Ginger Nuts of Horror
This post contains epic spoilers for the film RoboCop – as in, it’s likely to spoil your 20th re-watch, let alone your first viewing. For this reason, and because the 1987 movie RoboCop is objectively the best movie ever made, if you haven’t seen it, go and see it right now, for the love of God. Then come back once you’ve scraped your brain off the wall and deposited it back into your skull, okay?
Oh, there’s also spoilers for Lethal Weapon, Face/Off, Die Hard, First Blood, Don’t Look Now, and in a cruel twist of fate, the TV show ER. But fuck them, they’re not RoboCop.
To describe RoboCop as the greatest movie ever made is to make an observation so obvious as to be trite. This is after all the movie that set an all-time record when it received 23 Oscars at the 59th annual Academy Awards, losing out only in the ‘Best Documentary’ category (which is probably the only reason anyone is still talking about ‘Women – For America, For the World’). It’s worth noting in passing that had the film been released in the era of DVD, no doubt a ‘making of’ short would have provided a sweep. Of course, the Academy did compensate for this by providing the special ‘RoboCop award for outstanding awesomeness in every conceivable way’ featuring, as we all know, the only time in Oscar history that the statuette was chrome rather than gold, and for that matter the only time it wore a helmet and carried a semi automatic pistol.
It’s worth remembering that there was some minor controversy around this ceremony – is was felt by some to be bending the rules a little to have ‘Best Animated Short’ won by a clip reel of all the ED-209 stop motion work cut together, and who could forget the outrage when the Italian dubbed version of the film won ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ even though the Spanish dub was widely considered the superior article? Still, overall, ’87 will forever be remembered, fairly, as the RoboCop Oscars.
The other cultural implications of this seismic film event are similarly familiar to us all, so I shall only mention in passing the congressional medal of honour bestowed upon Paul Verhoven, the presidential decree that no sequels, remakes, reboots, spin-offs or ancillary material of any description be allowed to be created, lest they dilute the greatness of what had been achieved (the moment when Regan truly fulfilled his promise of being a unity president, and the achievement he is quite rightly most fondly remembered for), Roger Ebert’s emotional retirement following his simple, two sentence review of the film (‘There are no more worlds to be conquered. Three thumbs up’), and of course the moment in 1988 when, standing in the ruins of the Berlin wall, the ex-East German commissar uttered the fateful words ‘Can we watch RoboCop now, please?’
What can your humble correspondent usefully say in the face of the weight of this history? Why, nothing. The most base and lazy student of the past 30 years will already be appraised of the might and splendour of this singular film.
In order to have anything useful to say, we must first... forget. We must imagine. Imagine a world where this film did not receive the recognition it deserved. Where it was perhaps dismissed as merely another late 80’s action movie, albeit one with some biting social satire and some good performances. One where, perhaps, Oliver Stone or Woody Allan dominated Oscar proceedings. Further, we must then imagine how that world, that alternate 1987, might look through the eyes of a child...
I was 11 years old when I first saw RoboCop.
It was the summer of 1989, the school summer holidays, to be as precise as I can manage at such distance, and I was staying at the house of my best friend, ‘Ed’ (not his real name) for the weekend. ‘Ed’s mother was away for most of the Saturday. This was fortunate, because Saturday was the day the video van man came around.
To understand the video van man, you have to understand rural Devon, circa 1989. Not a wretched hive of scum and villainy (me and my mates did our best, but there were only three of us, and only so many milk bottles you could steal) more a cultural wasteland. The nearest town to the village I grew up in that had a cinema was 8 miles away. When you’re 11 years old, that might as well be the moon. The nearest video rental place was similarly far away.
That’s where the video van man came in.
I don’t know for sure if he was actually affiliated with an existing video rental establishment, or just a chancer with a respectably large VHS collection and a van. It didn’t matter. What did matter was that, once a week, he came to the village, stopping at each house that had a VCR (don’t ask me how he knew which did and which did not, but the bugger did – we didn’t get one until I was 13, and were bothered not once in all that time, then within 2 weeks of ours being hooked up, there he was), and opened the back of the van so we could all have a good peruse.
This in and of itself was, of course, a Big Deal. What elevated him from merely Big Deal to Life Changer was this – he didn’t give a fuck about age certificates. Not a single, solitary fuck. If you were old enough to read the name of the film you wanted to rent, and you were prepared to relinquish the two pound coins he wanted as payment, the VCR was yours for the week, no questions asked.
