Archive for the ‘Memories’ Category

Gremlins came out when I was 10.

My parents were Daily M*il readers (it’s okay, they’ve stopped now. They probably got sick of me complaining endlessly about it from the age of about 15 onwards) and so the first time I ever heard about the flick was from a manufactured moral outrage piece in the summer of ’84, full of details based entirely on a very bloody early draft (which you can find on the ‘net if you look around enough) and bearing little relationship to the finished film.

Gremlins UK Quad

It sounded horrible. The M*il editorial rolled out a list of atrocities (including Mum’s head getting cut off and the dog getting killed) which I couldn’t reconcile with the fluffy picture of Gizmo sitting beside the article. The easily horrified 10 year-old me contented himself with being a bit horrified, and then forgot all about it.

Autumn rolled around, and something odd started happening. Merchandise for the movie began turning up in the shops, and didn’t seem to fit the content that I’d read about in the ‘newspaper’ over the summer. The toys were clearly pitched at my age-group. I thought they looked interesting and fun, but the bleak horrors detailed in that first Daily Mail article also gave them a whiff of darkness, of forbidden fruit. I thought, in other words, that they looked awesome.

Various tie-in books appeared on the shelves at the same time, and I read all of them. From the ‘storybook’ aimed at 8 year-olds through to the George Gipe novelisation clearly pitched at adults, I picked up each one and read every word. I bought every gum card. I knew absolutely everything about Gremlins, every plot twist and every special effects technique, by the time it got slapped with a 15 certificate by the BBFC. Fascinatingly, they have recently released the documents leading up to this decision at this link here.

I taped Film ’84 the night that Barry Norman reviewed the film, and the two short clips that he screened that night were my only window into the movie for the best part of a year. I watched those clips again and again (“Come on Barney, be a good dog”) until the tape was stretched and warbling, but couldn’t see any more as the BBFC had decided that it needed to be kept from me.

It was nearly a year before Gremlins was released on VHS, as was the custom in those days. By the time I finally got to see it, I had reached the dizzying age of 11. A mere few months later, my parents bought me an ex-rental VHS of the movie for my 12th birthday, on the basis that I’d been renting it nearly every weekend and the steep tag of £55 for the ex-rental tape would actually work out cheaper in the long run.

It is, of course, the movie that defines me more than any other. You seen my chapter of Nazi Zombie Death Tales? Well, yeah, the Gremlins influences run deep in that one. The mix of horror and comedy is a constant in everything that I do.

Devil Spider

The BBFC downgraded Gremlins to a 12a last month, meaning that if it were released at the cinema today a 10 year-old could see it accompanied by a parent. 29 years after the flick hit the cinemas, of course, I have a different perspective on it. I’m a parent myself, and I can easily imagine the shitstorm that would have hit the BBFC if they’d graded it PG in ’84 (the only other option realistically available, as it was still 5 years before even the mandatory 12 would be introduced). It’s not just the violence, needless to say, but some of the other wonderfully dark shit too; I wouldn’t want to be the parent who had to comfort a crying 6 year-old after discovering the truth about Santa via the less-than-comforting medium of Kate’s gloriously horrible speech.

Regardless, I’m certainly glad I got to see the flick at 11. If I’d been kept away from it until actually turning 15, I think the impact would have been slightly dulled. There are certain flicks that you need to see at certain ages for maximum impact. In fact, I was discussing this on Twitter the other day with Danbo12, who asked whether Poltergeist would live up to his expectations (he’d never seen it). I was about to answer an enthusiastic ‘yes’ when I paused; all of my experiences of Poltergeist are filtered through having first seen it in my early teens. Poltergeist taps into the fears of a child rather beautifully; it sums up the fears of the thing under the bed or the scary shadow outside the window better than any other flick I can think of. Approaching it for the very first time as an adult, having left those kind of fears behind and moved onto more tangible concerns, I suspect that it might underwhelm.

The same thing works in reverse for The Exorcist. I know that the last time it was re-released at cinemas, there were certainly a considerable number of teens and yound adults guffawing at the screen and generally screwing up the experience for everyone. It would be tempting to write this off as whistling past the graveyard; as the behaviour of young people very enthusiastically showing off how scared they weren’t in order to look tough. There’s probably a bit of that, true, but I think there’s something else too. For a teenager, The Exorcist simply isn’t a particularly scary movie. The horrors of the movie are pitched squarely at the fears of the parent not the child, and as those under 25 are notoriously bad at empathy (for various interesting biological and evolutionary reasons that I won’t go into here) they’re likely to come out of it pretty unscathed. Show the flick to a 40 year old with a kid approaching puberty, however, and I think you’d fairly quickly kill the idea that the flick has lost all its power over the years.

