Me and Star Wars

Star Wars, as the film was humbly titled when it was first released, was released into UK cinemas in the last week of 1977. I was nine years old. I’d been aware of the movie for some time – it had been released in the States over six months earlier after all – presumably, through mentions in the arts pages of The Guardian (the only paper my parents got), and from children’s TV shows like Clapperboard on ITV. Then again, BBC1 was the preferred setting for teatime telly; ITV children’s programmes weren’t quite banned in our house, but there was a definite sniffiness from Mum towards the commercial offering, and, being no fools, we tended to abide – even agree with – the idea that Auntie Beeb knew best.  

The point is that by the time that Christmas 1977 came around, I was more than ready for Star Wars. I wasn’t fussed about the toys; Matchbox cars, Lego, Meccano and the long-hoped-for chemistry set were my thing back then. But I really wanted to see the movie.

I was a regular attendee down at Louth Playhouse, the sole cinema in the town then and now. It’s been a three-screen for a couple of decades after reopening following a short period going dark in the mid-1990s, but in the seventies, there was a single screen in operation. The downstairs stalls area had been converted to bingo some time before I was born; the cinema screen was up four flights of stairs to what would have been the circle seating for the original auditorium.

I was there most Saturday afternoons for the 1 pm matinee; a diet of Disney re-releases, Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad movies, Laurel and Hardy, plus American TV shows that got theatrical releases in the UK (The Amazing Captain Nemo, the pair of Nicholas Hammond-starring Spider-Man flicks, both Battlestar Galactica and Mission Galactica: The Cylon Attack).

Doubtless sometimes they just showed whatever was cheap to rent from the distributor. Remember; it was all good. Often as not these were double-features; two movies for the price of one. Sometimes a Children’s Film Foundation effort would be bundled together with the main American attraction. Only occasionally was the week’s big movie included; the programming was usually separate, so the Saturday afternoon show was often the only showing of that movie that week. Sometimes it wasn’t, though, and that meant heartache. In the late 70s, films were released into cinemas on a Sunday; that meant a whole week’s wait until Saturday.

Yes, it was an ache to wait, but no-one minded. That whole delayed gratification thing applied; we seem to have lost this in an age of dumping entire series onto Netflix, of 12-week windows between theatrical and home sell-through release, and of simultaneous pirate-dodging global release patterns, and of films living and/or dying by the first weekend’s grosses.

This was a time before VHS and before movie rentals, when there was a gap of at least three years between a first cinema release and a TV outing. A time when films got massive terrestrial television ratings because they were something of an event.

So, yeah. When Star Wars loomed I wanted to see it. And I knew I’d have to wait. And it was a problem, but it wasn’t an issue. Besides, I had a workaround all planned out.

Parents up and down our street had organized a Christmas party for the kids; the kind of community thing I’d kinda hope still goes on. They’d hired a room (Ayscough Hall on Lee Street, detail fans). There’d be party food, games, a festive-themed disco and, most importantly, Santa would be there.

I was nine, remember. Even though I’d worked it out for myself a year or so earlier, there’d never been an actual conversation with adults about the non-existence of the Man in Red. It was a bone of contention among some of our year at school; the cool kids swaggered with claims that they’d got grown-up proof that it was all a tale for tiny tots.                  

So when Mum came to me a few days before the party, and she asked me what I wanted to get from the Santa who’d be there, it was a bit of a revelation.

I knew straight away what I wanted, though. A book token. A one-pound book token, please. A pound was more than enough to buy a new paperback in those days, when the Net Book Agreement set the price, and the price was 99p.

The other kids got their dolls and cars and whatever. I got an envelope. I can’t remember if Santa was apologetic about it, or if he was in on the scheme.

It was, after all, clear as spring water in a crystal glass what I was going to do with the voucher.

At that time, Louth had a book shop. A proper book shop that sold new books. Not a charity shop full of mouldering early James Pattersons and spine-broken Maeve Binchys. Not a WH Smith. A book shop. Louth’s not supported a dedicated new-book shop for some decades; The Paperback People – as the shop was called – was the last. It’s not there any more. Heck, the building’s not even commercial premises these days, having been converted into a ground-floor flat years ago. It’s at the corner of Aswell Street and Kidgate; the white building next to Mark Merrifield’s excellent record shop Off The Beaten Tracks.

