Crossing the Streams – Harold Ramis, from Egon to Puxatawney Phil

Crossing the Streams – Harold Ramis, from Egon to Puxatawney Phil

It was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of the actor and director Harold Ramis at the age of 69.

Another fallen soul from a childhood which seems to recede ever quicker into the depths of my memory.

Like many quadragenerians on both sides of the Atlantic, Ramis will forever be immortalised in the guise of Dr Egon Spengler – the quiet, nerdy and clearly most intelligent of New York’s finest paranormal investigators and eliminators; The Ghostbusters.

Harold Ramis

With his thin rimmed spectacles, high hair and funny little PKE ghost-detecting doodad with the little arms, Egon, along with Ray (Dan Ackroyd), Winston (Ernie Hudson) and the delightfully laconic Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) became one of the great icons of 80s cinema as they raced the streets of Manhattan in their converted hearse (ambulance?), battling slimy apparitions, weird devil dogs, unsettlingly sexy demons and enormous marshmallow-based monsters.

And they had a wicked theme tune which was, frankly, impossible not to sing along with when singer Ray Parker Jnr enquired about who we should call.

Going to see Ghostbusters for a friend’s birthday in November 1984 is a treasured memory of my childhood, a celebration of being a kid on the cusp of high school, a celebration of friendship, the 1980s and as powerful a symbol about the unbridled joy of the cinema that it’s possible to conceive.

And it’s why Harold Ramis is, and forever will be Dr Egon Spengler – the one who told us not to cross the streams and the one who, later on – did.


All of the above is a personal memory, a personal tribute to an icon of my own experiences of youth – nothing more perhaps than a bit of a ‘when I were lad’ type thing.

Because, I hope and sincerely believe, Ramis will be remembered not just for his ghostly grappling but also, as the man who brought to life a film that will rank as one of the great romantic comedies, and indeed one of the great films, of all time.

I refer, of course, to Groundhog Day.

When Groundhog Day is mentioned, the name most synonymous with it is that of the other Ghostbuster, Bill Murray. And, I suppose, rightly so; Murray is really quite brilliant as the sourly sarcastic weatherman Phil Conners in the film. In fact, Murray is generally brilliant in everything.

But it’s his old busting pal Ramis to whom the job went for directing this genuine modern classic. And for that, his legend should be cemented in Hollywood’s pantheon.

Groundhog Day is, on the ever changing top 250 list of best ever films (at currently sitting at #216. So, quite a few films ahead of it then. One of which, at an impressively high #26 is the Capra classic and Christmas favourite, It’s A Wonderful Life.

Now, I love It’s A Wonderful Life – in fact, I’d say it’s a wonderful film. Beautifully directed with a toweringly moving performance from leading man James Stewart; a film that is deceptively dark and at times quite tragic before delivering it’s tearfully sweet payoff finale.

For me, Groundhog Day is a film that owes much to the legacy of Capra’s masterpiece, and which, quite remarkably in my opinion, goes on to surpass it.

And I pay that compliment not very lightly indeed, I assure you.

There is a real and lasting filmic genius to Groundhog Day – it’s a film which stays with you, begging for repeat viewings and differing reactions. Which is sort of apt, given the plot.

Phil Conners is the grumpy, world-weary weatherman who has to head, in the company of cheery producer Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) to the small town of Puxatawney in Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Festival in which the town-folk gather to see if resident ‘hog, Puxatawney Phil will see his shadow and condemn all to an extra 6 weeks of winter.

Naturally, Phil finds the whole palaver painfully twee and has no qualms about making his lack of enthusiasm known.

It’s a standard kind of rom-com set-up in a film that is anything but standard. Because, from this set-up we follow the plight – and it really is a plight- of Phil who finds that he’s living out the exact same day over and over again.

Phil wakes at exactly 6am on February 2nd, to the same song – Sonny & Cher’s ‘I Got You Babe’, the same inane radio DJ banter, the same view from the window.

He has the same encounters, the same conversations, same chance meetings – same old same old routine in this picturesque Pennsylvanian town. And, in doing so, we watch as Phil moves through varying stages of crisis, melancholy, mischief, narcissism and, eventual educated redemption.

It’s a rom-com at heart, but a film that can be seen, in turn, as a spiritual journey, a sugar-coated delve into psycho-analysis, a cultural essay on the monotony of modern life or a weird Nietzschean odyssey.

And, despite all of this, it is at every step, very very funny.

