I often think about my love of cinema, where it began and the influences on it, both film-based and what was going on around me.
I was born in February 1975. My arrival into the world coincides with the day on which Stephen Murphy the BBFC’s secretary first saw a new independent film called The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a view to providing a certificate for it. It feels apt that my birth coincided with an event connected to such a sordid masterpiece which remains one of my favourite films to this day.
On hearing of a new arrival into the world, most people want to hear information that I’ve always thought was a bit random and really boring. Who gives a flying fuck about a baby’s weight? I want to know what was showing at the local cinema.
Thankfully the information I was looking for regarding my own arrival onto this planet was awaiting me in the Central Library in York amongst the archived local newspapers on microfilm.
I’m thrilled to report that when I was born the films being shown were veryyy me! And before you ask, one of them wasn’t The Omen.
There was either the Safari-suited, high-camp antics of eye-brow raising Roger Moore as 1970’s James Bond in The Man With The Golden Gun or a sex comedy double-bill consisting of Line Up and Lay Down (!) and Nurses on the Job (!!) Both choices I’m more than happy with.
The cinema these masterpieces were being shown was the Odeon Cinema on Blossom Street in York which remains my favourite cinema of all of the movie houses I’ve been to.
The Odeon was opened on 1st February 1937. You can see how much of an exquisite building it was by its very architecture. A gorgeous building by any standard with its distinctive Art Deco form and shape, this was seen on its construction as an outstanding addition to the Odeon family.
The Odeon is situated on one of the main streets in and out of the city and more importantly, it’s on the route that my father would use when driving us home after going to the city centre. I remember driving past this cinema even before I was old enough to start frequenting the place with my family. Driving by I’d see the garish, alluring and beguiling posters outside. Just the posters alone had the power to scare the fuck out of me as a child with the colourful and nightmarish artwork for horror films leaving the deepest imprints in my young and very fertile psyche. It was just one glance at the poster for the double bill of The Incredible Melting Man and U.S. TV movie The Savage Bees that prevented me from sleeping for several nights in a row.
I also distinctly remember seeing the poster for The Fog in 1980 (I must have been five years old) and it really freaking me out. Again, sleepless nights followed.
One of the other things I loved about cinemas in those days was that they didn’t just have amazing posters for the films they were showing but also lobby cards that showed key scenes of the films being shown within. Lobby cards seem to have died a death these days but I always loved them especially when they were for the horror fare of the day. If a poster could invoke fear in me then going up close and peering at some of the horrific and disturbing scenes that took place within these cinematic shockers was also an amazing experience for an over-imaginative small child.
One of my earliest memories is of my 5-year-old self running to where the posters and lobby cards were outside The Odeon to gaze for the longest time at the artwork for a new film that had just started to play there. That film was called Friday the 13th and it was again 1980. The lobby cards prompted many questions. Who was the kindly old woman enveloped in the misty woodland? Was the killer a dab hand at archery? Hadn’t the girl in the canoe seen Joe Dante’s Piranha?! I’d never dip my hand so casually in a lake like that…So many thoughts ran through my fevered little brain.
There was actually a Kentucky Fried Chicken opposite The Odeon and so because of this proximity a unique urban legend came into being. Even though it’s a slight variation on an already well-known yarn, the people of York insist that this actually happened. Some say they even know the people involved. It goes like this-
A young couple decide to go to collect KFC and then dash into The Odeon opposite with their greasy meal. The film they are going to see has already started and so they order their food, pay and rush into the cinema to buy their tickets and find their seats. They do this and find that the house lights have already gone down and the place is packed. They somehow manage to find two seats together in the rammed auditorium and start to chow down on their KFC. Because the film has already started the couple can’t see what they are eating and just tuck in regardless. The young woman notices that what she thinks should be a piece of chicken tastes funny. It also doesn’t feel like a leg or breast. Sure, it’s coated in the Colonel’s secret coating but chicken it must definitely ain’t. With her eyes now starting to get used to the darkness of the cinema she sees that in fact what she’s been tucking into looks very strange indeed. She decides to take some of the coating off with her fingers and is horrified to see what is concealed underneath- and of which she still has a piece of in her mouth. She has been eating a deep-fried rat! She screams, her male companion screams, the audience screams.
