Last Week

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                                              Great Scott! Those Mattes!

Well there goes another week in the mad tumble towards what some people are still hoping will turn out to be Christmas. Regular readers may have noticed a wee drop in the number of reviews being posted lately- its partly because I’ve been turning my attention to watching television shows this month, which obviously take more time to watch than a movie does. This week, though, much of my time has been taken up with other distractions, including watching Back to the Future and its sequel, the imaginatively titled Back to the Future Part II which have just been released on 4K UHD (I’ll likely get around to the third entry sometime today). Visually these films are rather more problematic than some catalogue releases on 4K UHD, which I gather is partly down to the filmstock used at the time and the optical effects, which is a particular problem with the second entry. I remember watching the film at the cinema and being wowed by those visual effects, particularly the flying cars (at the time seeming much more sophisticated than the flying car sequences in Blade Runner) and the clever split screen techniques. Watching them on this 4K presentation, some shots still impress but goodness some are pretty terrible, really: in some places the optical effects leave the flying cars looking like smudgy animation and at other moments almost pasted on like cut-outs. I don’t know if its a degradation of the original elements, or an inevitable consequence of 4K resolution and HDR making mattes etc much more problematic, but some of that once so impressive stuff looks fairly dire now and quite distracting. If anything, it makes those flying car sequences in Blade Runner all the more impressive as they seem to hold up much better (probably a case of the more simple shots being easier to realise back then, or the digital trickery that was applied to the restoration for the Final Cut).

I do have to wonder though about how this film originally looked in the cinema, my memories of it- were we so much more forgiving? Or is it something to do with how we watch films now on these 4K panels. Back when I saw the film it was blown up on a huge cinema screen, and yet still seemed to hold up better than now on my unforgiving OLED- or is it really just how I’m remembering it? Was my old VHS copy, say, simply much more low-resolution, low-contrast and therefore much more forgiving itself, too?

Fortunately the films themselves remain quite fun and endearingly old-fashioned- once all blockbusters were made this way; there’s a sense of innocence to them that was possibly cynically calculated for all I know, but nostalgia certainly clouds over some of the bad points. In some ways Part Two seems eerily prescient- the middle section looking rather uncannily Trumpworld- I’ll never see those alternate 1985 sequences the same way as I used to.

But thinking of how the films effects turned out some thirty years later on 4K UHD, and how problematic these BTTF films have been on home video over the years (some purists reckon the Blu-rays were unwatchable), made me think about home video and owning films. I remember a time when owning a film was impossible, frankly, and a time when expensive early VHS tapes were sold (I recall seeing a copy of Jaws in a cardboard slipcase for sale for something like £76 in a posh department store in 1982). Eventually films could be found more cheaply, early examples being the Cinema Club range I remember seeing in Woolworths. One of the latter included 2001: A Space Odyssey, a copy of which I had for Christmas one year.

But of course it wasn’t really a case of owning the movie, not properly. That copy of 2001 I had was on a pan and scan, horribly fuzzy VHS- if Kubrick himself ever had the misfortune to watch a copy I’m sure he would have been mortified. Which makes me wonder how film-makers re-watch their films and what they really think of some of the home video editions over the years, but that’s really another conversation entirely.

So anyway, it wasn’t really owning a copy of the film properly- more like owning a second-rate approximation of 2001. One could argue that of all the formats, the only version where I came really close to owning a genuine proper copy of Kubrick’s epic is the 4K UHD released late last year, which looks utterly gorgeous and certainly far superior to how those Back to the Future films look in 4K. Which is where filmstocks used over the years, and how certain prestige films were shot over the decades, complicate matters (Vertigo, for instance, is a revelation in 4K UHD).

Some great, classic films, some of which are my favourites, have been released on 4K UHD over the past few years, surely the last home video format we’ll ever be asked to buy, and which some of us are fortunate to watch on pretty large, sophisticated 4K panels. Returning to that £76 copy of Jaws I looked at in that department store so many years ago, I’m pretty confident it looked bloody horrible compared to the excellent 4K UHD disc of the film that came out earlier this year. Are we REALLY owning definitive copies of our favourite films now, ironically at the end of physical media?