This of course is down to Murray’s performance – much as he did in Scrooged, he is simply brilliant at making a bit of a bastard completely likeable. But it’s the script of Danny Rubin and Ramis which offers such rich material for Murray to shine, along with Ramis’ directorial eye allowing him to give his pal licence to take it up to 11.

Funny yes, but like Wonderful Life, there is a real darkness to the journey the hero must take. We see how quickly he descends from patronising smart-ass to manic depressive; from willing loner to lonely; a man with a God complex coming to learn that he’s not a God. As Sonny & Cher burst back into life, or as the Polka band starts back up, so the music whirls around Phil in an ever more mocking manner.

We don’t definitively know how many February 2nds Phil lives through – in the DVD of the movie, Ramis suggests that the original idea was that he’d been alive thousands of years and, while almost certainly that’s not the case, the inference throughout is that it’s a long time. Long enough to know precisely who everyone is, what will happen in the town at any given second, to become a master pianist and sculptor and, in adding the ‘rom’ to the ‘com’, to fall deeply in love with Rita.

And yet, where so many of these genre films fall into the trap of gushing sentiment with a hero who’s changed his ways or grown as a person as they move towards their inevitable climax, so Groundhog Day beautifully handles the delicate path. Love may win out but don’t count on a Murray-inspired Phil to have lost his bristle – it’s just put to more conciliatory effect as he begins to see the potential of the world anew.

Groundhog Day is now more than twenty years old. Since it came out, the very name of the film has slipped into popular usage. Anything of a repetitive nature in our lives is like Groundhog Day. Puxatawney is a tourist attraction and even the kerb from which Murray steps into a puddle has its own plaque (albeit in Woodstock, Illinois which doubled for the town).

It’s a classic film, a, quite literally, timeless film; a film which, like It’s A Wonderful Life, will live on and be enjoyed for years to come and which, if there’s any justice in the business of show, will be a fitting legacy for the late, great Dr Egon Spengler.

Harold Ramis: actor, director, writer (1944-2014)

12 Years A Slave – A modern classic.

12 Years A Slave – A modern classic.

Watching new films I’m often guilty of looking for references, influences and comparisons to other films. In the case of 12 Years A Slave my mind, at various occasions was drawn towards Shawshank Redemption, Schindler’s List, Cast Away and, to my surprise – some of the viscerally ghastly torture-based horror films that have found prominence in the past decade.

Indeed, with the opening of the film artist-turned-director Steve McQueen appears to, quite deliberately, offer a set up that harks directly towards classic  genre horror – contrasts of light and dark, cranking sinister sounds punctuating moments of total quiet, with the ever growing sense of threat and dread.

Rarely has so brief an introduction to a film been filled with such a profound sense of foreboding.

12 Years A Slave may borrow from horror conventions but this is no Saturday night popcorn throwing thrill ride. Oh, it’s certainly a movie chock full of horror – but it’s a very real kind of horror. A horror that will stir your emotions and remain with you long after the lights have come up in the theatre.

Solomon Northup (played wonderfully by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a family man and gifted musician, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in an 1840s America growing ever more regionally divided. Based upon Northup’s own memoirs the film depicts his nightmarish descent into a brutal, hell on earth existence where freedom, dignity and humanity are stripped away as easily as the bloodied shirt upon his back.

Whilst seen through the harrowing eyes of Northup, the African-American man plunged into this awfulness, McQueen lets us see wider than the main protagonist’s own plight, examining the ways in which slavery as a system strips away the humanity from all who exist within its constraints.

We see this most vividly in the shape of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) the sadistic slave owner  under whose control Northup falls. Clearly cast to be Northup’s villainous nemesis, akin to the relationship between Andy and the Warden in Shawshank, the subtle difference here being that, for all the revulsion and disdain at his acts, there is a sense that our overriding emotion should be one of sadness at this retched, pathetic man – a soul tainted and destroyed by the society to which he contributes.

Indeed, as a counterpoint is the other slave owner given prominence in the film, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). A godly man, clearly of a more genteel and passive nature whose benevolence and empathy seems to stretch only so far, leaving him conveniently blind to the horror of which he’s a part – his tepid kindliness serving, ultimately, only to make the dreadful predicament worse.

As strong as these supporting roles are, it is the central performances of Lupita Nyong’O as fellow slave Patsey and Ejiofor who bring this heart-breaking story to life.

It’s through Patsey, as much as any other character, in which we’re given real insight into the true hideous cruelty of this world. Subjected to the appalling whims and varying moods of ‘Master’ Epps Patsey is the representation of an entire race of people rendered devoid of help or hope.

