Archive: The Golden Age Of Fantastic Film Magazines

I’ve been having some trouble porting over my Film Journal blog over to this new site, so I’ve decided to occasionally post some of the better (more deserving?) posts here as Archive entries, starting with this post from January 2007….

The Golden Age of Fantastic Film Magazines January 30, 2007

It has occurred to me that one of the negative effects of the internet and DVD special features has been the demise of quality fantastic film magazines, the likes of Cinefantastique, Starlog, Fantastic Films, Starburst, Cinefex. While some magazines are still being published, most have gone and those that remain are pale shadows of their past incarnations. 

The Golden Age was really back in the late ’seventies, early ‘eighties. Back then, Cinefantastique, the grandest of them all, was in its prime. This was an astonishing magazine, with luxurious presentation for its day, and some of the finest specialist journalism. It was a truly authoritative publication- some of its articles have been unmatched to this day. Its in-depth, 40+page articles on the likes of FORBIDDEN PLANET, 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, DUNE, CONAN THE BARBARIAN, remain the definitive accounts of the making of the films. Paul Sammon’s article about BLADE RUNNER remained unsurpassed until he himself wrote the book FUTURE NOIR many years later, and it can be argued that the magazines presentation, with rare, never-again published photos, still make that article superior to the later book.    

In truth it was an exciting time to be a sci-fi fan,  as Hollywood tried  to capitalize on the success  of Star Wars  in 1977. Genre films were breaking barriers, and special effects artists were becoming as famous as the directors and actors. Fantastic Films entered publication riding the wave of the sci-fi boom, and while early issues were inferior to Cinefantasique, later it began to catch up in quality. A series of issues of Fantastic Films in 1979 that centered on ALIEN were equal to anything in Cinefantastique- detailed interviews with Dan O’Bannon, Ron Cobb, and, in particular, one with Ridley Scott that was so lengthy it was spread across two issues, were fascinating. These were the days when interviewees were surprisingly honest and candid, and there was little evidence of the stale publicity-junkets that dominate proceedings today. An interview with Robert Wise, while he was making STARTREK:TMP, that covered his career from film to film was a serious and honest appraisal of the master craftsman’s work on genre pictures, with a detail lacking in magazines today.

The British magazine Starburst launched in 1977, and while it never ever matched it’s American cousins for graphic quality, it nevertheless had some fine writers working for it, and commissioned some fine interviews. Some of the interviews about BLADE RUNNER actually matched those of Cinefantastique, and a fine review by John Brosnan was quite perceptive and pre-dated some of the critical revaluation that would follow years later. John Brosnan was a guy who vexed many fans who would never forgive him for scathing reviews (I recall one for THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK in particular, and I’m sure he wrote his reviews deliberately to wind up the fanboys), so to read him praising my favourite film was a real treat back when most of his reviews were extremely critical.

It’s tempting to think that the magazines were better back then simply because the films themselves were. Cinefex remains a quality periodical, with serious and detailed articles on special effects, but it isn’t a shadow of it’s old self from the late ’seventies and ‘eighties, mostly because of how films have changed. In its early years Cinefex had great behind-the-scenes photos of gorgeous miniatures being built and photographed, matte paintings being skillfully painted on glass – nowadays the best you can usually get is some guy sitting at a workstation. Interviews used to dwell in detail about optical processes and the design and photography of models and mattes, while today it tends to be dominated by dry anecdotes about software applications. Times have certainly changed, and the marketing and publicity departments for modern blockbusters have, I suspect, far more control of what gets printed these days. Likewise the internet and in particular the special features onDVD special editions make in-depth journalism redundant, unfortunately. But I still maintain that there is a magic to reading an in-depth article in a magazine you physically hold that is superior to what aDVD doc might manage. 

But alas the Golden Age has passed. The likes of Cinefantastique, Fantastic Films and the glory days of those magazines still in print today have gone and will never be seen again. The internet is a powerful and rewarding library of knowledge, and I enjoy watching the special features on DVDs, but for some fans like myself, neither the internet orDVD will ever replace what we have lost with the demise of those magazines of my youth. Reading them again today is like taking a sad journey on a time machine to better, more exciting days.