Angel Heart 4K UHD

angel 1Whatever happened to Mickey Rourke? Back in 1987 when this film was originally released, he was one of the biggest male stars in Hollywood, seemingly destined for great things. While I confess I was never really enamoured by him, I really did enjoy his performance in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, and watching it again today after several years, I am even more impressed. He really was great in this, which only makes his fall from grace in Hollywood all the more mirror that of Harry Angel himself in this dark moody thriller. Its a genuinely great turn that proves the centre-point of the whole film.

Angel Heart is one of those films that somehow just seems to age incredibly well as the years go by. I didn’t catch it until a VHS rental and I was immediately taken by its dark oppressive atmosphere; the music score, the cinematography, the cast, the ‘twist’ that closes the film. It just seems so unlike anything we see today- indeed, the only film I think I can really compare it to is Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder. Right from the start Angel Heart drags you in and doesn’t let go, its period setting quite mesmerising and otherworldly. I’ve watched it occasionally over the years since but never quite like this, in a finely remastered edition released on 4K no less. It looks grainy and gritty and beautiful, quite fantastic- really filmic (between this and the recent The Shining, 4K is on a roll). Certainly for anyone wondering, this is a worthy upgrade.

Angel Heart isn’t perfect, but its imperfections are fascinating. I’m assuming after all these years anyone reading this has already seen the film, but will skirt around any spoilers best I can. The main problem for the film is, ironically, its central ‘twist’ which has always bothered me the more I thought about it. It really doesn’t work unless something else is going on that we are not aware of; in fact watching this film again the other night I just got myself even more confused by the timeline it presents in its flashbacks and mythology. If someone is… someone, then how come nobody recognises him? Plastic surgery was hardly a ‘thing’ back then and his injuries were allegedly more psychological than physical, best as I could tell, so when he talks to people who knew Johnny Favourite, how come nobody twigs who it is they are talking to? Is it really just a case of an unreliable narrator and that we can trust nothing that we see, does he commit the hellish murders or are they enacted by his employer, following his trail? Am I asking too many questions?

angel3Strangely though I must confess I don’t really care- this is one of those films where the mood, the performances and the setting work so well that its internal lack of consistent logic doesn’t really matter. I’ve always considered Angel Heart a sort of Occult Blade Runner, in that its imagery and sound is such a huge part of the films success, and the funny thing about that is that Blade Runner too had a questionable internal logic, particularly in its theatrical cut that had all sorts of inconsistencies like number of Replicants etc. Angel Heart is a lot like that, but like Blade Runner, its world is so wonderful its almost irrelevant that it doesn’t really make much sense.

I really do like this movie though, and even more so in this new edition. Angel Heart has grown quite a cult reputation over the years, and deservedly so. Its quite haunting in places and my confusion may be mine alone, but it does make the oddly dreamlike experience all the more interesting. When we can see the devil sitting serenely in a church, you know something is seriously wrong with what we ‘know’ about religion, and I suspect the film deliberately makes us question our worldview and what we take for granted. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Alan Parker’s commentary all the way through so shall make a point of listening to it sometime soon: a welcome bonus with this release is that all the extras have been ported over to the 4K disc instead of left on the Blu-ray only.

A VHS Trilogy

P1100010Still cleaning out the garage: uncovered these old VHS tapes of the Original Trilogy Star Wars when they first came out in Widescreen: which was a pretty big deal back then. The studios had suddenly cottoned on to the fact that they could resell us films all over again if they released them in widescreen. It was a trick they’d later develop to a fine art across all sorts of home video formats then-undreamed of.  Mind, this was the ‘nasty’ Widescreen, non-anamorphic and limited to, what, likely less than 450 horizontal lines on VHS? Imagine how ugly that would look now on any panel over 32″ (the PAL format had 625 horizontal lines, but considering the huge black bars top and bottom of the screen on those old non-anamorphic tapes, that film-image isn’t going to benefit from many lines: kinda puts the DVD/Blu ray comparisons to bed for awhile).

Of course, its not lost on me that even though they probably look horrible, they date back to the pre-Special Edition era, so none of them have any tinkering by Old George. Yep, these old plastic boxes have the Original Original Trilogy, the ones I grew up with and Old George locked away in a box buried somewhere in Marin County.

