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Chris Cunningham was just eighteen-years-old when he stepped onto the set of the Clive Barker freakshow that was Nightbreed. Based on his 1988 novella Cabal the movie was a collage of bizarre and terrifying images that would require a team of talented effects artists. Cunningham had been brought in to assistant on the creation of various models under the watchful eye of special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, whose impressive résumé had included two Superman movies, the ill-fated Supergirl and the British fantasy Krull. Cunningham may have performed his duties adequately but it hardly gave him the freedom to develop his own unique style. It would take a further seven years before he would produce a film conjured out of his own imagination that would both confuse and scare his audience. Surprisingly, however, it would not be a motion picture that would cement his reputation but a music video for a cult dance artist called Aphex Twin.
Cunningham was born on 15 October 1970 in Reading, Berkshire before relocating to Lakenheath in Suffolk. Having first entered the industry sculpting puppets for the popular satire serial Spitting Image he progressed to feature films with Nightbreed, immediately followed by Richard Stanley’s science fiction thriller Hardware, which first demonstrated his affection for robots. After a stint on the troubled Alien 3 project he teamed up with Stanley once again for his sophomore effort Dust Devil. Between 1990 and 1992 Cunningham regularly designed the front covers for the popular comic Judge Dredd, eventually leading to a role on the movie adaptation through August to November 1994, working alongside Hollywood action hero Sylvester Stallone and screen legends Jürgen Prochnow and Max von Sydow.
He soon came to the attention of renowned filmmaker Stanley Kubrick, who was immersed in pre-production on his dream project A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Based on the short story Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, the premise focused on a couple in the near future who are eager to have a real child, with the revelation being that their son David is in fact a robot. Kubrick was fascinated with this idea and first commissioned the story in the early 1970’s, shortly after the release of his groundbreaking science fiction masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey. ‘I started working with him when I was twenty-three but I wasn’t intimidated,’ Cunningham told Pitchfork many years later. ‘I was at a point where I was starting to become pretty obsessed with my own plans. I was pretty distracted mentally. I’m a fan of his but I’ve never been a Kubrick obsessive.’
By 1985 the project had become lost in development hell and so Kubrick contacted Stephen Spielberg, who himself had become something of a craftsmen after directing two sci-fi blockbusters of his own, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Frustrated by the lack of progress of the project, Kubrick suggested to one of his writers to read the children’s classic The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi for inspiration. But it would be the release of Spielberg’s dinosaur hit Jurassic Park that would finally convince Kubrick that the technology now existed to do the story justice. With Christopher Baker on board as the concept artist, Cunningham was hired on the strength of his work on Judge Dredd to supervise the visual effects. It soon became apparent, however, that the project had once again stalled and so Cunningham finally bowed out to pursue his own career as a director.
In 1995, Cunningham directed his first music video, the nightmarish collection of images that he had assembled for Autechre’s track Second Bad Vibe. Finding it a disappointing experience, Cunningham began looking for his next project and soon made the acquaintance of Richard James, a multitalented musician one year younger who had slowly built a following under his professional moniker Aphex Twin. Having experiment during the early 1990s with an avant-garde style ambient sound, James was about to conquer the alternative charts with his next effort, Come to Daddy, an industrial piece full of demonic sounds and menacing lyrics. Despite receiving minor acclaim, James had been unsuccessful at marketing his image, but all that was about to change with the resulting promo video.
Declaring that ‘I will eat your soul’ in a menacing growl, Come to Daddy was a disturbing sonic experience from the outset, showing James at his most uncompromising and unpredictable. ‘People always think that I consciously manufacture those ideas,’ explained James in an interview with Index Magazine. ‘I’m always envious of people who do only one thing — I think that would be quite relaxing. But I definitely wouldn’t want to make the same sort of music all the time. I’d go mad. Come to Daddy came about while I was just hanging around my house, getting pissed and doing this crappy death metal jingle. Then it got marketed and a video was made and this little idea that I had, which was a joke, turned into something huge. It wasn’t right at all.’
When Cunningham was sixteen-years-old, he was chased through the woods by a young boy of nine, who was trying to attack him with a hammer. Riding as fast as he could on his pushbike, he was desperate to get away but was worried that people would see him fleeing from a young child. The experience had terrified Cunningham and he had been left with the feeling of pure fear. Come to Daddy had merely been an experiment for James, eager to try different sounds without any real intentions in mind. But one aspect he would often include in his work were children’s voice, something which would recall Cunningham’s horrifying experience and would lay the foundation of his premise for the music video.
