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Title Fright

It my may have escaped your notice that a rather good new British horror set in an after-hours school was released theatrically in the UK last month. It stars David Schofield - he of An American Werewolf in Paris - and a bunch of reliable, experienced actors with credits including Dog Soldiers, Primeval, Nanny McPhee and Return of the Jedi. It had previously gone down extremely well at Frightfest and it's a major step-up for its director, Johannes Roberts, after the low-budget silliness of When Evil Calls.
      You quite possibly missed all this, even if you saw a website or read a publication which featured the film. And the reason it was easy to miss was because it has the shortest title of any British horror film ever made. It's called F.
      Just F.

      The rationale for this minimalist monicker is that Schofield plays Mr Anderson, an embittered, end-of-his-tether, alcoholic teacher whose life has crashed after his school board failed to support him in an assault case brought by a delinquent pupil to whom Anderson had awarded an F grade. One evening, when there's no-one in the school except a few late-working staff, a couple of security guards, a cleaner or two and Anderson's own daughter, something invades the building. (The daughter isn't a bad girl but her parents are separated because of the drink, so detention is the only way her dad gets to spend time with her.)
      The invaders are young people in hoodies - the very thing that Daily Mail readers fear the most. Or are they? By keeping them silent, with their faces unseen, and especially by casting a bunch of free-runners capable of scampering nimbly along the tops of library shelves, Jo Roberts imbues his juvenile delinquents with an air which, if not quite supernatural, is at least somewhat unnatural.
      We're never told or shown who or what these demonic hoodies actually are, and it is to the director's credit that this greatly improves the horror, the tension and the drama. It is less to the credit of some of Britain's so-called professional film critics that certain reviews complained that this ambiguity spoiled the film.

      Roberts has directed five other features which, although straight-to-video titles, did at least get a domestic video release (which many British films can't manage). But those were cheesy B-movies and F is a slick, stylish, adequately budgeted New British Horror which played cinemas across the country.
      But it's called F. And I did point out in another review that this would make it easy to miss. I also pointed out that its title was a free kick for those same know-nothing, lazy journalists who were looking for something snide to say about any independent, imaginative British horror film that comes their way. And indeed, one or two did sneeringly proclaim that they would give the film an F. Ho- ho. Tossers.
      This is not the only film to have a single word title. Back in 2001 there was a version of Othello updated to a contemporary American high school which was entitled O. And any really tonto fan of dodgy 1960s sci-fi knows that the Roger Corman picture usually referred to as X - The Man with the X-ray Eyes was released in the UK as just X. Apropos of nothing, this means that you could show all three films together as a triple bill, under the collective title of 'FOX'.

      Choosing the right title for your movie is enormously important (always assuming that some overseas distributor doesn't decide to arbitrarily retitle the thing - a topic I dealt with back in March). There's a lot to be said for one-word titles in that they are snappy, easy to remember and can be printed in a particularly big font on a DVD sleeve. But there's only a finite number of words in the English language. Okay, it's a pretty huge finite number, but the ones that are suitable as the titles of horror or fantasy films are far fewer. Who's going to watch a horror movie called Cushion or Broccoli or Disambiguation?
      Just looking through recent-ish British features, in the past couple of years you could have seen - and maybe did see - the likes of Triangle, Gnaw, Greeting, Cut, Temptation, Salvage, Dread, Heartless, Psychosis or Monsters. I'm not counting Bloodmyth because that does the old trick of bolting two perfectly good words together to make a new one; you won't find 'bloodmyth' in the Oxford English Dictionary. My mate Pat Higgins had a real thing for this titling technique in his early films, following up his debut TrashHouse with the horror/romcom hybrid HellBride and the surreal prison fantasy KillerKiller (so good they named it twice).

      One of the big advantages of bolting two words together like that - and indeed one of the big disadvantages of using a single, common word - is that it makes the film much easier to Google. Or at least, I thought so before writing this column. But a swift bit of investigation reveals that the IMDb pages of most of the above list of  singularly-named British horrors actually come top (or near-top) in a simple Google search for nothing but the title. So what do I know? Another potential advantage to a distinctive title is that you're more likely to be able to get a website address which is just your film name dot com, rather than having to stick the word 'movie' into the URL. Of course, a title like F is completely unGoogleable. (Actually I just tried that out too - don't want to be caught out twice in one column.) Googling the simple letter 'F' brings up lots of sites abut the Ford Motor Company, the Wikipedia entry on Fahrenheit, and stuff about John F Kennedy and science fiction author Peter F Hamilton before eventually a review of Jo Roberts's film on the Den of Geek website appears at the bottom of the fourth page of results.
      Another downside of a single-word title is that, even with the range of words available, certain of them are particularly popular. Take a look on the IMDb entry for Broken and see if you can work out which of the 49 listed films is the Adam Mason feature. (Actually it's the top one, identified as Broken (2006/III), which is quite impressive if the IMDb is ranking them on popularity.) And yet, some words that you would expect to be hugely popular are barely used. You'll only find one DVD called Vampire, for example, when you might think there would be a stack of them.
      As it happens, the film called Vampire isn't even called Vampire; it's actually a retitling of the dull 2002 indie feature Demon Under Glass which ditches that pretentious title for an utterly prosaic one that does exactly what it says on the tin. Sure, there's a movie called The Vampire; it's an old 1950s Mexican flick properly titled El Vampiro, released on DVD a few years back by Mondo Macabro. There's also stuff like Jose Larraz's Vampyres or John Carpenter's Vampires or Grace Jones in Vamp, but the only other film called Vampire was an obscure 1979 TV movie.

