Tower blocks? Not one that we can see.
Gangs? Yes indeed.
In his Director’s Diary on Attack The Block – as seen in Empire’s May Issue, fact fans – Joe talks about watching a lot of gang films with his cinematographer, Tom Townend, and this is the first he mentions. Of course, it’s shot in grainy black-and-white with occasional flashes of colour, something that Attack The Block doesn’t pay too much attention to – you know, with the glowing green monster teeth and the variously coloured tracksuits and such. But when it comes to creating that close-knit gang dynamic and atmosphere onto the big screen, there’s obviously a lot to be learnt from Coppola’s overcooked and critically panned misfire. As Joe says himself, “The way he shoots large groups of people walking along the way the gangs walk… there’s some amazing shots in Rumble Fish of the gang just walking along.”
Tower blocks? Hmm, not so much.
Gangs? Big time.
Now if you’re going to be making Rumble Fish one of your reference points – as well you might – you’d be hard-pressed not to take a look at Coppola’s other tough-young-men flick, The Outsiders. Best known for starring actors that would go on to become huge stars later on (Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Matt Dillon, Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, Diane Lane) it’s also an exceptionally useful film for a serious player of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. You know, just in case you were wondering. Anyway, though The Outsiders has its flaws, it’ll always be a piece of filmmaking that manages a genuinely realistic portrayal of teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks – no mean feat, and one Joe himself manages in Attack The Block.
Aliens? Bloody loads.
Tower blocks? It’s way out west – ain’t no tower blocks there, no sir.
Gangs? What, of Critters? Well, maybe…
Often compared to its better-known and ever-so-slightly similar competitor Gremlins, Critters also features tiny little evil buggers from space who want to bite you, frighten you and generally cause a ruckus. They also talk – pithily subtitled, mind, but still, there are words there – and have shaggy hair. And though the “alien wolf gorilla motherfuckers” from Attack The Block share the fuzz but not the power of speech, it’s the Western-style defend-the-town-from-the-marauding-invaders set-up that can be most obviously seen in Joe Cornish’s debut. A real cult classic, there’s also plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour to be had with Critters, poking fun at its small town setting as well 1950s monster movies in general, so if you happen to have a spare Saturday night and fancy some ‘80s silliness, you could do a hell of a lot worse.
Aliens? One, then another. Then another, then another, then another...
Tower blocks? Nah mate.
Gangs? No sir.
There are plenty of comparisons to be made with Gremlins and Attack The Block. For starters, there’s the inventive means of disposing of the wee bastards – ATB’s fireworks, machetes, ceremonial samurai swords; Gremlins’ microwave, blender, kitchen knife and so on – the seemingly never-ending swarm of foes, and the dark, dark comedy. As Joe’s keen to point out, Attack The Block’s “a dark comedy, but scary and suspenseful first and foremost. The laughs come as a release.” The same could easily be said of Gremlins (but not Gremlins 2), where you know you’re there to be freaked out, but there’s still a few chuckles along the way. That said, we don’t know what happens if you feed the Attack The Block aliens after midnight… probably best not thinking about it. Yeesh.
Aliens? One. And those on the ship, sure.
Tower blocks? Not as many as we’d like.
Gangs? Can you be in a gang if you all ride pushbikes?
If you’re making a kids-meet-an-alien movie and you’re not inspired by E.T., something’s wrong with you. Hell, if you’re not inspired by E.T. generally, something’s wrong with you. Okay, maybe that’s going too far, but still – E.T. is seminal science fiction movie, and God knows we wouldn’t have Attack The Block without it. Visually, the clearest link between the two films is the bikes the kids ride. The mini-moto, the mountain bike, the Pizza-delivery moped clearly echo Elliot and his mates on their pushbikes pegging it to E.T.’s spaceship. That said, in ATB, no-one starts flying… or do they? No, they don’t. We’ve just double-checked, and they definitely don’t. There, that’s sorted.
Aliens? None, though some of the gangs look like ‘em.
Tower blocks? In passing, maybe…
Gangs? So many, many gangs.
Looking back at The Warriors, it all seems amazingly bonkers. A group of gangs gather together, and the leader of the most powerful gang gets assassinated. One gang – The Warriors – gets the blame, and so begins a New York-wide game of cat-and-mouse where each and every other gang tries to do them in, be it whilst wearing clown-like facepaint and swinging baseball bats, or sporting top hats and yellow sleeveless vests. Now all of this seems like it doesn’t have much to with Brixton being bombarded with hairy evil aliens, but the key connection between the two films is the lighting and the inner-city setting, as all the film is shot in the middle of the night. Then there’s the variety of weapons seen, the general action element and cultish nature, but all in all, anyone who needs to shoot urban locations in pitch black pretty much has to watch The Warriors. Them’s the rules.
Aliens? Not one alien.
Tower blocks? Not one tower block.
Gangs? More than enough to go round.
If you’ve liked The Warriors, you’ll probably want to watch Streets of Fire, brought to us by the same director, Walter Hill (who also helped write Aliens, Alien 3 and Last Man Standing). There are many similarities, both in setting and tone. Gangs abound, and it’s set in a dark, grim inner-city underworld, but it’s got a bizarre 1950s / 1980s / rock and roll twist that arguably shouldn’t be seen anywhere else, ever. The visual aesthetic eventually became an inspiration for Tim Burton’s Gotham in his Batman movies, but that’s by the by really – what Joe was really watching this for was another fine example of midnight shooting schedules and five or more angry men on the screen at once. Who knew capturing gangs on camera was so tough? Or capturing gangs at all, really…
Tower blocks? In a way, if you count the police station.