As for Ejiofor, under the pitch-perfect direction of McQueen, this remarkable actor produces one of the singular most moving performances you’re likely to witness. It’s a stunning display of physical acting – a man forced into servitude, his every moment in bondage, threatened by violence, torn of dignity – represented by the changes to demeanour, posture and loquacity.

As one might expect, there’s violence – albeit only occasionally on screen. However, when it arrives, it does so with a harrowing, unflinching eye that, at times, can be hard to bear on the viewer. Ironically though, it’s not these punctuated moments of violence that sears the heart and wrings the disgust as much, oddly, as some of the more seemingly benign moments. Acts of supposed kindness serve only reinforce who is in charge while, chillingly often, the white folk simply don’t even notice the existence of the slaves, certainly not on any human level. Epps leans upon the head of a slave as though nothing more than garden gate while Paul Giamatti’s slave-trader sells his ‘stock’ like cattle at the farmers market. And in one astonishing scene we witness this nonchalance of life as the audience is forced to view Northup’s terrible suffering as normality continues on around him.

Make no mistake, this is a quite stunning film and McQueen delivers every scene through a careful eye and considered mind. No movement, no sound, no word is misplaced, wasted or without meaning. From Epp’s dripping saliva in one moment of brutality with Patsey to the desperate cries for help from Northup, calling out in the shadow of the Capitol building.

The end, when it comes, may appear as somewhat swift, somewhat out of the blue and without any great epic action – there’s no elaborate escape plan in operation here, for instance. But that is to reflect upon the way it did happen, the reflection of Northup’s oft times helpless (but no less strong) situation. A story which requires no additional drama and delivering, in its finale a moment of simplicity that will devastate your emotions.

Deconstructing Die Hard – A Christmas Classic

Deconstructing Die Hard – A Christmas Classic

There are certain things, certain traditions which we all have to get the seasonal festivities underway. For me, there’s the usual decking the halls, putting up the tree, munching upon my first mince pie of the season (mince pie season begins on December 1st – it’s the law!) and settling, in the warm twinkle of the fairy lights, to indulge in some seasonal cheer with the annual viewing of Die Hard.

DIE hard

A Very 80s Christmas Classic


Action movies with a blood soaked body count as high as the profanity levels are not necessarily viewed as traditional Christmas fare – the violence and swearing is kept to a minimum in Miracle on 34th Street, for example. But, dig beneath the surface of John McTiernan’s high octane genre defining thriller and you will discover a film laden in seasonal festivity.

The film clearly seems to be aware of itself as a Christmas movie both in nods to tradition and indeed theme. There is a history of watching films at Christmas which deal in disaster and peril, thrills and spills.
EarthquakeThe Towering Inferno

Die Hard was following very much in the footsteps of films that had long since become standard Christmas viewing – from The Great Escape to the disaster movies of the 70s such as Earthquake or, and here the comparison is at its most explicit, The Towering Inferno. Having the story unfold at Christmas merely reinforcing the fact that, among the holly, ivy and sentiment, many enjoy nothing more than some escapist fantasy at this time of the year.

The fact that the film takes place on Christmas Eve is a plot device that instantaneously allows for the subversive juxtaposition of traditional Christmas imagery and symbols with the growing threat of impending violence.

All in the Music

This is brilliantly conveyed throughout the movie by Michael Kamen’s music score which sets both mood and tempo, fusing the sorts of heavy booming orchestral sounds found in contemporary actioners from Commando to Robocop or even McTiernan’s previous film Predator, with the softening jingle of traditional Christmas music. The effect of this wonderful mix is that we are constantly being kept ‘in season’ and offered reassuring reminders that, for all the violence and peril, we shouldn’t really be taking all this too seriously. See for instance the sudden shift from threatening boom to upbeat and light-hearted upon the arrival of the villains, music that’s as redolent of Wile E Coyote or Tom & Jerry as it is to your standard action flick – an indication that, for all the blood and language, we’re really in the realm of a playful cat & mouse story.


Die Hard – In Keeping With Tradition?

There is also, thematically, something of a traditional Christmas tale taking place beneath the surface – associations to the season that crop up in many guises throughout the age of cinema. The film’s hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) may appear to be a million miles away from, for example, George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life, and in many ways of course, he is.

However, there are parallels which exist. Both find themselves somewhat alone, desperate and very much on the edge on Christmas Eve and, while personalities and circumstances are very different, both will ultimately prove heroic to the community in which they exist in the film and, more so, both find the familial reconciliation they were seeking throughout.

