Me, Myself And ILM: Childhood Films Blogathon

The Adventures of One Cinema-Crazy Infant

The awesome movie poster that sagged on my bedroom wall for nearly twenty years
The awesome movie poster that sagged on my bedroom wall for nearly twenty years

“You and I were really lucky to have so many good movies to go and watch” – Gordon Bradford.

The Childhood Films Blogathon, organized by the wonderful Caz over at letsgotothemovies provides this golden opportunity to reminisce about my earliest trips to the cinema.

Not like Brad to brag, but my initial ventures to the popcorn parlour (always taken by my father on Saturday afternoons) happened to happily coincide with one of the most genuinely creative times in sci-fi/fantasy movie-making. It was fuelled largely by the rise of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the effects group commandeered by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as they dominated the early ’80s box office.

Honorary mention goes to the Odeon Cinema – the one opposite the beach – where the box office was accessible by a legendary escalator (long since removed, alas) which – to my juvenile delight – was not only an exciting ride, but a most stupendous moving portal to a well-wicked world of widescreen wonder.

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“Come on Chewie, let’s check it out” – Han Solo. 

1. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The world changed in May 1980 when Brad was, oh, about that high. The positively seismic upheaval that was the Release of the Sequel to Star Wars caused each and every sprog under the age of 12 (mostly with reluctant parent/guardian in tow) to converge on their nearest popcorn parlour.

Lee was in my class at school – a short, chubby, freckled, ginger-haired kid. i.e. pure bully-bait, so we offered him a chance to come to the Odeon with us. Probably a life-changing event for him, we hoped; certainly was for yours truly!

There is nothing as formidable as an infant with an insatiable Hoth-fix. So, soon after – probably the following weekend – we rounded up Ant: my fellow pint-sized perisher and a kid after my own bubblegum cards, and headed off into town again. We got to the Odeon only to discover that EVERY seat had been booked…

Bigger, bolder and arguably better than what had come three years before, The Empire Strikes Back was a phenomenon. You do realize of course that it is not only the greatest SF blockbuster ever made, but the only one in which the good guys lose… 

Extraordinary… in so many awesome ways. And it always will be. 

3 OUT OF 5: Oh, good lord, no! That’s not the star-rating, but the number of times we managed to see the movie. The other two trips were thwarted by a Full House sign (do they still have those?).

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“I don’t mean to sound superior, but I hate the company of robots” – V.I.N.CENT.

2. The Black Hole (1979)

My next best magical experience at the cinema.

Disney’s initial step onto the Star Wars bandwagon was a surprisingly dark and sinister piece. The effects (some truly awe-inspiring matte paintings on show) looked spectacular in widescreen – especially the meteorite shower, the “lost” ship: the USS Cygnus and the black hole itself.

Having an army of droids on your ship seemed like the coolest thing, so naturally, the laser gunfights looked simply amazing. The USS Palomino’s resident robot: V.I.N.CENT (voiced by Roddy McDowall) was one of my very first favourite characters in SF movies, and his nemesis: the big menacing red robot: Maximillian, was always one of Dad’s faves.

The whole viewing pleasure was seriously enhanced by John Barry’s stunning score – it still gives me the shivers, what… 36 years later?! Good gravy, how time passes…

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“…If it weren’t for sorcerors, there wouldn’t be any dragons. Once, the skies were dotted with them” – Ulrich. 

3. Dragonslayer (1981)

Another fantastic Disney movie that didn’t involve cartoons or high-pitched singing. This dark and bewitching fantasy told how a lottery chose virgins to be sacrificed to prevent the local dragon from laying waste to the huddled villages of the dank and murky kingdom – that’s right: this wasn’t exactly Cinderella

Galen Bradwarden, the young wizard’s apprentice must confront the beast (of course he succeeds – hey, his name’s Brad!).

Behold: the astonishing ILM SFX master-class that was the dragon itself: VERMITHRAX PEJORATIVE. There, only Caps Lock does it justice.  They don’t make dragons like that anymore! You can gush about Smaug from The Hobbit all you like (it’s just CGI after all), but ol’ Vermy was the spikey flame-thrower that made me gawp the most.