(I discovered later that the situation was even more nefarious. Once we had a VCR at home and he noted my predilection for horror films, he granted me access to the ‘hidden’ drawer of ‘banned’ films, like ‘Zombie Flesh Eaters’ and that one where the devil came out of a woman’s ear. Had I been exposed to them at 11 rather than 13, I might be writing a rather different blog entry on a vastly different site, waxing lyrical about the evils of horror filmmakers and the warping effect of such infamy on young minds.
Probably not. I’d read IT by then. Still.)
‘Ed’ and I were familiar with his services already, having tested the waters on a prior occasion with the delightful ‘Big Trouble In Little China’, which had rightly absorbed us for a weekend. But ‘Big Trouble...’ was only a 15, and this weekend we were determined to go All The Way. It was time to test our courage and resolve against the big red warning that read: ’18 – Adults only’. What taboo could be more thrilling to cross? What depraved delights would we find inside? What deeply unsuitable sights and sounds might we encounter? Bloodshed? Dismemberment?
We scanned the library of titles with eagerness and care, but there would be, could be, only one serious contender. We’d seen the poster before, that amazing image of the cyborg stepping out of the police car, looking like the meanest thing to have ever walked creation, and that awe-inspiring minimalist tag line:
We paid the man in slightly sweaty goldies, and took our prized possession back into ‘Ed’s house for immediate consumption. It was 10am, and his mother would not return to the house until at least 5pm.
It was RoboCop time.
Here’s the problem with the next bit – I can’t do it. I’ve seen RoboCop in excess of 70 times now. This is way more than twice the number of times I’ve seen my next watched film (either Pulp Fiction or The Sting). I regret not a single viewing, and hope to double it or more before I die, but there is one unavoidable consequence, which is that I can no longer accurately re-create that first time viewing experience.
I was 11. I will have liked the gun. I will have fallen in love with the sound of his footsteps, the robotic whine and deep base crunch of each boot hitting the floor. I must have been horrified by much of the bloodshed, especially Murphy’s execution and the demise of poor old Kenny (though I also know that by the end of the weekend I would watch that same scene and cackle like a loon). The constant foul language will have delighted me, as will the commercials – I was too young to fully appreciate the satire, but I was bright and film savvy enough to realise they were supposed to be funny.
ED-209 will have delighted and repelled me in equal measure. Bob’s fraternisation with a couple of ‘models’ will have left me thoroughly flustered and amazed. His death will have confirmed for me that the greatest two villains to ever grace a movie screen were Clarence Boddicker and Dick Jones. Beyond that, all I can tell you is this: As soon as the credits started to roll, we’d stopped the tape and hit rewind.
We needed to see it again.
We watched RoboCop 14 times that weekend (yeah, we were 11, we counted). We watched until the second ‘Ed’s mum walked in, and from the minute she went to bed until we couldn’t keep our eyes open (around 2am). She went out after breakfast on Sunday morning, and we hit play again.
We watched it. We rewound it. We slow mo’d. We frame advanced. We replayed lines of dialogue over and over, trying to replicate the cadence and timbre perfectly (to this day, I think I have a pretty decent ‘dead or alive, you’re coming with me’, and my ‘Well I guess we’re going to be friends after all... Richard’ was perfect until my voice dropped), and sometimes just for laughs. After all, when you’re 11, watching a man repeatedly yell the words ‘Fuck me!’ with increasing aggression and disbelief as he plugs round after round into the bullet proof metal chest of the hardest android to ever grace the silver screen (sorry Bladerunner, sorry Terminator, but 1987 just called to say RoboCop can kick both your asses), before he is punched through the glass door of a refrigerator as he fails to flee the scene, is NEVER not funny. And I lived the proof of it.
Frame advance is also how I know that the effect on the ED-209 gun was achieved by interspersing frames of the ‘flame’ effect of the gun firing (complete with tiny flames shooting from side exhausts to the main barrel) with beams of solid white to create a strobe effect. It is ALSO the reason that I can report with a moral certainty that in that same scene, as Kenny is being shot repeatedly with high calibre rounds and his chest and stomach explode with blood, that his tie is actually blown into the air by one squib only to be blown in half by a second squib within 12 or 14 frames.
I need those of you with a passing familiarity with how movie effects work (especially pre-digital effects) to just sit there for a moment and contemplate in silent awe the enormity of what I’ve just described. Think about the care, the love, and the sheer perverted joy that must have gone into even attempting that effect, let alone pulling it off.
