This blog is devoted to all those pieces of 20th century culture too often pooh-pooh'ed by the so called 'high brow' crowd. The stuff that conjoures words like 'vibrant', 'garish' and 'lurid'. Cheap paperbacks, b-movies, exploitation, fantasy, horror and hokey sci-fi - all have a place on this blog where the trash of yesterday is recognised as the classics of today.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What was Christmas Like... 40 Years Ago?


The three highest-grossing movies of December 1970 were;

Christmas Number Ones

Top of the charts in the US
was Smokey Robinson and The Miracles with The Tears of a Clown.

And in the UK; Dave Edmunds with the decidedly un-seasonal blues classic I Hear You Knocking.


Nerf Ball
Another reminder of a more simpler time, the Nerf ball was a simple foam ball. Yep, that was the big seller for Christmas in 1970. Created by Parker Brothers, the ball was declared 'the world's first indoor ball!' and came with a promise that it would not break lamps or windows when hurled about indoors (which surely sounded like a challenge to most kids). Nerf products remained popular for years afterwards with the company producing various sports balls made from the foamy, squashy material and later, in the '80s, 'Nerf Blasters' which fired foam darts.


This simple electronic musical instrument was big news in the UK. With Australian artist/TV personality Rolf Harris as its spokesperson, the Stylophone was a popular Christmas gift for 1970. By pressing each metal note with a stylus, a circuit would be completed and result in an electronic 'beeping'. There were several play along records also released and David Bowie even used it on his 'Space Oddity' single.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What was Christmas Like... 30 Years Ago?


The three biggest grossing movies for December 1980, which incidentally, are all in the top ten highest grossers for that year. Also, Flash Gordon which I've included for its later cult appeal despite it's poor box office take in 1980.

Christmas Number Ones

Topping the Billboard Top 100 Hits in the US was Lady by Kenny Rogers.

And in the UK; the tooth-rottingly sweet There's No-one Quite Like Grandma performed by Stockport-based St. Winifred's School Choir.


Rubik's Cube
The brainchild of a Hungarian professor in the mid-70s became the 'it' Christmas toy of 1980. How times have changed, eh? Imagine handing this to a member of the current Nintendo Wii/PlayStation III generation and saying "Here you go, kid. Merry Christmas. Knock yourself out"! A real reminder of a more simpler time, the Rubik's Cube was a fad that has remained with us ever since. People still buy these. Even my parents had one back in the day.

The Empire Strikes Back

With the franchise on its second movie and before the later years of Ewoks and Jabba's muppet show, Star Wars was at the top of its game in 1980. After famously being caught with their pants down in 1977 when they severely underestimated the first movie's popularity, Kenner made up for lost time with its sequel and with a whole new array of bounty hunters, rebels in snow gear and Imperial war machines to choose from, Christmas 1980 was a bountiful harvest for many a young Star Wars fan.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

What was Christmas Like... 20 Years Ago?

With the countdown to Christmas in full swing, I thought I'd take a trip back in time and stop off at each 10-year interval until 1970 or so, to see what was going on at this time of year back then. This post will take a look at a year I remember very well - 1990 (I skipped 2000 as it still feels way too recent).


Here are a few of the biggest widely released movies of the Christmas season in 1990. Home Alone was huge and was one of the highest grossing movies of that year.

Christmas No. Ones

In the UK, having a number one single at Christmas is kind of a big deal and often results in festive (if sometimes overly wholesome) entries by big names (and sometimes not so big). The yuletide spirit is somewhat less reflected in the US with the Billboard Top 100 rarely taking notice of the festive season.

In 1990, the US number 1 single on Christmas was Because I Love You (The Postman Song) by Stevie B.

And in the UK... Saviour's Day by Cliff Richard. Remember what I said about wholesomeness? But to be fair, it only lasted until December the 30th before being knocked off the top spot by Iron Maiden with Bring Your Daughter... to the Slaughter so it's not all bad.


I tried very hard to find some sort of definitive 'Top Selling Christmas Toys Year by Year' list on the Internet, but to no avail. There are many lists out there but they are all culled from different sources while some seem to be purely made up. At the risk of doing the same, I decided to trawl through a few catalogues and articles and come up with a few examples of what was hot for Christmas in 1990.

