The Virginian Suicides

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Another enjoyable Wimbledon Tennis Championship draws to a close. Each year, as a racquet-ball widower, I draw upon the alternative entertainment on offer at the Curzon cinema – and by digital extension, Curzon Home Cinema – to help me through the fortnight of tennis. I’ve already reviewed The Midwife and A Man Called Ove; here’s the second rally, effected over two days. (As an embargo prevents me from reviewing Dunkirk until tomorrow, I feel I should honour the smaller films on offer.)

The “biggest” of the five films I’ve chalked up is The Beguiled, in the sense that it was directed by Sofia Coppola, who picked up an award at Cannes for the painstaking trouble she went to in remaking an ancient Clint Eastwood film for the Millennials. It’s certainly not the longest of the five pictures that entertained me over the weekend: at 94 minutes, it’s nine minutes shorter than Don Siegel’s 1971 version, but then, Coppola has chosen to excise the black slave character Hallie (Mae Mercer) for fear – I have assumed – of muddying the waters of the story for white liberal viewers. It really is gorgeous to look at. Coppola’s films tend to be. Shot in Louisiana, for Virginia (It was set in Mississippi in the original), it’s a fecund setting, all shafts of light and trailing fronds, a wall of natural beauty between the virginal/celibate, starched female inhabitants of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies (two adult tutors, five remaining young ladies) and the outside world ie. the grim reality of the American Civil War, fetchingly hinted at by photogenic wisps of smoke in the far distance and tiny thrums of gunpowder igniting. Colin Farrell plays Clint’s Corporal John McBurney, the injured Union soldier taken in by the seminary to convalesce and to ruin the hormonal balance of the plantation house.

I don’t object to beauty for its own sake. Film is a visual medium, after all. But The Beguiled lacks freight. It is almost weightless. Even when Farrell’s sap rises, it’s as glimpsed and hinted-at as the plumes of war. He has one outburst – the one with the pet turtle if you saw Clint in 1971 – but even that’s cauterised. His fate will come as no surprise to anyone who saw the original film on TV, as I did as a kid , or who saw this remake’s trailer, which gives the whole game away. It’s an oddly neutered version of the original film. When Nicole Kidman’s headmistress washes the war-filthy body of an unconscious Farrell (something the slave did in the first version), he looks like he’s already been pre-washed. When the ladies do what it’s clear they’re going to from the trailer, it’s all off-screen. A tale of violent coming-of-age in a violent era it may be, but the violence is not even worth mentioning on the BBFC classification card (only “infrequent strong sex” – if you insist!) It reminded me of Coppola’s delectably moody debut, The Virgin Suicides (which shares Kirsten Dunst with The Beguiled, now all grown up) – but that really was beguiling. It’s like she’s moved from art to home decorating.

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Get Out (released earlier in the year and out on DVD next week) is the polar opposite of The Beguiled in terms of squeamishness around race. Written and directed by feature debutant Jordan Peele – half of an acclaimed sketch double-act Key & Peele, yet to be exported here – this is a horror film about race. It comes on like a laser-guided post-Girls satire on the terror of white liberals around black people, with Chris (British export Daniel Kaluuya), the “black boyfriend” of Rose (Allison Williams), who’s taken to meet the rich parents in their cloistered suburban enclave, where the only black faces belong to “servants”, about whom Mom (Catherine Keener) and Dad (Bradley Whitford) are wracked with progressive guilt. (Rose tells Chris she never told them he was black, and why, as a colourblind liberal, would she?) From the get-go, Get Out is different. On first inspection, though drawn as figures of fun, the parents aren’t racist. The subservience of their black maid, and the compliance of their black groundskeeper, give cause for concern, but Chris is as blindsided by his own desire not to be reactionary to the casual stereotyping. (One white guest at party of Mike Leigh awkwardness actually hints at a black man’s fabled sexual prowess, while a golf fan claims to be a huge fan of Tiger Woods, as if that absolves him.) Without giving the game away, things turn nasty, and disturbing, and you won’t see the twist coming, I swear. It’s funny and terrifying, and has so much to say, it ought not be this fleet of foot. But it is. Peele treads on toes without tripping up. One of the most original films of the year.

