Friday 5 November 2021

Attack the Block (2011)

Director: Joe Cornish Writer: Joe Cornish Stars: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmail, Franz Drameh, Leeon Jones, Simon Howard, Luke Treadaway, Jumayn Hunter, Danielle Vitalis, Paige Meade, Sammy Williams, Michael Ajao and Nick Frost

Index: Horror Movie Calendar.

Many of the films that I’ve covered in this book are obscure for really good reasons, but this is one I’m hoping you’ve tracked down already. If not, let me be the one to introduce it to you, because this is a hidden gem that’s full of people you know now. I first saw it in 2011, when it came out, at the late and lamented Royale in Mesa. I picked up a copy to show the family and I’m watching it afresh for this project. It’s become an old friend. None of the key players were anybody at the time but, less than a decade later, you would recognise the first female Doctor Who, Jodie Whittaker, and the first black stormtrooper in Star Wars, John Boyega. Two more movies on from this £8m indie picture, the writer/director, Joe Cornish, was writing Ant-Man for Marvel. Debuting composer, Steven Price, would win an Oscar for his work on Gravity, though he had quite a career as a music editor before this, working with Howard Shore on The Lord of the Rings and Batman Begins. The only name fairly recognisable in 2011 was Nick Frost in a supporting role as Ron.

It’s here because the fireworks that kick off the movie and partially mask an imminent alien invasion aren’t for Independence Day, a holiday we amazingly enough don’t celebrate in the UK; they’re for Guy Fawkes Night, a peculiarly British holiday that most know about nowadays from the movie adaptation of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, V for Vendetta. I always loved Guy Fawkes Night growing up, with its bonfires, fireworks and the tray of parkin that Minnie Smithies baked for me every year because she knew exactly how much I adored it. Officially, it remembers something far more serious: the events of 5th November, 1605, when Guy Fawkes and his colleagues in the Gunpowder Plot planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament, murdering not only the entire British government in one fell swoop but also the king, James I, as he officially kicked off a new session during the State Opening of Parliament. Let’s say that the political and religious ramifications of the day are not as obvious in 2020, though I’ll get back to that later.

Attack the Block is a very English film but it gained an international release. Watching in a theatre in Arizona, it was clear that it was almost as exotic to the locals as if I was watching a film set in Singapore or Brazil. They had no idea what Guy Fawkes Night was and why it adds an extra level to the story. “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,” goes the famous rhyme. Sure, we can forget the rest but that part finds a new meaning here as Moses, a wannabe teenage gangster on an inner city London council estate, saves Wyndham Tower, and perhaps the city, from an alien invasion. He’s an unlikely hero, but Cornish, who wanted to counter the then trend of “hoodie horror” movies that framed urban youths as villains, builds his character gloriously and Boyega, a British Nigerian actor debuting on the big screen, does his job magnificently. It’s entirely unsurprising that he would soon become a worldwide star recognised the world over, even if some of my local audience would have benefitted from subtitles while this movie played.

We meet Jodie Whittaker first, as a trainee nurse walking back to her flat in Wyndham Tower on her own in the dark, while the sky is lit up by fireworks and kids run past her with sparklers. That she’s promptly mugged in the street by Moses and his crew of kids isn’t remotely surprising and it highlights just how new she is to the area. He gets her phone and her purse and even her ring when what seems to be a meteor crashes down onto the roof of a parked car right next to them. It allows Samantha to get away while the kids focus on the car, but it turns out to be no meteor. Some weird creature attacks Moses and, after he shanks it with his flickknife, it rushes off into the night. They track it to a playground, where it’s cornered itself, and they slaughter it. You won’t be remotely surprised, however, when the camera pans up into the night sky to show us that it was hardly alone. There are a heck of a lot more creatures on their way and they’re going to keep Moses and his crew very busy indeed.

It’s worth mentioning here that Wyndham Tower is surprisingly realistic and the sci-fi action adventure of this movie doesn’t stop Cornish throwing in a great deal of social commentary, as well as some neat nods to influences. It’s a high rise block of flats sitting in a council estate. The former means that it’s a huge ugly fire risk of a building, part of a concept introduced after World War II as a way to replace Victorian slums but soon falling out of favour because they became just as crime-ridden. The latter means that the homes are provided by the local council as a means to keep housing affordable for the working class and the needy. In other words, Wyndham Tower isn’t somewhere where you live because you want to; you live there because it’s the one and only viable option for your circumstances. It would be easy to see Moses as a teenage hoodlum, and appropriately given that he’s exactly that, but it takes a script like this to look beyond the surface at the reasons why he’s a teenage hoodlum and why there aren’t exactly a lot of other options for him.