      There was a time when no-one would have called a film something dull and prosaic like Vampire or Broken. Time was when films had real titles. Taste the Blood of Dracula. Frankenstein Must be Destroyed. Dracula has Risen from the Grave. The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll. When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. My God, but Hammer knew how to come up with a title. Who does stuff like that any more? When someone makes a Dracula film now, what do they call it? Well, Dracula usually. (As Hammer did in 1958! - Ed.) Then you have to start distinguishing the various films by year or director or lead actor, and that can get mighty confusing. Come on, folks, put some effort in.
      For many years, almost every genre movie had 'of' in the title. Curse of this and Night of that and Return of the other. It was the Universal Frankenstein series which really started that: Bride of..., Son of..., Ghost of... and House of... - not to mention ...Meets the Wolf Man and Abbott and Costello Meet... The Star Wars saga tried to resurrect this idea without really getting it right. Sorry George, the retro text crawl and the retro iris wipes are great but Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith? Try again, dude. Please. Actually, on second thoughts, don't. Just enjoy your millions and your action figures and leave us with our memories of the late 1970s.

      Star Wars - there was a title. It's so familiar now that it takes an almighty effort to step back and see it as something exciting and intriguing. Much the same is true of another classic title, Night of the Living Dead, worn forgettable through constant use, misuse and abuse. Trying to understand the power and impact of these titles when they first appeared is like trying to comprehend what a weak and crappy pun 'The Beatles' is as a band name. They're dead, see. But they're not the 'dead' dead - they're the 'living' dead! It doesn't even make any sense, does it? It's an oxymoron. It's like calling a film' Night of the Giant Dwarves' or 'Night of the Cold Heat' or 'When You Find the Girl of Your Dreams in the Arms of Some Scotsmen from Hull'.
      Oh, and Star Wars - let's be clear on this. It's not called A New Hope. The only people who refer to it as A New Hope are the nerdiest of nerds or writers who are discussing the Star Wars series as a whole and want to distinguish the first film from the overall saga (and have run out of other ways of doing it). Anyone who says they remember seeing the A New Hope subtitle on the original run - didn't.
      Among the robots 'n' spaceships frenzy of the immediate post-Star Wars years, the era that gave us Starcrash, Battle Beyond the Stars and other attempts to allude to some sort of 'wars' taking place among the 'stars' without actually annoying any of George Lucas's copyright lawyers, one enterprising distributor simply purchased an old movie about the Korean War and retitled it Sky Wars. You have to admire the chutzpah.

      A few paragraphs earlier, I mentioned John Carpenter's Vampires, which raises a final interesting point - that of the possessory credit. This is very much a modern invention; there's no 'James Whale's The Bride of Frankenstein' or 'Orson Welles's Citizen Kane'. That would be crazy. But F actually has the on-screen title, 'Johannes Roberts' F', and plenty of other modern filmmakers take the same route. This often causes all sorts of ructions among the non-directing parts of the filmmaking world, as people argue over how much input the director should have in order to justify such a claim, which is sort of the next step up from 'A film by...'.
      In what sense does John Carpenter's Vampires actually belong exclusively to John Carpenter? Don Jakoby wrote the screenplay (based on John Steakley's novel Vampire$), Sandy King produced it. Yet it's not Don's or Sandy's, it's John's. Mind you, this can backfire big time. Carpenter might want his name on his bloodsucker feature, but he also gave us things like John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars, a film that most directors would probably have preferred their names taken off...
      Plus it all makes a right old headache for professional indexers, reference book authors or indeed anyone who likes to file their DVDs in alphabetical order, because it raises that most perplexing of questions. Should the film be listed under J or V?

MJ Simpson has been writing since he found out which end of a pencil makes a mark. After editing sci-fi fan club mags he spent three years on the staff of SFX and helped to launch Total Film before switching to freelance work for Fangoria, Shivers, Video Watchdog, DeathRay and numerous other cult movie magazines. He has a number of scripts in development and has been working on his third book, a biography of Elsa Lanchester, for a very long time but promises to have it finished very soon (-ish). Mike lives in Leicester with his wife, Mrs S, and his young son, TF Simpson. By day he edits the university's website and in the evenings he edits MJSimpson.co.uk. He should probably get out more.