especially tailored to humor.

Which is probably why Shaun of the Dead works so well. It’s a comedy, but not mindlessly so. It thinks its way through — and deeper into — its complications, because it has to. It sets itself an unenviable goal of spanning genres and delivering its impact on multiple fronts, so it had no choice but to be brainy about it. These things don’t just work together on their own; if they work, it’s because some group of artists worked together to make it work.

The film focuses on character and thematic resonance as though it were a drama. And while it has a slew of unforgettably funny moments, it’s also always — unfailingly — sincere. It’s a work of love, filled with respect and admiration for its source material, and an impressive ability to outdo itself, to keep layering, to dream up a great scene and then present it in some way that makes it better.

Which is what struck me the first time: the construction of the film. The way Shaun’s morning routine is urgently edited into a series of quick cuts, like an action montage. The way the sun rises on our passed-out hero like a floodlight snapping on. The way the aftermath of a fatal car wreck plays out in the background, behind an otherwise quiet scene of two friends reconnecting.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Wright doesn’t shoot the movie like a comedy. He shoots it like a horror film, a drama, an action movie, and like almost anything but a comedy. Which, obviously, makes it funnier.

There’s great humor to be found in someone who takes himself seriously while saying and doing ridiculous things. In Shaun of the Dead, that’s a role knowingly filled by the director himself.

What’s great about that, and why this movie has staying power, is the fact that it allows you, in the audience, to do things other than laugh.

Even great comedies sometimes suffer from the fact that there needs to be space between the jokes, but the ones that take themselves seriously — and allow themselves to be serious not in spite of but in addition to the jokes — have an opportunity to fill that space creatively.

That’s where characters explore their own dynamics. That’s where themes emerge and the echoing of lines and scene composition pays off. That’s where, to put it flatly, we’re allowed to care about what is happening.

And that’s the ace up Shaun of the Dead‘s sleeve: it makes its audience care.

It’s a great trick, and by no means an easy one to pull off. Reel them in with the promise of hilarious knockabout zombie gore, and break their hearts as two men find their friendship threatened by the responsibilities of adulthood.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

It shouldn’t work, but it does…and it works because Wright and Pegg are in full command of their material. They know how they want the audience to react, and when, and they know exactly how to trigger it.

That’s why Spaced is a necessary part of this film’s pedigree. It goes deeper than seeing familiar faces and names plastered all over the film; it shares that show’s artistic DNA.

Wright directed Spaced in his own inimitable, inventive way, elevating a sitcom about two flatmates to levels of genuine visual art. And Pegg — who co-wrote and starred in both that show and this film — took a set of caricatures and allowed them to evolve into a group of rich human beings with a web of complex relationships between them.

Shaun of the Dead may have been born of one episode’s fantasy sequence (in which Pegg’s character fights back a group of zombies), but the show’s real echoes are felt throughout the presentation of the film, and the script behind it. It informs the film’s entire creative process, and its agenda.

It’s no surprise that the cast is padded out (in both major and minor parts) with Spaced alums; these are people who already knew what Wright and Pegg would need from them, and would have some idea of how the film would ultimately work. Which is good, because it would be pretty easy for an unfamiliar actor to read the scene in which the group bludgeons a zombie to death to the beat of Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and get the wrong idea about how to pitch his performance.

Wright and Pegg’s masterful character work flows throughout the Trilogy, with an emphasis less on change than on the process of discovering who you already are. There’s still a kind of growth — and an important kind of growth — at play in each of the three films, but these are mainly voyages of self-discovery.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

When taken as a whole, the Trilogy doesn’t present a definitive “right” kind of person to be. That’s a convenient topic to discuss here, in the first film, as Shaun’s housemates foreshadow Pegg’s later roles, and provide a basic template for understanding them.

When we meet him, Shaun is caught in the middle between Ed and Pete, played by Nick Frost and Peter Serafinowicz respectively…both of whom are Spaced actors as well. Ed is slovenly, crude, and unapologetically aimless. He lacks all ambition and refuses to grow up. On the other hand, he’s there for Shaun when Liz breaks his heart, and does everything he can to hold his friend together. He’s loyal.

Pete, by contrast, is responsible and driven, interested in living a stable and secure life. He takes his career seriously and cares about the way he’s perceived. He’s also, however, humorless, and puts his own needs above other people’s feelings.