The Gameboy
Released in Japan and the US in 1989 to huge success, Nintendo's Gameboy made its way to European shores in 1990. This was huge. Hopelessly obsolete in light of today's technological advancements obviously, the Gameboy was unbelievably popular in its day with its 8-bit graphics and 'green' colour scheme. A common sight in the early '90s was a group of kids crowding around a single Gameboy held in the sweaty hands of a comrade, watching over his shoulders in attentive silence as he tried to beat that tricky level on Super Mario Land. And woe betide any joker who thought it was funny to flip the 'off' switch when somebody was mid-game. No way to save your games in those days, kids. Each time you switched it on, you had to start from the beginning.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
The Turtles were everywhere in the early '90s. The first movie came out in March of that year and the cartoon show was still going strong on Saturday morning television. Of course in the UK, they were called 'Hero' Turtles instead of 'Ninja' Turtles as some nanny-state enthusiasts decided that if British kids heard the word 'ninja' they would instantly start killing each other with nunchuks and shuriken. I can't say that this deterrent worked however, as I have clear memories of leaping around the living room as a kid wielding homemade nunchucks fashioned from toilet roll tubes and string.

The Turtles figures began in 1988 and the new additions to the line in time for Christmas 1990 were variants of the main characters such as 'Leo the Sewer Samurai', 'Raph the Space Cadet', 'Don the Undercover Turtle' and 'Mike the Sewer Surfer'.

Power Drencher
Super Soakers were a huge part of childhood in the '90s. These high-pressure water guns made hot summers a war zone for kids with a seemingly endless variety of armaments from small pistol type things right up to gargantuan rifles that actually stung when you got hit by them.

But the famous Super Soaker brand didn't come until 1991. In 1990, the very first Super Soaker was named the 'Power Drencher' and was later re branded the 'Super Soaker 50' the following year. The bright neon (and so very '90s) colour scheme and top-mounted reservoir was a staple from the beginning and totally changed the game for summertime water fights.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Movie Review: Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984)

It seems like only last week that I was doing posts on Halloween, and yet here comes Christmas already. I'm still kind of in 'horror movie mode' and so what better way to make the transition than with Silent Night, Deadly Night?

Released the same month as A Nightmare on Elm Street, this less influential slasher flick was understandably overshadowed by Wes Craven's more inventive project. But Silent Night, Deadly Night outdid Freddie Kruger in one respect - parents and religious organisations really hated it! The idea of Santa Claus going on a killing spree was not one relished by many and the film was banned for a good while.

The story revolves around a youngster called Billy who, after a Christmas visit to his senile old grandpa (who warns him that Santa punishes naughty children) sees the murder of his parents by a felon dressed as the jolly man in red. Understandably this traumatises him no end, a fact that has little effect on the iron-handed Mother Superior of the orphanage he winds up in - a woman whose method of raising kids is thrashing the living daylights out of them with a leather belt.

Flash forward a few years and Billy is all grown up and working in a toy store. Things are going well for him until Christmas time comes around and he is asked to suit up in the dreaded red costume and be nice to kids. At an after hours party in the store, Billy (still in his Santa suit) sees the female co-worker he has a crush on getting manhandled by a fellow employee. This pushes him over the edge and he kills them both before embarking on a rampage across town that will eventually lead him back to the orphanage for a confrontation with the old Mother Superior.

I can't not mention the toy store in this movie which is a great snapshot of 1980s childhood. Many people have spotted treasured items from their own past on the shelves in the background and I'm no different. Jabba the Hutt action figures! He-Man and Battle-cat (on some sort of kite)!

Anyway, back to the movie. What makes this one different from most other slashers is that it is played out from the point of view of the killer. Most entries in this genre begin by establishing a group of teenagers who will eventually be picked off, one by one by a masked killer as the film progresses. Silent Night, Deadly Night spends the first half of its running time establishing the killer! In fact, I can't really remember any of the victims, except the ways in which they are killed. And there are some great ways including impalement by deer's antlers, strangulation by fairy lights and my personal favorite - a swinging chop of an axe that decapitates some young miscreant as he hurtles down a slope in his sleigh (incidentally the film's working title was 'Slay Ride').

