Gilbey on Film: true horror

For frights, nothing beats a public information film from the Seventies.

I was tempted in to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 by the trailer, which promised something horrific and disturbing and yet still targeted at children -- a combination that always intrigues me.

If a filmmaker is happy to get an 18-rating (or "R" in the US), there are naturally far fewer limits on what can be shown. Aiming instead for a family audience imposes obstacles around which a skilful director will relish manoeuvring, often creating in the process a more intimately chilling work. With the button marked "explicit" placed out of reach when you can't go any higher than a PG or 12A, some ingenuity is called for. I like seeing how filmmakers work around that.

I didn't get the chance with the latest Harry Potter because all the spooky bits showcased in the trailer have evidently been saved for Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which opens next summer. That said, the new picture does have one moment that will give any teenager the heebie-jeebies; it's a kind of Solaris Junior episode in which Ron (Rupert Grint) is taunted by the manifestation of his worst fear -- Hermione (Emma Watson) smooching with his best friend, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe).

The series has had its occasional frights, usually revolving around the soul-sucking Dementors. But scaring children is an important business. Someone should put some proper work into it. I'm sure Disney's crack at a live-action ghost story for kids, the 1980 film The Watcher in the Woods, looks creaky now, but it spooked me and my friends as 9-year-olds. (It also provided my first encounter with Bette Davis, long before I saw All About Eve. Funny how we stumble accidentally upon those we will eventually love.) We were all careful to count the number of times The Watcher in the Woods made us jump; by the end, we had almost run out of fingers.

Can children still get those feelings from movies now? Or have video games filled that void? I suspect it's the latter, although the only empirical evidence I have to go on is a recent conversation in which my 16-year-old son passed on to his 10-year-old sister advice on surviving a zombie attack at school. How proud I was.

Two recent animated movies, Coraline and Monster House, pushed their young audiences as near to outright horror as it is possible to go. In fact, one of the writers of the latter, Dan Harmon, believed that Monster House went too far; you can read his brilliantly frank letter to a young girl who'd been terrified by the picture, in which he explains how the script was rewritten, and how its director Gil Kenan ("a hack") and producer Steven Spielberg ("a moron") made it oppressively dark against Harmon's wishes. It's odd thinking of Spielberg having anything to do with that decision, when Jurassic Park and The Lost World were fatally compromised by their need to mollify the audience they were supposed to be frightening.

Last year, Guillermo del Toro signed a deal with Disney to develop and produce a series of scary films for children, under the new Disney Double Dare You brand. Sadly nothing came of it, and the latest word from del Toro is that DDDY is no more. I hope the idea is revived in some form or another; children like, and need, to be scared, within reason, and it's not a bad idea to have a series of films dedicated to doing the job properly.

I showed my eldest daughter Tim Burton's Pee Wee's Big Adventure when she was four or five, and she was properly spooked by the sight of Large Marge, the pop-eyed, stop-motion ghoul with whom Pee-Wee Herman hitches a ride. Once she had recovered from the shock, she asked immediately to see it again. I know that feeling.

I must have been more disappointed than I'd realised by the lack of chills in Deathly Hallows: Part 1, because as soon as I got home I started watching Stop! Look! Listen!, the BFI's new two-disc volume of archive films from the Central Office of Information. This is the fourth such volume and it contains some absolute blood-curdlers. Everyone knows there's nothing scarier than public information films, especially those made in the 1970s, when the gritty urgency of cinema and television seemed to licence in them a new toughness and daring.

Stop! Look! Listen! contains a pair of mini-masterpieces of the form. One is "Apaches", a 29-minute short by John Mackenzie (who later made The Long Good Friday); its warnings about the dangers of playing on, with or around farmyard machinery stayed with me into adulthood. I only need to see a combine harvester in repose and I get a chill.

But the film which got to me as a nipper, and still freaks me out now, is "Never Go With Strangers", directed by Sarah Erulkar. (Other work by the Indian-born director is screening at the BFI Southbank this Thursday.) As I watched it again this week, it was like revisiting the scene of a partially repressed childhood trauma; instantly I was transported back to the mustard-carpeted "television area" of my Essex primary school, where we were all herded to watch this stark warning of the dangers of skipping off to see a strange man's puppy/goldfish/newborn donkey.

Erulkar's short has an economical but striking visual power. Images from the film are seared on my brain -- like the child whimpering in the shadow of her unseen kidnapper, or the sudden imposition of demonic eyes on the face of an apparently innocuous face as the narrator says, "If a man looked awful, if his face changed when he was doing something bad, it would be so easy not to go with him." (That gimmick didn't have quite the same kick when it was wheeled out for the "New Labour, New Danger" poster campaign.) And there are details I had forgotten, or never noticed. As the shadow looms over the child, and the voiceover says "He's big, he's frightening, he can be rude and nasty, and she can't do anything about it," we can see debris all around her, including one especially disturbing detail -- a doll with its head snapped off.

What saves the short from overkill is its essential sanity. It addresses its young audience in a reasonable, sophisticated voice -- one from which modern governments might learn a great deal when raising with the electorate the subject of terrorism. The film reminds viewers that most people wish them no harm. And it respects their independence too: "You're not babies any more," the narrator says. "You want to be free and find a bit of adventure." Any shortcomings can be blamed only on semantics or naivety. It is unfortunate that the script differentiates between people who are kind to children and those who are "unhappy, lonely, peculiar or bad", adjectives which I'm sure could apply to most of us on drab days. There's also the comforting but unhelpful illusion, still upheld today, that any threat will come predominantly from outside the family, when we know this not to be the case.

The COI Collection: Stop! Look! Listen is available now. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is released on 19 November.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.