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We’ve already seen Elle Fanning in The Beguiled, and although I understand why her willowy presence is so fashionable right now, it’s a dangerous game to appear to be in everything. (I guess when you’re that thin you slot in easily.) She’s in 20th Century Women, a film you’d be certain from its title and its publicity was written and directed by a woman. It’s written and directed by Mike Mills, the one who isn’t in REM and who gave us the memorable Beginners, a film about men, a son and his gay dad. This is, inevitably, more female. Set in 1979 and appealingly soaked in punk and post-punk including Talking Heads, The Damned and The Clash. Fanning is a willowy occasional patron of Annette Bening’s free-for-all hippy boarding house in Santa Monica. Another tenant is Greta Gerwig’s pretentious cancer patient who discovers she has an “incompetent cervix” from her gynaecologist, dances to exorcise her anger, and, we’re told in voiceover, “saw The Man Who Fell to Earth and dyed her hair red.” Bening had her son (Lucas Jade Zumann) late and feels she’s too old to meaningfully steer him to young adulthood, recruiting the other women in her orbit to do it in shifts. So, it’s a coming-of-age, like The Beguiled, except the women are in charge of a teenage boy, not a wounded man. Ironically, he seems old beyond his years, confused that Fanning rejects him since he got “horny”. (“We don’t have sex!” she assures an adult who finds them in bed together.) Billy Crudup, another tenant, also a carpenter who’s renovating the tumbledown hotel California, is too obsessed with wood to find any traction with the kid.

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Pregnancy, cancer, menstruation, feminism, all are fit subjects for his ad hoc home-education, and you sort of envy him, as he drowns in radical thinking. I felt that the reliance on narration in the recent Bryan Cranston film Wakefield eventually did for it (it was adapted from a New Yorker short story, much of it word for word). But in 20th Century Women, it suits the quirky, episodic, Wes Anderson-indebted style. When the narration mentions a particular brand of fertility medication, we see a rostrum shot of a single pill from above; when Gerwig talks of a photography project, we see the Polaroids in sequence. That kind of caper. Mills also slots in genuine photos from the period (of Lou Reed, the Sex Pistols, that kind of caper), and it reminded me of the original of The Beguiled, which set its scene with genuine photos of the Civil War. There are no rules against it. I also loved Bening’s line about smoking: “You know, when I started, they weren’t bad for you.” Such economical signposting of age. She says, in narration, that she will die of lung cancer in 1999. It gives you quite a start: she’s suddenly omniscient. Bold writing, and worthy of its Oscar nomination.

In Get Out, Chris is lured into something unpleasant by psychotherapists. In 20th Century Women, everybody is either in therapy, or should be, or offers amateur psychoanalysis at the drop of a hat. If Get Out if post-Girls, this is pre-Girls. Jamie is artistically bullied by Black Flag fans – who spray-can his mother’s VW (“ART FAG”) – because he likes Talking Heads! (“The punk scene is very divisive,” observes Gerwig.) Jamie ends up telling his mom, “I’m dealing with everything right now. You’re dealing with nothing.”)

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My Cousin Rachel is the second big-screen adaptation of a Daphne Du Maurier novel that’s actually a kind of “reverse Rebecca.” (Why wasn’t that on the posters?) Adapted and directed by Roger Michell, it’s as perfectly poised as The Beguiled, but its dramatic tableaux carry freight, emotional and narrative. Rachel Weisz was kind of born to play the title role, as she is also called Rachel, when Olive de Havilland wasn’t in the 1957 version. Sam Claflin in well cast from the neck up, in that he convinces as the orphaned heir of a wealthy cousin who inherits a Cornish estate and discovers another claimant on his inheritance, the titular cousin, half-Italian and suspected of foul play. When I say Claflin – who takes the role etched by Richard Burton in the 1957 one – is well cast from the neck up, I mean it literally. His face acting is first-rate – although when he has been a gullible fool throughout and finally admits, “I’ve been a fool”, one gentleman in the Curzon quietly exclaimed, “Yes, you have!” and other patrons laughed without malice. But at one point when, as in all costume dramas, he is forced by a sexist orthodoxy to take off his shirt, we see that his shoulders are not shoulder-shaped but triangular, as if perhaps this country fop was a bodybuilder. (In real life, like all young male actors, he presumably feels duty-bound to work out to within an inch of his life, and this often breaks the spell of costume drama. I mean there’s no way Ross Poldark got like that by cutting the grass.)