The ‘deep friend rat’ is an urban legend that is well-told the world over and can be applied to any fast-food joint but seems to be specific to KFC (much to their chagrin). There was even a case recently whereby someone posted the same story as fact, even with pictures as evidence. But when asked by KFC’s management for further evidence or closer investigation, the story’s perpetrator seemed backwards in coming forward with further details. Social media, the internet and emails are perfect for the further advancement of urban legends in the cyber age.
But I digress. Most of my trips to the cinema during my childhood and teen years were to The Odeon. I loved seeing films in a venue that was so steeped in history and gorgeous to boot. I could almost feel the history of the place and loved the idea of people in the past seeing some of my favourite films such as Taxi Driver, Jaws and The Exorcist there.
Fast forward and this would change with The Exorcist as there was a one-off screening and on my 18th birthday (of all days!) It was almost like it was scheduled especially for me! And so in February 1993, even though it had snowed, my friends and I went out on the town and then went to see the film with a packed house (the film was still banned on video in the UK at that time). Whilst the print was in appalling condition and most probably one of the same prints used on the film’s original release in 1974, it had lost none of its power. I’ll never forget leaving the cinema, bidding my friends farewell and precariously going to find a taxi whilst wading through snow and trying not to break my neck whilst walking like Bambi over the ice underfoot. Oh, and I remember being really fucking scared because of the film!
In these innocent days of my early childhood, a couple of Odeon visits really stick out in my mind for some reason. I think it’s because these films were perfect for kids- even kids who would have preferred to have been watching the horror movies being shown instead.
One screening I went to when I was 5 years old was for Robert Altman’s Popeye and I absolutely loved it! The perfect casting, the set designs, the songs- the cartoon series I loved so much was effortlessly and almost eerily brought to life.
Another cinematic excursion to the Odeon that I look back on with real fondness was a double bill of a pre-Terminator Arnie and Kirk Douglas in the zany Cactus Jack and the live-action kitsch fest Spiderman and the Dragon’s Challenge. This was originally a two-part television special made for American T.V. but was spliced together to make a feature film to be shown theatrically outside the U.S. Hence, how I had the good fortune to be watching it. Spidey was played by Nicholas Hammond, one of the Von Trapp brats from The Sound of Music. The film was so bright and colourful that it was akin to a Pop-Art Warhol print coming to life. I seem to remember that Spidey’s webs looked like white rope. Myself and all lovers of cinematic cult fare need this film and the films that preceded it (Spiderman and Spiderman Strikes Back) to be released on Blu ray tout suite.
It was at The Odeon that not only did I fall in love with film as a medium but also the sense of occasion involved in going to see a film. There was the excitement of the snacks on offer, the stench of popcorn meaning only one thing. It was also the trailers for the upcoming films and then the Pearl and Dean advertising for products such as Fry’s Turkish Delight, Westlers hotdogs and Red Mountain coffee. Then it was the wonderfully kitsch and camp ads for local businesses in York such as Indian restaurants and local pubs/nightclubs. The glittering world of York’s nightlife! It seemed so sophisticated. There’s a great sample of similar cinema advertising here. And here is a cinema advert shown locally in the 60s in Plymouth advertising the local nightspots. It has to be seen to be believed! It’s all about the camp bleach-blonde bartender. Something tells me he might be a Friend of Dorothy.
But there was also another cinema in York in those days that I also went to. The ABC cinema was right in the city centre on a street called Piccadilly and whilst it didn’t have the history, grandeur or sense of occasion that The Odeon had, I also went there and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
One of my earliest cinema-going experiences here involved my father taking me and my two older brothers to go and see the newly released Superman 2 (which I didn’t like as to my 6-year-old eyes it was too violent- how things would change when it came to my tastes in cinema!) But other than this reservation, I had a great time. My Dad then took us to see executed highwayman Dick Turpin’s grave which is nearby. All in all, a smashing day.
