Another dream palace gone

showc2Recent news that the Showcase Cinema where I’d watched films throughout the 1990s (starting with Batman, The Abyss etc in 1989) has closed forever has had me getting nostalgic. At the time it opened in 1989 the multiplex was a revelation, with state of the art seating and projection and sound a far cry cry from what excused for film presentation in our then-current haunts of the old ABC and Odeon Cinemas in town. Once I saw Batman at the Showcase I never went back to the old ABC and that cinema itself closed not long after. The Showcase too would eventually fall behind the times, superseded by newer, better cinemas and its been decade or more since I ever went there, but yeah, its awfully sad. I have some great memories from going there:

A late-Saturday night preview showing of Total Recall that remains the craziest, wildest cinema screening of my life. When the film began, with that incredible Jerry Goldsmith title music blasted out loud, the palpable energy of that testosterone-fuelled audience was something I don’t think I’ve experienced since, it was almost like some kind of rock concert. 

Watching The Abyss and then coming out to the carpark in a wild storm, rain hammering down sideways in a gale just like the storm portrayed in the film, one of those strange moments that felt like a film bleeding out into reality. Those moments are the best: I remember coming out of a screening of Cocoon, of all things, and seeing a sliver of crescent moon hanging in the sky just the same as in that film’s poster. Its like the film has come out with you.

Sometimes, back in the dark days when I was unemployed between jobs I’d go alone to watch cheap afternoon screenings to escape my lot (Fantasia, Always, for example), one of which was my worst cinema-going experience ever, the execrable Naked Lunch– the one film I very nearly walked out on.  

I remember going on a blind date there, with my cousin and his girlfriend and a girl she knew -where we watched, of all things, Jacobs Ladder, which confused the shit out of the three of them (“it was something to do with Vietnam, wasn’t it?” I was asked) while I came out buzzing, confident I’d seen something extraordinary and spent an hour in the pub afterwards trying to explain the damn movie to them (I never went out on a second date with that girl).

Going there every week with my future-wife during our courting days, when we’d go and end up watching whatever was on that took our fancy, some good, some bad (one of the baddest, The Flintstones).

A midnight Saturday preview of Alien 3, when we came out in the early hours of a Sunday morning wondering what we’d just seen (I actually liked it, because it was more like Alien than Aliens, which I really disliked with a passion, but my cousin was a fan of Aliens so anyway, our discussion was like a microcosm of the next few decades of Alien 3 discourse). Christ, I haven’t seen/spoken to that cousin in twenty years or more (and no, that’s not because of Alien 3).

So anyway, waxing so nostalgic about those Showcase Memories had me thinking about those other cinemas too, like the ABC in town where I saw Blade Runner and many others (my folks took me to watch John Carpenter’s Elvis there, and I saw loads of films in the 1980s there, like Superman II, Someone to Watch Over Me, Outland, Howard the Duck, Life Force, Legend, Batman…), and the Odeon cinema across town where I saw Star Wars, Close Encounters and Empire Strikes Back etc. I remember the threadbare seats with holes, stuffing coming out of them, in the Screen 3 in the ABC where I saw Howard the Duck. Indeed its funny what you remember: I recall a tramp in there sheltering from the rain (considering how bad Howard was, he probably regretted not staying out in the rain). Or the time me and Andy saw a double-bill of Outland and Blade Runner, and after watching Outland one of the other patrons walked out just as Blade Runner started, and Andy and I just sat, gobsmacked at this blatant and unforgivable affront to the Greatest Film Ever Made- I mean, here I am almost 40 years later and I still vividly recall the guy just getting up and walking out to our dismay. Much fancier a cinema was the luxurious Gaumont in Birmingham which must have been really something in its heyday, where we queued for hours to watch Return of the Jedi back in 1983, and I remember the film looked amazing on its huge screen (one of our group, a friend of my brothers, sat down in the front row and surely couldn’t have seen half what was going on, the screen was so wide most of it was out of his line of sight) but even that cinema closed just a year or so later.

That Showcase Cinema getting demolished feels all kinds of wrong; when a cinema which opened in 1989 (and you still feel like its ‘new’ because 1989 isn’t all that long ago, really, is it? Is it?) is getting torn down, you know you’re getting old. The place where I visited other planets and visited the bottom of the ocean etc is going to be a giant second-hand car retail outlet or something by the end of the year. I recently texted my mate Andy paraphrasing Roy Batty’s speech: “The films I’ve seen, in cinemas you wouldn’t believe…!” 

Dracula’s not-so Satanic Rites

satanic1From the promising, heady early days of Hammer and its Quatermass, etc, we jump to its The Satanic Rites of Dracula, from 1973, when Hammer was well into its downward slide into oblivion. Well, to be fair it was hardly all Hammer’s fault- anyone who was around in the 1970s will testify to the gradual implosion of the British film industry during that decade, and all those old cinemas falling into ruin. We had two such cinemas in town- the Odeon and the ABC Cinema: not the prettiest places to visit and see a film in, most of the time it was a mission to pick the seat with the least holes in.

(It was the Odeon -the poshier, more architecturally resplendent one, with a lobby upstairs before entering the main screen garnished with theatrical posters and photographs- where I saw Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Empire Strikes Back and the ABC where I saw Star Trek: TMP, and Blade Runner).