Oh well. I can never play them (unless I become really retro and buy a VHS machine) but I guess I’ll keep them for old times sake. For now, anyway. Excuse me, I have to go tidy up that garage…

P1100011

Angel Heart 4K

angel4kOh this shall be mine- pre-ordered this one for October 14th release. I first saw Angel Heart back on a VHS rental (so probably in 1988) and I loved it- one of those rare films that suckered me with its ‘twist’ and whose mood just lingered in my psyche for days/weeks/months. The restoration work the film has received sounds pretty impressive, it’s certainly a welcome surprise that a film like this received such attention and it will hopefully look better than it ever has. Maybe there is yet hope that Jacob’s Ladder might get such attention, you never know.

Funnily enough, I downloaded a pdf of Angel Heart‘s screenplay only the other day. I’ll probably have to refrain from reading it now as I’d prefer to come to the film fresh, as its been several years since I last saw it (actually possibly longer than that, as it may have been on DVD). Its always a funny thing revisiting films you like after several years, because they are never quite the same film you remember (and we certainly aren’t the same person watching it) , so yeah, curious to see what it will be like. Some films seem worse, but some actually seem better. We’ll see in a few months- this looks like the one of the (few) release highlights for October, which is looking like a pretty barren month this year for releases. More time to catch up on old/unwatched discs etc then.

Bushwick

bushThanks to its outrageously preposterous storyline, this film has an awful lot in common with John Carpenter’s classic Escape From New York, and to be honest Carpenter’s film came to mind several times during the film. Its certainly something I most appreciated from it- Carpenter had a knack of coming up with a killer (albeit ridiculous) premise, whether it be turning New York into a State Prison or an old police precinct under siege from a murderous street gang or a coastal town terrorised by ghosts of pirates after revenge, and spinning it into a compelling low-budget thriller, the low-budget, no-frills approach only adding further verisimilitude to the project. Less gloss, more grit. The low camera angles, the long single-camera shots, the rather odd funky 1970s-like soundtrack… Bushwick shares a great deal of the style and sensibilities of early Carpenter work, with particular echoes of Assault on Precinct 13.

The casting of David Bautista (so good in BR2049) brought me to it, and to be honest I really didn’t expect much other than a derivative b-movie action flick and an opportunity to see Bautista in an early career effort. I even thought the title referred to the Bautista characters name, like in films such as Shaft, Bullitt etc- I didn’t realise it referred to a NYC district.

Sometimes films pleasantly surprise, because on the whole this film was pretty good. Shot in the style of Cloverfield, as one long continuous take as if in real time, that conceit wears a little thin as you play a bit of a game spotting the trickery that they use to join all the seperate takes (lens flare giving them an artificial fade-out/fade in to white, sometimes the shot slipping into dark shadow like a momentary fade to black, sometimes a split screen created by the scenery) which is a little unfortunate, in the same way as found-footage movies get distracting when you start wondering who keeps on filming stuff in such moments of stress or how did someone later find it and edit it together. But the film somehow still draws you in, ultimately becoming compellingly fascinating viewing.

The core fascination is that daft premise, and also its nightmarish reflection of the American Dream gone amok- in this respect it often reminds of The Purge series. Its a uniquely American thing, that mash-up of patriotism and gun ownership, where it fits in society and modern civilization, how easily that could break down and the country return to the Wild West myth of good vs evil, right vs might and the power of the gun.  It reminded me a great deal of DMZ, a comic book by Brian Wood set in a near future Second American Civil War in which Manhattan Island has become a Demilitarised Zone caught between the opposing factions. I bought the deluxe hardback collections a few years back and had heard it was going to become a miniseries or something- perhaps this movie dates back to this project, because it does seem awfully close.

bush2Lucy (Brittany Snow) returns to Brooklyn with her new boyfriend Jose, to find the underground station oddy deserted and alarm sirens sounding. Nearing the exit they are confronted by a screaming man racing by, all aflame, and sounds of explosions and gunfire ahead. It transpires that the city has been invaded by an armed militia, arresting and killing people in the face of an armed response from the locals. Anarchy has broken out, criminals and police and this mysterious militia attempting to take control of the streets through gun battles with innocents caught in the carnage and looters taking advantage of the bedlam. Helicopters patrol the skies and snipers take shots from rooftops at everyone passing by, lawlessness is everywhere.

