Hoodies strike fear in British cinemahttp://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2009/nov/05/british-hoodie-filmsIf you want to scare a British moviegoer, you dont make a film about zombies– you cast a kid in flammable sportswear and a hoodieWhos afraid of the big bad hoodie? Enough of us, certainly, that the smartmoney in British cinema is going on those films that prey on our fear of urbanyouths and show that fear back to us. These days, the scariest Britflick villainisnt a flesh-eating zombie, or an East End Mr Big with a sawn-off shooter anda tattooed sidekick. It is a teenage boy with a penchant for flammablecasualwear.What separates hoodies from the youth cults of previous moral panics – theteddy boys, the mods and rockers, the punks, the ravers have all had their dayat the cinema – is that they dont have the pop-cultural weight of the othersubcultures, whose members bonded through music, art and customisedfashion. Instead, theyre defined by their class (perceived as being bottom ofthe heap) and their social standing (their relationship to society is always seenas being oppositional). Hoodies arent "kids" or "youngsters" or even "rebels"– in fact, recent research by Women in Journalism on regional and nationalnewspaper reporting of hoodies shows that the word is most commonlyinterchanged with (in order of popularity) "yob", "thug", "lout" and "scum".Greg Philo, research director of Glasgow University Media Group andprofessor of sociology at the university, traces our attitudes to hoodies backto the middle classes long-held fear of those who might undermine theirsecurity. That is what they see in what Philo describes as "a longterm excludedclass, simply not needed, who often take control of their communities throughaggression or running their alternative economy, based on things like drug-dealing or protection rackets"."If you go to these places, its very grim," says Philo. "The culture of violence isreal. But for the British media, its simple – bad upbringing or just evil children.Their accounts of what happens are very partial and distorted, which pushespeople towards much more rightwing positions. Theres no proper socialdebate about what we can do about it. Obviously, not all young people inhoods are dangerous – most arent – but the ones who are can be verydangerous, and writing about them sells papers because people are innatelyattracted to whats scary. Thats how we survive as a species – our body and
brain is attuned to focus on what is likely to kill us, because were traditionallyhunters and hunted."Once the images of the feral hoodie was implanted in the public imagination,it was a short journey to script and then to screen – its no surprise thathoodies are increasingly populating British horrors and thrillers, generating apresence so malevolent and chilling that there are often hints of thesupernatural or the subhuman about their form.Daniel Barbers debut feature film, the much touted Harry Brown, is the latestand possibly the grisliest movie to exploit our fear of the young, but it followsa steady stream of British terror-thrillers including Eden Lake, The Disappearedand Summer Scars, as well as a seedier breed of ultraviolent modern nastiessuch as Outlaw and The Great Ecstasy of Robert Carmichael. Soon well getPhilip Ridleys Heartless, a visceral supernatural horror in which the howling,snarling hoodies who terrorise the estate turn out to be genuine demonsdealing not in crack cocaine but in diabolical Faustian bargains. Harry Brownshoodies, however, are still very much human, and like most cinema hoodies,the ones who circle the eponymous vigilante hero (played by Michael Caine)hunt in packs and move in unison, commandeering the gloomy underpassesand stairwells of the concrete and steel London estate they inhabit. To Barber,the threat they present is very real and was, he believes, the motivating factorfor Caine to make the film."Im scared of these kids in gangs," says Barber. "They have no respect for anyother part of society. Its all about me, me, me. Life is becoming cheaper andcheaper in this country." And from a directors point of view, hoodies are golddust. "Were afraid of what we dont understand or know, and theres so muchabout these kids we just dont understand," he says. "Thats a good startingpoint for any film baddie."When we first see the bad guys in Harry Brown, they are an amorphous mobof hooded creatures cast in shadow, smoking crack in an under-lit tunnel.They shoot at a young mother pushing a buggy in a park, then batter an oldman to death. They show all the hallmarks of the stereotypical youth of"Broken Britain" – the tracksuits, guns and dead eyes – and Barbers overheadframing and murky lighting of them as they swarm over a vandalised car orclose 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 similarlyvampiric quality, though we quickly understand – through the deployment ofthe Rottweiler, the white van dad, the tracksuits and the Adidas gear – thatthese are the great British underclass. We know the territory were in when a
mass of disembodied bodies and grabbing hands surround a holidayingyoung couples car. "The film isnt an attack on a particular social group," saysEden 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 areferal kids let off the leash. The films that stay with you exploit the fears closestto you – like Jaws, the sense that there might be something underneath thewater. Its a very primal fear, the fear of the dark or a fear of violence, fear ofchildren – these are very real fears which go very deep in todays society."Johnny Kevorkian, the 33-year-old director of last years The Disappeared, anatmospheric supernatural thriller about a young boy who vanishes on anestate populated by prowling hoodies, agrees. "Although its a ghost story,much of the fear in The Disappeared is real," says Kevorkian. "Thesethreatening nasty gangs run these estates. The film is exploiting the fact thatthings 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 reallyscary."The Disappeared, like Harry Brown, is set on an estate in south London. Inboth films hoodies set up camp on a favoured spot and punish trespassers –in Harry Brown they seize the underpass, in The Disappeared its the childrensplayground. The noises that echo around the estates – car alarms, barkingdogs, gunshots and loud, taunting shouts – are crucial elements in the filmsrelentlessly forbidding atmosphere."Thats the reality of living on these estates," Daniel Barber says. "There arehundreds of homes all on top of each other, all with paper-thin walls. There isno way of escaping the noises other people make around you. You get thisterrible claustrophobia. The architecture itself has gone some way to creatingthe attitudes among the kids who live there. It helps create their personalities– its not just lack of family involvement or lack of education. Theyre likeprison cells. But whole families live in them in squalor."Barber is also aware of the visual power of the hood itself, an icon that haslong had sinister connotations, most with the Ku Klux Klan and the GrimReaper. "You have gangs of hooded kids roaming around and it is preciselythe way they dress – disguising themselves, they cover their faces, mask whothey are – which scares us," he says. "But of course behind this mass ofawfulness there are real people, real individuals." To be honest, theres not agreat deal of interest in these real people in most of the hoodie-horror genre.As Watkins says, baddies are more effective if theyre "withheld" – getting toknow them means empathising with them and losing our fear, and thats nothow scary films work.