Suffice it to say, by the time my exhausted, bloodshot-eyed self had been returned to my rightful parental guardian at the end of the weekend, I was as certain as a human being can ever be that I had, in fact, seen the greatest move ever made.
But, you know, I was 11 years old. What did I really know?
As it turns out – EVERYTHING.
Because here’s the thing about RoboCop, kids. Here’s the great truth I have learned and relearned over and over again, since that fateful weekend in the summer of ’89. This film ain’t ‘The Lost Boys’, and it ain’t ‘The Goonies’, and it sure as shit isn’t ‘Return of the Jedi’. What I’m saying here is that RoboCop is The Real Deal. It stands up. Over and over.
It is, in fact, the greatest movie ever made... and here’s the proof.
First – it’s the greatest action movie ever made. Full stop. Oh really? You’re not sure about that? Well, by all means, let’s look at the competition...
· Lethal Weapon? Please. Riggs fails to take the shot on Joshua. He has a good 3 -4 seconds – plenty long enough to start cracking wise before he’s snuck up on and disarmed – and he blows it. Compare this to RoboCop dealing with Mr. Would-be-rapist. Case closed.
· Face/Off? Warmer, but here’s the problem; ultimately, in Face/Off the characters are just chess pieces, moved about the plot on pre-determined courses in order to facilitate one admittedly gorgeous action scene after another. If you doubt me, consider the entirely superfluous ‘oh, I just realised we haven’t had a speedboat chase yet’ finale, or the nauseating ‘hey I lost my son but I will instead adopt the son of my actual son’s killer (and also the man who has effectively raped my wife for the last few weeks) and my wife will be cool with that because that’s how people work’. I mean to say, lovely action sequences, but blerg.
· Terminator/Terminator 2? Here’s the problem with those choices – Arnie is only good as a wooden robotic character because he is, in real life, a wooden robotic character. In T2, when ‘real stuff’ starts happening, he’s woefully inadequate to the task, and ‘The Terminator’ lacks that amazing moment when Paul Weller says ‘I can feel them.... but I can’t remember them’.
· First Blood/Rambo? First Blood is a fine, fine film. But ultimately, the ‘action’ part is the least important, and not what defines the film as important or good. That is entirely down to the closing 15 minutes of the movie, when John Rambo finally collapses into a gibbering heap, recounting fractured stories of fallen comrades and his return home, as the PTSD that’s driven the whole sorry narrative finally unravels him, and the broken-down vet from Springsteen’s ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ is made flesh before our disbelieving eyes. A great movie? Absolutely. The best action movie? Nah. Not the point.
‘Rambo’, the fourth movie in the franchise, suffers from the opposite problem. If we were to discuss ‘purest action movie’, I think a strong case could be made. But pure /= best.
· Die Hard. Okay, you know what? This is a serious contender, and worthy of respect. Die Hard features wall-to-wall outstanding acting performances, brilliantly choreographed action set-pieces that flow effortlessly and logically, sublime pacing, and supremely satisfying plotting. Plus Alan Rickman and Bruce Willis at the height of their powers.
You know what it doesn’t have? “You have 20 seconds to comply.”
“Okay, Kit, you got us, RoboCop is the best action movie ever made. Fine, conceded. But best movie full stop?”
Fair point. But here’s the thing about RoboCop. Is isn’t just the best action movie ever made.
It’s also the best satire ever made. As the following comparisons will amply demonstrate...
· Dr. Strangelove? Okay, show me the bit in Dr. Strangelove where there’s a massive shootout in a cocaine factory. I can wait... FOREVER, BECAUSE IT’S NOT THERE!
· Burn After Reading? I’ll grant you. It’s got the funniest punch line, but you have to slog through the 120 minutes of shaggy-dog setup to get there. Also, no ‘Nuke ‘em!’.
· The Big Lebowski? It’s funnier, I’ll freely grant, but not actually a satire. Also, at no point does anyone say ‘I’d buy that for a dollar!’.
But I’m not done there. In addition to being best action move and best satire, RoboCop is ALSO and AT THE SAME TIME the best satire of an action movie.
What’s that you say? Last Action Hero?
As the kids say, LOL.
“Okay Kit, you got it. The best action movie, the best satire, and the best satire of an action movie. Sounds like this RoboCop movie might actually be a bit of a thing, but...”
But nothing, I’m not done yet. There’s one final category in which RobCop is objectively the best film ever made, and it’s the clincher. Ready?
RoboCop is... the best horror movie ever made.