Lucy falls in with Stupe (Dave Bautista) a veteran US navy medical officer traumatised by past experiences and the loss of his family in the 9/11 tragedy. They both get injured and have to work together to survive, heading for a US army extraction point, during which they get caught in lootings and gunfights and encounters with the armed militia, discovering that Political elements have broken free of the Union, and commenced a new civil war between rival States.

Its daft and crazy but somehow it works. I think its low-budget, no-frills approach works mightily in its favour, especially in how the gritty visuals, camera work and largely electronic score evokes so much of John Carpenter’s films. Its hardly groundbreaking but I’d much rather see low-budget, novel films such as this than your typical, anodyne blockbuster films: in some ways it reminded me of the early VHS era when stuff like this seemed to be on the rental shelves.  Admittedly its use of CGI etc betrays it as a modern film but on the whole in its sensibilities it really does feel very low-fi 1980s in mood and approach. Nothing particularly groundbreaking here but a pleasant surprise nonetheless-  I enjoyed it.

1982

As I write this, 35 years ago.

Half a lifetime ago I guess. I was sixteen.

I remember, walking with a group of friends (most of whom I have not seen in decades- in that pre-social media era freindships had a habit of splintering off forever,  lives spinning off like shattered shards of glass). We were walking to another’s house on the other side of our council estate, to play Dungeons and Dragons (we were RPG-junkies for a few years back then). I remember walking down a street as we made our way across, talking about Blade Runner, thinking about the film’s year of 2019. Worked out how many years ahead it was, how old I would be in that year. A time so long-distant to a sixteen-year-old! 2019 was some incredibly far-off shore, a distant alien landmark, way past that other notable year, 2001, that figured so highly in our geek estimations.

It’s odd to consider that Kubrick’s special year was such a landmark to my generation and those before us-  2001: A Space Odyssey! Those very words were exciting, powerful, they carried some kind of arcane meaning. People now, kids, likely look back on it as just any other date, just another old movie. For us it was something bigger than us, something evocative of a space-faring future ambition. We had visions of returning to the moon, going to Mars. Even in 1982 it all seemed a matter of when, not if.

In hindsight, we were pretty stupid. But 1982, 35 years ago, it was another world.

1982 was a year for other worlds. Dungeons and Dragons, Traveller, Runequest, Gamma World. Well, I could go on and on about those RPG days. Back when the acronym TSR meant so much, Gary Gygax was some kind of genius, and Games Workshop was a gateway to incredible places- each of us of our group would pick a game system and create adventures we would later gather to play.  I ran a campaign titled Shadow World using the AD&D rules that went on for years. I still have books and folders of work I wrote for it, up in my loft- it was such a passion of mine that took so much time it’s hard to fathom now. I should have been out fooling around with girls but instead was inside my room dreaming up dark dungeons and evil sorcerers. Well, either that or reading or painting.

I read so much back then- Arthur C Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert E Howard…

1982, Arthur C Clarke was still alive and writing, as was Ray Bradbury. Frank Frazetta was still alive. John Buscema and Gil Kane and Gene Colan and so many others I grew up with were still working in comics. I was reading 2000 AD in those days, the comic still in its prime. 1982 was the year they ran the 26-issue Apocalypse War saga in the Judge Dredd strip. Each week after reading each installment I was trading comments with my mate Andy in the halls of our secondary school. Block Mania, East Meg One, War Marshall Kazan, Stubb guns, 400 million dead... it was some glorious soap opera, a comicstrip punk-Charles Dickens that unfolded each week, and we would marvel and moan at the various turns of fate as the saga progressed.

I remember the threat of global nuclear armageddon was very real, so that Apocalypse War storyline seemed very pertinent. We actually went to war that year, an old-fashioned war: Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and we sent an armada to those small islands thousands of miles away that no-one had even heard of. I remember the daily updates on the news.

