Well, life got in the way. When I say life I don’t mean frolicking over green hills surrounded by puppies and balloons. I, of course, mean the soul wrenching hammering of a capricious universe on the creaking doors of sanity. So, I fell behind in the Challenge. Sorry about that. In order to rectify this, I’m going to have to resort to so blatant cheating and do something I said I wouldn’t: review previously reviewed movies. But, to save you from the boredom, what I’ll do is just post some links here relating to the relevant days and films, with some additional notes where appropriate. Again, sorry, but life can be a spanner in the rectum of planning.
Thirty Lovecraftian movies in thirty days. Is it even possible? That’s what bounced around my brain an instant after I thought of the challenge. Is it even feasible to watch and review 30 movies inspired by the works of H. P Lovecraft in a month, culminating on Halloween night?
Howard Philips Lovecraft was born in 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island, United States of America. His early life was not a happy one, his father being committed to an asylum when he was only three. His mother used to dress him as a little girl and constantly told him he was ugly. Ill throughout his childhood, he was essentially a self-taught man: astronomy and history being among the subjects in which he educated himself. Imaginative, even as a child, he began to write horror stories, inspired by his heroes Edgar Allen Poe, Robert W Chambers and Ambrose Bierce. These dark tales, woven it seems from the introspection brought on by anxiety and sickness, eventually coalesced into what we now know as “The Cthulhu Mythos”. That was still ahead for the young Howard: he had more tragedies to endure. His beloved grandfather, who served as patriarch since the incarceration and death of Howard’s father, also died five years later. As he grew up a bookish, awkward young man, he would prefer to venture out at night, leaving the days for writing. He got his “break”, as it were, complaining about love-stories in The Argosy magazine. He was drawn into the United Amateur Press Association, and began to build his network of correspondents, among the Robert E Howard (creator of Conan the Barbarian), Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), Harry Houdini (yes, that Harry Houdini), and Frank Belknap Long (short story writer, and one of Lovecraft’s few close friends).
His writing is usually divided into four sections: firstly, his correspondence and letter writing archives, which are vast; his early Poe-influences work; his “dreamlands” writings, inspired by Lord Dunsany; and finally what is known as the Cthulhu Mythos, although HPL himself refered to it dismissively as his “yog-sothery”, named after one of the cosmic entities in his writings.
It is the Mythos which is of most interest, as it shaped my own view of how horror should be purveyed in fiction. For Lovecraft, there was something both awe-inspiring and terrifying about gazing up at a star-filled night’s sky. What is something was looking back. Something that matched the vast stellar expanse, something to which humanity could be nothing more than insignificant. And so the Old Ones were born. Extra-dimensional aliens of such dark psyche that even to see one would drive the human animal to madness. There were several key Old Ones: Yog-Sothoth, the Gate and the Key; Azathoth, the insane chaos at the center of the universe; Nyarlathotep, herald of the Old Ones, and manipulator of humans; Shub-Niggurath, the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young; and finally, the figurehead of the Mythos, Cthulhu itself, a vast octopoidal-headed monstrosity currently trapped beneath the sea in the sunken city of R’lyeh.
The themes explored were also suitable dark and nihilistic: madness, suicide, human experimentation, genetic degeneracy inevitable doom, secret cults, and forbidden knowledge.
Another major character in the work of HPL is a book: the Necronomicon. Written by the “mad arab, Abdul Alhazrad”, it is a constant malevolent presence in his work, being name checked in many of his stories. Ostensibly an arcane book of magick, it would be more in keeping to suggest that is was actually the writings of a man driven mad by trying to understand alien science. For HPL, sorcery and magick is just an unknown science, developed by alien minds of immense, unfathomable intellect.
Unfathomable intellect. And soooo cute.
Howard Philips Lovecraft died aged only 46, in 1937. Since then, his writings have been largely ignored by the wider world, his brand of cosmic horror really only latched on to by fellow writers, and film-makers. Those inspired by him include all of those within his circle of friends, but also such horror names as Forrest J Ackerman, Stephen King, Colin Wilson, Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, Clive Barker, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, John Carpenter and Guillermo Del Toro. For those unfamiliar with HPL, these works are just innovative horror, but for those of us who were introduced to the Old Gent’s work, we see, and love, those elements.
cthulhu gets everywhere
In the last 10 years HP Lovecraft’s work has begun to enter the semi-mainstream. An episode of the cartoon The Real Ghostbusters featured Cthulhu, there are a vast array of internet memes, comic strips and short films. Cthulhu even gets name-checked in comedy suchs as an episode of The Soup and @Midnight. Recently, HPL’s famous couplet “That Is Not Dead Which Can Eternal Lie, and With Strange Aeons Even Death May Die” appeared in the TV show Sleepy Hollow.
Obviously, I’m a huge fan of Lovecraft. His nihilistic worldview is uncompromising, bleak, and truly epic. The notion that alien life could drive us insane just by it’s sheer presence always spoke to me. His is a universe without gods, but with creatures so different and powerful that humans can do nothing but see them as gods. They are, indeed, unspeakable.
Which brings me back to my challenge: 30 Lovecraftian movies in 30 days. As Lovecraft has been virtually ignored by the mainstream, and yet his influences reach, unacknowledged, into so many films it will not be an easy challenge. For films adapted from HPL stories, the selections will be fairly easy, but there aren’t that many. Films showing influences are in abunbance, but then comes the problem of defending one’s choice. Not all HPL fans see his influence, some, like myself may be seeing them in places where they don’t exist. This will be the trick. The other problem is that I’ve limited myself to those films that I haven’t yet reviewed: this rules out the classics such as Re-Animator and From Beyond.
So, hopefully, I will be up to this challenge. 30 Lovecraft movies in 30 days. Let’s crack on…
Over the last decade the vampire genre has become something of a joke to many. A glut of vampire themed films, television, and now its own romance novel subgenre has seemingly defanged one of the most beloved monsters in the world of horror.
Where the gothic dark mystique once was we now have a sparkling sheen of teen angst. Where the decaying fear inducing emaciated Count Orlok once stood towering we have a sexy bad boy with rippling abs. It wouldn’t be so hard to take if it wasn’t for the fact that it seems we are only getting clones of the same story over and over with the same sort of blood sucker who’s just lost their bite.
To save our beloved night dweller two genius directors have, as is sometimes necessary, gone back to the past to save the present. Jim Jarmusch and Guillermo del Toro have created two masterpieces of vampire media, one a film and the other a television series, both of them brilliant. Not only are they brilliant, but they both take their cues from the classic world of the vampire, keeping the fangs intact and bringing them to modern times, each with their own unique twist on the mythology.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Of the two, Only Lovers is the more classic film representation of the vampire. Jarmusch is a unique filmmaker and he brings that quirkiness to this film, creating a sardonic and world weary vampire in Adam (perfectly played by Tom Hiddleston who took the role when actor Michael Fassbender had to drop out.) The movie follows Adam as he resides in the slowly deteriorating city of Detroit. The city fits Adam’s view of humanity which is, at least too him, slowly rotting away and eating up the world. He calls humans “zombies” because they are the walking soon to be dead. Adam has lost inspiration and the desire to keep going. It has gotten so dark in his mind that he asks his somewhat friend and only human he really talks to, Ian (Anton Yelchin from the Fright Night remake) to have made a wooden bullet so he can shoot himself.