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Look at the above still. It’s a fabulous bit of location scouting in Devon, costume design, lighting, framing and cinematography. They have done Du Maurier proud.

I relish this Catholic spread of cinema. The most generic of all was Berlin Syndrome, a film I took to be German, as it’s set in Berlin, but turns out to be Australian, the third film of Cate Shortland, whose entire output I have seen without trying to. (She also made Somersault, set in Australia, and Lore, also set in Germany.) In it, an Aussie backpacker, Clare (Teresa Palmer) goes back to the flat of a German teacher, Andi (Max Riemelt); they sleep together; he goes off to work the next morning; she finds herself accidentally locked in his apartment. He gets home; she discovers that he has no intention of letting her out. (Imagine the torture of being a globe-trotting Australian traveller being locked into a flat with reinforced, acoustically soundproofed windows so no-one can hear you scream!) This film is a thriller, a chamber piece, and a very effective one. A touch of Rear Window about it, and a bit of hobbling that recalls Misery and The Beguiled.

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It’s not deep, but it is lyrically shot by Shortland, showing scenes of “normality” outside the flat that becomes Clare’s cell in slow motion, as if to underline the freedom of ordinary existence. There’s gore and terror, and more than a hint of Stockholm Syndrome – or is it? – to keep the otherwise claustrophobic story going. Andi is well played – he really is charming enough to convince girls back to his flat, and to keep his workmates in the staff room from suspecting (until he starts to unravel) – but it’s Palmer’s triumph. She is the victim, but does not play the victim. You’re willing her to get out.

The tennis is literally just finishing as I finish typing (Jamie Murray and Martina Hinglis are being interviewed after the doubles final). Five worthwhile films, two at the cinema, three at the laptop in coffee shops. If you’ve seen any of them, let me know what you thought.

Love film. Film love.

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2015: the year in TV

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It’s been a momentous year for television. Mainly in the sense that I entered the world of a TV show that I love, Gogglebox, which proceeded to take over my life when I was tasked with the labour of love that was writing the official Gogglebox book for Christmas. When I say it’s a show I love, that love has not been reduced or tainted by the privileged position of having met, interacted and forged modest bonds with its participants. Do you get me?

Although I have met, interviewed, interacted with on Twitter and worked in real life wife a large number of actors, writers, directors and other key crew on TV shows, and toil silently in the backroom on scripts for most of the time (most of it, this year, in the basement of development), my most important relationship with television takes place in my living room, or at my computer. And that’s fine with me. For the time being.

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There is always a danger when you meet your heroes that they turn out to have feet of clay. As a viewer, I always regarded the Gogglebox families and couples not as heroes, or gods, or celestial beings, but something even stranger: as close friends. Being invited across their threshholds during April and May this year to meet their pets, drink their coffee, eat their biscuits and use their facilities was a cosmic experience unlike any other in my quarter-century in the media; not only does Gogglebox infer intimate knowledge on the besotted viewer (and there are more of us now than ever before), it makes you feel as if you know your way around the houses, even though you don’t, as you only ever view them through one permanently fixed frame. Thanks to the book publisher Macmillan, I was able to go through the looking glass. It has been a rare treat, one not to be repeated. I’m proud of the book. I hope it raised some smiles this Christmas.

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Back in front of my own TV, on the appropriate side of the glass, I watched loads of great telly. I shall list my Top 26 in no particular order, although you may have heard me say already that season two of HBO’s The Leftovers was my favourite show of 2015, just as season one of this beguiling, heartbreaking drama about loss and grief was my favourite show of 2014. The news that HBO have ordered up a third (albeit final) season made my year. It’s also right and proper to name two talented British TV writers, each responsible for two dramas in my Top 26: Jack Thorne (The Last Panthers; This Is England 90 – co-written with Shane Meadows), and Sarah Phelps (the adaptation of And Then There Were None; one episode of Dickensian, story by Tony Jordan). There are two shows with Peter Kay in. Two with the actor David Dawson in. Two with Jerome Flynn. And so on. It’s natural to genuflect to America, but we’ve still got the old magic here.