But the 45 minutes spent setting up the killer's motive still doesn't quite warrant his sudden turn into a zombie-like killer of all 'naughty children'. Sure, he's got more motive than the likes of Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees, but the film still falls into the trap of almost every slasher - there is never enough credibility to make us believe that somebody would really go out and do this stuff. But never mind. A noble and entertaining entry in the genre nevertheless.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

RIP Ingrid Pitt

Sad news today as another icon leaves us. Polish actress Ingrid Pitt (born Ingoushka Petrov in 1937) who is best remembered for her work in Hammer Horror films (The Vampire Lovers - 1970 and Countess Dracula - 1971) died yesterday in London at the age of 73 of heart failure. She led an extraordinary life having survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp as a child and then escaping communist Berlin before beginning a lengthy acting career that saw her in Doctor Zhivago (1965), Where Eagles Dare (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973).

But for many she will always remain the epitome of the voluptuous vamp woman that later Hammer films became famous for.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

SAGA Entry 2: Poul Anderson

An American author of Scandinavian descent, Poul Anderson was a giant in the genre of 20th century science fiction. These two hugely influential sword and sorcery novels earned him a place in the Swordsmen and Sorcerers' Guild of America (SAGA).

The Broken Sword (1954) is a strangely paced tale that entwines fairy-tale style elves and trolls with historical Vikings and Anglo Saxons. Taking its cue from the Norse sagas, it tells of the son of Orm the Strong who is replaced in his crib by a changeling who grows up to be a doom-bringer to all his people. Orm's real son is raised by the elves as 'Skafloc'. There is also the matter of the titular broken sword - a theme present in the Norse sagas and also used by Tolkien (who's first volume in the Lord of the Rings trilogy was published the same year).

Three Hearts and Three Lions (1961) was based on Anderson's novella printed in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1953. Starting in wartime Europe, Danish resistance fighter Holger Carlsen - in true Burroughsian fashion - is sent hurtling through space and time by an explosion and winds up in another world. This pseudo-medieval world is under siege by the evil of 'Faerie' and Carlsen (who now goes by 'Ogier the Dane') discovers that this is where he is most at home.

Both books are essential reading in the sword and sorcery genre, not least for their influence on other writers. Michael Moorcock has credited The Broken Sword as a major inspiration in writing his Elric tales and the alignment of creatures and characters into the groups of 'law' and 'chaos' as shown in Three Hearts and Three Lions was used in the game system of Dungeons and Dragons the following decade.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Movie Review: The Black Hole (1979)

Odd that I've only just got around to seeing this. It was pretty big news in the late '70s when a lot of films were keen to follow the success of Star Wars (1977) and as I love pretty much everything from that decade it's strange that it's taken me this long to discover it.

Anthony Perkins and Robert Forster star in this Disney production which invested heavily in the special effects department and it certainly is a very pretty film to look at. The story is simple enough; a space exploration team discover the titular black hole along with a massive craft identified as the USS Cygnus which went missing twenty years ago. The ship appears to be deserted but the team soon come across Dr. Hans Reinhardt, something of a mad scientist, who has spent the last two decades living alone with only his robotic crew (which he built) and large, red, robot henchman, Maximilian for company. Reinhardt explains that rest of the old crew fled back to earth after the Cygnus was disabled by a meteorite shower. He remained and now has ambitious plans to travel through the black hole and see what lies on the other side.

Suspicions arise that Reinhardt may not be so devoid of human company as he claims as the crew discover a garden with enough food reserves to feed a small army and one of them witnesses some sort of funeral procession. As they gradually uncover Reinhardt's scheme, they discover the true fate of the old crew and soon find themselves his prisoners and at the mercy of his army of robots.

The main thing this film has going for it is its production design. It really is stunning. True, it's very much a product of its time with its browns and beiges reminiscent of other '70s sci-fi such as Battlestar Galactica and Space: 1999, but the effects and sets are still very impressive today. From the cavernous interiors of the USS Cygnus and its sprawling views of space and walls of consoles to the laser gun fights and floating robots, the film is what I suppose one would call a 'visual feast'.

But the film is not without its flaws. Primarily these revolve around the character of V.I.N.CENT, a robot buddy of the main characters. Clearly included as some sort of comic relief, R2-D2, this guy ain't. As a result the movie can't seem to decide whether it is a light-hearted family romp or serious science fiction and ends up being neither.

Of course, the film was merchandised to the hilt alongside other sci-fi extravaganzas of the late '70s.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Greatest Halloween Movies

This might not seem like a particularly original post, but most 'Top Ten' Halloween movie lists are just an excuse to slap up ten favorite horror flicks. But is that all Halloween is about? Since its arrival on the shores of the US in the hands of Irish immigrants, All Hallows' Eve has metamorphosed into a holiday that embraces all things gruesome and terrifying with a plethora of newer traditions that are almost solely confined to the US. While that's all well and good, what about the roots of the festival? And what movies can we find that are associated with these oldest traditions?