Adam has lived for centuries, we’re never really told just how long…but it’s obvious it’s been at least four or five hundred years. He’s a musician and very intelligent. He’s inspired by scientists and artists that he has known, especially Nicolai Tesla whose technology he uses to keep his home and car running. It’s a nice touch and isn’t overemphasized. That’s part of what makes this film so wonderful, Jarmusch just has these little nuggets of history planted within the story and you either notice them or not. He doesn’t pander because he expects the audience to be smart enough to get it already.
Half way around the world Eve (Tilda Swinton who has become one of my favorite actresses thanks to this film) is living in Tangiers. Eve is ethereal looking, as if made from ivory. With her pale skin and pale hair she stands out even more so in Moroccan city. Eve has been a vampire for centuries as well. She’s just as intelligent as Adam. In her is a spirit that looks for the joy in the world, the magic all around. She enjoys everything. In many ways she’s the opposite of Adam as he is now, or the perfect balance to him.
Eve’s fellow vampire and blood connection for getting “the good stuff” is Marlowe (played by the legendary John Hurt.) Marlowe’s first name is Christopher, as in the writer who may or may not have penned the plays Shakespeare is famous for. These touches by Jarmusch really make this movie fun as I’ve said.
The vampires in Jarmusch’s film are all incredibly intelligent and all of them revel in artistry and the things that keep the human mind alive. That is of course what would keep you going forever, learning and discovery. But also love. And that’s where the film still retains its brilliance without reaching a level of overly sweet and overly done storytelling. Adam and Eve’s romance has the familiarity bred from centuries but the two come across as real on screen. Swinton and Hiddleston are a perfect pairing for these characters, with Eve putting up with Adam’s dramatic depression and Adam finding the light in the dark with her understanding and devotion. It works here because they understand one another.
These are still vampires though and dangerous. This is truly shown when Eve’s “sister” Ava (Mia Wasikowska, looking like a smaller version of Swinton) shows up. Ava is what a vampiric teenager ought to be, almost hyper and very hungry. They still require blood, but humans have managed to taint themselves to being nearly undrinkable with all the pollutants we’ve created. So Adam (as Dr. Faust) sneaks into the hospital to buy blood under the table from a Doctor on staff. The need for this is yet another reason Adam is truly sickened by humans.
Only Lovers Left Alive shows us the classical vampire back to the screen in a unique and beautiful way. The soundtrack is phenomenal and the films imagery captures the grace and eternal presence of the creatures it follows. Eve’s dancing and twirling superimposed over the image of a spinning record, forever turning and playing a haunting melody really shows Jarmusch’s vision of what these characters (and creatures) represent.
On the small screen vampires have managed to infect nearly every network in one way or another. And while the classic vampire (NBC’s Dracula) didn’t fare as well as his modern brothers (Vampire Diaries is still undead and well on the CW) it would appear that Guillermo del Toro wants to show an even more classic (as in ancient) vampire in The Strain. There’s nothing sexy about these children of the night. They simply want to infect and drink you to death.
The new FX series is based off the book series del Toro co-wrote with Chuck Hogan. The two came together to pen the pilot script with del Toro also directing the first episode.
The series plays in a way like the original Nosferatu, with a plague ship (this time a commercial airliner) landing in New York and releasing the malevolent Master vampire loose upon the passengers aboard. The mystery plane garners the attention of the authorities and the CDC who investigate and find that only a few of the passengers have survived. The others are taken to be examined. As the story progresses we are introduced to the billionaire responsible for bringing the creature to the city, Eldritch Palmer. He’s dying and he wants the immortality that the Master can offer. To fight this new strain of evil a group of individuals come together that know the true horror facing the city and the world with the release of the vampires. Members of the CDC as well as men who’ve faced the evil before join forces.
The Strain, much like Only Lovers, takes aspects of the classic vampire trope and plants them squarely in our times. Where Only Lovers shows the vampire dealing with the changes modern technology has wrought upon the world, The Strain shows modern science having to deal with the decimation of the ancient bloodsucker. And it does so with a great cast and a great source material in the novels.
Corey Stoll plays Ephraim Goodweather with genre vet David Bradley being cast as Professor Abraham Setrakian. Other genre well knowns include Sean Astin and Kevin Durand. The series has a slick look and production to it, cinematic yet with touches as if it were being filmed for a documentary (with time clocks in the corner advising how long it has been since the plane touched down.)
The Strain of the title is a parasite that looks like a worm. They are unnerving and vicious and determined to infect as many people as they can. The vampires themselves are also unnerving and vicious…and one scene in the pilot that deals with a group of them puts The Walking Dead to shame when it comes to creepy horrible death. There’s nothing sexy here…these are exactly what del Toro wanted to do with the vampire, make them scary again.
There’s also the added bonus of del Toro himself being a beloved icon in the horror and sci-fi community in his own right and having some amazing friends who will show up just to work with him and be a part of the show. Andrew Divoff (Wishmaster), Doug Jones (Hellboy), and Javier Botet (Mama) are just a few of the names who will appear in the first season alone.
The Strain as well as Only Lovers Left Alive is proof the vampire genre can still surprise and entertain us. It can be terrifying or beautiful and eternally fascinating. They show us that the vampire will truly never die and that to me is a good thing.
As many of you know, the indomitable Jessica Dwyer and I made our way over to Indianapolis for Horror Hound Weekend this month. It was amazing. I met a lot of awesome people, and a superb time. One of my very favorite parts of going to any convention is seeking out unique items to take home with me. My absolute favorite thing to find is unique, handmade jewelry.
Wandering about on the floor is usually a hurried and hit-and-miss experience. Good thing, then, that the Retro-A-Go-Go! booth with its charmingly vintage parasols and tiki-dream color scheme stood out so well against the dark and dreary booths that were pervasive in the main hall of Horror Hound.
The booth is like a tiny shop, enclosed on all but one side so you can walk in and become surrounded by nothing but retro goodness. This is a smart, if time-consuming way to construct a convention booth. It enfolded me in the charm and attitude of playful classiness Retro-A-Go-Go! strives to uphold. I like to do an initial sweep of the floor, and I must admit, it was very hard for me to leave the booth without buying anything straight away.
A beautiful Bride of Frankenstein necklace had caught my fancy, and for a day and a half I thought about it, longingly. Thankfully, as the con was closing down, the lovely persons of Kristen and Doug let me browse the booth again as they tore down, acquiring my necklace, a Bride of Frankenstein pill case (this is a huge purchase as I have been searching for a pill case worthy of owning for years) and a pair of outrageously adorable sunglasses shaped like cat ears and whiskers.
During this time I also got to speak more with Kristen and Doug, a fantastic pair. We exchanged the usual convention pleasantries, “how was your con?” “how far do you have to travel?” The usual. We also go a little bit deeper into things, as I asked them something that many con crafters shudder to answer: “Where do you get the artwork you use?”
Without missing a beat, Kristen was proud to announce that all the artwork that comprises their impressive collection of fun is completely official. Working with artists and estates, Retro-A-Go-Go! has a completely licensed collection. I found this fascinating. As the fan art and convention culture has grown, I’ve watched as jewelry creators have gotten less and less creative. There are a lot of things anyone can do, and maybe that’s why the professional quality and whimsy of Retro-A-Go-Go!’s products stood out to me.
After the show, I emailed them and was lucky enough to get an interview. A little insight behind the creative process and sheer genius of Retro-A-Go-Go!
