Hoodies strike fear in British cinemaJane Graham, guardian.co.uk, Thursday 5 November 2009Whos afraid of the big bad hoodie? Enough of us, certainly, that the smart money in Britishcinema is going on those films that prey on our fear of urban youths and show that fear backto us. These days, the scariest Britflick villain isnt a flesh-eating zombie, or an East End MrBig with a sawn-off shooter and a tattooed sidekick. It is a teenage boy with a penchant forflammable casualwear.What separates hoodies from the youth cults of previous moral panics – the teddy boys, themods and rockers, the punks, the ravers have all had their day at the cinema – is that theydont have the pop-cultural weight of the other subcultures, whose members bondedthrough music, art and customised fashion. Instead, theyre defined by their class (perceivedas being bottom of the heap) and their social standing (their relationship to society is alwaysseen as being oppositional). Hoodies arent "kids" or "youngsters" or even "rebels" – in fact,recent research by Women in Journalism on regional and national newspaper reporting ofhoodies shows that the word is most commonly interchanged with (in order of popularity)"yob", "thug", "lout" and "scum".Greg Philo, research director of Glasgow University Media Group and professor of sociologyat the university, traces our attitudes to hoodies back to the middle classes long-held fearof those who might undermine their security. That is what they see in what Philo describesas "a longterm excluded class, simply not needed, who often take control of theircommunities through aggression or running their alternative economy, based on things likedrug-dealing or protection rackets"."If you go to these places, its very grim," says Philo. "The culture of violence is real. But forthe British media, its simple – bad upbringing or just evil children. Their accounts of whathappens are very partial and distorted, which pushes people towards much more rightwingpositions. Theres no proper social debate about what we can do about it. Obviously, not allyoung people in hoods are dangerous – most arent – but the ones who are can be verydangerous, and writing about them sells papers because people are innately attracted towhats scary. Thats how we survive as a species – our body and brain is attuned to focus onwhat is likely to kill us, because were traditionally hunters and hunted."Once the images of the feral hoodie was implanted in the public imagination, it was a shortjourney to script and then to screen – its no surprise that hoodies are increasinglypopulating British horrors and thrillers, generating a presence so malevolent and chillingthat there are often hints of the supernatural or the subhuman about their form.Daniel Barbers debut feature film, the much touted Harry Brown, is the latest and possiblythe grisliest movie to exploit our fear of the young, but it follows a steady stream of Britishterror-thrillers including Eden Lake, The Disappeared and Summer Scars, as well as a seedierbreed of ultraviolent modern nasties such as Outlaw and The Great Ecstasy of RobertCarmichael. Soon well get Philip Ridleys Heartless, a visceral supernatural horror in whichthe howling, snarling hoodies who terrorise the estate turn out to be genuine demons
dealing not in crack cocaine but in diabolical Faustian bargains. Harry Browns hoodies,however, are still very much human, and like most cinema hoodies, the ones who circle theeponymous vigilante hero (played by Michael Caine) hunt in packs and move in unison,commandeering the gloomy underpasses and stairwells of the concrete and steel Londonestate they inhabit. To Barber, the threat they present is very real and was, he believes, themotivating factor for Caine to make the film."Im scared of these kids in gangs," says Barber. "They have no respect for any other part ofsociety. Its all about me, me, me. Life is becoming cheaper and cheaper in this country."And from a directors point of view, hoodies are gold dust. "Were afraid of what we dontunderstand or know, and theres so much about these kids we just dont understand," hesays. "Thats a good starting point for any film baddie."When we first see the bad guys in Harry Brown, they are an amorphous mob of hoodedcreatures cast in shadow, smoking crack in an under-lit tunnel. They shoot at a youngmother pushing a buggy in a park, then batter an old man to death. They show all thehallmarks of the stereotypical youth of "Broken Britain" – the tracksuits, guns and dead eyes– and Barbers overhead framing and murky lighting of them as they swarm over avandalised car or close in on a passing couple invite comparison with those other cinemavillains who gather strength in the dark – vampires and zombies.The hoodies of the celebrated British horror Eden Lake have a similarly vampiric quality,though we quickly understand – through the deployment of the Rottweiler, the white vandad, the tracksuits and the Adidas gear – that these are the great British underclass. Weknow