Originating in the Celtic parts of Europe (i.e. Britain, Ireland and Gaul) Halloween (or 'Samhain' as it was called in Ireland back then) heralded the beginning of the dark half of the year and was a night when the spirits of the dead (presumably both good and bad) could return from the Otherworld to visit the places and people they knew in life. When Christianity grew in strength under the rule of the late Romans, the newly formed church naturally frowned on such pagan beliefs, connecting them with devil worship and other un-godly things (which must have been news to the Romanised Celts). In an effort to replace these heathen customs with their own mythology of saints, the festival was renamed 'All Saints' Eve' or more commonly 'All Hallows' Eve'. Also, the church's seemingly innate fear of women with spiritual power (or any kind of power in society) led to the concept of witchcraft (after all, if these priestesses and healers were not Christians, they had to be using their mystical powers for evil, right?)

And so there we have it; a pagan seasonal festival connected with spirits returning from the realm of the dead and doorways into other worlds layered with a Christian mythology of demons, witchcraft and the big, bad man downstairs. In these more secular times, the fusion of cultures and beliefs has become inseparably entwined. But what present day movies reflect this strange witch's brew of mythologies?

Well, for over a century horror movies have fed on the gothic, the supernatural and the demonic. But not all of them. Some rely on the psychological or the problems of society and others are just in it for the gore. So for a list to properly represent the true spirit of Halloween (in my opinion), some parameters need to be defined.

1. A Halloween movie must deal with the supernatural (except in a very few cases which will be discussed further). So, while the likes of 'Psycho', 'Jaws', and the various slasher franchises may be considered great movies, they don't fit the bill in this case.

2. Halloween is all about the dead returning to the realm of the living. So no werewolves, aliens or monsters of earthly creation. On the other hand ghosts, vampires and zombies (the gothic rather than the scientific kind) are in.

3. The 'doorways into other worlds' concept is a much used one and really ties in with what the Celts believed in and their traditions surrounding Samhain. While this could potentially cover a huge amount of ground, other worlds such as Hell and the realm(s) of the dead etc are perfect territory.

4. Arguably, Halloween is as much a Christian concept as a pagan one and as the early church made connections between Satan and heathen happenings, why not represent this too? Demonic possession, devil worship and satanic cults are hardly in short order in the world of movies.

5. Oh, and as this blog deals with 20th century pop culture, all films must be pre-2000.

After much thought, I have assembled the following list. All films are in alphabetical order (saves me having to pic a favorite, see?)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Remember the hype surrounding this one? Many people thought it was the real deal and as this 'missing footage found in the woods' gimmick was ultra cheap to film, it remains one of the most profitable movies of all time.

I'll go ahead and admit that I wasn't scared into convulsions by this, but it remains damn well eerie to this day. The invented mythology surrounding the alleged witch of the nearby woods is effectively done and the gradually deteriorating friendship of the three protagonists as they get more and more lost really portrays the feeling of hopelessness which is terrifying in itself. And then they find that old house in the woods...

The Crow (1994)

Top marks for spotting the one film on my list that isn't a horror movie. Nevertheless, The Crow is a fantastic tale of a spirit brought back from the land of the dead to right the wrongs on Devil's Night (aka Halloween). The fact that a crow acts as the guiding link between the living and the dead is a real nod to Celtic mythology, displaced as it is in the hellish urban landscape of 1990's Detroit.

What could have been a simple action/revenge flick typical of its decade was really elevated by the gloriously noirish production design. Steamy, rain-slicked streets reflect the fires of anarchy as the resurrected Eric Draven chases down the hoods who raped and murdered his bride to be, caked up in goth trappings and following the titular bird all the way to the top of the criminal ladder.

Dracula (1931)

I said vampires were fair game in my intro, so I'll go ahead and add the most influential vampire flick of all time. We can argue which of the countless cinematic versions of Stoker's classic is the best until the cows come home, but you can't deny the cultural impact of Bela Legosi's opera-cloaked count who has influenced everything from breakfast cereal to Sesame Street.

Eerie and atmospheric (check out the superbly gothic crypt scene complete with rats and insects in which the stench of decay can practically be smelled), the film was the first in a long line of Universal Studios monster movies which remain popular subjects for Halloween costumes to this day.