Christmas stories have always played upon the idea that it’s a time for reconciliation and reunion – a time to appreciate what you have and maybe, a time of new beginnings. This is true of George Bailey, of Ebeneezer Scrooge and it’s true of both John McClane and indeed, his CB radio talking side-kick Sgt Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson). McClane is estranged from his wife, Al is the father-to-be who’s lost his way (and his masculinity?) following a shooting in the line of duty – a man looking for, and indeed finding, a sense of redemption or re-birth amid the chaos of the film. Again, the leap back towards Dickens or Wonderful Life grows apparent.

One could even argue, in a more subversive way, that this is true of the villians – specfically of uber-villain Hans Gruber (the wonderful Alan Rickman).

Portrayed throughout as a sinister band of global terrorists it’s revealed to us {SPOILER} mid-way through the movie that they are in fact simply thieves out to steal a fortune. A revelation which seems to disgust McClane – the greed for money clearly a less noble pursuit than their mis-guided political activism. And isn’t Christmas always perceived as a little bit tainted when it becomes all about the money?


A Classic Christmas Comedy?

I’ve always seen DIE HARD as an action-comedy.

Never does the film take itself too seriously, never does it allow us the opportunity to do so – even when the violence is ramping up a notch.

Indeed, whenever the plot looks to be taking a more serious turn (McClane’s desperation, the killing of Takagi, Al’s monologue about shooting the boy) there is always an adjacent moment or set-piece which pierces the mood, reminding us that the director is keeping his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout.

Take for instance the moment the SWAT team arrive on the scene, armed to the teeth and hard as nails in their black, super-macho uniforms. SWAT teams, like those special forces boys and other ‘elite’ units, were a staple of those no-nonsense action films of the 80s. When they arrive, they mean business and are not taking any prisoners.

We see the unit, big guns at the ready, creeping through the hedgerows outside the building, like deadly ninjas moving in the shadows ready to launch their strike and ‘kick some serious ass’. As one of the faceless warriors moves through the hedgerow he catches his finger on a thorn – jumping and shaking his hand in pain.

And thus, all the machismo of the moment evaporates.

This is the beauty of Die Hard in one brief, easily missed, moment.Consistently it mocks the genre in which it is set, whilst simultaneously upholding the conventions. It’s mainstream film with an anti-establishment core. Authority figures gleefully ridiculed; we’re encouraged to laugh at FBI Agents Johnson & Johnson (no relation!) and their out-of-step sense of superiority, at the Police Captain who clearly doesn’t have a clue what’s going on or the slimy journalist who gets his comeuppance at the end.


New Action Hero

Let’s not also forget that this was the breakout movie for lead actor BRUCE WILLIS. Up until this point Willis was most famous for playing David Addison in the comedy detective TV show Moonlighting. And director McTiernan is clearly keen to let the spirit of Addison permeate through the movie as a device for both the character but, again, to allow the audience to go with the more self-mocking theme.

McClane is a tougher, more street-wise version of Addison and it is through him that we knowlingly wink at some of the more explicitly eyebrow raising conventions. We see this through his mocking self-commentary, the film’s version of addressing the camera which Addison used to do in Moonlighting.

Also however, in McClane we’re presented with a new style of hero versus others of the time. McClane is a reluctant hero, who doesn’t want to be fighting the bad guys and, while we see his undeniable bravery and heroism, we also see that he is vulnerable and far from indestructible. When he is hit or cut or bashed into a wall, he is hurt and we see this clearly. And rarely do we get the feeling that he is in full control – moreover that he is constantly having to think on his feet just to stay alive. Compare this to Lethal Weapon’s Riggs or the films of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, where you know they always have the upper-hand. In McClane you have the throw back to those heroes of the disaster movies of the 70s – of McQueen and Newman, Heston and Hackman.


Re-Defining its Genre

As much as I think it stands up as a comedy and indeed as a Christmas movie, it still has to be said that the film can be regarded as a quintessential film in the action genre.

As alluded to already, the film, through subtle parody, knowing winks to its heritage and characterisation, alters the direction that action films will take moving into the 90s.

Whilst the film takes something of an iconoclastic view of its contemporaries, it nevertheless reaches back into the pantheon of movie history, drawing on the traditions of old westerns. Gruber and his gang are as bandits from the ‘old west’ even if operating in the ‘new west’ while McClane is the lone gunslinger defending the isolated town (in this case the Nakatomi Building). The reference is, of course, explicit in the film – McClane calling himself Roy (as in Rogers) and as he shouts “Yippe kay-Ay Mother F@@ker” he is, essentially, melding the language of the old with that of the new (in Hollywood terms).