In a derelict council estate, an elderly woman is walking her dog when they pass a pile of rubbish, of which an old television set has been abandoned. The dog urinates on the side of the box and then suddenly the screen begins to flicker, a sequence which recalled the ludicrous resurrection scene from A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, in which Fredy Krueger is brought back to life in a similar manner. A creepy face suddenly appears on the screen, causing the dog to become frantic and bark viciously at the image. A moment later, a group of children appear behind the woman and and run away with the TV set, before randomly attacking strangers and cars with large pipes and sticks. Bizarrely, all the kids have the same face as the monster on the television.
Eventually, the screen begins to pulse (in a similar manner to David Cronenberg’s classic Videodrome) and the figure slowly climbs out of the TV and lays on the ground, its scrawny frame gradually taking shape. The old woman, unable to escape, comes face-to-face with the beast, which screams violently at her, before surrounding itself with the children who look upon it as their father. ‘For a while, music videos were a replacement of what avant-garde cinema was doing,’ stated Cunningham to NME. ‘If you wanted to see anything avant-garde, or surreal, you’d more likely see it in a music video than a movie. Mainstream cinema is a narrative format, but a music video just has to draw someone’s attention for three to five minutes. For me, once you take away that narrative, you can’t take the horror aspect seriously.’
The video was shot on location at a housing estate in Thamesmead, east London. When the filmmakers were shown around the area by a man from the local council, they were instructed that they were not to portray the area in any bad way, which can only make one wonder how they felt about monsters, random violence and demonic children. James himself would portray the creature in the television, his twisted flailing around frantically behind the screen in a manner that echoed Cain’s robotic appearance in RoboCop 2. The evil kids would be played by both children and, as Cunningham called them, ‘midget adults.’ The effect of having them resemble the monster was achieved by the make-up artists designing silicone and latex masks for the actors to wear over their faces.
Unable to shoot the necessary footage on time, Cunningham would return for another day to film various inserts that would make the editing process easier. The experience of directing the video for Autechre had left him feeling disillusioned, both with his own talents and his need for creative control and so with Come to Daddy he was determined to make the film that he wanted to make, without concerning himself with what others would think. Thankfully, James was on the same page and was extremely enthusiastic with what the young filmmaker was doing with his track. The resulting effort would be almost six minutes of true horror, something which would prompt various producers and studios to offer Cunningham the chance to direct his own movie, although he would repeatedly refuse.
‘After Come to Daddy I was offered virtually everything you can imagine, the majority of which was very dark, similar types of things as Come to Daddy. Doing the Madonna video seemed like something significantly different. I always want to try to explore other aspects of my interests. Come to Daddy was more about having a laugh,’ he later admitted to Urban Desires. ‘Well, it was supposed to be extremely funny, but not extremely scary. That was almost a bi-product. I thought it was just going to be funny. It was so weird that people weren’t laughing and they were saying, ‘Oh, that was really gross.”
Come to Daddy was released on 6 October 1997 by Warp Records and proved to be Aphex Twin’s most popular song to date. The video would receive regular airplay on the likes of MTV, although it would usually be shown after the 9pm watershed. Cunningham’s hard work would eventually pay off, with the video winning several awards and being nominated for countless more, including a 1998 MTV Video Music Award. He also found himself nominated for a Music Video Production Association award, facing competition from Mark Romanek’s promo for Fiona Apple’s Criminal and Jonas Åkerlund’s controverial Smack My Bitch Up for the Prodigy.
Described by the CMJ New Music Report as ‘harrowing’ and Billboard as a ‘monstrous masterpiece,’ Come to Daddy remains a landmark in how the format of the music video can be used less as a marketing tool and instead as an exercise in avant-garde filmmaking. ‘A dirtier vision, distilling carefully selected motifs of the horror form as a miniature ‘end of days’ on an English housing estate,’ described author Matt Hanson in his book Reinventing Music Video. ‘Menacing prepubescent clones run amok, sporting the grotesquely warped features of Richard D. James. I read it as a scream against urban decay.’
Cunningham’s relationship with James would be a prolific one and the two would collaborate once again two years later on another surreal promo entitled Windowlicker, a ten-minute pastiche of hip-hop videos that saw curvy semi-clad young women with James’ distorted features in place of their own. The two would also work together on two video installation, Monkey Drummer and Flex, while Come to Daddy would mark the true beginning of Cunningham’s career as a director, resulting in a such unique offerings as Portishead’s Only You, Madonna’s Frozen and Björk’s All is Full of Love. ‘I really enjoyed working with Chris,’ recalled James to Groove. ‘It’s not my favourite thing to do, I’d rather just sit at home doing new tracks. Warp want to do it because they just got dollars in their eyes. But I had a really good idea for a track that Chris would really like.’