For more on the curious case of the burial of Dick Turpin, click here. It’s just one more story from the blood-soaked history of York.
Another major source for my burgeoning passion for film was, of course, television. Whilst I couldn’t get in to see the X certificate films at my local cinemas, there were no restrictions to me seeing any of the films shown on TV, whether they were intended for children or not. Hooray for lax parenting!
I remember vividly the first-ever screening of Jaws on UK TV. According to the internet, this took place on the 8th of October 1981 which means that I was 6 years old when I saw it (Jaws was actually certificated A when it was originally released in 1975 meaning that it wasn’t suitable for children under 11. This was changed to a PG years later but recently was controversially upgraded to 12A as it was felt that PG was too lenient. Which, I suppose, is a testament to the brilliance of the film). This was a HUGE event and garnered mammoth ratings with 23.25 million viewers tuning in, one of the biggest ratings ever for a film shown on TV.
I also remember similarly huge ratings for the first time Superman: The Movie was shown on UK TV. This was also a pivotal event for not just myself but for most of the population.
Thankfully when I was growing up my father didn’t believe the theory that children watching late-night movies that might be violent or disturbing in some way could negatively affect a child and so I was allowed to stay up late and watch the likes of Carrie, The Omen and Dirty Harry when they were shown. I realised that most of my school friends didn’t have parents who were this liberal or maybe just didn’t give a shit as I’d say to my mates ‘Did you see (insert name of some film usually with an X certificate) last night?!’ to be met with blank stares or a slow, jealous shake of the head.
Not everything that influenced me in those days was film based but still fed into my love of cult cinema and all things fucked up. I was and still am an avid reader. Sometimes I sped through books so fast that my father used to take me to the library more than once a day (really!). It was here that I came across a book that was perfect for a young weirdo with a taste for the macabre.
Usborne’s Guide to the Supernatural World was a compendium made up of three earlier titles (Vampires, Werewolves and Demons, Haunted Houses, Ghosts and Spectres and Mysterious Powers and Strange Forces) and was pretty much a bible for me from that moment on. It’s one of my favourite books and I still dip into it for pleasure and life-affirmation purposes.
My knowledge of everything supernatural was expanded immeasurably with this tome as my eyes pored over the gaudy illustrations whilst taking in every detail of the text.
Usborne has just reissued another of their titles, The World of the Unknown: Ghosts which was just as influential in the late ’70s (see- there were other young weirdos just like me!). Let’s hope they see fit to reissue Supernatural World too. Copies are selling for a fortune on the internet. We need a reprint and pronto. It would sell just as well as Ghosts.
But there was something a lot closer to home and all too real that provided a macabre backdrop to my earliest years. The county of Yorkshire which I grew up in had its own serial killer who was at large with his earliest recorded murder being in the year of my birth. These murders didn’t end until his capture in 1981. Peter William Sutcliffe aka The Yorkshire Ripper murdered women who were out alone at night. One of my earliest memories was of watching the local news programme Calendar which was presented by Richard Whiteley (later the presenter of student and old person TV favourite Countdown) who was normally a jolly and happy kind of fellow. I knew something was wrong on this occasion however as he wasn’t smiling or jolly and had a grave expression on his face as he stood in front of a board that had numerous women’s faces on it. He explained that yet another woman had been added to the list of those poor women who had found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. This victim was Jacqueline Hill, a Leeds student who was walking from where her bus had dropped her to her student lodgings (a matter of a few yards) but instead crossed paths with the murderer.