It’s all interesting stuff. The film we’ll be shooting later in the year, Evil Apps, has two 19 year-old protagonists. It’s a film about technology, social networking and the way we communicate. Having leads much out of their teens would have made no sense whatsoever. You can see me talking about Evil Apps towards the end of the live show embedded below.

I have worried about it, though. If I bring the sensibilities of the things that scare me now and apply it to a film with two teen leads, am I going to be able to make those things translate? Teenagers and 20-somethings are generally a hell of a lot less concerned about where the social networking yellow brick road is leading us than those who grew up in a pre-internet age are, so am failing to target the concerns my own target audience? Will the young leads put off the audience with whom the concerns of the script might otherwise resonate?

I hope not. I hope that the script will tap a common sense of unease for both age groups, and even if it doesn’t there’s a beauty of an exploding head in it.

Right, I’m off to complete my collection of Gremlins bubblegum cards. Tooth decay has no age limit.

Had a lovely interview over at Southend Radio at the weekend. Most of it should apparently be available soon over at the Horror on Sea Facebook page.

As I mentioned on air, the first time I ever went on the radio I was about seven or eight, and complaining about how much horror posters scared me. Particularly Scanners. There was something about the complete lack of context which utterly freaked out my imaginative child self. Something about the second-by-second breakdown of what will happen to you, without any kind of reassuring contextualisation to place it as a sci-fi concept. For some reason I got it into my head that Scanners was about medication; that somewhere there was a pill that if you swallowed it would make you explode. As a result, it was probably a right bitch getting my 7 year-old self to take a pill for any reason.

Scanners UK Quad

Scanners stayed with me, under my skin. It wasn’t, however, the biggest cause of childhood fear. That honour goes to Ronnie Barker in a blood-splattered dress.

When I was a little kid, I saw the Two Ronnies’ Teeny Todd sketch and it almost unhinged me with fear. It took me days to calm down, and only then because my parents took the time and care to reassure me that it was all just fun and pretend.

Unfortunately, I had a mischievous (some might say rather cruel) Gran. She waited until my folks were out of the room one day and hissed ‘He was real. The demon barber. Slit their throats, he did!’

As a result, I was terrified of getting my hair cut until I was about 11. And distrustful of pies. It wouldn’t take a particularly imaginative psychiatrist to suggest that the whole thing might have planted the seeds for an interest in comedy-horror which has been the focus of more or less everything I’ve done creatively for the last ten years. Weird the way stuff turns out.

teeny_todd1

There’s a video of me ranting about this over on the BBC website back in 2008, whilst ostensibly talking about the Johnny Depp Sweeney Todd. It’s an itch that I can’t seem to stop scratching. I also finally got the chance to see the sketch again a few years back, and I *still* think that it’s tonally genuinely fucking weird and I can see why it got under my skin so badly.

And, sod it, whilst we’re digging around in my psyche for the stuff that scared the piss out of me as a kid, we might as well go one step further.

When I was about six years old, in 1980, I bought a copy of Spider-Man Pocketbook. To this day, I can tell you the newsagent I bought it in and I can remember how excited and happy I was to have a new Spider-Man comic. Cover price of 15 pence, coughed up by my brilliant Mum.  I loved Spider-Man. He was my  favourite superhero and carried with him that odd sense of security that is such an important part of childhood. Kids like to know where the boundaries lie, and I felt I knew the rules with Spider-Man. I knew that his universe could sometimes have slightly scary bits. I knew that sometimes people died. But Spidey’s universe felt comforting despite the bad bits, because your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man would sort it out.

Sadly, that particular issue of Spider-Man Pocketbook wasn’t destined to be a good experience for me. It had an illustration in it that utterly freaked me out; a picture which has been hovering around the fringes of my consciousness ever since.
Here are the basics: a stage magician levitates a volunteer. The man in the air comes to pieces; head and arms floating off. The now-corpse has a horrible blank expression on his face, and someone in the audience shouts out that the man is dead. That’s the way I remembered it, and then last year I found the image and I was pretty goddamn spot-on.

The illustration is at the bottom of this page. To scroll or not to scroll? If you look at it before you’ve read what follows, will my memories become laughable? If you look at it afterwards, will it have been built up way, way too much? I almost feel weird posting it without some kind of warning. I realise that a warning would just be ridiculous; this is a site for grown-ups, featuring various unpleasant elements dealt with in an often frivolous manner. But, fuck it, I’m not going to be frivolous about the picture. I want to talk about it.

I find it a rather strange thing to look at. I found the picture again on Monday 16th April 2012. Prior to that date, I hadn’t seen it since (by my rough calculations) around April 1980, when I would have been six years old.