Dragonslayer still stands up quite well today; a shame it has slipped into the “forgotten gem” category.

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“I’m not your enemy! Ming is! Let’s all team up an’ fight ‘im” – Flash. 

4. Flash Gordon (1980)

In my book, sci-fi heroes didn’t get any BIGGER than Flash Gordon. Gorged myself on Weetabix cereal every morning in order to collect all 18 Flash Gordon movie cards.

Much-praised and much-maligned in equal measure, it is best to regard this notorious Dino De Laurentiis production as a 90-minute Queen music video. The visual effects, the spaceships, the costumes(!), the set design were all very special. For me, Max Von Sydow as Ming The Merciless, Ruler of The Universe was one of the Best Villains. Ever. 

How can anyone deride this movie?

The Hawkmen attack on War Rocket Ajax with the accompaniment of Brian May’s stirring guitar strains is enough to excite any infant – actually, this classic scene alone should be used to train the new generation of would-be film directors.

Thirty decades later, my generation are still quoting from this movie – a veritable sign of greatness if ever there was one.

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“Think of it: three super-villains! …Or four if you count him twice” – Lex Luthor. 

5. Superman II (1980)

A huge fan of Superman comics, to watch him on the big screen seemed too good to be true. The first film seemed too weak; it could – and should – have featured a costumed super-villain. Superman II seemed to respond to that criticism by featuring a dastardly trio from Kal-El’s homeworld of Krypton. 

The action and effects were pretty good, but it was John Williams’ sensational score that really enhanced it’s blockbuster status. Terence Stamp owned the screen as the evil General Zod. For this comicbook aficionado, this was my first enjoyable superhero movie.

Well, that’s it, and – oh, grief, we’ve reached that stage…

Squeal Before Zod!
Squeal Before Zod!

The Triumvirate of ToshTerror!

Ho-hum, here we go…

For every great smash hit at the cinema, there is a dud… or three – those movies you wanted to watch, were fantastic to sit through at the time, but have simply failed to follow you through that frightful armpit-hair-growing-stage of your life.

For me, these three movies appeared to be classics in the making, but now just make me CRINGE.

(Okay then, let’s get it over with…)

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3. Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom (1984)

How – on Earth – Raiders of the Lost Ark slipped past my radar back in 1981 will remain one of Life’s Great Mysteries. Got really excited upon first learning about Temple of Doom, but had no idea that it was actually a sequel. Rented Raiders out on video and LOVED IT. Still do, of course. So, even more so, big things were expected here.

Thrilled to the spectacle @ the Obi Wan Club, jumping out of a plane on a dinghy (another unfulfilled ambition), the mine-cart chase, the tense rope-bridge sequence – yes, it was great, at the time…

…but watching on the telly a few years later, it felt insufferable, shambolic even. That Om Namha Shivaye Om Namha Shivaye business is way too freaky; and the chilled monkey brains banquet? Screaming Willie? And Short Round? No thanks… 

In order to get the Temple of Doom poster, you had to send off ten empty potato chip packets “to this address.” 

Don’t ask…

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2. Condorman (1981)

This “adventure” movie (from Disney again(!) but at least it wasn’t dark) had such good car and speedboat chases, but really…

Condorman could only ever be “appreciated” by those whose age consists of a single digit. The main character was NOT based on a real comicbook; Michael Crawford – then a TV sitcom star – was monumentally miscast; Oliver Reed spent much of the time bellowing his once-promising movie career away; and the poster came saddled with a tagline reading: “He Spies! He Flies! He Death-Defies!”

Don’t ask…

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1. Buck Rogers In The 25th Century (1981)

HRH Prince Charles married Lady Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981. ALL schools were closed so EVERYBODY could watch it on television, simultaneously broadcast on ALL three(!) channels. Dad was seriously dischuffed by this.

The Odeon was showing Buck Rogers just on that one day only, for those suffering from royal nuptials fatigue. Knowing how an episode of the Buck Rogers TV series was never missed in the Brad household, before you can say: “beedeebeedeebeedee” away we went. But as any bright, fresh-faced moppet of that age could tell you: this was not – by any means – in the same league as Star Wars… or The Black Hole for that matter.    