But, as fresh and as fun as the movie plays out, the genre conventions remain:

  • The slaying of the old leader (sheriff?) in Takagi creating a power vacuum that villain and hero fight over.
  • The main villain’s henchmen are ruthless but ultimately fodder for the hero, picked off one by one until the final shoot out.
  • The only other ‘innocent’ killed is the smarmy exec who, true to the in-built morality of these types of films, is punished for his sins. Before he pops off we see him snort cocaine, flirt with McClane’s wife, ultimately betray McClane and, in case we missed the drug thing earlier, is seen drinking COKE just before his demise. Not to mention the garishness of his minor wealth – the watch, fancy suit and general yuppiness, all of which were on the way to detestation by the late 80s.


Game Changing or One Off?

Undeniably, Die Hard represented a sea change in action films. And, through its success followed a succession of films that would use its blueprint – a trend that continues to this day.

Road House would follow shortly afterwards, another film about a reluctant hero and an even more explicit return to the spirit of an old western. Most obviously came Under Siege, the vastly inferior Segal film on a similar premise to Die Hard but ultimately fall flat because of the near indestructible nature of the hero.

Indeed, such was the epic qualities of the film, the fusing of its Christmas theme with the self effacing action heritage that little has come along in the 25 years since that has really compared. And that includes the numerous, ever deteriorating sequels that have come along.

Which is why, when considering the ideal film with which to get the festive cheer a fizzing, then by all means look at the beauty of Wonderful Life, the fun of Scrooged or A Christmas Carol, the warmth of White Christmas or the fun of Gremlins – but, for plenty of box ticking festivity, don’t discount Die Hard.

7 Classic Christmas Favourites

Digital Killed the Video Star

Digital Killed the Video Star

Blockbuster Video store will disappear from the UK high street on Monday of next week (16th December) as the administrators announced the closure of the 91 remaining stores.

It is, I suppose, an inevitable sign of the times.

Sky, Virgin, Xbox, Playstation, Lovefilm, Blinkbox, Netflix, iTunes and so many other digital and online suppliers now make it almost ridiculously easy to access just about any film or TV box set that you can think of; at the touch of a red button, in the comfort of your living room. All beamed in glorious 1080i HD directly to your big ole flat screen gogglebox, laptop, tablet or phone.

With all that access, why would anyone go to the video shop anymore?

Now, I’m not complaining about this you understand. Having virtually instant access to the films I want to watch is a positive thing as far as I’m concerned. And yet, I cannot help but feel a certain pang of sadness at the final demise of Blockbuster, marking, as it does, the end of the video era.

Video was epic.

The video rental store would become a cornerstone of popular culture. There was something cool about video stores – this place, this shop with row upon row of the films you longed to see, the films you’d heard about, the films you never knew existed. The TV constantly playing, usually above your head, hanging precariously by bracket, playing Ghostbusters or Goonies, distracting you from making a choice.

And how difficult was it to make a choice?

I could spend hours in my local shop trying to come to a decision. Staring at the walls, at the Top 20 wall, the new releases wall, the differing genres – comedy, drama, horror, family. Should I get a film I’d already seen and enjoyed in the cinema, or something completely new?

Decisions, decisions.

Of course, some things never change – the days of standing aimlessly in the video store may be over, merely replaced by the vacuous scrolling through the on-screen lists provided by Netflix or Sky, the night ebbing away without a film actually getting viewed.

The Golden Age of the Video

When it came into our lives it heralded an era of unprecedented change. At least, that’s how it felt at the time.

Video first arrived into my family in the early part of the 80s. It came in the form of a giant silver, rectangular box with a row of buttons along the top and the words FERGUSON imprinted on the side.

It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen.

A gadget that enabled you to record programmes off the television. Not only that, but you could pause those programmes and rewind and fast forward them as well – the way you could a cassette player.

Which is essentially what it was – a cassette player for the telly!

Imagine that?

Our machine was fab – I loved it from the moment it arrived in all its garish and heavy glory in our living room. I loved that when you pressed the eject button the compartment that held the video tapes would spring up in the manner of Arkwright’s till in the sitcom Open All Hours.

I helped set it up and, shortly afterwards, considered myself quite the expert upon its workings.