First chance I got I was down there; I assume it was in those aching days between school breaking up and Christmas rolling around. And with that book token I bought what I wanted; the novelisation of Star Wars.

Novelisations were a big thing, and for all kinds of reasons. For one, in those pre-video days, they were your best bet for either creating or recreating the experience of the movie. And all movies had them, it seemed. There was a stall in the town’s indoor market that sold secondhand books; they took a chunk of my pocket money for years. A section of their stock was novelisations.

I was able to experience movies I’d never be allowed to see, and somehow, because there were tie-in editions as well available with movie-related covers, I was able to get away with reading matter that was formative and instructive in all kinds of ways. I learned a lot from the novelisation of The Sting, from the tie-in editions of Jaws and The Exorcist. Through movie associations, I was able to read all of Ian Fleming’s output, plus battle with the weirdness of the Christopher Wood novelisations of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker; book versions of films that were based on books already. I scared myself regularly with the binding of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House because the cover artist had made the house on the front of the book look like a properly scary face.

I was reading the kinds of children’s writing you might expect as well – Tolkien, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Richmal Crompton, my sisters’ Enid Blytons, Richard Adams, Alan Garner – but novelisations were as important to me, as were the sneaked-in pleasures of the tie-in edition, as these expected influences.

This stayed with me well into my teens; I’ve got very fond memories of the various Omen novelisations, and the two Gordon McGill spin-off books that extended the franchise through a couple more sets of satanic adventures after the films stopped. McGill's a bit of cult hero, his Amityville 3D novelisation is great fun, and it started me off on a long-term fascination with director Richard Fleischer's films. 

So it’s Christmas 1977, and I’ve got Star Wars in my hand. Later on, I’d find out that it was Alan Dean Foster’s work (probably about the time I read his Alien novelisation, I’d have thought). But the cover said "George Lucas". This was his world, his universe.

I don’t know how many times I read it. Or how many hours I stared at the pages of colour pictures in the middle of the book - stills from the movie – and used them to help guide my knowledge of the movie.

I knew the book by heart. So much that when I eventually saw the movie, which didn’t get to Louth until ten whole months after the UK release - the following October - I missed the parts that weren’t there or which differed from the book version. Stuff like Luke hanging with his friends at the Tosche station; like Biggs Darklighter’s character being almost wholly absent from the movie. I didn’t come away quite disappointed, but there’s a version of Star Wars still playing in my head that was fuelled by the book, and that was never quite achieved by the film.

Nowadays, I’ve got nephews; the two oldest are a little younger at six and five than I was when I had my first theatrical Star Wars experience, but I get their excitement. That anticipation in the days between that 1977 Christmas party and reading the novelization; I feel their pain as they count down the hours until they can get to see whatever it is that JJ Abrams and company have got cooked up.  The ways it’s skewing Christmas by giving two sets of longed-for things with different timescales; both of them impossibly important.

I’ll see the new film, of course. I hope I enjoy it. I’ll see it in the same cinema I saw the first one in, almost forty years ago. Louth’s kinda an old-fashioned place; they still stop the movie to manufacture an intermission to sell ice-creams halfway through; I like that, and I’ll probably get myself a Feast or a Calippo from the self-conscious teen with the tray of goodies who'll appear when the film snaps off the screen. Back in the 70s, the treat of choice was two-fold; a carton of Kia-Ora and a box of Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles. Remember when they sold them - and Fruit Gums as well, though only a tooth-hating fool would buy them - in little boxes?

I hope the filmmakers get The Force Awakens right in ways that Lucas’s universe deserves. It might only be, at its heart, a simple story of goodies and baddies, but for whatever reason, it resonates. I hope my nephews spill out of the cinema barely able to gabble out their recollection of the best bits, that they’ll draw things and recreate in Lego, and that they’ll want to go back and see The Force Awakens again and again. I hope also that they’ll read the books some more and that they’ll add in their own ways to the adventures of Skywalker / Solo / Organa and all of the others. That they’ll feel sorry for the bad guy, and that their baddie will eventually see the error of their ways.