The tower is obviously named for John Wyndham, British author of novels like The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, both of them filmed more than once, the latter twice as Village of the Damned. All his many science fiction works, released under a variety of pseudonyms built from combinations of his real names (he was born with no less than six of them: John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris), are quintessentially English, packed full of alien invasion and social commentary, making him an obvious influence on this film, even before we note that The Day of the Triffids kicks off with a meteor shower. In fact, that meteor shower, on the 1981 BBC mini-series adaptation, was arguably the point at which I discovered, as a highly impressionable ten year old boy, that science fiction was more than what I knew from Battle of the Planets and Star Wars; it was an actual genre of literature, many great examples of which were sitting patiently on my parents’ bookshelves waiting for me to dive into them.

We catch a glimpse of a map early in the film, which shows us that Wyndham Tower is bounded by four courts: Wells Court, Clarke Court, Moore Court and Huxley Court, presumably named for H. G. Wells, Arthur C. Clarke, Patrick Moore and Aldous Huxley, all of famous British science fiction authors except for Moore, an astronomer who presented the BBC’s The Sky at Night for an incredible 56 years. I love the idea that the real Sir Patrick might have seen these aliens first, but it’s possible that the name also refers to Alan Moore, writer of V for Vendetta, surely the most famous work of fiction to tie to Guy Fawkes Night. Ballard Street is clearly a nod to J. G. Ballard, British writer of dystopian futures including High Rise, and Herbert Way may be a nod to horror author James Herbert, with James Street working for both. Adams Street will be for Douglas Adams, of The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame, reminding that this is comedy as well as science fiction action. That just leaves Clayton Street (and Clayton Estate) and I have no idea there.

It might seem unlikely for a low budget sci-fi flick, but the script here is clever, well thought out and it deserves to be mentioned in the same conversations as Wyndham and Ballard, this combining the alien invasion of the former and the block’s social structure of the latter, going far deeper in commentary than the realisation that the gang members all know who Simon Cowell is but must take their kill to the the local drug dealer who watches the National Geographic channel to get any idea of what it might be. Moses is an up and comer in the criminal hierarchy of the block, not yet in with that drug dealer but working his way into his social strata. He has the confidence, at least on the outside, and that front is an inspiration to the younger kids already working with him or just hoping to one day, like Mayhem and Probs, who are ignored as inconsequential. The tough little kids clearly still answer to their mums and nannas. It’s telling that they head out to stop an alien invasion on BMX bikes but take the dog with them because dad said so.

Everything in England is class, even if it’s not supposed to be any more. Usually, that manifests as the rich upper class who rule, the comfortable middle class who run things and the poor working class who contribute manual labour, but it’s not that simple. Here, I was impressed with how even a council estate tower block features its own microcosmic version of those classes. A gangster called Hi-Hatz is the upper class here, ruling the roost with violence if not much smarts, and he’s also the clear-cut villain of the piece, the aliens being far from translatable into any moral sense of good or bad; in many ways, they’re the MacGuffins of Attack the Block. The middle class as the film begins is Ron, the drug dealer who grows his own crops in a hydroponics lab in the penthouse; he works for Hi-Hatz but knows everybody. The rest of the cast are working class, even Brewis, a posh university student and stoner who would be upper class in any other film. His part is skimpy but hilarious, continually cropping up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Moses is our real lead because he’s the one trying to improve himself. Even though he’s just another poor kid living in the block, he has ambition and wants to improve his lot, even if circumstances mean that it has to be within the local criminal heirarchy. As we’ll find, he’s also a born leader with a surprising sense of integrity, especially for his age which I won’t spoil but which is revealed here perfectly. He takes on the role of hero of the hour well, far more believably than most heroes in most alien invasion movies, as it’s a part of his front but also a part of him as well. He takes care of business in a whole bunch of different ways. You know you’re tough not because you mugged some girl with the benefit of superior numbers but because you beat up an alien monster that clamps a set of glowing jaws on your leg. You know you’re in charge when the kids actually pay attention when you tell them to “Go home. Lock your door. Do your homework. Watch Naruto. Stay inside tonight, get me.”

Sam’s a believable hero too; even though she finds herself in the bizarre situation of having to team up with the very same people who mugged her at the beginning of the movie. She and Moses both are full of vulnerability but they do what needs to be done. It’s fair to say that they both have good reasons. She’s just passed her nursing exams and her training kicks in. He realises that he’s the draw for the aliens because he killed the first one, so feels a responsibility to take them down. All these kids have balls too, whether it’s the younger boys who make up Moses’s crew or their sisters and girlfriends. One of the sparks for this film was Cornish getting mugged. Knowing he wanted to adapt it into science fiction, he interviewed urban youths to find out what they would use if a real alien invasion happened. Their responses set up some of the best moments of this movie. The girls beat one monster to death with a lamp stand and an ice skate. Moses is ready with a samurai sword but it sticks in the wall, so Sam has to save him.