You’ve been around for 10 years now, which makes you veterans compared to a lot of pop-culture vendors. What has given you your staying power in a place that is (let’s face it) overcrowded with people trying to make a dime?
We make what we love. So being passionate is a big part of the equation. If we don’t feel a product or design has our thumbprint of originality, quality, and uniqueness we don’t create or offer it. Doug and I also come from strong professional sales, marketing, and design backgrounds, we bring that experience to Retro-a-go-go! We take our professional experience and combine it with as much fun as possible. We treat everyone the way we want to be treated and we make sure we keep our selection diverse and exciting. We apply our energies to a positive, happy, and lively work environment. People feel good and are proud to work here. Retro-a-go-go! is an energized, lively and forward thinking company and continues to foster creativity and bring out our best ideas.
What is your favorite product to create? Is there one that holds a special place in your heart?
It’s difficult to pin point a favorite. Everything on our site is our own original and inspired work. We love Bettie Page, Buck Rogers and of course anything monster inspired! We work hard to contribute creative additions to brands and licenses. Our relationship with the Bettie Page property could be described as a lifelong love affair. We just can’t get enough of her, and neither can our customers. From Burlesque and Tiki, to Hot Rod and Scifi, fans everywhere-especially pop culture loving geeks want more and more original, and never-before seen Bettie art and accessories, and we’re here to deliver the goods in a new and fresh and enticing way.
There is everything in your shop from zombies to Betty Page. Where do you draw your inspiration from? Is it variable, or do you have something specific that really puts you in the mind place to create?
We are inspired by our hobbies and collections, be it retro toys, vinyl collectibles, vintage movie posters, comics, art, movies, vintage ephemera, other licensed artists or even each other. Doug is constantly drawing or working on new designs in his studio and at his drawing table. A great benefit to designing and manufacturing everything in house is that we are able to make what we want and also fulfill customer requests. Our visions really do become reality and show up in must-have Retro-a-go-go! goodness made available to our customers. If our fans ask for more mermaid, monsters, robots, steampunk, sideshow, pinups, or even something that doesn’t exist in the market, we are resourceful and we make it happen, possibly with a new spin.
Let’s talk about the big one. Your products are all officially licensed. Sadly, many vendors either at cons or online are not. Is it discouraging for you to see this?
It’s very unfair to the license and property. We pay to have the legal right to use the properties we work with, and we feel paying for that privilege calls us to a higher creative standard. For example there are a lot of awful Bettie Page reproductions in the market. Most of the unlicensed images we see are poor quality, sloppy, and reflect careless work that hurts the family legacy, the license, and the brand. Bettie’s family deserves compensation for the use of Bettie’s image.
Can you tell us what you have found to be the best benefits about acquiring the official licensing for your products?
One of the greatest benefits of paying for official licenses is the opportunity to acquire the best images possible. We have access to the best collections, photos, and the most stunning imagery, which allows us to make better and more polished products and stay ahead of the competition. In other words, we pay for premium resources, and we think it shows in our products
Tell us about your most memorable moment at a convention.
Each convention is its own adventure!
Recently I had the opportunity to meet Scott Wilson. We are huge Walking Dead fans! He gave me a warm hug. It was such a privilege to meet him and see how relaxed and laid back he was. Each show we attend is a snowflake, there’s no telling who you will meet or run into. We get to meet new artists and connect with other creative business owners, which often turn into great relationships and lasting friendships.
I love 1960’s Batman and another memorable moment was meeting Adam West, Julie Newmar , and Burt Ward all at the same time. Meeting interesting people and making new connections makes shows interesting year after year. There is always an element of surprise as to what’s around the next convention corner.
You have an impressive list of artists you work with, is there someone you would love to add to that list?
We want to make more products with the artists we currently work and partner with. There’s so much amazing art and so many interesting concepts that we can’t wait to explore. Also, its very exciting to have such a broad variety of talented artists approach us with their work. Of course there are artists on our dream list, so stay tuned to Retro-a-go-go! to see what and who is popping up next.
Who is your favorite monster dame?
Lily Munster is my favorite. Not only is Yvonne De Carlo an original pinup, she took her comedic role seriously and made it interesting. She ramped up and camped up her performance. She brought a level of authenticity and talent that made her stand out on screen. Her character had great comedic timing too. She was sexy, smart, and was the glue that held the Munster family together. Somebody had to for gosh-sakes!
Where would your dream convention be held, and what would the theme be?
My dream convention would be held outside on the street in front of our Retro-a-go-go! studios. Our booth is an experience, it’s an elaborate carnival that fans can’t wait to shop, its always worth the effort even if the location is less than convenient. On the upside too, it’s exciting to go see new places and meet new people. We’ve travelled thousands of miles and every convention has new opportunities, excited customers both new and returning.
Is there anything new and exciting we should be checking your website for in the near future?
Keep an eye on our website and on our social media feeds. Retro-a-go-go! is always changing, developing, adding more product, licenses and artists. We are making more and more geek-chic gifts all the time. We have a creative vision for high quality, inspired, and affordable products. Retro-a-go-go! has personality and as always, we have lots of sales and promotions to help you give the best gifts possible during the holidays as well as year round. There are so many great things to love under our unique pop-culture umbrella, from robots and vintage comics, to pinups, to sideshow, goth, and tattoo style to rockabilly and even steampunk designs, just to name a few! Our customers have a lot to choose from and we try to make shopping with us fun. You’ll always see something new that you just have to have for yourself or buy for a friend.
Come see us at a show or visit us online every day of the year on our website Retro-a-go-go.com. We look forward to seeing you in person or on the web!
Call us if you are so inclined! (734) 476 0300
We love hearing from our customers.
And at last, I would like to give a big Fangirl thank you to Kristen, Doug, and everyone else at Retro-A-Go-Go for their dedication to creating works of art that we can wear and cherish.
Industrial designer. Painter. Sculptor. Director. Toiler at night terrors. Friend of Salvador Dali, whom he appreciatively dubbed a “Fox”, as Dali was attempting to bed his then wife. Wearer of bread loaves as shoes to a gallery opening. To my mind, the sole, peerless conjurer of Lovecraftian imagery. And by many accounts, the kindest of human beings.
We all know his work. Even if we don’t know who he is. Even if we’ve forgotten just how deeply he changed the landscape of Sci-Fi. You’d be hard pressed to find even a minor collector of phantasmagoria without at least one example of his work in their collection. Be it a movie, book, art print, album cover, tattoo, furnishing, toy, documentary, personal anecdote or the rarest of treasures – an original piece. We’ve all got our teeth in the matter of his mind, in the fashion with which we devour any monolithic sooth-sayer of our age.
As ubiquitous as Hello Kitty, the architecture of Hans Rudolf Giger’s wondrous machinations is known even to those who would normally shun his brand of “biomechanical” psychosexual surrealist nightmare. Even those very descriptors, now drawn together to describe the work of many other artists he inspired (myself included), are owed to the man himself. Like the enduring demonic Xenomorphs he created for the Alien films, his reach has been long and will surely continue to be so now after his passing. H.R. Giger, Modern Father of the Alluring Grotesque, died this 12th of May, 2014, following complications from a fall, age 74.
Giger managed wide-ranging success at wielding the popular visual vernacular to discuss the verboten subjects of death, sex and politics. Often at the same time. He showed us that the notion of anything in art being gratuitous is ridiculous. He maneuvered his fingers inside the slit of our collective unconscious and shared with us his night terrors, like a maniacal Humanist Johnny Appleseed, planting seeds of self-salvation from the fear of our own minds and bodies. He reminded us of what is good in life. And how vastly important is the acceptance of what we absolutely cannot change. The list of people who’ve managed these feats is short.