Because of the Ripper life had to be changed massively. There was an unofficial curfew for women and a feeling of omnipresent dread in the air until his capture. When I grew older and started going out as a teenager I’d always accompany female friends home and make sure they were inside and safe before I left. I never thought why I did this until much later- it had been because I has grown up in the era of the Ripper. It’s strange how life comes full circle. I’m now writing this in Chapeltown in my flat. This area of Leeds was a major hunting ground for Sutcliffe. The murder scenes for at least 4 of his victims are within walking distance of here.
This sense of dread was also all around us in other ways in the late ’70s/early ’80s. One was in the form of Public Information Films which were short adverts made by the government warning the general population of the dangers of any number of potentially lethal activities as varied as mixing different types of tyres on your car, letting your child talk to strangers, putting down a rug on a freshly polished wooden floor…you name it. My favourite was The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water which was voiced by Donald Pleasance and warned of the dangers of children playing near rivers and lakes and what could happen.
This PIF scared the shit out of me and reminded me of another childhood source of sleepless nights, a paperback of The Lord of the Rings that was knocking around our house resplendent with becloaked soldiers riding nightmarish horses each with glowing red eyes.
I loved the Public Information Films that were specific to Bonfire Night with the dangers of playing with fireworks being another source of trauma for children up and down the country.
Missives from on high about how to prevent catastrophe in your life weren’t just made for the TV screen either. There were plenty of leaflets, posters and literature around at this time that could educate the populace on how to avoid potential disaster.
There was plenty of imagery that I found so attractive as it would appeal to any fan of cult cinema and particularly the horror/slasher genre. The threat of some crime being committed to either you or your property was very real with an unspecified shadowy figure (the best example being depicted in the ‘Watch out! There’s a thief about’ campaign) seen approaching (a great example of this was the two black boots walking on breaking ice in the excellent ‘Neighbourly Nell’ Public Information Film) or running away.
One poster that I used to see on the wall in doctor’s surgeries, chemists and libraries was the design classic of The Pregnant Man.
Another moral panic that I remember vividly from my early childhood concerned the dangers of rabies entering the UK. Cue distressing images of rabid animals attacking children and humans frothing at the mouth due to the disease. And this wasn’t just in print.
And then there was Protect and Survive. This was a campaign regarding what to do if there was a nuclear holocaust. This booklet would be sent to every household if the button had been pushed and certain psychopathic world leaders wanted the ultimate in narcissistic supply. Details on how we were all to hole up in our self-made bomb shelters with only our loved ones and tinned food for company were outlined. There were even details on what to do if someone in your enclosure had passed away and how their body could be disposed of.
And here, for your perverse pleasure, is the full booklet. I’m sure in these times of lockdowns and Coronavirus we can pick up some worthwhile and strangely relevant tips.
The threat of nuclear war was everywhere in the late ’70s and ’80s. To quote those purveyors of style and hair dye Duran Duran from their number 1 single Is There Something I Should Know, ‘You’re about as easy as a nuclear war.’ Just one push of a button and we would be pushed into a dystopic netherworld.
There was even a drama, Threads made about what that post-nuclear holocaust would look like. It wasn’t pretty and remains a powerful, brilliant and extremely difficult-to-watch masterpiece. I recommend you find it but proceed with caution.
But back to film. Another rich source of cult film goodness was to be found in our local newspaper, of all places. Film adverts were placed here by the local cinemas that showed artwork (sometimes different from the posters) that was, in the case of horror and cult films, lurid in nature and again, utterly alluring to me.
As it would happen, other cult movie fans were indulging in the same pleasures with the excellent book Ad Nauseam being released not so long ago- a compendium of newspaper ads advertising the kind of movies I relished seeking out the ads for.
Just as there were newspaper print ads, there were also TV adverts for upcoming films that were currently playing. Some of these were just as disturbing as the films themselves. I remember seeing a TV spot for The Shining that was possibly the scariest thing I had ever experienced up until that point. On seeing it again, I still feel the same. It’s a terrifying experience.
Whilst all of this quenched my growing passion for cinema and particularly cult cinema, there was an upcoming innovation that would change everything! That was, of course, VIDEO! And such a momentous event deserves a blog entry all of its own…