1982 was a very good year for films. Its why this blog has its name, for one thing.

Blade Runner, ET, Poltergeist, Star Trek: Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Mad Max 2, Conan.People often refer to it as the ‘summer of 1982’ and of course it was if you were American, but in other countries that incredible summer of genre films was spread out across the year, as releases were not so immediately global then. Wrath of Khan was here in July, The Thing in August (what madness was that?), Blade Runner and Poltergeist in September, Tron in October, and finally E.T. not until December when likely everyone had already seen it on pirate VHS. Video piracy-  how I first saw The Thing and Conan and Mad Max 2 (and The Exorcist, too, that Autumn).

I could never get my head around being able to watch films on-demand at the press of a switch. Even today it seems a bit weird, a bit like sorcery. In 1982 of course it was a slice of the future, but always over someone else’s house; at home we couldn’t afford a VHS machine until we rented one in late 1983.  Those dark Autumn nights of 1982 when we gathered over a freinds house when his parents were out and watched those VHS copies, they linger in my head forever, so intense it almost seems like yesterday. I giggled like some kind of idiot on first watching The Thing (it just seemed so extreme, in hindsight it was probably nervous laughter, not funny ‘ha-ha’ laughter, but I hadn’t seen Dawn of the Dead at that point). I detested Conan for not really being honest to the Howard books (though I made peace with it soon enough on subsequent viewings) and I remember being gobsmacked by the wild kinetics of Mad Max 2.

Backtrack a few months to Easter, 1982, and Tron: I remember playing an RPG over a freinds house and we paused to watch Disneytime on his portable telly. Imagine five or six of us enthralled when they showed a clip of Tron: it was the Lightcycle chase, and this little portable b&w television was suddenly a window into the future. Hell, I was still playing videogames on my Atari VCS and they were nothing like the cgi being thrown around in Tron. We had seen nothing quite like it, it was like something that arrived out of nowhere.

It was like that back then. Films did seem to come from nowhere. I remember every month going into the city to the specialist bookshops, reading all the latest movie news in the latest issues of Starlog, Fantastic Films, Starburst, Cinefantastique, Cinefex. Marvelling at the latest pictures, reading the latest previews/reviews/interviews. There was no internet, films were spoiled less and information harder to come by. Trailers were rarely seen (not available at a whim as they are now).

When I saw Blade Runner that September, I had never seen a single scene beforehand, hardly any pictures. I do remember a film-music programme on the radio on which I heard the sequence of Deckard meeting Tyrell- that was my only experience of that film beforehand. I wonder if that was why the film had such an impact on me back then? Nowadays we see so much, learn so much, before we even see a film. It steals the surprise somehow. It’s so hard to avoid these days.

Back in 1982, films kept their surprises.

 

 

What it means to be young: Streets of Fire

sof1Whenever I think of Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire I always think about VHS. Its like they are inseparable, and might explain why it’s been more than twenty years since I last saw it. Watching it on blu-ray just feels… almost weird, and although the picture is inevitably better it almost seems inferior without all the grain, drop-outs and blooming reds of watching it on tape.Bizarrely, looking back on it, some films almost looked better with that grainy VHS fuzziness, and I’d likely include Blade Runner in that, too. VHS just had this thing for smoke/steam/neon, the way images would go grainy and the colours bloom out into a pulsing mess. It was kind of beautiful. In crystal-clear HD it can sometimes look, well, too clean.

And thats another curio about those two films, as each of them crashed and burned at the box office but gained a second life -and revaluation- on home video. Streets of Fire in particular seemed to me to just capture the zeitgeist, almost, of that time and that new home-viewing technology. It was bold and colourful and fairly gritty and had rock songs and a great Ry Cooder soundtrack (an unreleased score, too, another weird synchronicity between SOF and BR). It just seemed made for video, back in the era of the early days of MTV remember, and of course seemed light years ahead of the films being shown on network tv at the time.

How to explain the new thrill back then of video rentals, picking films from their box art on a shelf and taking it home to watch? Impossible in this day and age of streaming and downloads and buying films to explain how much of a revolution it was back in the 1980s and only having four channels on the television, and that heavily sanitized by censors etc. Of the delicious tactile thing of that plastic, rattling case and the tape inside? Beats shiny discs in just the same way as vinyl will always be more romantic a thing than cds or mp3’s.