Problem is: Gil Gerard was the worst possible choice to play the lead; it was as camp as a row of tents; the sfx were hand-me-downs from Battlestar Galactica; there was an almighty embarrassing dance scene and that surfeit of spandex did irreparable damage to my central nervous system.

Again, don’t ask…

The Odeon Cinema: A Temple For Infants. Photo taken in 1973. (Note the escalator.)
The Odeon Cinema: A Temple For Infants. Photo taken in 1973. (Note the escalator.)

childhood-blogathon

Happy Days!

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“No Hard Feelings, Point Break” Or: How Brad Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Comics

About those works that changed my perception of what comics could be… 

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“Of course… You always have to have surprises. You always have to make the reader say: ‘Wow! I never expected this.’ It’s become… tradition” – Stan Lee. 

Rather than bang on about those Avengers for the umpteenth time, and the torrents of comicbook movies we can expect over the next few years – but still keen to write anything comics-related – permit me to break away from the Marvel/DC fold for the moment and gush about some of the best specimens in my collection which – for sentimental reasons, obviously – could not, and never will, be discarded.  

Yes, having had to sift through boxes and piles of my stuff recently, it was only a question of time before these ancient gems were uncovered again…

For the sake of time, space and convenience, just six titles have been selected. In no particular order, away we go! Oh, and you know what? Each one of this not-so-dirty half-dozen would make a great movie…

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Flash Gordon began his exploits on the four-color pages of the Sunday funnies… Not only did Raymond draw the best rayguns, rocketships, and alien creatures, he drew the sexiest women” – Richard Siegel and Jean-Claude Suares. 

What better way to begin than with the Godfather of Sci-Fi Strips? The original Flash Gordon, created in 1934 by Alex Raymond have retained their lustre as sci-fi gold. His art is stupendous; despite becoming an SF artist of some considerable dexterity myself, it was always frustrating (during my formative years) trying (and failing!) to copy some of Raymond’s more dynamic or intricate panels!

It has to be said that, admittedly, the style is unmistakably indicative of the 1930s. That is, by no means, a hindrance; on the contrary, to this eager lil seven-year old, it was more fascinating for that.

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“You may speak to me now. My purple light is on” – General Ironicus.

In 1979, my joyous – albeit short-lived – fascination with Doctor Who began. Having enjoyed each instalment on TV every Saturday teatime, you can well imagine my gob-smacked rapture upon discovering the “Fantastic First Issue” of the Dr Who Weekly, an amazing addition to the immensely impressive wing of Marvel UK. 

The very first story instantly won me over. Doctor Who and The Iron Legion offers an intriguing scenario: where the Roman Empire never fell, but instead expanded its dominion across the galaxy. Simultaneously slaking my thirst for sci-fi and history, it splendidly evokes the charm of the Tom Baker era.

Artist Dave Gibbons may be revered the most for Watchmen, but it is The Iron Legion which – to me – made the greatest impact. Moreover, there’s never been anything quite like the witty and wonderful script by Pat Mills (a personal fave writer) and John Wagner.

And that panel depicting the robot centurion bursting through the shop window is still as sharp and special as when my wide excited eyes first caught it thirty-six years ago!

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“I’m glad that hurt, Jaffar. I pray my kick made you an eunuch!” – Marada The She-Wolf.

Marada, The She-Wolf was an awesome fantasy saga about a mercenary of Rome and her travails against the Mabdhara – a triad of Demon-Lords. She starred in the February and April 1982 issues of Epic Illustrated, then “the Marvel Magazine of Fantasy and Science-Fiction”; she reappeared in Wizard’s Masque in the February and April 1984 issues.

1988 turned out to be a fantastic year: catching up with Classic X-Men, featuring the scripts by Chris Claremont, featuring stunning artwork by John Byrne (republished stories from 1978) and John Bolton (added features of individual X-Men); then, quite unexpectedly, this came into my life.  