The picture massively upset me as a child. I can’t help wondering how long I must have looked at it for after opening the comic, puzzling over it, trying to work out what I was looking at. I was certain, before finding the image last year, that my memory must be exaggerating or playing tricks because it just didn’t seem to make sense. Why would such a panel be in a Spider-Man comic? It didn’t fit the universe. I Googled every different thing I could think of that might lead me to the answer. I Googled ‘Murder Magic’ (which is how I remembered the title; my six year-old self clearly missed the ‘by’), I searched for info on the 1980 pocketbooks (and could only find that they held reprints of classic Ditko Spidey), and pulled up nothing. Then, last year,  I found a copy of Spider-Man Pocketbook issue 2 on Ebay. I thought there was only about a 30% chance that it would be the right issue (I remembered the magician image clearly, the cover of the hastily-binned comic was vaguer) but thought it was worth a few quid to find out. I was laid up in bed sick the day the comic turned up, and thus the fact I was vaguely feverish when confronted with the image again after 30+ years may well have added to the impact.
But, there it was.

It’s a reprint of a Marvel Boy story from ‘Astonishing’ comic circa 1951, and was thus almost 30 years old by the time it comprehensively ruined my day in 1980. The fucking thing is *exactly* as I remember it, and still seems incongruous to my eyes in the middle of a very child-friendly Spider-Man comic.

Of course, finding out that it was a Marvel Boy story made it a lot more Google-able, hence the fact that I was actually able to find an interactive
preview of the original issue of ‘Astonishing’ which you can peruse over here (and it’s that version that I grabbed the image at the bottom from). The version in the pocketbook is black & white. I don’t think the colour makes it any more reassuring.

Most things that scare you as a child become cuddly to you as an adult. That Scanners poster that freaked me so badly as a kid was on my wall by the time I was at Uni. I can’t see myself clutching this one to my chest in the same way.

Truth be told, it still creeps me out, and it also makes me feel angry and slightly sad. Much like Teeny Todd, I can trace the threads of Murder by Magic in various creative stuff I’ve done over the years, so I guess it’s given me something back for that ruined afternoon in 1980.

Here’s the image, folks.

Murder by Magic

These things that upset us get carried with us, though, and ultimately become part of us whether we want them to or not.

Hope everyone had a brilliant Christmas, and here’s to an awesome 2013.

PS. Since writing this blog entry, I’ve started buying Spider-Man comics again for the first time in decades. Not sure why. I’ve also performed a live show about no-budget horror filmmaking called Werewolves, Cheerleaders & Chainsaws and made it available online. There’s an embed of it below. Please check it out, and please spread the word. It’s a bit NSFW due to a bit or gore, nudity and bad language. Hope you dig it.

I think it’s fair to say that it all started with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

My Mum took me to see a cinematic re-release of the 1954 Richard Fleischer version back in the Seventies. Common sense tells me it must have been around 1978, when I was four, but the official date for the re-release was apparently 1976, which would place me at the tender age of two. Either way, I’d seen the ads on the TV and had badgered my already long-suffering mother into taking me. My poor old Mum still had untold delights of genre cinema awaiting her over the next few years, until I reached such an age as I could be safely abandoned in the cinema on my own. The arrival of this date may have ultimately been somewhat hastened by her sense of parental responsibility failing to outweigh her desire not to sit through Krull for a fourth time.

My four/two year-old self had been looking forward to 20,000 Leagues for one reason alone, and that reason had tentacles and a snapping yellow beak. The TV ads for the re-release had focused on the squid fight scene to such an extent that I genuinely think I expected Giant Squid: The Movie rather than the well-meaning Jules Verse adaptation that unrolled before me. Result: I fidgeted. A lot. I suspect that I may have engaged in thoughtful discussion regarding the narrative with my mum; discussion along the lines of ‘Will the squid be on soon?’ every couple of minutes throughout the lion’s share of the running time.

But when those tentacles finally crept onto the screen, I fell silent. How could I not? I was absolutely and utterly transfixed. The bastard was glorious. I left feeling that I’d seen the single greatest sequence ever filmed, and the tiny seeds of cheerful, fanboy obsession were scattered onto the fertile soil of my pre-school mind. Without seeing that squid attack, who knows? Maybe today I’d be the kind of guy who feels more comfortable with a rugby ball in his hand than a box of popcorn. Maybe I’d have never fallen in love with film. Of course, this being in the days before VHS, it was years before I got to see the sequence again. So, in the meantime, I hunted for memorabilia and photos. But, more than that, I hunted for more movies with enormous rubber cephalopods.