So I’ll aways remember Streets of Fire as being a video rental back when those things were something special and an exciting departure from the stuff on television. And it was a pretty cool movie anyway. It looked like a retro/futuristic fantasy much akin to Blade Runner, had sharp witty dialogue and yet an old-fashioned feel, like something out of a Jimmy Stewart western. It had this breathless pace, carried by that throbbing, beautiful Ry Cooder score, the heartbeat of the movie. It had a great young cast. And Walter Hill directing it.

Watching it now on Blu-ray… well, there was the first thing that was off about it. Watching it on disc instead of tape. The reds didn’t bloom, the picture was clear of drop-outs and I didn’t need to fret about the tracking. Man, thats no way to watch Streets of Fire.

sof2In all seriousness, Streets of Fire today holds up pretty well.  Its a neo-noir Western/gangster flick/Musical, this weird stylistic hybrid that maybe doesn’t really work but has a fine time trying to. There is such a blatant naivety about it, a weird fairy tale of youngsters pretending to be old-school movie stars in a big Hollywood movie. It really is a silly Rock and roll fable with intentionally cheesy dialogue and characters straight out of old Westerns, familiar archetypes that are so old-fashioned as to be almost endearing, as if it’s teenagers appropriating those archetypes, Hollywood being self-reverential. It has likely dated poorly and new viewers no doubt find it oddly disjointed and bettered by later, better films, but old fans like me will love it forever.

Maybe you just had to be young. I don’t know. There are far worse films.

And the cast! God lord they all look so young (because of course they really were). Diane Lane so beautiful  (and apparently utterly vexed she couldn’t perform her character’s songs herself), Amy Madigan, Rick Moranis, Bill Paxton (this is the first film I’ve seen of his since he passed away, rather bittersweet), William Dafoe… a great cast, all destined for greater things. And then of course there is Michael Paré in the lead role of Tom Cody, the film’s biggest casting misstep. He doesn’t really work, the biggest problem being his lack of chemistry with Lane. He’s not a bad actor, he just feels like he’s in the wrong movie (besides, is it an actor’s fault if he’s miss-cast? How come he is then expected to carry the blame for a film’s failure?).

MSDSTOF EC052
STREETS OF FIRE, Michael Pare, 1984

Not that Paré doesn’t have his moments, but he’s clearly more of a supporting/character actor than the charismatic, charming major lead which this film needs. Then again, it was his first big movie and he needed help that he apparently didn’t get from the director, left to flounder like a fish out of water and it shows through most of the film. Its sad and there’s a charm to how wrong he is, like he’s some kind of acting underdog who you just want to somehow succeed. Apparently they came really close to signing a pre-superstar Tom Cruise instead, and you have to wonder how that Streets of Fire would have looked/fared with Cruise in the lead (and Daryl Hannah originally intended in Lane’s role, too, at one point). At any rate, you can’t lay the blame of the film’s failure simply on Paré. There are more responsible parties who would always prefer that, of course.

More importantly, and most damningly, there are several key stylistic choices that really derail the film. The keyed-down violence is one of them. The thinking was that as its a fairytale/Rock and Roll fable nobody should get hurt and almost all the cast be under thirty, but that lack of gritty violence and/or gore just, well, bleeds the life out of it. It looks dark and edgy, has a great Cooder score that throbs and pulses, but it all feels watered-down and neutered, there’s no sense of real threat. Its a pity there was never an alternate, stronger cut, or that the film wasn’t shot in two different ways to offer that choice. But it was only shot the one way and by the time it came together it was too late to ‘fix’ it I guess. The good guy doesn’t really have to suffer to succeed, and the bad guy never really has the chance to be anything bad. There isn’t any real intensity to any of the drama.