Had never heard of “Marada. It didn’t matter. Anything adorned with the talents of Claremont and Bolton was sure to be good. Those issues of Epic Illustrated became essential purchases. The material is so different from the more usual mutant superheroes fare. Claremont writes enthralling dialogue, but through Bolton’s stupendous art, Marada really comes across as a beautiful and feisty protagonist; she deserves mass appeal.

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Hulk 1 Night-Raven by Lloyd 980

“A half-Mohawk boy born in 1900… Night Raven had no powers but was a highly trained fighter and marksman… exposed to a chemical toxin which made him nearly indestructible” – Marvel Database. 

One of the more striking heroes of in my earliest comic-devouring years was undoubtedly the Night-Raven – “Britain’s very own man of mystery.” Apparently, this masked vigilante of the 1930s made his debut in Hulk Comic #1 (March 1979), of which quite a few issues made their way into my collection, but it is in Savage Action – yet another Marvel UK godsend – where my enjoyment of this “faceless, enigmatic nemesis” ensued.  

Its creator: David Lloyd would much later become best known for V for Vendetta. Although my recollections are a little hazy, Night-Raven was always depicted in fedora and trenchcoat, with revolvers in both hands.

One of the few characters created exclusively for Marvel UK, he doesn’t appear to have made much impression on the other side of the Pond, which is a pity. In 1990, Night-Raven: The Collected Stories appeared, but it has never, alas, come into my clutches. Again, last year enquiring at Forbidden Planet – London’s Temple of Geekdom – the “expert” had never heard of this character. Shocking…

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I’ll take you dead or alive. They’re going to kill you anyway – may as well try your luck” – Johnny Alpha.

Johnny Alpha – the mutant bounty hunter with the light eyes and the variable cartridge blaster and electroknux, the most recognised member of the Search/Destroy Agency, whose members are widely known as “Strontium Dogs” – made his debut in Starlord comic in 1978. When that title went defunct, he made a successful switch to the then-burgeoning 2000AD, a British weekly publishing legend throughout the 1980s.

Following the nuclear war of 2150, the society of New Britain had to contend with the spiralling number of mutants (caused by the showers of Strontium-90) in what remained of the population. Forbidden to take normal jobs, “mutoes” had to take on bounty hunting as their only means of survival. In an intriguing plot development, Johnny turned out to to be the son of Nelson Bunker Kreelman, the despised “norm” politician responsible for instigating the anti-mutant laws. 

At first, the gruff style of Carlos Ezquerra’s art did not appeal, but it gradually won me over.

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With The No-Go Job starting in Prog 580 (1988), art duties would be taken over by Simon Harrison (above), who brought a radical new look to the strip.

Johnny Alpha was killed off in 1990, one heckuva bold move considering that he had become the second most iconic character of 2000AD after Judge Dredd.

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“This was it. The night my Uncle Elias and I were going after the Beast. A creature of magic. It could only be destroyed by magic” – Luke Kirby. 

Back to the pages of 2000AD again, and with good reason. Between Progs 571-77 (April-June 1988) something well wicked my way came. Summer Magic was a delightful little seven-part serial about a boy staying with his relations in a traditional English country village during the Summer of 1962. But look beyond Mrs. Birmingham’s homemade dinners and bowls on the green, for an unutterable horror lurks in the forest yonder…  

By rights, it should not have sat alongside the more familiar sci-fi likes of the tech-war of Rogue Trooper, the chaotic chrome capers of the A.B.C. Warriors (a band of Ultrons if you will!), nor the futuristic law enforcement of Judge Dredd, but gladly it did, and made its own marvelous impression.

Just months previously, John Ridgway had come to my startled awareness through the blistering first eight issues of DC’s Hellblazer – John Constantine’s own title. Now here he was working on something equally English and unnerving!

Young Luke must learn the arts of the arcane path before confronting the Beast. And this tale of a boy wizard appeared years before Harry Potter was a glint in JK Rowling’s eye…

This Post will finish with that classic last page from the penultimate episode. At this point, there was barely a hint of the gob-smacking twist that would transpire that following week…

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Thank you, Sherise, for my Second Nomination!

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Cheers!

Venus Ascending: Which SF Heroines Should Return?