Pegg plays Shaun as being directly in the middle, frustrated with both of them, but envious of them as well. He tries to rise to his managerial duties at work and keep the survivors together later like Pete would, but he’s perfectly content to spend his life playing video games and hitting the pub with Ed.

Each of his housemates represents a possible direction for Shaun to take, but direction means commitment. And, as exemplified by his failing relationship with Liz, commitment is not one of Shaun’s strong points.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Instead of becoming more like either of them, he keeps to the middle path. He veers closer to neither Pete nor Ed; he remains Shaun. And while it seems a bit odd from a character-arc perspective that a man who opened the film in the undefined middle ground remains in the middle ground at the end, there’s still growth that has occurred: the middle ground is now defined. Shaun knows it, and understands it, and — most importantly — is comfortable with it.

He didn’t pull himself together and solve everything, but neither did he fall apart and lose everything. He’s not the kind of person who will — or can — do either. He’s the kind of person that can make it through an ordeal, but he’ll do so in neither triumph nor defeat.

There’s a reason he replies three times to Yvonne (Jessica Stevenson, another familiar Spaced face and that show’s co-writer) that he’s “surviving.” It’s a contextual joke within the film, but also a reminder of where Shaun is, and always will be: the middle. He’ll neither succeed nor fail; he’ll survive.

He exists in the band between the two extremes. When the film opens, it upsets and disappoints him that he can’t commit to either direction. By the end he still can’t commit, but he realizes that that’s okay. That’s who he is. And he’s comfortable with that.

We don’t see a different version of Shaun at the end of the film; we just see one that’s come to terms with who he already is.

Pegg plays the other two extremes in the films to follow. Nicholas Angel of Hot Fuzz is a humorless professional in the vein of Pete, and Gary King of The World’s End is an aimless eternal youth in Ed’s tradition.

Shaun of the Dead might see our hero staying just where he is, but the rest of the Trilogy explores the other possibilities. We get no definitive answer and all definitive answers, which is part of why the films function so well together.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

Shaun of the Dead arrived at the front end of a resurgence of interest in zombies. While the image of the shambling corpse has been around for centuries, and was standardized back in 1968 by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, zombies by and large had lost their cultural cachet.

Shaun of the Dead helped to usher in an undead renaissance that continues to this day. It arrived on the scene in essentially the same wave that brought us 28 Days Later (2002), Max Brooks’ The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), and the first issues of the Walking Dead comic series (2003). These and Shaun all constitute legitimate cultural juggernauts that, in their own ways, each helped bring the monster back to life.

Horror icons and monster types throughout history have reflected the fears of the time that birthed them. Werewolves are easy to see as fears of pubescence, of males growing up too quickly to have control over their basest impulses. Dracula was a wealthy, powerful foreigner who seduced and sullied our women. And Frankenstein’s monster was reflective of a fear of advances in modern science…a “where will it end?” hysteria that later recurred in the mad scientist / giant monster movies of the 1950s, when nuclear paranoia was not coincidentally at the forefront of public consciousness.

So what is it about zombies that made them so appealing to audiences of the early 2000s? What is it that makes them so appealing still? What social fears of uniformity, of unstoppable viruses, of mob mentality are we articulating through these mindless hordes?

It’s a question that I find fascinating.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

I find it even more fascinating that the real danger in zombie media — almost always, going right back to Romero’s original film — comes from other survivors.

Are zombies actually what we fear? Or do we fear how the danger will change us? Do we fear how quickly and easily we will become the villains? How simply our best laid plans — dealing with Philip, picking up mom and Liz, holing up and waiting for all of this to blow over — will turn, in an instant, to a blueprint of our own destruction?

If we really are the danger — if we as people are the horror movie icon of our own generation — then that explains why there’s never been much interest in crafting a definitive, canonical origin story for zombies. Unlike the Wolfman, Dracula, or Frankenstein’s monster, there’s no one answer as to where they came from, how they behave, or how to deal with them.

Each of those three examples have seen variants through the years, but that’s just what they are: variants. In zombie media there’s nothing but variants.

They could be the result of voodoo, viruses, or radiation. They could be slow and lumbering or fast and ruthless. They could overwhelm you or outlast you. They could be mindless, or they could be corrupted shades of the people you loved.