I must be getting old…!


Original Comments-

1. Nat – January 30, 2007

I guess I am too, then, as I liked this piece very much. I interviewed Ron Cobb in the mid-90s and he was a fascinating guy to talk to, a real fount of information about the early days of special effects. One story he told me sticks out: when he was brought in to design some of the creatures for the bar scene in ‘Star Wars’, he arrived at the set only to find it embraced in the atmosphere of a morgue. A nervous assistant told him to quickly draw some alien designs and he obliged. He was ushered into La Lucas’ prescence by the visibly trembling minion who hovered nearby as Cobb showed his drawings one by one to George. Each one was met with a brief, atonal grunt. When he’d displayed his last design, George gave Cobb a brief nod and waved his hand. Convinced he’d bombed, Cobb headed out of the office and closed the door behind him. To his surprise the assistant immediately grabbed his shoulders and shook him, grinning broadly.

“That was great!” he said.

“Great?” Cobb said, confused, “What do you mean great? He didn’t say anything!”

“Are you kidding?” the assistant shot back, “I’ve never SEEN him that enthusiastic!”

Explains a lot about Episode 1, I guess…


2. Phil M – January 31, 2007

“But I still maintain that there is a magic to reading an in-depth article in a magazine you physically hold that is superior to what aDVD doc might manage. ”

How very true. I still read my copies of Cinefantastique and early Cinefex. It may be that the same information exists on the interweb but there’s no replacement for opening and devouring the truly comprehensive articles.

I’ve a few quibbles, I still think the CFQ coverage of Blade Runner is superior to the Book although I believe Sammon did ‘em both. Ally that coverage with the Cinefex issue and you have amongst the most comprehensive coverage of BR ever.

CFQ in its heyday was excellent. But unfortunately it’s demise was long and protracted and I was sorry to hear of the demise of its founder a few years ago.

Again, Starburst up until about issue 75 or so was excellent. Brosnan was always an excellent read . His baiting of Star Trek fans was excellent (particularly involving the fictional convention riot with all the attendees wearing Spock ears). And his non-fiction book ‘Future Tense’ was very good indeed. Unfortunately, he also was found dead in his flat a year or two ago.

I’d forgotten about ‘Fantastic Films’ – it’s up to the attic tonight.

Starlog was OK but it was OTT with it’s Star Trek coverage. But in it’s defence It’s where I first heard about ‘Near Dark’ and ‘Buckaroo Banzai’

But these are quibbles with the content of the magazines themselves. Thanks for a great read and some great memories.

I am old …!

3. ghostof82February 1, 2007

Nat, Phil, thanks for your comments.

I hadn’t heard of John Brosnan’s demise. Thats really sad news, I didn’t always agree with his views and his winding-up of the fanboys seemed forced a lot of the time, but he was always an entertaining read.

Since writing the above piece I’ve been reading Paul Sammon’s article on DUNE in CFQ. Is it just me or were sci-fi/fantasy films more exciting back then, even the bad ones usually had something going for them?

4. Irving KarchmarAugust 20, 2007

What a nice tribute to Fantastic Films magazine I was the editor/publisher and co-owner of FF with Mike Stein from 1978 til its demise in1985, though Mike took over those responsibilities after a few years. Mike is still publishing FilmFax, I think.


12 thoughts on “Archive: The Golden Age Of Fantastic Film Magazines

  1. chandlerswainreviews

    Allow me to disagree with even the notion that the Internet is remotely suitable as a source of film information as the great older film magazines. (Or books.) I still have all of my old issues from the 70’s and 80’s (and 60’s in many cases) of Cinefantastique, Fantastic Films, Starlog, American Film, Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Film Heritage, Take One, American Cinematographer, Filmmaker’s Newsletter and dozens of other titles that I refer to and reread on a constant basis. I find far too much misinformation on the Internet to take much of what I read seriously. (Where else could you find Billy Wilder correctly identifying Martin Scorsese as merely a film school graduate shooting scenes aimed only at bringing attention to himself? No false Hollywood deification in these dog-eared volumes.)

  2. Matthew McKinnon

    Very true.