Gangs? Yes, and what a gang it is…
Attack The Block sees a tooled-up group holed up in a building, cut off from the rest of the city. Assault On Precinct 13 sees a tooled-up group holed up in a building, cut off from the rest of the city. Sure, in the former it’s a group of young thugs, the latter some secretaries, some policemen, and a convicted criminal, but the parallel is as clear as day: those aliens/blood-oathed gang members ain’t going to kill themselves. The fact that the gang members don’t speak as they storm the building also adds to the creepiness, much like the growling “alien wolf gorilla motherfuckers.” After all, there’s a reason people have been describing Attack The Block as “Assault On Precinct 13 only with monsters and a tower block…”
Aliens? One alien. One big, bloody scary alien.
Tower blocks? Antarctica ain't got none.
Gangs? Not really. Not really at all, in fact.
Joe has cited John Carpenter as being a huge inspiration for Attack The Block – and his taste in movies generally – and though Assault On Precinct 13 probably bears more direct comparisons, there’s no way you couldn’t mention the stupidly scary The Thing. The ultimate antidote to the soppy alien that was E.T. (released only two weeks earlier), The Thing brings the fear in a big way, and without spoiling some scares in Attack The Block, it’s easy to see where Joe got his love of making people jump out of their seats. That said, many remember The Thing best for its nauseating-yet-brilliant visual effects, Attack The Block revels in less directly gruesome scares. Aside from one specific moment, you’d be hard-pressed to find a truly gory, visually ugly shot, Joe preferring to keep things… subtler.
Aliens? No aliens.
Tower blocks? No tower blocks.
Gangs? No gangs.
One of the pleasures of the Attack The Block aliens is that they lurk in the shadows, their bright green teeth only occasionally revealing their location – that and their habit of wanting to kill everyone. Michael Myers also lurks in the shadows, and without that much blood and gore, scares the living hell out of you. So the biggest real connection between Carpenter’s horror masterpiece and Attack The Block – you know, aside from the darkness thing – is that if you’re going to make a horror, you’re going to have to watch Halloween. It’s just another one of them rules, sorry. Carpenter’s the boss, that’s just the way it goes…
Tower blocks? Will a pirate ship do?
Gangs? A really awesome gang of awesomeness.
The key similarity between these two is the fact that both The Goonies and the hoodies aren’t dumbed down – both are made as authentic as possible in an attempt to bring you into their world, almost as a balm to the complete and utter bonkers-ness of a group of teenagers finding the treasure of One-Eyed Willie or fending of hordes of bloodthirsty aliens. Plus, neither group of youngsters are the angels that their parents would no doubt like them to be, but they're still somehow strangely likeable and relatable even at their worst.
Aliens? Just the one alien, but what an alien…
Tower blocks? You’ll have to wait for Predator 2 for that, alas.
Gangs? One gang of trained mercenaries. And one hell of a machine gun.
Speaking about Predator, it’s clear that this was a film that Cornish really loved when he was growing up. As a young ‘un on a trip to Paris, he watched it with his mate Adam Buxton – who some Joe Cornish fans may well have heard of – and he adored it. How it affected Attack The Block is not clear-cut, what with the aliens not having any high-tech weaponry and so on, but the link of an unknown, extra-terrestrial enemy stalking your movements is clear from the off. Plus, these enemies will require serious use of both brain and brawn to take down… a little bit like Dutch’s last minute mud bath. That said, don’t expect Dennis to slap on some mud to take these buggers down – there’s surprisingly little in the average tower block, you see.
Aliens? Just poltergeists, alas.
Tower blocks? Yes! Tall building alert!
Gangs? Alas no, though that might have made it better.
Sound the alarm, hit the button, fire the cannons and, um, call the lift, because this is a horror film that’s actually, genuinely, really shot in a tower block… of sorts. Okay, a tall building. Just look at the poster, because that says it all, really. And sure, the film itself is utter, utter bobbins, fully deserving its pitiful taking at the box office and universal dismissal from the critics, but it’s a horror film set in a tall building, goddamn it, and that’s what counts! And there are elevators! And... people! That makes it a direct ancestor of this film, and you’ve got to show it some respect for that at least.
Aliens? Loads of the buggers.
Tower blocks? Yes! Yes ! Yes!
Gangs? No, but Leo is a one-man gang, natch.
What is it about the third film in horror franchises and inner-city locations? First Poltergeist 3; now this, Critters 3 – better known as Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie debut, and one that prompted hundreds of thousands of Titanic obsessives to hunt it down to get a look at Jack when he was a wee nipper. But instead of an even cuter version of their posterboy, they got an even cuter version of their posterboy and an inner-city horror, complete with biting, snapping, snarling furry beasties desperate to have at young master DiCaprio. A direct-to-video flick, shot back-to-back with Critters 4, it’s not the best of the Critters franchise – not by a long way – but Joe would have to at least take look at it anyway, if only to point and laugh at Leo. Seriously, where is he now?
Speaking to Joe Cornish recently, we couldn’t help but ask him about the films that influenced Attack The Block. Because though he’s said that the original flash of inspiration came from getting mugged in south London one dark evening, we were interested in the movies that helped him frame his shots, balance the dialogue, and actually bring Moses and Biggz and co. to life. Like the gentleman he is, he responded with 13 examples of movies that inspired him, and here they all are, kicking off on the next slide with Rumble Fish and ending with, well, you’ll have to wait and see.