The Leftovers, HBO (thus Sky Atlantic)
Detectorists, BBC Four
First Dates, Chanel 4
The Last Kingdom, BBC Two
The Last Panthers, Sky Atlantic
Fargo, Fox
Catastrophe, Channel 4
Gogglebox, Channel 4
Wolf Hall, BBC Two
This Is England 90, Channel 4
Unforgotten, ITV
Cradle To Grave, BBC Two
The Walking Dead, Fox
Dickensian, BBC One
The Bridge III, BBC Four
1864, BBC Four
The Game, BBC Two
Ripper Street, Amazon/BBC One
Peter Kay’s Car Share, BBC Two
Masterchef: The Professionals, BBC Two
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, HBO
Game Of Thrones, HBO
The Frankenstein Chronicles, ITV Encore
Sound Of Song, BBC Four
Modern Life Is Goodish, Dave
And Then There Were None, BBC One

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Having sifted 26 to the top, let’s doff the cap to another batch, all of which have entertained or informed me, in some cases both, and gripped me to the last episode (or in the case of the single drama The Go-Between, gripped me to the end of the only episode). In another year of countless first episodes dutifully watched and second episodes left untouched (From Darkness, River, season two of The Returned, Witnesses, Cuffs), sometimes through sheer bulk of telly to get through but mostly due to failure of engagement, I really appreciated those shows that pulled me back in and had me ’till goodbye.

Inside No. 9, BBC Two
Poldark, BBC one
Toast Of London, Channel 4
The Hunt, BBC One
True Detective, HBO
Broadchurch II, ITV
The Go-Between, BBC One
The Saboteurs, More4
Prey II, BBC Two
The Good Wife, More4
Penny Dreadful, Sky Atlantic
Lewis, ITV
Mad Men, Sky Atlantic
The Daily Show (prior to Jon Stewart leaving), Comedy Central
W1A, BBC Two
Veep, Sky Atlantic
Looking, Sky Atlantic
The Man In The High Castle, Amazon
Togetherness, Sky Atlantic
Show Me A Hero, Sky Atlantic
Silicon Valley, Sky Atlantic
The Great British Bake Off, BBC One
Dawn Chorus, BBC Four
Bitter Lake, BBC iPlayer
Fear Itself, BBC iPlayer

I must pay tribute to North One TV, the production company which keeps asking me to be a talking head on shows like The Best Of Bad TV on Channel 5, and – one for the New Year – The Greatest Animated Movies. I really enjoy doing these, as it’s basically talking about telly and films, which I’d be doing anyway! I’m not on the screen that much any more, except for the little one on the Guardian website, so it’s a pleasure to be asked.

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It curdles my insides to say it, but I think this is the first year for some time where my name didn’t appear in the credits for something on TV (or at the cinema, like last year, hem hem), unless you count the reruns of Not Going Out on Dave, which are on a loop. Oh, it goes without saying that I am still co-developing a TV drama, the one I was co-developing this time last year, but as anybody who’s been in development will concur, it’s better to still be developing it than no longer developing it. It’s not dead until pronounced so by the broadcaster. And, just before Christmas, another drama I was co-developing but which had been on ice all year, suddenly reared its pretty head again after a fortuitous coffee. So here’s to another year of it. All of it.

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TA127Wanna see something really scary? You kind of will, and you kind of won’t in my Halloween week Telly Addict, as I’ve been careful not to put in scenes of too much violence and horror that some viewers may find upsetting, from the start. There will be blood, though, with the choleric return of Ripper Street to BBC1, the nightmarish return of American Horror Story to Sky Atlantic, the imminent conclusion of Bates Motel on Universal, and the blood-sucking debut of NBC’s Dracula on Sky Living (if you can call it living etc.); also, a celebration of screwball dialogue on Veep on Sky Atlantic and some frankly terrifying lady-in-peril thriller cliches on The Escape Artist on BBC1. Don’t submerge your head in that bath!

Wanna see something really scary?