Timothy Leary once said of Giger,
“Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.”
I’d go one further and say, “And he reminded us to live without fear.”
In 1984, I was thirteen years old. Those were years long before the internet, mobile phones, computers in every home, or DVDs. If you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to flea-pit, post-vaudeville theaters retrofitted with a single screen, pay your money, and pick your own seat. Sometimes you’d catch the end of the film you wanted to see from the previous screening. You’d sit in the dark, surrounded by cigarette smoke, drinking orange cordial that tasted like plastic, waiting for the lights to drop, the curtains over the screen to rattle back for the first of many times. You’d sit through something called a “supporting feature”: usually a short film or a cartoon. The curtains would close, wait, then open for adverts for local bicycle shops and takeaways, some asking you to leave your seat to return to the foyer to buy soft drinks and week old hot-dogs. The curtains would repeat their dance, and you would get the best part of the experience: the Pearl & Dean music. Memory may fail me as to the placing of the music in the preamble to the main feature, but the music and the blue graphics are seared onto my mind. The music was actually called “Asteroid” by Pete Moore, but a nation would only know it as The Pearl & Dean music. It meant that you were at the cinema. It was a real night out. An event.
But for the last few years, a swaggering newcomer had pushed its way into the entertainment scene. A war had been fought for over a decade before it spilled into the home: a war between two formats, VHS and Betamax. When we finally got a video-player, some years after the events I’m going to discuss, we chose Betamax. My Dad, a former television engineer, picked the better system. Eventually, as we know, Betamax lost the popularity war, but back then it was still in the running. Home video was making its mark in the UK. Expensive, yet increasingly popular, the video tape players were the must-have for cinephiles. For myself, it would be a few more years before I would find Horror and become hooked, via my minor autism and a tendency to be an archivist. I would play no role in the sinister power-games, lies, and jack-boot tactics that would sweep through the UK in those early years, but the atmosphere would shape my future in ways I could never have predicted.
The need to keep new video stores stocked with tapes fuelled a hunger for films. Sure enough, cheap exploitation movies were the easiest and most plentiful to source for distributors, and they would sit on the shelves alongside reputable fare such as comedies and westerns. In the early days, video tapes were not rated. In the cinema at the time, films were age restricted in the following way: “U”, which was suitable for children (but included Dumbo , Fantasia  and Bambi  which all traumatised children deeply); “A”, children of 5 and over, although under 14s not advised; “AA”, for the 14s and older; “X” for young adults of 18 years and older. Video tapes, however, were not age restricted. There were no indications of content other than lurid video sleeves and poorly written blurb. This would be the key cause of all the problems that would befall the video industry.
The story becomes interesting in 1982. Horror fans will know that this is the year of The Evil Dead, the insanely kinetic low-budget debut of future mainstreamer Sam Rami, but it would also be the year the phrase “Video Nasty” was coined. There is some debate about the first use of the term: some say it was a journalist writing for a typical right-wing UK tabloid, others say it came from within the ranks of the Christian moral outrage movement called the National Viewers and Listeners Association. It’s a moot point, for the term entered the national consciousness within a few years. Like any spectral villain, the name itself was enough to whip up a frenzy. Video tapes were big business and, being easy to stock and distribute, everywhere became a video-tape rental dealership. There were dedicated video stores, but garages, newsagents, corner shop supermarkets all became viable outlets. Video tapes were everywhere, and the gritty, sleazy exploitation horrors sat quietly in amongst them.
I was too young, naïve, and lacking in the kind of friends that would see me exposed to the typical “rites of passage” video horror parties of the time. But so-called “children” would indeed rent and watch these films, just to see who could withstand the gore. This fact would be used later as a stick to beat video stores into submission, warped and twisted by the moral majority.
Nazisploitation subgenre was well catered for in the 80s video boom.
Over the next two years there were more films, more controversies, and more interfering busybodies. Despite the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors, which changed the last word to Classification around this time) attempting to bring in self-regulation it cost too much for the small video distributors to send films off to be censored (for indeed, the BBFC would still demand cuts) and so many films just were not sent, and remained contentious.
In 1982, it came to a head. The tabloids, essentially the Daily Mail and its ilk, claimed “video nasties” as the big evil of the age. The moral panic had begun, and the various factions (NVLA, The Conservative Government, the tabloids) would not stop until there was blood in the water. The first assault would be in the form of the Obscene Publications Act, enforced by the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP). The Act, designed to be used against sex in literature, art and now films, defined obscenity as anything that was likely to “deprave or corrupt” those exposed to it. In Manchester, the Chief Constable, devout christian James Anderton, lead a huge raid across the region, gutting the video rental business by seizing anything that could possibly fall under the OPA, including famously The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Apocalypse Now (1979) and The Big Red One (1980). Anderton would later go on to become a controversial figure during the miner’s strike (which tore the UK apart during the 1980s) and went on to make inflammatory and viciously homophobic remarks regarding HIV and AIDS sufferers.
When video retailers began to be arrested and fined for stocking videos, the Video Retailers Association demanded some kind of clarity as to what films would be classified under the Act, because as it was, local police forces just decided for themselves, seized films, and would sit watching them “just to make sure” they were obscene.
In 1983, The Evil Dead was the award winning poster child of the video industry. Naturally, it fell into the sights of the DPP. But, when it came to court, Evil Dead was exonerated. That was, of course, the last straw for the moral majority. Enter the nemesis of the Video Nasties… Mary Whitehouse.
Whitehouse was a 71 year old right-wing christian, who hated social liberalism and in particular the BBC. She even had a knife in her hand for “Doctor Who” which she loathed. By the 1980s, she had become a figure of ridicule, and yet her defining moment would soon rise.
She gathered a number of allies to her side: ambitious young politician Graham Bright, who famously stated that video nasties could upset children… and dogs. Yes, that’s right, dogs. Also on her side was Peter Kruger, head of the Obscene Publications Unit at Scotland Yard. Kruger claims to be the one who edited together a “best of” video of gore to show to MPs (Members of Parliament), who, unsurprisingly were shocked as the unremitting assault of violence and screaming taken out of context.
Finally, there was a man called Clifford Hill, who had one of the most punchable voices of the era. Hill was the mad responsible for the most deplorable abuse of power in the whole video nasty era: The Video Violence and Children report of 23rd November 1983. When the report came out, it vomited up a key headline for the tabloids. “40% of Children Have Seen A Video Nasty”. This report was based on the returns of a questionnaire constructed and analysed by, it was claimed Oxford Polytechnic.
It was essentially fraudulent.
Brian Brown, one of the members of the team brought together to conduct that research, writes in Martin Barker’s excellent book The Video Nasties (1984):
My name was attached to the report as associate director of the enquiry; my research unit at Oxford polytechnic was named as the place where it was based. This created a problem for us, as a week earlier we had repudiated the framework, context and conclusions of the entire document.