    As a youngster, I could never afford Cinefex, but one of my disposable income pleasures has been hunting down key back issues and having a subscription.

    I’ve just let that subscription lapse this month, though, for exactly the reason you stated. The reporting just seems to be studio-approved stuff about render pipelines and match-moving etc: the same for nearly every movie. Zzz.

    Shame about Brosnan. In retrospect, I really like his cynicism: he had very high standards and refused to lower them the way it seemed to be expected of SF and Fantasy audiences. The only time I thought he actually missed a trick was trashing Star Trek II.

  3. Regards Cinefex, I remember back in the Autumn of 1982, seeing the Cinefex Blade Runner issue. I very nearly bought it but it was a lot of money at the time, so I put it back and regretted it for years after! Oh, man, that haunted me for years! I looked around for it but of course it was one of Cinfex’s most sought-after issues. Whenever I visited London during my college course I would look in Forbidden Planet, places like that. Even when the internet offered a solution many years later the eBay prices were insane. Thank goodness for the Titan books reprint in book-form! That was like a dream come true. I saw that book on Amazon the other day for near £100 so history seems to be repeating itself, the book must be out of print.

    Cinefex was a great mag in its day, and now its the last one still going really. But it got so hard to get hold of up here, with the indie comic/bookshops around here folding up. I once bought some back issues from the publisher in the States but they arrived sodden and in pieces! Well, that wad the end of my Cinefex collection….

    Cinefantastique had a really bad decline on quality before it folded, but Cinefex seemed to keep going maintaining quality somehow. Problem wasn’t the mag, it was visual effects changing. I always thought Titan books had the right idea, though, I mean, if they put issues one to three in a book, or some of the selected definitive articles from its run, I’d buy it in a heartbeat.

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  7. I enjoyed this and some of the memories it brought back. I used to buy Starburst back in the 1980s, but Cinefantastique was too expensive for me. I wish I’d had the foresight to get hold of the issues with the Blade Runner coverage. I also remember Starlog and Fangoria, which I occasionally picked up. These American mags were found in a shop called Odyssey 7 in Manchester, UK. I used to go there to buy Daredevil and Spider-Man comics in the mid 1980s. Those American comics and film magazines always felt like a glimpse into another world. They seemed a lot more exciting than the British equivalents, if you know what I mean. Reading the same kind of content on the Net just isn’t the same. Or am I just looking through those rose-tinted spectacles? Great post!

    1. I do think the internet generation/s have missed out on something, and often consider that I grew up in the best of times, with Star Wars and Raiders etc at the cinema, John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith creating such incredible scores and being able to get gradually excited by a drip-feed of magazine previews and reviews etc. The ‘magic’ is often spoiled now by excessive coverage on the internet, things sneaked up on you more back then and you could get surprised (when I first saw Blade Runner, I knew nothing about it other than the cast and crew and Ridley’s reputation- hadn’t even seen a trailer for it: imagine watching that film so totally blind).

      My shops were Nostalgia & Comics and Andromeda Bookshop in Birmingham. There was another comic shop during the Return of the Jedi days up there too, but I forget its name. It was such a thrill getting the train up to the big city once every few weeks and discovering new mags to thumb thru and marvel at (and yeah, most of the time having to put them back on the shelf as they were out of my pocket-money range).

      1. “The ‘magic’ is often spoiled now by excessive coverage on the internet.” Exactly! It feels like a rarity to have a really good film sneak up on you nowadays. I think the last time that happened for me was with the first Matrix film. I was in Australia when it came out, and it seemed to come out of nowhere. Mind you, I wasn’t buying any magazines at the time, and didn’t watch much TV.

        Birmingham, eh? Cool. Comic shops before comics were considered mainstream.

      2. “Comic shops before comics were considered mainstream.” I miss that. I miss Blade Runner being a special lost failure of a film that no-one had even heard about, but me and my mate eulogised over. Back when there were no books about it, no soundtrack, no nothing other than a few articles in Starburst. It was such a cult movie. Then it became discovered on VHS/Betamax and critics changed their minds and the directors cut happened etc. It became everybody’s then. I miss the days when it seemed just mine.

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