I can hear your incredulous gasp from here, and you haven’t even read this yet because I’m still typing it (why, yes, now you come to mention it, I do have some game). I think I may even detect some indignant spluttering. Perchance, the odd harrumph. But please, consider the evidence...
· Don’t Look Now? All chat, no trousers. ‘ooh, a little person in a red coat!’ Big deal.
· The Texas Chainsaw Massacre? This movie has a killer rep, but it’s a smokescreen. Bodycount talks, BS walks. So long, Leatherface.
· The Exorcist. Again, it’s a good horror movie. But where is the moment in The Exorcist when a man drives into a vat of toxic waste, tumbles from the rear of his van, shuffles up to a colleague with his skin actually melting off his body while gibbering ‘hellllll me?’, only to be rejected by said colleague and ultimately killed by being hit by a speeding car that is going so fast that the weakened state of the body causes, on impact, the head to roll over the roof of the car as the legs collapse underneath and blood washes over the windscreen? FUCKING NOWHERE, that’s where.
For that shit, you need RoboCop. In RoboCop, you have that. You also have:
· Metal fist spikes driven through necks
· Visceral body shock horror – Murphy’s execution scene is as brutal and sadistic as anything you’ll see in ‘Hostel’, and with 1000% more point
· A man is shot through the knees and then executed BY TIMED GRENADE
· ED-209 shooting an innocent man for over 60 seconds (assuming you have the director’s cut) whilst his corporate colleagues watch, helpless
· Oh yeah, also, it’s basically a retelling of the original horror story – Frankenstein. So there’s that.
As well as the aforementioned death by toxic waste. (Sidebar: That actor would go on to play by far the most interesting character in the entire 734 season run of ER (Ed: Is this right? It felt that long..). This character would lose a hand to a freak accident with a helicopter, and later die by having that same helicopter dropped on his head. Thanks to RoboCop, that remains only the second strangest death this actor has had a character suffer from)
BLAM! Best horror movie ever. Fact.
“Blimey Kit, that’s pretty comprehensive. Anything else?”
NnnnnnnnYes. Actually yes. RoboCop is also the finest comedy horror movie ever made. Because ‘Young Frankenstein’ isn’t actually scary, ‘Scream’ isn’t actually funny, and ‘Scary Movie’ is nether scary nor funny.
And here’s the thing. Being the best action movie, satire, satire of an action movie, horror movie, and comedy horror movie doesn’t merely mean the film is five times better than it’s nearest rival. Oh no. Because those rivals were only trying to be one thing. RoboCop tries, and succeeds at being the best at, five different categories of movie at the same time. That’s not five times more difficult, that’s exponentially five times more difficult.
I can see I’m losing some of you. Not to worry, I’ve created this handy pie chart comparison which I think illustrates my point with greater clarity:
There you have it. I haven’t even scratched the surface of the universe of awesome represented in the above chart. The essential goofiness of Murphy, that makes his humanity apparent and also provides the bridge to his horrifically altered state, when the gun trick he learned to impress his son becomes the way in which his ex-partner realises who RoboCop really is. The hard-bitten black desk sergeant that rises above cliché thanks to a transcendent performance by character actor Robert DoQui. The sound! The sound of those metallic boots hitting the ground, the background whine of robotics in the background, the awesome BOOM of the military grade firepower OCP gives to the gangsters set loose to destroy RoboCop, the harsh robotic intonation of ED-209 informing the hapless Kenny (they killed Kenny!!!!) that he has five seconds to comply, never mind that fact that he complied 17 seconds ago and in another 4 seconds will be shot to hamburger until the robot runs out of ammo because ‘the future of urban pacification’ is a flaky piece of shit that doesn’t work properly because the creator was too busy kissing pentagon ass and promising spare parts for the next twenty years to care about whether or not it worked.
I could go on and on and on and on and on. For as long as you’re buying, I’ll tell you how awesome RoboCop is, and when your wallet is empty, and the bar is dry, and my liver is failing, I’ll still have more to say.
Because it’s the best fucking movie ever made. Fact.
It’s also the movie that made me.
KP – 28/02/14
Kit Power lives in the UK and writes fiction that lurks at the boundaries of the horror, fantasy, and thriller genres, trying to bum a smoke or hitch a ride from the unwary.
In his secret alter-ego of Kit Gonzo, he also performs as front man (and occasionally blogs) for death cult and popular beat combo The Disciples Of Gonzo, www.disciplesofgonzo.com.
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