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Then this is the Telly Addict for you. It’s got Luther on BBC1, which, if you didn’t see the first episode, is now officially the more terrifying programme on TV. They’ve rustled up a serial killer who makes The Fall‘s Paul Spector look like a nice family man who isn’t actually a serial killer; also, while we’re on “scary”, there are honorable mentions for The Returned on C4 and The Walking Dead, whose third season, the one with David Morrissey, has just transferred from Fox to Channel 5; on a lighter note, Dates on C4, which came to an end last week; and the surprisingly grown up, valedictory Skins: Fire on E4, from Bryan Elsley, who’s also the creator of Dates (clever man, with a clever son, Jamie Brittain, who wrote my fave Date with the great Greg McHugh, and a clever daughter, Jess Brittain, who’s writing the first Skins story); a summary dismissal of ABC’s Scandal, whose second season came to fail to fill the gap left by The Good Wife and Nashville on More4 (sorry!); plus a moment of Zen from BBC2’s superb Route Masters.

Danger, shark!

Nice little grab of the Capitol building there, but nothing to do with today’s US Presidential Election. Rather, while negotiating the minefield of spoilers, this week’s Telly Addict tries to discuss the other burning question, “Has Homeland jumped the shark or not?”; also, a horror double-bill from Halloween week, the gothic return of American Horror Story to FX, and BBC4’s Horror Europa with Mark Gatiss; just enough time, too, to consider another rare US drama import – this time from the History Channel – that’s showing on terrestrial television over here: post-Civil War feud saga Hatfields & McCoys, on Channel Five. (I have finally caught up with hospital comedy-drama Getting On, by the way, and I’ll be reviewing that next week.)

The horror

Behold, the Collins family kids, in a row, holding their favourite present on Christmas Day, 1975. From left to right: Andrew, aged 10, holding Denis Gifford’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies, a large hardback book whose wraparound glossy dust jacket has long gone, but whose vivid painterly back-cover collage of images is captured in all its glory; Melissa, aged 5, wearing her nurse’s uniform; and Simon, aged 8, who seems already to have constructed an anti-tank gun from a khaki Meccano set. We didn’t want for much.

The reason I’m printing this seemingly random happy snap from the long-ago past is that I met and interviewed the extraordinary Mark Gatiss for Radio Times this week. It all happened very fast: BBC4 offered him up for interview on Monday, to promote Horror Europa, his personal, 90-minute documentary about European horror cinema – showing on the night before Halloween, and a direct follow-up to his well-received A History of Horror from 2010 – I arranged to meet him on Tuesday, over pasta during an hour’s break from “tech rehearsals” at the Hampstead Theatre for 55 Days by Howard Brenton, in which he plays Charles I to Douglas Henshall’s Oliver Cromwell (and which opened for previews on Thursday); I transcribed and wrote it up at 900 words on Wednesday; and the two-page layout was signed off yesterday.

The above still is from A History of Horror, when Mark was bearded. Although he is bearded as King Charles, it is a stick-on beard, and he was clean shaven over dinner. This was a labour of love for me – I jumped at the chance, even though I’m way too busy to write 900 words – which is apt, as these documentaries are a labour of love for him. He’s 46 – in fact, he turned 46 on Wednesday, so he was 45 when I dined with him – and we share the same boyhood obsession with horror movies, something that informed our discussion over calamari and chips (me) and salmon and spaghetti (he). In A History, he explicitly revealed how important the Gifford book was to him, and whether he likes it or not, I bonded with him forever.

I loved this book. To say it was my Bible sounds sacrilegious, but then, it was filled with evil and supernatural images. First published by Hamlyn in 1973, it was still a relatively new book when I got it for Christmas in 1975, and I’d had it in my sights for ages, thumbing through it in WHSmith’s in the Grosvenor Centre of a Saturday morning shopping trip. Its unofficial companion in my house – and, it transpires, in the Gatiss house in Country Durham – was Alan G Frank’s Horror Movies, published in hardback by Octopus in 1974 under the Movie Treasury imprint and subtitled Tales of Terror in the Cinema. (I had to wait until Christmas 1978 to own this.)

A copy, in its original dust jacket, appears on top of a prop telly in Horror Europa. Another touchstone. Of course, it would be easy to be jealous of Mark Gatiss, who gets to turn his childhood horror nerd obsession into television programmes – to exorcise it, if you like – but these programmes are so good, he fronts them with such urbane charm and enthusiasm, and he’s so true to his roots, we should all be grateful that he’s seemingly in charge of horror at the BBC.