Even the title of the film hints at problems- originally the Bruce Springsteen song was to be the main/end title music for the film but Springsteen wouldn’t allow it to be used. Oddly enough, before Cooder got involved, the original score was by James Horner, which was even recorded but got rejected. So you also have to wonder how that might have affected the film- although I love what Cooder did, a Streets of Fire with an early James Horner score would sound, and feel, quite different. Its also another clear sign that the film was in trouble, that they just couldn’t nail the stylistic feel they were after or got lost in second-guessing themselves, all clear signs of a film in trouble.

Not that I really cared back when I watched this on VHS. It still seemed pretty cool. Its only watching it again decades later that it is all too apparent where the film falters and what it could have been.But its still fun. One of those ‘what might have been’ movies, and anyway, to me it will always feel like a love-letter to the days of VHS. So all that young cast and cheesy songs and 1980s MTV stylings, and a ‘straight-to-video’ actor in the lead role, all of that kind of works. It throws me back to when I was young. Got to love films that do that.

Creepshow OST

creepshow-limited-edition-2I well remember recording the title music from Creepshow onto audio-cassette from a VHS rental copy so I could later listen to its creepy and evocative theme. Audio-cassettes; you may remember them, plastic cases with spooled magnetic tape, sort-of an older and even more archaic cousin of the video-cassettes that yet linger in car-boot sales. Just thinking about it makes me feel very old, so many things have changed since- but it used to be the thing back then,  to save music off-air with a microphone close to the tv speakers, fill C-60 or C-90 tapes with different bits of movie music, tv themes, stuff like that. I used to do that in those days; I remember around the same time recording the entire Blade Runner film onto audio cassette off a VHS rental so I could listen to it over and over. Was I ever so young? Was I ever so enthusiastic/obsessed that I’d hush the rest of the household in order to record Alien during its ITV premiere, dutifully cutting out the commercials? If only I could meet that younger version of myself, the damned fool.

So here we are today, and in the post arrives my copy of La La Land’s new CD of the expanded John Harrison Creepshow score, complete and with numerous library cues used in the movie. Listen to some people and you’ll be in no doubt the CD format itself is as doomed as that old audio-cassette that I had recorded the music onto all those years ago- well, let’s fight the good fight on that one, I still love my CDs. Funnily enough, I believe this album is also going to be released on vinyl, how strange is that?

With a lovely and detailed booklet (mine also signed by Harrison himself) which is a rewarding enough read in itself, this release is something of a tribute to those good old days, the purchase a nod to that damn fool teenager with a microphone I used to be. The music is fine, that evocative creepy main theme as lovely as ever, the score dominated by old-school analogue synths with some piano. Its dated I guess but that’s part of the charm with these sort of releases isn’t it? The film and score is over thirty years old, after all-  imagine my teenage self back in 1983 being told I’d be listening to the score in 2014…

 

 

 

Blade Runner VHS

BR VHS1Here’s a blast from the past- my first copy of Blade Runner on VHS. I don’t have a video recorder any more so have no way of playing this thing but I’ll always keep it, even when I eventually bin my old DVD copies of the film. I have a very strong nostalgic connection with this beauty. I’m certainly not one of those strange hardcore collectors that buy multiple copies of the film in the same format from different countries and store them in a garage somewhere forever, but my first VHS copy (widescreen Directors Cut version would follow later) has an affectionate place in my heart. Younger readers will only have a vague memory, if even that, of this archaic technology known as videotape. It was sub broadcast-quality, analogue-based  Standard Definition, and content was in the early days exclusively pan and scan,  as widescreen televisions back then was something unheard of even in Star Trek and 2001:A Space Odyssey.

VHS was an abbreviation for Video Home System, an analogue-based cassette standard developed by JVC (Victor Company of Japan). Back in the late 1970s/early 1980s  the home video market was in its infancy but would revolutionise how people accessed television and film content. Initially very expensive and a niche market, inevitably both hardware and  software was expensive and limited, but as costs were reduced it would gradually explode in popularity. I remember sometime around 1980 a friend of mine’s older brother had a machine with a copy, of all things, of Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines. I recall seeing a small section of an up-market department store in town having several films- they came packaged in cardboard slipcases back then, something I believe the US persisted with but over here in the UK we made a transition to plastic hard cases.

