On this day last year-

w3It was The Love Witch. Riding in hot not on a broomstick but rather a sexy 1970s convertible. While hardly the best film I saw last year, it was one of the most fun and memorable, a gaudy rich tongue-in-cheek… I hesitate to call it horror, maybe a comedy-thriller would be more apt. Some films are difficult to pigeon-hole and put in a box (albeit a coffin-shaped one maybe in this case) and those are sometimes the most fun. They need to bring back Kolchak: The Night Stalker like this, I mean, that would be fantastic geek nirvana (it’ll never happen, naturally, but still…). Anyway, I don’t usually dwell on movie anniversaries, but maybe I should, because a year ago today I was writing about this cheeky little ode to horror/thrillers of old, and it’s nice to remember.

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From the Archives: OUTLANDish Good Fun (January 2007)

OUTLAND-ish good fun January 7, 2007

It was, I think, early 1983, and I was looking through my local paper’s cinema listings to see if anything was on. To my great surprise I noticed that there was a matinee double-bill at the ABC cinema in town, of OUTLAND followed by BLADE RUNNER. Well, the chance to see my favorite film again was just too much to pass up. You must remember, this was back when video was just starting out, and the amazing days of actually owning your own copy of a movie was (besides being undreamed of) still many years away. Back then a very few films had appeared on video and they cost a small fortune (of course the video market would be responsible for resurrecting the fortunes of BLADE RUNNER, but that was still a few years off). So anyway, BLADE RUNNER being back on at my local cinema was a big deal, and offered a chance to see OUTLAND for the first time as a bonus.

So me and my mate Andy caught a bus into town and walked into our ABC cinema. The double-bill was showing on one of the smaller screens, a dark, dingy, auditorium with old, tattered and worn, red-cloth seats that creaked and groaned with old age, and seemed haunted by the ghosts of decades of old films and the smells they had left behind. I’m sure the whole cinema was haunted, it was a wonderful old place and of course it closed years ago, put out of business by a soul-less multiplex built out of town in 1989, but that’s another story.

I hadn’t seen OUTLAND before, so it was new to me. Now I realise it wasn’t a sequel to ALIEN but by God it should have been, it was closer to Ridley Scott’s film than any of it’s actual sequels, all it lacked was an actual alien. In just the same way that SUPERMAN RETURNS displays a love and affection for Donner’s 1978 movie, so OUTLAND displays an absolute conviction that blatantly ripping-off ALIEN was the only way to do ‘proper’ science fiction. Well it made a change from ripping-off STAR WARS I suppose. Yes the days of STAR WARS clones like THE BLACK HOLE, STARCRASH, FLASH GORDON, BATTLE BEYOND THE STARS etc were numbered, at least until Lucas would decide to do it himself and make the prequels decades later… 

But back to OUTLAND. Boy, what a movie. The titles have an air of deja-vu that warns you of what is coming. As the cast credits appear on-screen over a starry background (just like ALIEN), the ‘OUTLAND’ logo slowly begins to form behind them (just like ALIEN), while a moody ambient score by Jerry Goldsmith drones on like an out-take of his own ALIEN score. I don’t know why, but nowadays I find it hard to believe that Pete Hyams could get away with it. After the title coalesces into view and disappears in a blaze of light, we are shown fx-shots of Jupiter and the Con-Am Mining station, while an on-screen text tells us where we are, what we are seeing, much the same way as the text-card in ALIEN described the Nostromo and it’s mission. Funnily enough the models were built by Martin Bower, who I believe also made the miniatures for ALIEN. The costumes were designed by John Mollo, who had designed the costumes for ALIEN… the production design wasn’t by anyone related to ALIEN but might as well have been. I always watch OUTLAND and think that it’s actually a prequel to ALIEN, at least set in the same universe, half-expecting the Nostromo to turn up in one of the exterior space shots or John Hurt to make a cameo in one of the bar-room scenes.

I probably seem very scathing about OUTLAND being some bastard love-child of ALIEN, but I don’t really intend to. I really quite like OUTLAND, it’s dirty, lived-in future with normal joes working in space is great, and there’s a real charm to it’s nods to ALIEN. It reminds me now of a kind of science-fiction cinema resigned to history (although it was temporarily resurrected in EVENT HORIZON, ‘homage’-fans). What doesn’t help OUTLAND is that while it was remaking much of ALIEN visuals-wise, it was of course remaking a western, HIGH NOON, at the same time. It’s as if Hyams had read reviews of STAR WARS describing it as a western in space and decided that if he remade HIGH NOON and it looked like ALIEN then he couldn’t lose. Hyams was no hack, and OUTLAND is probably his best film, it’s just unfortunate that he seemed to follow trends rather than set them himself. His later 2010, while naturally borrowing from 2001, also shared design credentials with BLADE RUNNER (‘visual futurist’ Syd Mead). I suppose you could argue that Hyams remaking HIGH NOON in space was indeed trendsetting, as it pre-figured by some twenty years the methods of modern Hollywood.

The cast works very well, Sean Connery is reliable as ever, back when he was still trying to shake off the ghost of Bond. The late, great Peter Boyle is excellent, and James B. Sikking and Frances Sternhagen are good support. This was back in the days when a cast could be over the age of 30, still headline a film and not all look stunningly beautiful thanks to surgery. The score is vintage Jerry Goldsmith (he had a fantastic habit of elevating average films with his scores) and the photography (by Hyams himself) is suitably atmospheric, showing off the sets very well. The fx are very good, pre-cgi. 

Watching it as a warm-up film before BLADE RUNNER, I really enjoyed it, pleasantly surprised by the quality of its production design and it’s refreshingly ‘adult’ themes about narcotics and crime and it’s lived-in future. The film has actually aged quite well over the years, probably much better than other minor sci-fi films of the period, and I often wonder wistfully at what a ‘proper’ sequel to ALIEN directed by Hyams might have been like, the guy certainly had the eye for it.

So anyhow, the auditorium was pretty much deserted, just a handful of shadowy figures in there with me and Andy watching these science-fiction films on a wintry afternoon. OUTLAND ended and after a short break BLADE RUNNER started and I was in heaven. And then about thirty minutes into BLADE RUNNER one of those shadowy figures a few rows infront stood up and shuffled out and never came back. He had watched OUTLAND and then walked out during the greatest science-fiction film yet made. Gob-smacked, I couldn’t believe it, distracted for the rest of the film wondering why the guy left, and never came back.  It’s funny as you get older, the things you just don’t forget, and that guy, whoever he was, I’ve never forgotten. Maybe he got mugged walking back from the gents. I mean, he had to have a good excuse, yes? I’ve seen some bloody bad films at the cinema but I never walked out of a movie, I always stayed until the bitter end. Hell, I saw SLIPSTREAM right up to those bloody balloons at the end. I wear that fact like a badge of courage.

So anyway, I bought OUTLAND on DVD in a sale the other day. Might watch it tonight, can’t wait.

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…

0-)

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. http://www.filmfax.com/