So what had happened? Brown, a Methodist, had been brought in to the process and had undertaken the study in all good faith after a meeting called by Viscount Ingleby on behalf of Clifford Hill to look into the possibility of videos damaging children. Brown notes that the meeting was a “highly charged atmosphere”, and nobody stepped forward to challenge any of the claims that video nasties were devastating. The group wanted results within 6 months, but as Brown noted, after 30 years of research into the effects of media, no conclusions were forthcoming. Interestingly, the members of the group were sworn to secrecy. After writing his concerns to Hill, who appeared in person and gave him reassurances, Brown acquiesced. While Brown was on holiday, Oxford Poly accepted the project, but obviously without Brown present there could be no decisions as to “research design, responsibility for publication, or, above all, the necessity I had continually stressed for the Television Research Unit (TRU) to adopt a neutral stance and not be involved in campaigning or political activity.”
Brown designed some questionnaires, but the frantic pace of the requirements left him fully aware of the limitations: his whole remit was to get some data ready for March 1984 and Graham Bright’s Bill. In October of 1983 these preliminary questionnaires were sent to schools at Hill’s insistence. When Brown returned again from an absence he found that Hill had used a private printer to send out all of the questionnaires, yet had ignored a requirement to stamp children and parent versions in pairs so they could be cross-referenced. Once the first 1,000 were returned, they lacked this piece of information, rending demographic conclusions flawed: Hill made conclusions anyway.
Soon, Brown was forced to reiterate his stance that he and his TRU team be impartial and not to be used in campaigning: however, Hill had already been doing so in Christian circles. Hill had in the meantime been sending assurances to Brown, and to the working party that had begun the process. When the Committee stage of the Bright Bill surfaced in November, Hill said he would use an interim report to give them data, despite the data being as yet unanalysed.
Brown was away from his desk again on 9th November due to lecturing duties, when Hill left an unmarked folder for Brown. Brown returned on 14th November to find that another document had arrived, only this time it contained conclusions. Brown and his team spent several hours formulating a response that was highly critical of Hill’s latest report. Two days later Hill responded saying that the Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher, was taking a “personal interest” in the report, that she was “very pleased” with the way it was proceeding, and finally Hill demanded full cooperation from the polytechnic in order that the rest of the research be conducted there. Less than a week later, Hill had presented his printed report to the Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry. Brown was stopped and congratulated by Mr Raymond Johnson for producing a report that was “Exactly what we wanted”.
What happened then smacks of conspiracy. While Brown was on leave Hill essentially raided the TRU in the early morning before staff were there, removed all questionnaires, all correspondence, all of Brown’s private mail, and wiped computer tapes. In light of this Brown began to get his compliant ready: his concerns were that the report was not an academic piece, but rather a “campaigning pamphlet…[containing]…hysterical and prophetic assertions”. It was full of conclusions made on the backs of anecdotes almost designed to point to those very conclusions. It also contained data that Brown and his team had never even seen:
It surely is an odd research document in which the conclusions are written before the tables which led to the conclusions are completed and the data analysed (Brown, in Barker 1984, p80)
This is the report that claimed that 40% of children had seen a video nasty. The report was constructed using the flawed methodology and data Brown and his team had criticised 6 months earlier.
As Hill had essentially stolen all of the data, the TRU was unable to analyse it to find out if it were accurate. But as Brown notes, one of his staff decided to make a check on what was available.
It turned out that Hill’s report seemed to have been based upon 46 returned questionnaires, and in only 3 of these had the children seen any videos.
In December, the TRU disowned the report, and Brown filed a report of what had happened to the Methodist Conference. The matter was essentially dismissed by another enquiry.
When Hill’s second report came out it was as equally flawed and biased: however, by this time the Methodists had pulled out due to the poor treatment of Brown and his team. Nevertheless it was seen as being a “church” supported report, despite the Roman Catholic representatives being concerned about the manner in which it was handled. The report also emphasised the fact that the unofficial group that had started the process had called itself the Parliamentary Group Video Enquiry, which seemed to give it the trappings of governmental respectability. Finally, the report still bore Brown’s name, despite his team being removed from the final analysis in clandestine manner.
Now, the report was out, the myth of the video nasty twisting and corrupting children was given credence. So what films were the most evil, the most depraved?
The objectionable films, according to the DPP, were officially 72 films that formed the infamous Nasty List. Of these, 39 were successfully prosecuted under to OPA. Naturally, these became the “hit-list” for both police forces to seize, and film fans to rescue.
Most of these are badly made, badly-dubbed, euro-trash quickie horrors, with little plot, poor acting, terrible pace and editing, with nothing to recommend them except the gore. The Video Nasties were some of the most tedious movies you could be forced to sit through. Looked at through eyes of kitsch and camp, they occasionally raised the odd hoot of derision, but anyone who sat through the majority of these films would not be titillated, depraved or corrupted, but would be quite, quite bored.
Few were of any real artistic merit, but that wasn’t the point. The government was telling us to be good little boys and girls, and not to watch the nasty films, because it would turn us into violent, murderous little monsters. It was ok for them to watch the films, because they weren’t the lumpen proletariat, they weren’t working class scum. They feared the underclass was consisted of bestial killers and watching one bad film would send us over the edge. They ignored the violence in our streets and on the news every night, or splattered over the tabloids. The excuse, as always, was trying to protect children. Children, especially those under 7 (those targeted by the poorly constructed research fired off by Clifford Hill) seem to have an attention span of a brain-damaged goldfish, so sitting through 90 minutes of tedium for the odd splash of gore seems unlikely.
At the time, the nation needed a scapegoat. The early 80s in the UK was a time of strikes, unemployment, riots, and a little thing known as the Falklands War. The Conservative (aka Tory) government was unpopular, and needed an easy win to pull some credibility back. In short, the early 80s was the closest we’d come in the modern era of being under a totalitarian regime.
Typical British Tabloid of the time, with the usual sensibilities of a jackal
When Graham Bright’s bill came to parliament, nobody dared to oppose it, lest they be pilloried in the public sphere for being “pro-depravity”. Margaret Thatcher, the Prime Minister at the time, was behind the bill, and so it was rushed through.
The upshot of this was the Video Recordings Act (1984). The BBFC changed its name to emphasise “Classification”, and now all videos had to be submitted and classified under the remit that they “could be seen by children in the home”. This meant that films would be butchered between cinema and video release.
Supplying unclassified films, or allowing under-age rental, was now a criminal offense. Censorship in the UK was no longer a by-product of policy: it was the policy. The charge to send a film for classification at the time was around £1000, which was out of the reach of the small distributors, essentially wiping out all but the major studio-approved outlets. This would begin 16 years of having the most stringent censorship in the western world.
Notice the X certificate for this 1957 Hammer classic.
At the time, I was growing up. I was already a casual fan of the old Universal and Hammer horror films, but even as a young kid the seizures of video tapes rang alarm bells in my head. I didn’t know it then, but within a few years, I would be hunting out horror wherever I could find it.
So, I went from a naïve fan, who would be regaled with the plots of The Thing (1982), Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), High Risk (1981), The Exterminator (1980) and Xtro (1983), among others by my friends on the way to school, to a horror fan who started strong.
The first three modern horror films I saw were in a single sitting, on VHS, aged about 17. Mum and Dad knew I was interested in films, and was by now able to cope with horror films. As a younger child I had been terrified by Poltergeist (due to my sister being evil to me during its showing) and An American Werewolf In London: now I was confronting horror head on. For my delectation that night I had selected Day Of The Dead (1985), Hellraiser (1987) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). I started with Freddy, moved through Pinhead, then onto Bub. By the end of that night I knew what I wanted: more horror.
My grandparents (a baptist minister and his wife) bought me this one Christmas. They knew I liked “blood and thunder” films.
