Sentimental? Just a little...

PrintE-mail Written by Martin Unsworth Wednesday, 04 May 2011

Horror Obscura - by Martin Unsworth

When I was growing up, in the golden age of the 70's, when all those programmes you watch with a mocking smile now, the Hulk roaming the land not doing much other than trying to avoid reporter Jack McGee, Steve Austin's slow motion running and a Ninja fighting Spiderman and the like, were state of the art and all very exciting.

In a day long before the internet, before home computers even (the ZX81 was still years away from hitting the homes) and in fact when home entertainment was 3 TV channels that went off the air before midnight. I came across horror films. I had picked up my brother's copy of Hammer House Of Horror, a magazine edited by the wonderful Dez Skinn, later to start Starburst. It featured bi-monthly comic strip adaptations of classic Hammer films, some of which were only really a few years old at this point. That would be enough to grab any comic book loving pre geek's attention. I could “watch” these films over and over by reading the beautiful black and white comic strips. They were well drawn too, some early work by John Bolton amongst others. But then there was the features. Although in black and white, reviews and reports on all manner of weird and wonderful films was there before me. Squirm, The Incredible Melting Man. One issue had a feature on a French film, Requiem For A Vampire. I had no idea who Jean Rollin was, and the piece did not include any of the saucier images from the film, nor did it mention the racy content. I had to wait a few more years before my eyes were open to all those delights. And a film that even sounded too horrible to watch, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I read, and re-read all those issues and absorbed the information.This opened my eyes to a world that wasn't Disney. I read a feature on collecting 8mm films for home viewing, written by Allan Bryce, who later went on to produce The Dark Side magazine for many years. It detailed a trailer that sounded so horrific I almost could not stomach reading it. Could a film actually exist? And where would I find it? The film was HG Lewis' Blood Feast. The film is almost laughable to watch now, but a milestone of horror cinema. Where could I see these amazing films? There were pages of advertisements for books and magazines, how do I find them?

I was allowed to stay up on a Saturday night and watch the first half of the BBC's horror double bills. I was treated to the delights of the Frankenstein monster fighting Dracula and the Wolfman, and the spooky shadows of Val Lewton. I was not, however permitted to see the lurid Technicolour delights of the second feature, usually a Hammer film, or one of Roger Corman's Poe adaptations. Obviously the sight of some pillar box red blood or heaving bosom too much for an under 10. But I was hooked. A lot of them seemed slow and almost boring for an 8 year old, but they were worth sticking out for that glimpse of the monsters I had previously only viewed in print.

I picked up a book from my school's book club, Monsters of the Movies by Denis Gifford. I recognised his name as being one of the contributors to the Hammer magazine. One page would be a brief summary of the film's creature and story, the other a black and white picture of the monster, looking like a bad photocopy. It seemed to make the monsters even more desirable. But still a lot of these films were a mystery to me. I needed to see them! I still could not get enough to read. Every bring and buy sale and second hand book shop was scrutinised for any of the books I had seen advertised in the pages of Hammer House Of Horror. Occasionally you could find a battered old back issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland on a market stall while your mum got the spuds.. Bliss.. Then came my next big find. Another book by Denis Gifford, A Pictorial Guide to Horror Movies.  Much more in depth than the kids book, and a little colour section too. It even had a list of films available to view in your own home at the back. Oh why did my folks not have a super 8 projector?

For many years this was my bible. Until another appeared. One of two annuals published by our very own Starburst Magazine. One was about Sci-Fi, brilliant. The other, Classics of the Horror Films. I devoured it. I still flick through it now. Not only did it go in chronography order, it was more detailed than the Gifford classic.

I guess I'm lucky my parents are pretty cool. I was taken to re-issue cinema screenings of The 7 Voyages Of Sinbad, The Poseidon Adventure and others.. Sometimes you'd get to see trailers for films like Godzilla Vs The Cosmic Monster, which looked so amazing, but was a little disappointing when I finally got to see it years later. Even on TV, there would be adverts for the latest double bill to hit the local flea pit, they wet my appetite even more.. The Incredible Melting Man and The Savage Bees, Rolling Thunder and The Town That Dreaded Sundown, My Bloody Valentine and Funhouse (the Tobe Hooper classic) all flashed in front of my eyes on the small screen but I still couldn't see them. I certainly was not old enough to get into the cinema for them.