I remember – and I don’t know where I remember it from, but the memory is as firm and distinct as any of them - that George Lucas always had nine films, nine stories, in mind; Star Wars being the fourth. Looks like we'll get the full nine after all. 

Yeah, you got me in a nostalgic frame of mind, but if there’s something of that magic for my nephews that I felt back in ’77 from Alan Dean Foster’s novelisation in the new movie, then Hollywood will have done its job. I still prefer books (the old adage that the pictures are better on paper holds true), but love for the movies, and for the experience of going to the movies, is real, and real love never dies.

Eventually, the book fell apart. This was encouraged by my swapping the torn-out colour pictures for a big eraser in class the following year. Maybe I'll come across another copy and I'll take better care of this time.

After all, as the series has it, there's nothing wrong with a new hope.             

Horror movies - some questions answered

A former student (hi Kirsty!) emailed me a couple of days ago with a few questions to do with horror movies to help out with some coursework that she's doing for her course. Here's the questions and my replies, together with a few additions (trailers and the like).

Q: Do you think horror films are losing their scare factor? Explain.

A: Not if they’re done well. I think that we change as viewers over time and different things will scare us as opposed to when we’re younger. There’s still some great scary stuff out there, particularly the kinds of movies that tap into fears and phobias that are universal. Even if we don’t have a fear of something in particular, we can still understand and be impacted on by fears of loss of a loved one, of the dark, or spiders and of drowning, of being trapped in an enclosed space.

Sometimes we can be afraid of ourselves and our potential for harm to ourselves and to others as well. And yes sometimes the monster is just a monster, but at times when we’re alone and in the dark we become children again and we remember the things that kept us awake and under the covers, not daring to peek out, when we were little.

 That said, I’m no longer the core audience for mainstream American horror films. The Blumhouse kind of productions are tailored pretty expertly to a teen audience and to a PG-13 rating, but as I’ve not been a teenager for a long, long time, those kinds of preoccupations don’t really affect me.

If you want to blame people for this, blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg for making Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. That movie engendered the PG-13 rating in the States as a halfway house between PG and R. Though here in the UK we only saw a cut PG version in cinemas, the PG-13 rating opened up a space for films that had a bit more meat than PG offerings, but that didn’t carry the potential stigma (and the need to have a grown-up with you) that an R rating would mean. With PG-13 you get a compromise between violence and child-friendliness, and over time film companies have realised that that’s where you can maximise your audience for everything except explicitly family-oriented films.

That’s why all the major franchises (and may other productions as well) tend to target PG-13: the Bourne, Hunger Games, James Bond, X-Men, Star Trek and other franchises do this pretty consistently. The trend also has been for sequels to R-rated (15 or even 18-rated in the UK) hits to aim lower, ratings-wise in order to expand the franchise’s potential audience. See the later Die Hard and Taken movies for examples of this. You might make more money, but you risk making compromised movies that don’t appeal so much to the original fans (see the later Die Hard and Taken movies for this as well).

Also, we have a generation of moviemakers who, to a greater or lesser extent, have focused much of their careers making watered-down versions of the horror properties and tropes they loved as children themselves. Tim Burton and Guillermo del Toro (his US movies especially), I’m looking at you. Sometimes great movies are produced; sometimes we end up with Dark Shadows.          

Q: Do you think the music score to horror films influences the effect the film has on the audience?

A: Absolutely. Jaws wouldn’t be Jaws without John Williams. The Omen wouldn’t be The Omen without Jerry Goldsmith. The Wicker Man gets much of its effect from its pastoral soundtrack.

John Carpenter works best with his minimalist repetitive synth scores. Heck, when the suits demanded he had a name composer in Ennio Morricone alongside for The Thing, to Morricone’s credit, he emulated what Carpenter and Alan Howarth would have done anyway.

Q: What are your favourite horror films? Do certain ones stand out more than others to you? Why?