Of course, what I didn’t know then was that these films had all been essentially butchered for home video. Day Of The Dead was short eyeball gouging, finger biting and other wonderments. The man responsible for these cuts was the self-styled emperor of the BBFC: James Ferman. He would actually cut the films with some sense of personal entitlement. In the famous case of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986/1990) Ferman re-cut the film himself, without the director’s permission, to alter the context of the notorious “family massacre” scene, and in the end the film was shorn of 113 seconds. That’s nearly 2 minutes.
Ferman was known for his personal bugbear: nunchuks. He would force cuts in any film where these martial arts weapons appeared, even cutting a scene in the comedy film Dragnet (1987), [a Bruce Lee poster in once scene where he wielded nunchuks] and removing Michelangelo wielding a string of sausages in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990). However, he would also refuse classification to films he thought would require too much cutting, but only if he considered them of some artistic merit, such as The Exorcist. Bootlegs of The Exorcist were available for £50 via a dodgy tutor’s assistant at my place of higher education, but I refused to pay that kind of money. Especially when I had friends with other contacts…
even light family nonsense like this fell to Ferman’s whims
My search for horror increased when I realised the films I loved were being cut. Not only that, but once I began to enjoy gore (I had wanted to be a special effects worker when younger) I wanted to get my hands on films that the government said I was too stupid and too impressionable to see. That’s how I managed to get to watch a fourth generation copy of Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979), which film fans in the US will know as Zombie. It was uncut.
My all time favourite zombie film. I know, I know, but I just love it.
I was blown away, and it remains one of my favourite films. I was finally making my way through the holy List of 39. I soon managed Cannibal Holocaust (1980), which at the time I didn’t find as repellent as I do now. It’s a great film, undermined by animal cruelty. Luckily, you can now buy a director’s cut with all animal violence excised.
In 1987, a man named Michael Ryan went on a shooting spree in Hungerford, a small market town in Berkshire. He murdered 16 people, including his mother, and wounded 15 others. Eventually, he did what most spree killers do: he committed suicide. Of course, it wasn’t long before the press began to blame video tapes for the killings. He was called the “Rambo Killer”, and for weeks, the moral panic was not focused upon guns, but films. As it turns out, Ryan didn’t even own a video player, and no evidence that he had ever seen Rambo ever surfaced. That didn’t stop the moral panic zeitgeist from hovering for decades to come.
the jackals are feeding again
Then, 1993 happened. A two year old boy was abducted and murdered by a pair of 10 year olds, and the UK being what it is, a scapegoat was needed. In this case it was Child’s Play 3 (1991). At the end of the trial of the two killers the Judge, Justice Moreland, went out of his way to blame violent videos. At no point during the trial was video violence raised but suddenly we had a scapegoat. There was an immediate return to a state of moral panic and videos were on the menu for sacrifice. In actual fact, there was no link between the film and the killing, something that has been conveniently forgotten by the cultural zeitgeist.
But it caused another ambitious politician out to carve a name in history to try and stir up controversy with an amendment to the VRA. His name was David Alton, a fervent anti-abortion campaigner, essentially wanted to make all films with a 15 or 18 certificate illegal and to curtail all violence in all films to make them suitable for children. Most people were unaware that the Alton Amendment was religiously motivated, essentially driven by the Movement for Christian Democracy, which had nothing like democracy on its mind.
I was a 22 year old horror fan. Myself, and others like me, were public enemy number one. We were sick, twisted filth who were just one movie away from a massacre. Suddenly it became all the more important to start archiving films.
It was all happening again. It had been 10 years since the last panic over video tapes, only this time we had an actual dead child as a figure-head, and an actual scapegoat in the form of Child’s Play 3. The Sun newspaper (a tabloid famous for having naked boobs on page 3, often of girls barely out of their teens) called the populace to “Burn Your Video Nasty, for the Sake of our children”. What were we going to do? These were mainstream horror movies now coming under fire, not badly made exploitation movies. The movie fascists were out again, baying for blood, and ordinary horror fans were in the crosshairs.
Luckily for us, Alton’s amendment fizzled and died once it was noted that Oscar winning fair such as Schindler’s List would also be banned under his knee-jerk censorship. Nevertheless, the horror-fan has remained a pariah ever since, especially in the eyes of the tabloids.
In 1999, lord emperor of the censors, James Ferman retired from the BBFC, and the new era began. It was the start of a golden age, but we didn’t know it yet. DVDs were beginning to enter the market and the new format begged for films. That year saw the final release of The Exorcist, which Ferman had consistently refused to classify, and in the next few years film after film that were previously condemned were trickled out. Not all of them were uncut, of course, but a surprising number were. The battle wasn’t over, however, as wherever there are horror films there will be politicians hoping for a quick and easy boost to their profile. One of these is MP Keith Vaz, notorious in certain circles for jumping on various moral bandwagons, as he did in 2008 when he and MP Julian Brazier condemned the BBFC for their even-handed and neutral stance on films that were previously classed as nasties. The catalyst for this was the release of SS Experiment Camp (1976) on DVD.
This film had already been through the censors mill, being banned during the Video Nasty era and even having its cover art altered to protect sensibilities. Vaz has form when it comes to thigh-slapping and hand-wringing: he also has tried to interfere with violent computer games such as Manhunt, Manhunt 2 (which is banned in the UK), Bully, and Counter-Strike. Interestingly, he has also been involved in a few financial scandals, breached the code of conduct of the House of Commons, and even played both sides in the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie (he promised Rushdie his full support, and then led march against Rushdie’s book). Brazier, like Alton before him, is a dedicated anti-abortionist and member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. As an aside, he also supported the Iraq war, and has voted in favour of fox hunting and corporal punishment in the home, and is against gay-rights, legal recognition of transsexuality, and euthanasia.
Interestingly, it turns out that none of the prosecutions brought against video dealers and collectors were actually legal: in 2009 they found out that a mistake had been made. So they repealed then re-enacted the faulty Bill, having made the adjustment.
However, the insanity continues. The UK Government has passed a law whereby owning screenshots of certain films will be illegal, while owning the uncut films themselves will not. This is tacked onto a Bill dealing with extreme pornography, which is the Conservative government’s current moral crusade. It’s not just porn that falls under the remit: horror movies with any level of sexual violence and hentai (essentially Japanese tentacle porn cartoons) all come under the cock-smashing hammer of this bill.
Yet again, those who like films outside of the saccharine mainstream are becoming the “enemy”. We’re corrupt, depraved perverts in the eyes of the government. All we want is to be allowed to watch what we want without government interference and without the specter of criminality over our heads. This is pure control, hiding beneath the mask of moral protection, damning aficionados of certain films as potential murderers and rapists. There is no correlation found between horror film appreciation and violence, despite years of study.
We are film buffs. We are your sons, daughters, husbands and wives. And we will fight for the right to determine our freedom of choice, even in the face of government control. We are not sick filth, and you can’t ban us.
When people think of Disney movies they typically think of singing princesses and picturesque locals filled with fairy tales. Frozen, the newest Disney juggernaut has the independence of a girl who’s different at its core and finding the love of her sister and her self that she was looking for. There are dark bits such as the fact her family wants her to deny who she is and keep her so locked up she’s afraid to be around people…but that’s well…kid’s stuff in comparison to the films I’m going to talk about that Disney was producing 30 years ago.