By this time, the world had moved on. We had a VHS video recorder under the family TV. An enormous thing, that you needed to be Geoff Capes to lift and you got blisters from pressing the big buttons to eject the tapes that you put in the top and pressed down. And you usually had to re-use the same tape for your recordings as the blanks cost a week's wages, and dad certainly was not going to fork out for our own tape each! But it was a start. We later got a remote control model, which was attached to the machine via a long wire. This was before the infra red remote. I guess we were lucky that my dad worked for Rumbelows service department! So this new age came with it the boom in rental tapes. And that dark age of the video nasty. I did manage to see a few of the offending tapes before they became forbidden fruit, the only law of the house was not to bring The Exorcist home. That film scared my mother so much she totally forbid us to see it. Which of course, made it all the more desirable. Other than that, more or less anything goes. So we got to rent Octaman, a really bad monster movie that has probably disappeared from Rick Baker's CV, but did star one time Sinbad himself Kerwin Mathews.

The Japanese film Attack of the Mushroom People,  in a dubbed version of course. All manner of films that would never have seen the light of day otherwise were there before your very eyes. Most were re-packaged and re-named films from the 60s and 70s made to look more horrific than they actually were (E.T.N. - Extra Terrestrial Nasty – wonder who they were trying to cash in on? Sadly what we got was a rather dull 1967 John Agar film, Night Fright)

Even the TV was beginning to look up, with ITV now screening all night, the schedules had to be filled. Late night screenings on regional channels finally allowed me to see The Incredible Melting Man, sadly since it was shown on HTV (the Welsh channel I could just about pick up on my small portable in my bedroom by moving the  aerial around and holding my face in an awkward  position) I had to endure a lot of static and a fuzzy picture, but it was there.. I even made an audio tape recording of the film on my little tape recorder since at this time I didn't have a video recorder in my bedroom. Do you realise how hard it is to stifle coughs and bed spring creaks while watching and trying to record the sound? Granada even put Octaman on in the small hours. I watched it again. It was still awful, but there it was, on TV!

Then came Channel 4. With its art background and intellectual approach. But where else at that time could you see Equus and Network? A few years past and they even had their version of the horror double bill. Being older, and having my own TV in my bedroom, this now allowed me to indulge. And what wonders I got. From Nosferatu, Caligari to the Universal monsters, I managed to savour them the way I couldn't when I was younger. I understood them now, and wasn't just waiting for the monster to lumber out. I also got to see Carl Dreyer's Vampyr.  Such a wonderful, poetic movie. The films were no longer confined to the books and photos. I had them inside me.

I soon found some new favourite films, the 1932 Doctor X being one, a film I'd only read about in the Monsters of the Movies book, directed by Michael Curtiz, later to direct Casablanca,  and when I finally got to see it, and tape it, I re watched it until the tape wore out. Channel 4 had screened the film in black and white, and I had read the original colour version had been lost over the years. In the following years I did come across a German dubbed version of the film being shown in colour on one of the foreign used SKY  frequencies. I sat through  it. I could follow it because I knew it so well. Apparently a colour print of the film had been found in Jack Warner's private vault after the WB studio head died in the late 70's. Flash forward a decade or so and the colour version is the only one available on DVD, and I found out that rather than it just being a black and white print of the film it was shot that way at the same time as the colour one was, meaning in reality, both films were unique to themselves! And for the completists, the black and white version is harder to find now.

I managed to pick up my next bibles, The Aurum Encyclopedia of Horror Films, and The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of the Movies. I found titles I had never heard of, yet still I could only dream of seeing. I made lists of films I must see. I had no idea how at this point though. The TV listings guides were scoured each week for any film that might be of interest. Things got better, TV companies (and the advent of SKY) were filling the time slots with low budget nonsense that was simply amazing.

The VHS era, although suppressed in the UK. meant that many of the most obscure and wonderful films were being released. Flicking through the pages of Fangoria magazine I could see page after page of advertisements for films for sale, many of the ones I had seen in the reference books I had spent so long thumbing through. The TV format difference spoiled the dream. The classified pages of horror mags and fanzines were full, however of enterprising people willing to fill an E180 tape up with all manner of sleazy and gory delights that  you would not see on the shelves over here.. With empty pockets, I could indulge in my visual delights, and no doubt damaging my eyesight in the process from viewing so many grainy, fuzzy, rolling pictures, and slightly deaf from straining to hear the muffled sound. Oh the joys of 10th generation video recordings. It makes me feel really old to say it, but kids, you really have not had it so good.

