Attack The Block — The book on how to make a successful horror movie.

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Probably one of the best horror movies of 2011. That’s not saying a lot given the competition, but Attack The Block is smart in how it handles all of the key components of good horror.

#1 Rule. Don’t show the shark. Once you reveal the creature, you’re done. Show’s over. Filmmaker Joe Cornish in his feature directorial debut (although he is credited for screenplay with fellow Brit Edgar Wright on Tin Tin) is always hiding the dreaded creatures in darkness, flashes of light, and quick cuts. And when we DO get to the point where we are battling full screen creatures, the concept of the creature is that it is blacker than anyone has ever seen. There exists an absence of light. So, full frame, the creature is still indiscernible and without detail. Its teeth and fur, and that’s all. And frankly, that’s quite enough to be terrifying. In fact the teeth glow from within, and so are the only feature that reveals itself in the dark.

#2 Rule. Taking a hint from Hitchcock…let the audience imagine the gore. Like the concept of the creatures, our brains can fill in the gore much more effectively when we aren’t shown what it really is. Deaths are handled in quick flashes, or through the partial reflection of a mirror, and if shown onscreen, it lasts for mere frames. The least successful death reveals a face being ripped off, and that it held for 12 frames too long.

3# Rule. Contain the action. In this case, it’s the Block. A concrete apartment building in a bad part of London. Surround the building with creatures and prevent an easy way for our heroes to just get up and leave the situation. Success.

4# Rule. Don’t make the heroes stupid. Usually a film like this would be Ten Little Indians, each one getting picked off in due order, until there is one Indian left who vanquishes the evil – ala Alien. Attack has many heroes, and even though you might consider them unsavory and they talk like morons, the group of miscreants may be scared, but they are survivors. From the very first attack, the intended victim, Moses, the leader of the gang, doesn’t take the attack lying down and stabs the creature with a switchblade, causing it to flee. And Moses doesn’t stop there, he leads the group to pursue it and kill it – inadvertently resulting in the savage chaos that comes later. The younger kids have their own ways of fighting. Sam, the nurse who starts out as a victim to the gang youths, is a strong female that isn’t afraid to stand up to the gang, or, when the cards are down, these aliens creatures. Even the bitchy teen girls, when push comes to shove, fight back with the ferocity of girl teens scorned. Its probably the first film that I can remember off the top of my head where the group of heroes are an equal match to the unknown terror that threatens them.

5# Rule: At least have some rational explanation for the extraordinary events. Don’t have aliens come to Earth, a planet covered in 80% water, and then have their weakness be water (yes, I’m looking at you M. Night). Nor should you have aliens needing gold…during the gold rush… The explanation for the events in Attack The Block all boils down to animalistic instinct. No technology. No intention to take over the planet and harvest our bodies. And no plans to make Earth a fast food stop with humans as a #1 combo meal (although that, PJ, is still a fabulous idea).

I can’t stand the vernacular (see review of Anuvahood), but I was easily swayed once the action got going, which was about 3 minutes into the film. The characters feel real enough. The arc that Moses takes through this story is almost tangible, and the very end of the film actually verges on uplifting – and not directly because the creatures are dispatched (SPOILER!) 😐

On the technical side of things, the budget seems low, but they get a lot of mileage in shooting it smart. The cinematography plays with the darks and lights, and keeps the story kinetic with lots of camera movement. It pulls us into the story without falling back on saying “this is found footage” or “a camera crew is here”. Editorial does a great job of compounding the intensity with varying the pace so that you gets spikes of intensity rather than the consistent bombardment of a Michael Bay movie raping your senses to the point of anesthetizing them.

It’s a movie that I think will have a long shelf life, and both upcoming filmmakers and veteran filmmakers working in the horror genre should look to thing for guidance. That’s right Eli Roth, quit trying to hide your lack of talent behind extreme gore and torture and direct something that actually entertains.