In the 70s and 80s Disney went dark with their live action movies. With the upcoming release of Maleficent it got me thinking about some of those films. The accessibility of Netflix also helped this along. Tim Burton’s return to wonderland in Alice in Wonderland also has a hand in this. Not many films have their shrunken heroine skipping through a moat of severed heads. Disney has an uncanny knack for being known as a kid friendly and sweet studio but they also have some of the most twisted and disturbing things you can imagine in movies that while rated PG go into places that are heavy, dark, and will give you nightmares.
I’ve picked three movies to focus on from Disney’s dark side that were released over the span of three years. I’ve also got a couple of honorable mentions for you that may have snuck pass your radar or you hadn’t thought of in a few years. Or you may not have even realized Disney released them at all because they sure don’t have a sign of Mickey Mouse in them.
The Black Hole – 1979
Themes: Heaven and Hell, murder, destruction, going beyond the veil
The title gives an indication of just how dark this movie gets. Released around Christmas in 1979 The Black Hole was a science fiction film that went beyond science into the realms of religion and megalomania.
Starring Robert Forster, Maximilian Schell, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux and the voice of Roddy McDowall the movie followed the ship Palomino whose crew is on a deep space mission with their robot VINCent. They come upon a Black Hole with a massive ship somehow keeping alongside the hole without getting sucked inside. The ship is The Cygnus and its only human occupant is Dr. Reinhardt. The entire ship is seems to be manned by robots, one of which is the massive Maximillian.
Eventually the crew of the Palomino realize that Reinhardt is insane and has actually turned the entire human crew of the Cygnus into mindless lobotomized living robots after they decided to mutiny. As the film progresses two of the Palomino’s crew are killed, one by Maximillian and the other crashes the Palomino into the Cygnus while trying to escape (while leaving behind the rest of his crew.)
The film ends with the destruction of the Cygnus after the gravitational fields keeping it from being sucked into the Black Hole are compromised. Dr. Reinhardt is trapped on the ship while Maximillian is defeated and flung into space. The surviving members of the Palomino board the only remaining space craft which is set to go through the black hole…a gamble that they hope will pay off and somehow survive…they go into the void.
The film ends with scenes so surreal and unexpected that people still talk about it to this day. Reinhardt is shown trapped inside the robot Maximillian, standing atop a hill in hell. Flames are everywhere and faceless souls, much like the living dead robots on the Cygnus, are funneling into the landscape as he’s forced to watch forever. Meanwhile the crew of the Palomino are shown following an angel through a cathedral like tunnel, going into the light as it were. They emerge heading toward a planet with a bright light shining nearby leading them “home.”
With that sort of ending the film doesn’t lend itself to a “kids” movie. Or if a child watched this they’d be a bit freaked out to say the least. The films tone is one that melds theories of morality and good and evil with science. In the end the morality tale plays out with the characters “afterlife” shown very literally as the versions of heaven and hell that we know from biblical descriptions. The Black Hole goes beyond the veil into realms unexpected for a Disney film let alone a sci-fi epic. Reinhardt is a madman living on a ship populated by the dead. And his hell is eternally to remain that way…trapped in the metallic husk, just like his time on the Cygnus was, only in the form of his lifeless enforcer Maximillian forever.
The heroes find their way “home” to a heaven or sanctuary by literally following the light. They are guided by an angel or being that looks very angelic to a blue planet with a bright shining star leading them on their way, much like the three wise men.
The imagery makes no attempt to be subtle but the way it is conveyed and the fairly heavy subject matter managed to make the Black Hole to be the first PG rated Disney film. The films ending was changed for the kids follow along record release to simply having the crew survive the journey through the Black Hole with a more easily understood continuation for the explorers in a new universe on the other side of the Black Hole looking for a new home. In the novelization of the film the crews consciousness is kept intact while their bodies are destroyed by the forces of the Black Hole using the power of a characters ESP.
Whichever ending you prefer, The Black Hole represented a departure from the ordinary for Disney into the dark reaches of Space and the darker reaches of storytelling.
Dragonslayer – 1981
Themes: Death, Destruction, Sacrifice
Dragonslayer was one of Disney’s entries into the various fantasy epics of the 80’s. While the film was a failure at the box office it was a cult hit on video when it was released during the hay day of VHS. But while fantasy and Disney would always be in the minds of many a world of singing fairies and glass slippers Dragonslayer as far different…and the princess didn’t get a happy ending.
Dragonslayer is the story of a young apprentice magician named Galen (played by a very curly haired Peter MacNicol before the days of weird accents and dancing babies in lawyer offices.) His master is the sorcerer Ulrich (played by Sir Ralph Richardson) who has seen his own death approaching…which he welcomes. Ulrich is searched out by the people of Urland who are being attacked by a massive dragon with the epic name Vermithrax Pejorative. The King has created a lottery done twice a year who’s “winner” is sacrificed to the dragon. It’s always a virgin female as the boys in the kingdom aren’t involved.
A soldier from the king’s guard follows the group of peasants to the sorcerer’s home and there they “test” him, not believing his power. The test leads to Ulrich dying even before his quest begins and it falls to Galen, his apprentice and now beneficiary to go on the journey to help stop the dragon. As you can imagine, the young apprentice has his work cut out for him. After what they think is a successful attempt at the beasts life the village celebrates and Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), the leader in the search for Ulrich shows the town that she is in fact a girl not a boy (something Galen discovers in a, at least for Disney, risqué scene.) Her father has hidden the fact from the world to protect her from the lottery. She and Galen quickly start to fall for one another.
As the film proceeds the dragon is shown not to be vanquished yet and the hypocrisy of the King is revealed to everyone, including his daughter the Princess whose name has been kept from the lottery the entire time. She fixes the new lottery to sacrifice herself for the good of the people and to make up for the years she’s been protected. The King begs Galen to save her…and armed with a shield of dragon scales and a Dragonslayer spear he tries to do just that. Unfortunately he is too late and the princess (remember this is a Disney film) is eaten by baby dragons which Galen discovers. Eventually with the help of his reborn master Ulrich, Galen defeats the dragon and he and Valerian live to go off together on a white horse happily ever after.
Dragonslayer has level after level of darkness and very touchy subject matter within its fiery depths. At one point a priest (played by emperor Palpatine himself Ian McDiarmid) is burnt alive on screen by the dragon who he’s calling upon the power of God to help him fight as in his eyes the beast is Satan. Then there’s the virgin sacrifices, young women slaughtered by the creature (which is actually pretty spectacular looking and VERY scary.) Vermithrax the Dragon is beautifully created…and by beautifully I mean stuff of nightmares and what a dragon should look like. He’s also a creation of ILM.
But the one part that always stuck with me from this film is the Princess Elspeth and how callously Galen basically sends her to her doom by accusing her of knowing what her father had been doing all along. His assumption of her guilt and cowardice cause her death and it’s one that’s not only unnecessary but disturbing. Galen himself is a flawed character who eventually learns and grows but at a huge cost of life and destruction.
At the end of the film we get a message that the people believe that it was the power of God that defeated the beast and not Ulrich and Galen’s magic. Even the king takes credit. Dragonslayer is nothing if not sarcastic, much like Ulrich. The humor is as black as his robes.
The film, like The Black Hole, was released with a PG rating (but back then PG13 hadn’t been implemented yet.) These films would lead to Disney creating another studio to release flicks that weren’t quite as squeaky clean as what their core audience expected of them (that would be Touchstone). As it was, this one, still a Disney film, was distributed by Paramount pictures in the states.