Posted: 17 August 2014

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“I’m no Ripley. I had doubts that I could play her as strongly as she had to be played, but I must say that it was fun exploring that side of myself. Women don’t get to do that very often” – Sigourney Weaver.  

In th the far reaches of the universe, “where no one in their right mind would go,” undeniably the strongest female character in SF – Warrant Officer Ellen Ripley – will return for one last time, insists Sigourney Weaver, the actress who portrayed her so memorably across four different movies. She believes that one last story about this bold and daring character deserves to be told, reiterating that by no means should it be set on Earth.  

Considering how Ripley was killed off at the end of dreary Alien 3, and its lacklustre follow-up: Alien Resurrection did not add anything consequential to this waning franchise, the prospect of having the legacy of this great Power Loader-operating and flame-throwing heroine tarnished further does not sound so appealling.

And yet there are numerous strong and feisty females in SF, who – despite the genre for decades being predominantly the reserve of young white males – have thrived regardless and won their own fanbases. Even my own sciency-fickety scribblings are brimming with stern and headstrong women because – let’s face it – they were the ones always rejecting me in real life.  

This Post will explore – in this bland and bloated age of sequels, prequels and reboots – which SF heroines of yesteryear should be brought back to the big screen… plus those who shouldn’t.

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“Fifty-seven years ago I did his little Star Wars film… George is a sadist, but… wearing a metal bikini chained to a giant slug… I keep coming back for more” – Carrie Fisher.  

In December 2015, Princess Leia will return – whether we like it or not. Sure, the original trilogy will always be fondly remembered, but those prequels were an abomination which can never be expunged, let alone forgiven.

Of course there is some curiosity as to what it would be like to have her back, alongside Han and Luke, but really…. it should all have ended back in 1983. So it is with a very heavy heart that this forthcoming trilogy will be regarded with an inevitable and uneasy sense of dread.   

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“Gort… Klaatu Barada Nikto” – Helen Benson.

Patricia Neal, as Helen Benson in Day The Earth Stood Still (1951) provided a strong and striking performance at a time when actresses in B-movies of that era were usually “required” to do no more than scream at any frightful thing that lumbered into view (usually from behind.) She was charged with saving the Earth from Gort, should anything happen to Klaatu (Michael Reeve).

Okay, so she did yell and carry out the ubiquitous horror cliche of stumbling over a deceptively flat piece of terra firma at a crucial stage during the suspense, but otherwise she was a remarkably confident woman – thank goodness – at the right time. She is certainly the sort of determined individual to have in the next Earth-threatening drama.

Hang on! Only just remembered!

A monumentally useless remake popped up in 2008 featuring Jennifer Connelly as Helen Benson. This affront to cultural sensibilities just serves to remind us that that heresy can be avoided if you have a decent script – not to mention a talented leading lady…

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“I’m a New York City girl. Things are a little too quiet around here for me!” – Dale Arden.

Flash Gordon was one of the great influences of my early years, with the amazing Alex Raymond strip and the Universal serials from the 1930s, not to mention the immensely enjoyable (and endlessly quotable) 1980 feature film, but throughout his manic meddling on Mongo,  he wouldn’t have got far without the doughty Dale Arden.

Is it time for a Flash reboot? Hell yeah!

But this time, there would be a tremendous opportunity to enhance the strong elements of Dale’s character and give her a hard-edged and courageous 21st century makeover.

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“Have you ever retired a human by mistake?” – Rachael.

Whatever happened to Sean Young?

As Rachael the replicant in Blade Runner (1982), her soft demeanour provided a tender contrast to the other two violent artificial femmes.   Somehow, in this perpetually dark and soggy dystopia of 2019, she brought an incongruous, yet oddly affecting, 1940s look to the film.

It’s too bad she won’t live, said Gaff, the origami guy in the fedora, yet it would have been so intriguing to see more of her. As rumours of a sequel gather pace, it is alarming to learn that Rachael somehow won’t have a part in it…

The number of times (mis)spent sitting through dull and uninspired SF movies and you wish someone as stylish as her could just glide in and brighten up proceedings…

…but then again, who does?