Without even trying, I was learning about film history. We always learn more about anything if we have an interest, but from reading about, say, Last House On The Left, I found myself checking out and enjoying Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring which is said to be its influence.

I also had my first experience of a film convention. There in front of me, posing for pictures with me, and signing stills were people I had literally grown up with. David Prowse, Ingrid Pitt, Ray Harryhausen and more. If you would have told me when I was 8 year old watching Jason And The Argonauts that in a few years I will be in the company of the great man and looking at his wonderful creations in the flesh, as it were, I would have never have believed you. Who would have  known this little hobby that kept me glued to a television or book had social aspects? On that subject, incidentally, it is a shame that most of these people now charge for their autographs, which is personally a little disappointing although I suppose they have to make a living.

Then, suddenly, the dawn of a new age. Two very exciting developments. DVD and the internet. You could now guy American DVDs and play on your modified UK player. The prices came down faster than a clubber on a bad trip. Soon, you could have a collection of some of the best – and worst- films ever made. On a shiny little disc that did not take up as much space as the good old tape. It even got that you did not have to worry as much about Mr Customs seizing your order of Nekromantic because it fell foul of the ancient British rules. ( which did happen to me when a friend tried to post me an original VHS copy of said film from Amsterdam)

It still amazes me that I have managed to amass a nice collection of the films I only ever dreamed of seeing. And indeed, seeing films from that forbidden age being screened on mainstream TV, sure at stupid times in the middle of the night, but there was no way in 1985 you could imagine Zombie Flesh Eaters, Dawn of the Dead and Driller Killer on TV. Even Snuff has been shown on Film4.

And now, of course films can be available at a mere click of a mouse. 

I have yet to move over to the blu ray camp. I really can not justify spending loads of money for all the films again. How many copies of Star Wars or Texas Chainsaw can one man have?

Yet I still hanker for a time when I could flick BBC2 on and watch a good old double bill. I do not know if it is laziness of the TV companies, or budget constraints on their film purchasers that stops the classics being shown more often, but I am sure they would be as popular now as they were back in the 70s and 80s. And more importantly, open them up to a younger audience who may not want to pay the price of buying what might be just a creaky old black and white film staring someone who has been dead longer than their parents have been alive.

So the point? I have managed to see some of the films I had only heard of, and many I did not even know existed. Hopefully, If this column continues, I will be able to point you towards some films that might be worth checking out if you do not know where to start. Hopefully I will not just be digging up the dusty horrors, but there are some films that may have been over looked from recent years for one reason or another.I can not promise it will be a smooth ride, and it will not always be pretty but hope you enjoy it half as much as I do.

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0 #4 jim 2011-07-01 19:43
Quoting Nigel Burton:
then watched in horror as he piled the whole lot up and set fire to them!! Aargh.

+1 #3 Nigel Burton 2011-07-01 19:12
Brilliant! It's good to know my upbringing was a virtual mirror image of yours. I well remember going on holiday in Wales. We rented a cottage and the horror double bill that Saturday was The Mummy and The Wolf-Man. Mum and dad went to bed and left me to it. I had no problem with The Mummy (apart from wondering what happened to the bloke in bandages after the first 10 minutes) but my nerve gave out half an hour into The Wolf Man. Innocent days.
A few years later I land a weekend job in a video shop. When the nasties panic began the owner told me I could have my pick of his horrors. Fulci, Deodato, Craven, Lewis, Warhol, Milligan - he had the lot (even the Media release of Snuff, which he picked up at a trade fair).
And what did I do? Politely declined in case he thought me greedy then watched in horror as he piled the whole lot up and set fire to them!! Aargh.
+1 #2 Rick Gladman 2011-06-27 10:45
Fangtastic article! I agree so much with everything you say. The Classic Horror Campaign is trying to get the BBC to bring back the horror double bill seasons so please sign our petition, check out our website and come join us at our own double bill screenings around the UK!
+2 #1 Ted Lyons 2011-05-16 14:40
Thank you for taking me down memory lane to a time when I was happier. what a great read. good writing. the standard of this magazine is very very high indeed.

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Other articles in Horror Obscura - by Martin Unsworth

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Film Festival Fever 14 November 2011

Journey Into The Public Domain 14 October 2011

It's scary, Jim, but not as we know it.. 14 September 2011

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Comedy Sucks... 14 June 2011

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