The Devil and Max Devlin 1981
Themes: Hell, Damnation, Sacrifice, Greed
The Devil and Max Devlin is yet another PG rated Disney film that managed to surprise people with the level of dark places it delved while trying to cover everything in a nice coat of Disney lighthearted romp. The film sticks with a lot of people who saw it when it was first released because within the film are some images of hell and the devil that look to come right out of a Tales from The Crypt episode. Not only that but the story is, at its dark little heart, pretty extreme for a Disney film.
Max Devlin is slum lord, and a real bastard of one. He’s killed by a bus while trying to evict a tenant and winds up falling into the pit of hell which is his due. There he meets hells board of directors and is given an out by Bill Cosby’s demon Barney. If he can get three people to sell their souls in exchange for his he wins his freedom and can go back to earth. It just so happens the three souls he is to try and get belong to kids, the oldest of which is 18 and the youngest is 7. Yep, he’s trying to steal the soul of a seven year old kid.
Of course the film is a redemption story and Max at the end, refuses to give up these souls to the devil. And that sacrifice makes him too good for hell…so he makes it out with his soul and actually hooks up with the mother of the seven year old.
While the film plays as a comedy, it’s black comedy. It’s also got Bill Cosby as evil as you’ve ever seen him and he plays it over the top and freakishly it works to be intimidating and…bizarre. Also it has the chairman of the board of hell played by Reggie Nalder…who adds creepy to any film.
The Devil and Max Devlin’s themes of hell and damnation were represented through a disturbing landscape of fire and eyes embedded in walls that looked like bloody flesh and people falling into a pit of fire. The fact that you have Cliff Huxtable trying to get the souls of three kids (doggedly so) just makes this even more creepy. Now keep in mind, this was before The Cosby Show, but Cosby had been doing kids’ stuff actively as the voice of Fat Albert and hosting the Fat Albert cartoons in the late 70’s. So yes, this probably did freak quite a few kids and parents out.
Here are a couple of honorable mentions for you that you can also check out on DVD:
Something Wicked This Way Comes – 1983
Written by Ray Bradbury (who also wrote the screenplay) the film deals with a young man remembering his father’s showdown with the mysterious Mr. Dark, the man in charge of a traveling circus. The film deals with the regrets we sometimes have later in life and how the temptation to change our past can lead to losing what the future brought us. It’s a brilliant film and story and Jason Robards and Jonathan Pryce are excellent as the leads.
The film’s deeper subject matter may be lost on younger kids but the film’s other themes of temptation and preying on the sins of the mind can still catch you off guard. The film is a given to be one of Disney’s darker movies but it’s a story about a father and son and a man learning his own worth.
The Watcher in the Woods – 1980
Starring Bette Davis (not as a villain) Watcher in the Woods follows the disappearance of a young girl after a séance years earlier. When a family moves into the area with a girl roughly the same age things start happening that are ghostly and mysterious. The spirit of the missing girl starts appearing to the new girl, Jan and she decides to figure out what happened to her.
The film has some scary moments for a Disney teenage focused flick (although it was released in the time of many supernatural films like The Changling) and the finale is to this day one of the more intense Disney endings around. The film was actually changed (with the original ending included on the DVD release.) The original film showed the “Watcher” looking like a decimated angel. The image in a film already intense for the young kids it was made for must have been deemed too much and it was changed.
As you can see from the trailer, the movie was marketed in the vein of those late 70’s early 80’s occult films like The Omen, Carrie, etc. A little odd for Mickey Mouse and company.
This article isn’t about food. The cheese I’m referencing isn’t the kind that you’d top a cracker with, but the kind that is a sometimes derogatory term for simple, moralistic storytelling. The kind that we grew up with that you’d find throughout many a Disney flick or an after school special. When cheese is done well it works wonders and can make us forget about the grey and dingy world we live in.
Of late we’re seeing a sort of resurgence in the types of stories, series, and films that revel in this type of tale. It’s especially prevalent in television right now where Once Upon a Time is a major hit and has already spawned one spin off with the series Once Upon a Time: In Wonderland. There are quite a few people who are saying that the new spinoff, which focuses on Alice and her search for the newly added character of Cyrus, the genie that she’s fallen in love with, is nothing but this type of story. Nothing but fluffy fluff and that’s it.
But I find I’ve noticed something interesting. In this day and age of snark and dark, in the television wasteland of dreary police procedurals (remember when NBC used to be the Law & Order network and CBS could have just changed its name to CSI?) that we’ve reached a point where we have hit burn out. If the evidence of numerous live action fairy tale retelling’s getting ready to hit you in the next year on the big screen isn’t enough, the fact that Once Upon a Time has already got one spin off while in its 3rd Season, with a few more ready to go once Wonderland is over, I don’t know what to say.
I think people are looking back to these stories from childhood, these basic tales of good vs. evil for a touchstone of something pure in a world that’s been so filled with bleak reality of late. That goes for what’s been on TV too. While I know the Walking Dead and Breaking Bad are great TV, the fact is the stories of a good man going bad and a world where basically everyone you love is going to be either eaten or die and try and eat you aren’t so happy. And sometimes it can be a bit much when you’ve already seen some atrocious TRUE story on the news or had a horrible day, week, month, or even a year where you’re convinced that the universe hates your guts. Sometimes you need something that reminds you what it was like to believe in something like magic or maybe just lose yourself to a good old fashioned love story that’s just simple and pure.
I’m not talking about the Lifetime Movie Network versions where there’s usually a kidnapping involved or some bitter and jaded office girl finds love with a lumberjack. I’m talking about the kind where you fight against forces greater than any you’ve ever imagined; dragons and witches and having to travel far and away from your safe little house to be with the one you love. Destiny and redemption of a lost soul the sort of story that’s been around forever but we can always seem to stand seeing it one more time.
It’s interesting that these days we seem to be gravitating back to the classic stories, the tales that have, as I said, been around forever. I think in our collective subconscious we’re burned out on all the rehashing of the modernized stories which have mutated into some weird mass of rehashed gunk with look-a-like actors. We’ve done it to death or it’s something that’s just reminding us of what’s wrong in the world and I think we as an audience deserve a break.
People make fun of me or say “of course you’re going to like that” when I talk about how much I enjoy watching Once Upon a Time and Wonderland. They know I’m a sucker for that type of story because I grew up (when not reading Dracula or Phantom of the Opera) reading Beauty and the Beast. And now guess what…everything old is new again.
We’ve collectively reached that point where the only way to get something new is to go back to the very old stuff. It’s like finding a long lost friend who gives you a big hug and says “hey remember when…” And you get that same feeling back as you watch. You learn new things you didn’t realize too. And while yes, the original stories themselves were quite dark as they evolved they taught us something about ourselves and gave us something to believe in.
So yes, I’m a cheese connoisseur. Yes I’m going to unashamedly watch Beauty fights for her Beast to become the man she knows he can be. I’m going to hope that the Evil Queen learns to be the good person she used to be. I’m going to watch as the real story of what leads one down a dark path like that of Maleficent can do to a soul. And I’ll believe that if we believe in ourselves we can do impossible things because we can.
We’ve gotten so jaded and so disillusioned I think we can all use a little illusion, a little magic, especially the youngsters around us and our inner child too. And so I’ll gleefully gorge on the platter of cheese set out in front of me. It’s filling and satisfying and while it might be a guilty pleasure, I’m not feeling the least bit guilty for loving it.