A: As a child of the 1970s and one who grew up with the horror franchises of the 1980s through the video rental boom and onwards, I’ve got an affection for the first genre movies that I saw. Often, these are linked to when I first saw them. I was ushered out of a holiday camp showing of The Wicker Man when I was little (all was going fine until the first nude scene!). I cycled 15 miles to a friend’s house to watch The Omen taped off the telly after its first TV showing. I first saw Jaws as part of a cinema re-release double-bill with Jaws 2 (a film I still have a lot of patience with). I stayed up religiously every Friday night, as BBC1 showed a Hammer film pretty much every week.

I paid good money to see early Charlie Sheen horror The Wraith in a Cardiff fleapit. I’ve sat through cinema all-nighters (The Thing, The Fog, Carrie, The Exorcist, then Alien, Aliens, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and the original My Bloody Valentine). A running joke among friends of that era involves me campaigning for - and eventually renting - Frank Henenlotter’s Brain Damage.  

The ones I like best are the films that don’t mock the genre. There’s a seriousness about John Carpenter movies that I like – even relatively minor ones like Prince of Darkness. Damien: Omen II may be a load of old tosh, but no-one’s sneering. Any fool can (and many do) opt for comedy, pastiche or in-jokery, but not everyone can do it as well as Joe Dante, who always has a high regard for the source material and the genre.

Q: Do you think horror films are trying to out-do each other? Is this affecting the quality of the film being made?

A: There’s a certain gross-out tendency, though nowadays that tends to happen where the horror genre intersects with the art movie. The days of make-up effects competition are long gone, though in those days the rubber reality made you appreciate the artistry and imagination as well as get squeamish at the ickiness on display. I’ve not got any real interest in the likes of the Human Centipede films or A Serbian Movie or even in Gasper Noe’s latest censor-baiting extravaganza. The torture-porn subgenre that the weaker Saw sequels fell into and which the likes of Eli Roth too often descend to isn’t that interesting, especially when it’s a front for barely-concealed misogyny.  

Q: What is it about horror films that you like?

A: Escapism. Imagination. Fantasy. Playfulness. Challenge. Finding new ways to interpret the old tropes. I don’t mind a good jump-scare at all. I like the movie that nibbles at the back of your brain a couple of days after you’ve seen it. Also, I like the idea of the "safe scare". Horror gives us a playground. At the end of the day it's only a movie. There's enough real-world horribleness in the world; we don't have to indulge in it for leisure as well. So let's make some monsters up. And sometimes, ideas are more powerful if they're allegorical. We can put our own details on the devil. 

Zombies are fun. Plus, in a horror scenario, you can put your characters through situations they wouldn’t get in any other genre. There will be blood. But it washes off. 

Q: How do horror films from the 70's and 80's vary from today’s films?

A: Horror is pretty debased as a genre these days. Hotel Transylvania is as much a horror movie as anything Ben Wheatley might make. However, though there’s useful social commentary out there today, you don’t see it in horror movies as you did back in the day. Rosemary’s Baby is a movie about something. So too, in its own way, is The Omen. So’s Jaws. There are relationships between the texts and the contexts of their making. As British horror movies got stuck for too long in adaptations of classic novels and in Victorian pastiche through the Hammer days and well into the 1970s, that tradition didn’t really come through until after the UK film industry died.

Teen horror’s been around since the 1950s monster movies and it’s refreshing in some ways to see the same creatures and situations come around each decade, but with more ways to see more films than ever before, the originals are still there, and it’s those that I tend to go back to.

Q: Have people become so used to blood and gore in horror films that they don't get shocked?

A: No. But these days, the gory stuff is as often on television as it is in the movies. The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones offer splatter the equal of anything the movies have to offer, and often, with the ways that budgets now work, with technical expertise and competence the equal at least of what films can offer. Where TV benefits is that over a season or two you can establish relationships with characters in meaningful ways that you can’t quite so easily do over the 90 minutes of a slasher movie. Then that’s when you kill them. And then the audience cares, and is shocked, not because of the quality of the effects or the bloodletting on display, but because they’re emotionally invested in the characters. If you can do that – whether in a film or on the telly – then you truly control the audience.

There's still great horror filmmaking out there though. It Follows and The Babadook are fantastic movies from the last year or so. Good horror's out there; it's just a shame that it doesn't always get to play at every multiplex any more.