the territory were in when a mass of disembodied bodies and grabbing handssurround a holidaying young couples car. "The film isnt an attack on a particular socialgroup," says Eden Lakes director, James Watkins. "But if you had a bunch of public schoolkids in blazers, it just wouldnt be that scary. Theres an element of, these are feral kids letoff the leash. The films that stay with you exploit the fears closest to you – like Jaws, thesense that there might be something underneath the water. Its a very primal fear, the fearof the dark or a fear of violence, fear of children – these are very real fears which go verydeep in todays society."Johnny Kevorkian, the 33-year-old director of last years The Disappeared, an atmosphericsupernatural thriller about a young boy who vanishes on an estate populated by prowlinghoodies, agrees. "Although its a ghost story, much of the fear in The Disappeared is real,"says Kevorkian. "These threatening nasty gangs run these estates. The film is exploiting thefact that things like gangs killing little kids really happens. So of course, in the film, youwonder if these guys are the cause of the boy going missing, and that is really scary."The Disappeared, like Harry Brown, is set on an estate in south London. In both filmshoodies set up camp on a favoured spot and punish trespassers – in Harry Brown they seizethe underpass, in The Disappeared its the childrens playground. The noises that echoaround the estates – car alarms, barking dogs, gunshots and loud, taunting shouts – arecrucial elements in the films relentlessly forbidding atmosphere.
"Thats the reality of living on these estates," Daniel Barber says. "There are hundreds ofhomes all on top of each other, all with paper-thin walls. There is no way of escaping thenoises other people make around you. You get this terrible claustrophobia. The architectureitself has gone some way to creating the attitudes among the kids who live there. It helpscreate their personalities – its not just lack of family involvement or lack of education.Theyre like prison cells. But whole families live in them in squalor."Barber is also aware of the visual power of the hood itself, an icon that has long had sinisterconnotations, most with the Ku Klux Klan and the Grim Reaper. "You have gangs of hoodedkids roaming around and it is precisely the way they dress – disguising themselves, theycover their faces, mask who they are – which scares us," he says. "But of course behind thismass of awfulness there are real people, real individuals." To be honest, theres not a greatdeal of interest in these real people in most of the hoodie-horror genre. As Watkins says,baddies are more effective if theyre "withheld" – getting to know them means empathisingwith them and losing our fear, and thats not how scary films work.Its interesting that when British cinema has made a genuine attempt to engage withhoodies on a one-to-one basis, the result is rarely a thriller. Within the last year we have hadPenny Woolcocks sensitive and funny 1 Day; Andrea Arnolds Loach-inspired and deeplymoving Fish Tank; Duane Hopkinss debut, Better Things; or Wasted, which was nominatedfor a Scottish Bafta.In those films, the audiences empathy depends on the authenticity and vulnerability of theyoung actors performances and the camera closes in on their faces with a curiosity andopen-mindedness that the hoodie-horror doesnt share. Each makes a convincing argumentthat behind the hoodie is a person with the capacity for love, whether its Fish Tanks hard-drinking Mia or Wasteds surprisingly tender-eyed rent boy, Connor."The more I know, the less fearful I am," says Caroline Paterson, director of Wasted, a lovestory centredaround two homeless drug addict teenagers in Scotland. "When we werefilming in Glasgow, the actors actually got regularly picked up by the police and told to moveon. These kids looked like the people we cross the street to avoid and I know that mostpeople make snap decisions – youre a thug, youre a junkie, youre a lager lout. I wanted tomake a film that said these people are human beings, they count, there is love and humanconnections in these peoples desperate lives. I wanted to make people take a second look."For Woolcock, whose 1 Day focuses on gun-toting, rap-slamming gangster boys inBirmingham, the urge to "dig behind the headlines" was pressing. "These stories about gangcrime and these faceless thugs, scum who are ripping us all off – I thought, that cant betrue. I knew if you look a bit harder, youll find the funny one, the baby, the bully, thesensible one, the one who loves someone who doesnt love them. These are the things thathumanise these excluded kids. Its very rare to find genuinely evil or psychotic people –most people are doing the best they can under the circumstances."People have families and relationships and deal in silly mundane things all the time –theyre real people. I wanted to show the fun of these people, too. These are the things thathumanise these excluded kids."