The Exorcist (1973)

Widely regarded as the most terrifying movie of all time, The Exorcist (along with Rosemary's Baby - 1968) was largely responsible for the shift in horror movies from gothic crypts and haunted houses to the demonic terrors of the modern world. Telling the tale of a young girl possessed by a demon and the plight of the elderly priest to expel the evil entity is the ultimate in the glut of satanically themed movies of the 1970s.

Essays have been written as to why this is so effective as a horror movie, so I won't over analyse here. All I'll say is that it is the corruption of innocence along with the hideous, puppet-like contortions of a young girl that makes this film just as horrific today.

Halloween (1978)
You knew this was coming, right? I said that I would explain the inclusion of any films with non-supernatural themes, and well, the clue is in the title. The atmosphere and festivities of Halloween in American suburbia are the backdrop here as an escaped psychopath returns to his home town and begins offing teenagers with the aid of a large kitchen knife. Why? We shall never know, but the concept kickstarted a trend in the horror genre that would dominate the next couple of decades.

Surprisingly bloodless, John Carpenter's classic film was an exercise in suspense and the terror of not knowing what is lurking in the shadows. Slasher films before this had been set out in the sticks (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and in sorority houses (Black Christmas) - both 1974, but Halloween put the masked killer right in the backyards of American suburbia.

The Haunting (1963)

It took me a long time to choose this over The Innocents (1961) as the greatest haunted house movie of all time and I'm still not sure I made the right decision. This was back when atmosphere and eeriness made a horror film rather than blood and cheap shocks. Based on Shirley Jackson's novel, the film follows a nervous young woman who is invited along with three other guests to stay at the forboding Hill House by a psychologist interested in the paranormal.

The fact that it was filmed in black and white only adds to the chilling sensation I get when watching this; the shadows are deeper, the faces more expressive. And that scene with the face in the wallpaper really gets me.

Hellraiser (1987)

Based on director Clive Barker's own novel (The Hellbound Heart), Hellraiser tells of a man who acquires a mysterious puzzle box which opens a gateway into another dimension. His earthly flesh taken by the Cenobites who dwell there, the man's ex-lover (his brother's wife) learns what has happened and begins a chain of murders that will bring her lover back from beyond the grave.

At a time when the horror market was saturated with slasher sequels from the US, Barker brought the British touch back and created a horror character (Pinhead) just as iconic as the Freddies and Jasons of the genre.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Radiation from a downed space probe causes the dead to rise up from the grave. A group of vastly different people find themselves under siege in an abandoned farmhouse and must use their wits to stay alive.

What, on the surface, might look like a science fiction movie fuelled by Cold War fears of atomic technology (and mind control) is in fact one of the most influential examples of the 'dead back to life' theme ever. George A. Romero's gritty and cheap independent movie started a trend of low budget zombie gore fests that has continued to this day. Archetype-bending concepts (the hero is black) and a brutally abrupt ending make this film a cut above the slew of imitators that followed.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

Washington Irving's American classic gets the Hollywood treatment in this wonderfully atmospheric version. Police Inspector, Ichabod Crane visits a small Dutch settlement where the legendary Headless Horseman is relieving the townsfolk of their heads, one by one. Piecing the mystery together, Crane notices a pattern in the killings and begins to suspect that there may be some human involvement.

If I had to choose a favorite Halloween movie, I would go for Sleepy Hollow. Tim Burton's gloriously gothic take on Irving's classic reeks atmosphere and perfectly sets the mood for the season. Eerie mist cloaks skeletal trees, the blood is as bright and as lurid as in any Hammer Horror (a comparison increased by appearances from Christopher Lee and Michael Gough) and the pumpkin head motif is used to full effect.

The Wicker Man (1973)

Investigating the disappearance of a little girl on a remote Scottish island, a deeply Christian police officer uncovers a heathen community with some very sinister traditions.

This is the second film to feature on my list that has absolutely no supernatural goings on in it at all. And with good reason. Few films have portrayed the age-old head on collision between pagan practices and Christian arrogance as perfectly as this one. It has been said that the things people do to one another and the things they do in the name of religion can be more horrifying than any monsters or ghouls the mind can imagine and that is the message that lies at the heart of The Wicker Man. Although set during the spring festival of Beltain rather than Samhain (despite being filmed in November), the film depicts a culture not too far removed from the Celtic practices that lie at the heart of Halloween.