BR5There were a number of competing formats back then, the main two being VHS and Sony’s Betamax, in a rivalry that would be repeated many years later with HD-DVD and Blu-ray. Eventually VHS became the format of choice, mainly because the exploding video rental business seemed to prefer the VHS system, which inevitably influenced consumers choice of system.  My family first rented a VHS machine in 1983- the first film we rented was Poltergeist.  I cannot describe to anyone of the current generation how much of a wonder and huge event it was being able to rent a film like that (remember back then we had four tv channels over here and a minimum three-year wait between cinema and (possibly censored) tv screenings of movies so seeing a twelve-month old Spielberg movie ‘On Demand’ as it were, was pretty mind-blowing).

Anyone who remembers those early days will testify to something akin to awe of this amazing technology. Something tactile still lingers in my memory about physically holding  those black plastic cassettes, the film -all those sights and sounds-  on that magnetic tape. Somewhere in  my loft I believe I still have a copy of a video rental magazine from July of that year -it had Tron‘s Bruce Boxleitner on the cover- which had a listing and short summary for every film then available on tape (which might indicate how few films were available back then). As well as summer releases of Tron and Blade Runner, I recall it featured a glowing review of newly-released Escape From New York, highlighting its remarkable stereo soundtrack. As  I recall, I believe VHS actually benefited the ‘look’ of Blade Runner– it certainly looked different then to how it would later on optical disc formats. Colours -particularly reds- were more blown and the smoky, grainy look of the film was accentuated by the low resolution of the tape. Something like how the workprint looks on the Blu-ray set now, only more so.

It would be a while before VHS rental would lead to the sell-through model as we know it today , i.e. actually buying reasonably-priced copies of movies on tape. Back then, you could buy a movie but it would set you back about £70.

Blade VHSMy copy of Blade Runner was back in the earliest days of the sell-through market. Housed in an over-sized hardcase such as would be found in rental stores (the case could be used for both VHS and Betamax formats), this copy of Blade Runner also used the same art direction of the rental copy of the film (note the ’15’ cert that is stickered onto the original artwork- the original release would not have had any certificate info as I believe at the time it wasn’t required on copies of films on home video- the era of the ‘video nasty’ would put paid to that). It’s interesting because the text on the rear of the case  is a carry-over of the publicity used for the films original abortive cinema release, long before the film would become popular and critically acclaimed. It also indicates a time when prospective renters would be given plenty of information on the back of a film’s case to inform them about the film, as they browsed the racks of titles.

“It’s man against machine in a race against time- Los Angeles in the year 2020. Huge neon advertisements illuminate the night sky above the city’s towering skyscrapers. The interiors, however, are murky and dark, the oppressive gloom occasionally relieved by beams of light from a roving spotlight. The majority of Earth’s population has left for outer space with only the misfits and decadent sophisticates left behind to populate the planet. Infiltrating this strange, derelict society are four replicants, laboratory-created creatures who are practically indistinguishable from humans- whose job it is to perform menial tasks in outer space, and who are forbidden, on pain of destruction, to set foot on Earth. These replicants have hijacked a space-shuttle by killing its crew and are now in Los Angeles passing themselves off as humans. It is up to super-cop Harrison Ford to seek them out and eliminate them before they can eliminate him…”

BR3Finally, here’s a picture featuring the alpha and omega of Blade Runner’s home video releases, with my early VHS copy alongside the recent 30th Anniversary Blu-ray edition. Like home video, Blade Runner has come a long way over those 30 years. Owning that VHS copy way back when, I could never have imagined the film receiving a Directors Cut or Final Cut, or a release including those as well as  the workprint and two theatrical versions.  I think in some ways that is why I will always keep that VHS copy of Blade Runner- it was the advent of VHS and the burgeoning home video market that saved Blade Runner. It gained an increasingly cult following as people used home video as an opportunity to discover the film and re-examine it with repeated viewings. Years before, the film would have been largely forgotten and only resurfaced on eventual network screenings; it may have been reappraised eventually, as I believe quality will always win out in the long run, but home video increased the speed of said reappraisal. Those days of feeling like a lone voice singing the praises of a film most had never even heard of seem a long time ago now, and I almost miss those days to be honest -the VHS copy reminds me of those days. Priceless.