Shaun of the Dead, wisely I think, doesn’t give us a definitive origin for its threat, which is a clue that zombies are not the important thing here; the story — no matter how big or dangerous or relentless the horde — comes from the characters…how they interact, what they decide to do, how their relationships grow and change.

This is a vagueness that both Hot Fuzz and The World’s End abandoned, opting instead for definite answers, and in those cases I think that it distracts from the power of each film…but we’ll talk about that in the coming weeks.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

One thing Wright and Pegg introduce here that does carry through the entire trilogy (together and separately, as it occurs in both the direction and the dialogue) is the concept of echo.

There’s an often-mocked film clip of George Lucas describing the prequel trilogy as being “like poetry.” It rhymes, he says. (And we all know what it rhymes with.) But that’s actually a good way of describing the films that constitute The Blood and Ice Cream Trilogy.

These do rhyme, both in ways that have overt payoffs (Ed’s “cock it” exclamation later becoming firearm advice) and in ways that simply connect disparate moments in artful ways (“What do you mean, do something?”).

At its best this repetition enhances the comedy, but even at its “worst” (a usage of the word that definitely requires quotation marks) it instills in the viewer a feeling of artistic purpose.

Sometimes there’s not much more to the echo than cleverness for the sake of cleverness, but that’s an important reassurance when your film relies on cleverness. It’s a way of cluing your audience in to the fact that it’s worth paying attention. That this is a film that will try to give you a little more. That if you treat what you’re watching with respect, you’ll it in return.

The echoes help to define Shaun as the confident piece that it is. It doesn’t seek to dazzle and distract so much as it does try to suck you into its universe, and erect boundaries between itself and any other horror comedy you’ve seen. While it slips into and out of outright parody territory (see Shaun and Ed singing “White Lines” with a howling silhouette), its foundation is laid firmly upon the complex workings and frustrations of adult friendship. Of group dynamics. Of basic humanity, and how it falters when social convention is violated.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

In short, it’s always real. That’s why the death of Shaun’s mother hits the way it does. That’s why Shaun and Liz leaving Ed feels genuinely sad. That’s why David being torn apart by zombies feels unfair, no matter how much of a shit he was.

These things hurt because they are the result of one genre encroaching on another…the horror triumphing over the comedy…the zombies forcing their way into our stronghold.

Which is evidence, if we need it at this point, that the zombies aren’t the important part of this film. They’re an obstacle. A problem unfolding in the background. A periodic danger that must be dealt with, unquestionably at inopportune times.

Like the later Her, Shaun of the Dead crafts a world in which something astounding and impossible happens, and then focuses all of our attention on how a small handful of characters deal with ancillary issues.

The zombies are just a method of advancing the plot…a way of forcing Shaun into action.

They’re symbolic of the world closing in on him, forcing him to do something…and that’s necessary, because Shaun is the kind of person who will choose inaction every time that inaction remains an option.

Shaun of the Dead, 2004

It might take zombies invading his house to get him off his ass. And once he is off his ass he might realize that he enjoys sitting on his ass and slide right back into that.

But that’s okay. Because at least now he knows. He knows who he is. He had to lose a lot along the way to arrive at that conclusion, and it might be a conclusion he expected from the start, but that was still his journey.

A human journey.

A journey that ends in neither tragedy nor triumph, but with a man understanding, for the first time, that he’s okay with who he already is.

It’s horror, it’s comedy, it’s romance, it’s action, it’s drama, it’s social commentary, and it’s none of these.

It’s Shaun of the Dead, and for most of the world it was a promising and exciting glimpse of a strong, witty, intelligent new film maker.

If we classify Shaun of the Dead as a horror film — and I would, without question — I think it’s one of the best. I’d place it alongside The Shining and Psycho in terms of raw quality. The fact that it’s a comedy doesn’t diminish is impact; if anything, it allows it to resonate in unexpected ways in these savvier and less sincere times. It’s a horror film that appeals with good reason to the audiences of today, and one that has clearly learned from yesterday’s best.

We only had to wait three years for Wright and Pegg’s followup, but the moment it arrived people were already arguing about which film was better. The lack of a clear consensus speaks volumes about how great both films were.

Which do I prefer? You’ll find out next week, when we talk about Hot Fuzz.

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