There’s something glorious about finding common ground with people of your own age. You may remember that I was able to find an instant bond with JJ Abrams when I interviewed him about his film Super 8 last year. He, too, is 46. It’s no surprise to discover that he was a fanboy, as we weren’t called in the 1970s, but I was still over the moon to see the film’s chief protagonist Joe carefully painting an Aurora glow-in-the-dark model of the Hunchback of Notre Dame in an establishing scene (the film is set in 1979). Here’s my grab:

I was so mad about these kit models. I think I had them all, at various stages – the Hunchback, Phantom of the Opera, Godzilla, King Kong, the Wolfman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Salem Witch, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, Dr Jekyll, the Mummy, the Forgotten Prisoner of Castel-Mare – as my Airfix-inclined friends and I would swap the finished items, and usually repaint them in new Humbrol colours to claim them as our own. At this age – and I got my first, the Hunchback, and my second, Dr Jekyll, for my ninth birthday in 1974 – I was utterly preoccupied with horror, especially the iconic monsters that Universal defined itself with in the 1930s, not that I really had any concept of the 1930s at that wide-eyed age.

Ironically, when The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 1939 classic starring Charles Laughton, was on television in June 1974, Simon and I were too scared to watch it! When BBC2 starting running their double-bills on a Saturday night around that time, we dared each other to watch what would be ultra-tame, fag-end stuff like House of Frankenstein, and The Mummy’s Ghost on the black-and-white portable, after dark. We weren’t the first boys to find something thrilling in being scared out of our wits, and I’m glad we had no prejudice about whether a horror film was old or new, cool or uncool, black-and-white or colour.

One of the many things Mark Gatiss and I agreed upon on Tuesday was that it was the very unattainability and the mystery of the stills in our horror books that made them so alluring. What would The Student Of Prague or The Golem or The Cabinet of Dr Caligari actually be like to watch, moving about? I choose three silents because neither did we have any prejudice about silent movies at that age. How innocent and free from preconception we were!

So, this has been a hymn to childhood, or at least childhood in the pre-video age, when horror nerds had access to almost nothing but stills in books, plastic models and our imaginations to fire up our enthusiasm.

Horror Europa is on BBC4 on Tuesday 30 October at 9pm. My interview with Mark appears in next week’s Radio Times, out on Tuesday. And while we’re plugging, to go all BBC announcer for a moment, Mark Gatiss is currently appearing in 55 Days at the Hampstead Theatre … (nobody has asked me to do that link, which is why I’m happy doing it)

PS: My sister didn’t become a nurse; my brother did join the Army; I took my Pictorial History of Horror book to an Italian restaurant in Swiss Cottage when I was 47 to show it to a man, who whooped, “the green one!”

Scream 4: The Rules

So, after one false start on Tuesday, I finally saw the new Scream film last night. On Tuesday, there was a fire alarm at the Soho Hotel, where it was screening, and the assembled critics were told that the fire had been in the projection room, so it was cancelled. This was a pity, because a) the film distributor, Entertainment, are known for not always tripping over themselves to lay on advance press screenings, and b) we’d all signed our forms. These are not unheard of, especially in the age of digital media, but most film companies have dispensed with them, and critics are trusted not to be silly.

CONFIDENTIALITY AGREEMENT

You are about to view the film “SCREAM 4.” In doing so, you acknowledge that this film is property of Dimension Films and as such: (i) you agree to be bound by an obligation to keep certain contents of the film strictly confidential and you will not disclose such contents to anyone, including but not limited to the press, the media and the general public or write about it in a blog, on Twitter, Facebook, etc. These contents include the ending of the film, kill scenes and who remains alive in the film; (ii) you will make no video copies nor take any photos of the film.

REVIEW EMBARGO

By signing this document I hereby confirm my understanding that all reviews (including any article or review containing my personal opinion of the film) of SCRE4M (aka Scream 4) are embargoed in all forms (including newspapers or magazines, broadcast outlets such as TV or radio or digital platforms such as websites, blogs and social networking sites including such as twitter and Facebook etc) until 5pm, Wednesday 13th April unless otherwise agreed in writing in advance with Entertainment Film Distributors.

Hey … that’s yesterday. I’d better get on with reviewing it. (I’ll give you a precis: Scream 4 is pointless.)