Frankly, I love everything about this movie, but the characters are first and foremost. I find Brewis hilarious, the posh pothead who was based on Cornish himself as a youth. He’s easily the most educated character in the movie but everyone else knows that they’re responsible for solving their own problems, while he expects others to solve his for him. He’s the fish out of water here, an entitled boy of society who lost his allowance when he left skunkweed in his trousers when he washed them. At every point, his perspective is completely different to that of everyone else. I adored Pest too, who’s wise beyond his years and gets so many of the best lines of the picture. He’s hilarious too but delivers every line with utter seriousness. I need to watch Strippers vs. Werewolves entirely for the presence of actor Alex Esmail. Amazingly it isn’t Pest who gets a very telling line at the very end of the movie: “Why do you always arrest the wrong people?” It seems like it ought to have been, but I understand why it wasn’t.

Behind the screen, I’m impressed every time I watch this with the way that Cornish used his budget so well. We see little of London here, beyond the opening. However, we do see everything we need to see in whatever odd alley, street or corridor we happen to be in. He uses a lift to great effect, one particular example ably highlighting just how much mayhem happened in there without having to splurge for effects. The effects sequences that he did spend money on are wisely left for wider establishing shots like looks out at the city from Ron’s Weed Room and one with many aliens climbing up the outside of the block. The superb use of lighting is notable early, from the moment that Moses has Pest throw a banger into the playground fort that they’ve trapped the first monster inside. And the alien design is cool too. They’re big black shadows of fur with blue glow in the dark mouths and no eyes. They’re old school too: two men in gorilla suits with animatronic jaws and more unearthly aspects added in post-production.

And I love all the little details that collectively build a fantastic picture of how inner city London works (or more often doesn’t). For instance, these characters don’t have vehicles to drive around in like almost every character in almost every movie. Sure, some are pretty young, but they all walk for the most part while a few have BMX bikes. Dennis even has a pizza delivery moped and, when he rescues Moses from a police van, we realise why there are learner plates on it: he’s getting lessons for Christmas. Only Brewis has a car, because of course he does, but even then it’s his dad’s and he gets to worry about how to explain to him why it was wrecked: it was the car the first alien crash landed onto. Instead of the tired old cliché of mobile phones having no signal in horror movies, we get the more believable problem of the kids only having enough credit left for one text. Perhaps most tellingly, there’s a conspiracy theory spun up at one point, where Moses suggests that the monsters may be government sent to kill the black population.

It ends, of course, with Moses being arrested, which I don’t think counts as a spoiler, but his legend already growing, suggesting to us that, in this very small microcosm of London, he’ll be remembered for a long time, appropriate for Guy Fawkes Night. Fawkes is a name almost everybody in England knows, even though he died in 1606 at only 35, in a grisly fashion worthy of a horror movie. Discovered leaving the cellars of the House of Lords, in which 36 barrels of gunpowder were ready to be detonated, he was quickly found guilty of high treason. He was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered after being dragged by a horse from the Tower of London to Westminster. He would be removed from the noose before life was entirely extinguished and placed on a table, where his intestines and sexual organs would be cut out and burned in front of him. He would be decapitated and hacked into four pieces, each to be sent to one of “the four corners of the kingdom” in an effort to dissuade other traitors to the Crown.

Even though he died partway through that process, breaking his neck before ever being drawn, we remember his grisly procession down through the centuries. On Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, the tradition is for local children to create a “guy” out of what newspapers and old clothes they find, with a mask the finishing touch. They process it through the streets to a huge bonfire, where it’s put in place at the peak before the whole thing is set alight. Some towns, like Lewes, make an even bigger deal out of this, with the town’s population of 17,000 swollen to up to 80,000 for six separate parades and fireworks displays. They also dig deeper into a vibrant Protestant vs. Catholic history to burn not only Guy Fawkes but Pope Paul V and sometimes others, like Osama bin Laden in 2001. The Daily Telegraph appropriately described it in 2008 as “a head-on collision of Halloween and Mardi Gras” and it’s not hard to see similarities to both, with the krewes of New Orleans replaced by bonfire societies in Lewes.

Not every connection to Guy Fawkes Night is grisly, of course. There are two ways in which it has had quite the impact on a world far beyond Lewes or London or the United Kingdom. For one, V for Vendetta used a Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of rebellion, not as a pro-Catholic, anti-Protestant sentiment but as a more general form of rebellion against a dystopian leadership in a future Britain. In turn, after being popularised through the 2005 movie adaptation, that mask was adopted by the Anonymous movement, quickly becoming a symbol of wider rebellion, seen in marches against a variety of injustices against modern society. A still more abstract connection is the meaning of the word “guy”. The effigy of Guy Fawkes soon became known as the “guy” and, by the 19th century, “guy” had become any oddly dressed person. Over time, it lost all other connotations to now simply define a person, any person of any gender. Next time you hear “you guys”, it’s part of a history going right back to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Now, let’s see a spin-off of this film, starring Probs and Mayhem, for its tenth anniversary in 2021!

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