Its interesting that when British cinema has made a genuine attempt toengage with hoodies on a one-to-one basis, the result is rarely a thriller.Within the last year we have had Penny Woolcocks sensitive and funny 1 Day;Andrea Arnolds Loach-inspired and deeply moving Fish Tank; DuaneHopkinss debut, Better Things; or Wasted, which was nominated for a ScottishBafta.In those films, the audiences empathy depends on the authenticity andvulnerability of the young actors performances and the camera closes in ontheir faces with a curiosity and open-mindedness that the hoodie-horrordoesnt share. Each makes a convincing argument that behind the hoodie is aperson with the capacity for love, whether its Fish Tanks hard-drinking Mia orWasteds surprisingly tender-eyed rent boy, Connor."The more I know, the less fearful I am," says Caroline Paterson, director ofWasted, a love story centred around two homeless drug addict teenagers inScotland. "When we were filming in Glasgow, the actors actually got regularlypicked up by the police and told to move on. These kids looked like thepeople we cross the street to avoid and I know that most people make snapdecisions – youre a thug, youre a junkie, youre a lager lout. I wanted to makea film that said these people are human beings, they count, there is love andhuman connections in these peoples desperate lives. I wanted to makepeople take a second look."For Woolcock, whose 1 Day focuses on gun-toting, rap-slamming gangsterboys in Birmingham, the urge to "dig behind the headlines" was pressing."These stories about gang crime and these faceless thugs, scum who areripping us all off – I thought, that cant be true. I knew if you look a bit harder,youll find the funny one, the baby, the bully, the sensible one, the one wholoves someone who doesnt love them. These are the things that humanisethese 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 allthe time – theyre real people. I wanted to show the fun of these people, too.These are the things that humanise these excluded kids."From bong-smoking delinquents to renegade skaters: Xan Brooks chartsthe history of the teen menace filmWay back in the 1930s, a US church group released a film called Tell YourChildren, depicting the corrosive, devastating effects of marijuana on thenations young. Tell Your Children was a cry from the heart, a clarion call. Howtragic, then, that this movie was later recut and retitled for the exploitation
circuit. In its new guise, the film now known as Reefer Madness would becomea favourite of the very bong-smoking, trash-talking delinquents it meantto condemn.In its unwitting fashion, Reefer Madness set the template for all the teenmenace films that followed. Shrewd producers discovered they could have itboth ways: decrying each fresh wave of youthful transgressors whilesimultaneously pandering to the fanbase. What message do we take from TheWild One (1953)? That biker gangs are bad, or that Marlon Brando looks coolin his leathers? If Blackboard Jungle (1955) was such a harsh expose of high-school delinquency, how come its arrival in the UK sparked exultant riotsamong its teddy boy audience?A similar tension can be found in the moral panic movies of the late 1960s.The Happening (1967) is about a band of hippies who kidnap a mob boss;Wild in the Streets (1968) the tale of a pop singer who force-feeds LSD to thegeneral public. Both appear at least halfway in love with the culture theypurport to detest. The same goes for those scare-mongering 1970s gangmovies such as The Warriors and Over the Edge, the latter cited as aninspiration by Kurt Cobain ("It pretty much defined my whole personality").These days, perhaps, there is no director who represents the genre so well asLarry Clark, a sixtysomething film-maker gone native in a perilous world ofrenegade skaters and oversexed adolescents. Clark, if nothing else, seemspassionately, intensely interested in his subject matter – and maybe thats theproblem.