Pickings were pretty slim. A few years later, I fell instantly in love with Warlords of Atlantis and was more than willing to overlook its flaws on the basis of the wonderful stop-motion octopus. I tried, but failed, to find somewhere showing Tentacoli after hearing it luridly described by my uncle, but was delighted when that same uncle (genre writer Tim Stout, who had a novel and a couple of anthologies of short stories published in the seventies and early eighties) pointed me in the direction of It Came From Beneath The Sea on ITV one Sunday lunchtime.

The years passed, and the arrival of VHS meant that I was suddenly able to compile my favourite mollusc moments on one dog-eared tape. I’d sit with play and record set to pause, waiting for the brief arrival of an octopus or squid in countless movies, such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, where I felt that such an appearance would be inevitable. My interests broadened and my tastes became more varied, but the root of why I grew to love cinema in the first place always remained.

I was eleven years old when pre-publicity started turning up for the big Spielberg-produced Christmas movie that year, The Goonies. By this point, I was devouring any information about film that I could lay my hands on. I used to obsessively collect bubblegum cards just to catch glimpses of scenes that hadn’t yet seen the light of a projector bulb. I used to read novelisations that were released before the movie’s launch.

And that was where I found it.

First page of the novelisation of The Goonies. On the inside leaf; a teaser bit of text from later in the novel, designed to whet your appetite. A description of an octopus attacking the kids, in a flooded cavern with a pirate ship floating sedately in the background.

For those couple of weeks, pocket money went exclusively on Goonies bubblegum cards. Early on in my quest, I picked up an index card. I noticed that cards 43 and 44 were listed Tentacles of Death! and The Rockin’ Octopus! respectively. Those were my Grail. I tore packets and chewed neon pink bubblegum until my teeth were falling like rain. Eventually, I got both cards. Tentacles of Death! was actually a split image, meaning there were two pictures on one card. Two smaller pictures, in other words. I squinted and squinted. I even used a magnifying glass. My appetite was most definitely whetted. The Rockin’ Octopus! showed the beast in all its glory, and took my breath away when I opened the packet. I bought the soundtrack album and grooved to the absolutely dreadful sounds of Eight Arms to Hold You by the Goon Squad, the song that I knew would ultimately score the scene.

I can still remember how I felt, queuing to see the movie a couple of weeks later. When it finally hit the screen, I knew virtually every line in advance from all my background reading. My impatience to get to the octopus stopped me from enjoying it fully. Twenty minutes from the end, the kids splashed down into the cavern with the pirate ship. I knew that, at any moment, Stef would start accusing Mouth of groping her underwater, not realising that it was a tentacle brushing past her leg.

Except she didn’t. The kids got on board the pirate ship without incident.

I did a double-take. I simply didn’t understand. I watched the rest of the film in a sort of daze, wondering where my octopus had gone. In the final scene on the beach, when a policeman asked the kids about their adventure, Data piped up;

“The giant octopus was pretty bad. Very scary”

It was everything I could do to stop myself crying.

I went to see the film again the following week at a different cinema, hoping that somehow there’d been a mix-up at the initial screening and that a reel had been missed. When it finally became apparent that all prints were mollusc-free, I wrote to Warner Brothers demanding the scene be reinstated. Or for them to send me a copy, whichever was easier. They didn’t reply. I collected any magazines that might be able to explain the situation, even spending the majority of a week’s pocket money on an imported issue of Cinefex which featured a couple of photos from the scene and, at last, a vague explanation of why it was removed. The word ‘unrealistic’ was cruelly bandied around.

It was another thirteen long years before I finally got to see the octopus scene in any form. During that time I considered various way-out plans to get to see the footage, including applying for a job at Burman Studios (who made the octopus) and asking for a copy of their showreel. I dreamt about the scene more times than I care to think about.

Then, one day in the late nineties, a grainy video clip turned up on a Goonies fan site. It had been video-captured from a US screening on The Disney Channel which reincorporated the scene. I sat and watch it a couple of dozen times, not really able to process the experience or even tell whether I was enjoying it or not. It was a further two years before I got to see it on a decent size screen, (on the final, nowadays inevitable, special edition DVD release), and probably another three for me to come to terms with the truth.

The truth about the octopus scene is very simple and straightforward. It’s crap. It doesn’t work. It’s badly executed, has no logical place in the movie and no pay-off. The flick works better without it.

But that’s a 36-year old screenwriter writing those words, and every time I even think about the subject the 11-year old that I used to be starts crying. And I can’t live with that.

So, the campaign for a director’s cut starts here.

And you can stick the rubber Suicide Squid back into Red Dwarf whilst you’re at it.