But anyway, back to The Satanic Rites of Dracula. A horror film set in the then-present day, the film was greenlit alongside Dracula AD 1972, which came out, as that films title suggests, the year prior. Curiously, this enabled both films to have a shared narrative, if only thanks to some recurring characters. Peter Cushing returned as Occult expert  Professor Lorrimer Van Helsing having dispatched the vampire Dracula (Christopher Lee) at the end of the last film, but, er, clearly not dispatching the bugger as well as he should have done. Also returning is Van Helsing’s  grand daughter, Jessica – unfortunately Stephanie Beacham, who played her in Dracula AD 1972, was replaced by Joanna Lumley this time around. These days Lumley is something of a national institution and I’m loath to speak ill of her, but, well, she’s pretty lousy in this and a poor replacement for Beacham. Also returning is Inspector Murray (Michael Coles), who now fancies himself as something of a Kolchak: the Night Stalker and in line for his own series of movies.

satanic3Troublesomely, this film has a totally different style and sensibility to the previous film, which is rather disorientating considering we’ve so many familiar characters. Dracula AD 1972 was a very funky, painfully ‘cool’ take on bringing the vampire films to the modern era (such as it was in 1972/1973) by way of the blaxpoitation films that were so ‘hip’ back then, but Satanic Rites has a totally different feel. Obviously this was all part of a concerted effort to modernise the tired film series of Hammer Draculas and attempt to make them fresh and relevant again, but it mostly fails dismally. So distant is it, tonally, from the original Hammer Dracula films that it feels like something else entirely and hardly a Hammer film at all.

Indeed, the nearest analogue to this film is the Halloween series and the third film in that franchise, Halloween III: Season of the Witch which deliberately tried to buck the tropes of those films and while it actually worked as a horror film it failed utterly to serve as a Halloween flick, confusing and alienating fans in similar fashion to Alien 3 (what is it with third entries?).

Satanic Rites dials back on Christopher Lee terrorising modern London and concerns itself with a bizarre cult that is working with an industrialist to wipe out the human race with a modern-day plague. It suggests that Dracula is so tired of the routine of eternal life and repeatedly getting impaled by these Van Helsing dudes that he’s ready to wipe out his food supply and perhaps get himself a rest via starvation. Ironically this darker, self-destructive Dracula might have offered something new for Christopher Lee to get his, ahem, teeth into but any such possibilities are largely wasted- Lee is given hardly anything to do, his Dracula mostly relegated to supporting actor in his own picture. Perhaps that was a result of Lee limiting his involvement and availability for filming, I don’t know.

All that remains is a rather cold film that doesn’t really have a sense of what it is doing or where it is going, other than being one film too many, and the end of what started as a great series of horror flicks: to offer another analogue, its the Superman IV: The Quest For Peace of Hammer horrors. Dracula AD 1972 didn’t really work either, but at least its funky sensibilities offered a little bit of fun. There’s no fun here at all in a frankly turgid offering.  Peter Cushing, mind, is still emoting like he’s delivering Shakespeare, and further proof that any film blessed with his name in the credits is a film worth seeing, even one as poor as this.

Fortunately for those interested, The Satanic Rites of Dracula is streaming ‘free’ on Amazon Prime here in the UK

 

Not Quite A Theatre of Dreams…

20160528_164030-1Found this old photograph in our local newspaper. A blast from the past- the old Odeon Cinema in town.

This, folks, is where the magic used to happen. This is where I saw Star Wars and CE3K back in 1978, The Black Hole in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back later in 1980, and a pretty mind-blowing (at the time) Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double-bill prior to the release of Return of the Jedi (possibly in 1982 or 1983, I’m not sure). People used to queue outside around the corner in long lines, whatever the weather- there was no reserved seating, it was first-come, first-served.

I remember back when I saw that Star Wars/Empire double-bill, I got there with my mate a few hours before it was due to start and we couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t a queue- was I ever that young and innocent, and those two films such a big deal to me, that I couldn’t figure out why there wasn’t any crowds? Then again, there was no VHS or home video of any kind back then; the opportunity to rewatch a Star Wars film was a rare thing, a Big Deal. And of course, this was long before those Special Editions, these were the Real Deal (not that we knew it back then- Ignorance is such bliss).

There were just three screens- one main one (Screen One, naturally) with two much smaller ones added under the main screen’s balcony seating (what was originally the stall seating before the cinema was split into three screens). As a sign of how things changed since, it seems odd now to recall that back then people could smoke in there- non-smokers sitting on the left side, smokers on the right side (not sure what the logic was in that, but Screen One was pretty large with a huge vaulted ceiling that took care of most of the horrible smoke). It was such a beautiful art deco building, inside and out; I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate it back then, but the ornate plaster scroll-work that decorated and embellished the walls and ceiling was always something amazing to me.

Sure the seats were old and creaky and frayed if not actually empty of most of the original stuffing, the projection system hardly crystal-clear, and the sound system may have been stereo but the speakers usually groaned and farted like a Monty Python sketch under the strain when things got noisy. I guess we’d be spoiled by multiplexes years later but I rather miss some of the atmosphere of that old place. Films were events back then, and the walk up stairs from the ticket office booth into a plush lobby with seats and film posters always seemed ‘classy’, and walking up the next set of stairs into the balcony seating of Screen One and its darkened Theatre was always a thrill. I rather miss the place. I’d love the opportunity to relive that whole moviegoing experience.

Yeah, its a Bingo Hall now. Has been some twenty years, probably longer than that now that I think about it, so all that moviegoing experience has been long gone. We’ve gained a lot technologically from the multiplex way of doing things, but we have lost some of the atmosphere of old cinemas like that one.