On that first morning I taped Tiswas while I continued to watch Multi-Coloured Swap Shop on BBC1. This was a revolutionary moment. Up until then I’d had to make a choice; usually this meant the first hour of Swap Shop, watching Noel’s introduction, the Tarzan cartoon they’d show, finding out where Keith ‘Cheggars’ Chegwin was on his travels that week, before changing channels at ten for the anarchy of Tiswas on ITV.

But not anymore. Now, thanks to the wonder of the video – I had the pleasure of both. My parents were thrilled.

Video changed everything.

Over Christmas I played with it as much as my new AT-AT Walker. Father Christmas even brought me some blank tapes of my own as an additional present. I taped as much television as I could, patiently tolerated by my parents. On Christmas Day alone I taped the Worzel Gummidge Christmas Special, The Muppet Movie and Dr No, even recording the Queen’s Speech that preceded the big Bond movie, much to the delight and amazement of Nan and Bampy, who’d come down from Rumney to stay with us over the holidays. Even the smallest advances in technology were enough to bring sighs of wonderment from Nan, so such a radical invention as the video recorder had her clicking her false teeth in astonishment.

I was diligent in my video use, strict in my cataloguing of all the taped programmes, bringing in a system of numbering each cassette with the sticky numbers provided then keeping a record of what was on each number in a small A5 notepad.

The system lasted about a week.

Nasty Videos for nasty times?

The birth of the video era was quite a thing indeed – but it wasn’t all joy and jollity.

Rumour was growing that this new technology might be a weapon of more sinister design. A tool of corruption and seediness; even, perhaps, a gateway to depravity and moral decline.

In fact, as the guardians of all that is moral and right, the tabloid newspapers, informed that we were all in grave peril of our souls being tainted by the rise of the VIDEO NASTY.

Video nasty is a term, much like Frankie Say Relax, laced through with pure 80s. A term we became all too aware of as the opportunity to watch movies at home grew in prominence. A term which, in fact grew in conjunction with the rise of the video rental store.

My first experience of these new, somewhat at odds, phenomena came via my dad who revealed that there was a new place down on Cathays Terrace where you could go and rent films to bring home to watch. Films that hadn’t been shown on the TV before. New films. Or at least, nearly new films.

We made a trip to this new shop, a family outing to this wondrous new grotto. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Every wall was covered from ceiling to floor with row upon row of every film imaginable. Surely this spelled the end for The Monico, the Plaza, the Odeon – all the places I loved to visit. As it happened, video itself was soon to be under attack because of the sudden availability of many of these film titles.

I scanned the walls of the shop in awe that day, reading titles and looking at cassette covers that were thrillingly gory and disgusting and scary, even if you were older than eight years old. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Driller Killer, I Spit on your Grave, Zombie Flesh Eaters. And I thought Raiders of the Lost Ark had been terrifying. Mum and Dad were soon ushering me away from there, thrusting a copy of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo into my hands before bundling me back to the car.

I don’t recall ever going back.

Somehow, everybody in school had learnt of the existence of these films. One of my best friends who had a brother and sister, both well into their teens, had even seen them. Rumours abounded about what horrors they contained.

“Apparently a woman is put on a hook and then sliced up,” was the prevailing rumour about Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Most laughed and said how much they wanted to see it. I remained quiet on the subject. I didn’t like being scared.

Soon the powers that be joined forces with the powers that wanted to be and cast moral judgements down from their lofty positions of correctness. The Video Recordings Act of 1984 was passed and swathes of films were cut from shelves, confined to the naughty step of the banned video list.

To defend the action to a small degree – video was still in its infancy and as is often the case, was something of an unregulated domain. As such, films of low budget and lower quality came onto the market via the new ‘straight-to-video’ distribution (i.e. without getting a cinema release or classification) – films, in many instances, designed only to shock. If they’d been banned on the grounds that they were dreadful, we would perhaps have understood a bit more.

As it was though, any film that delved into more troublesome terrain of sex and violence, gore and general horror, found itself cast into the abyss (the void, as opposed to the film). The Exorcist, Clockwork Orange, Texas Chainsaw et al all became these mystical movies whose legend and notoriety grew with every passing year out of view.


That first trip to the video store on Cathays Terrace was the start of a love affair with the video store that would end, quite literally, with a more traditional type of love affair.

My wife used to work in the video store on Caerphilly cross-roads, where Rhiwbina kisses Llanishen delicately on the cheek.

It was where she worked when we first started going out back in 1997.  In fact I picked her up from there, at the end of her shift, to go out on our first date. I arrived early, hung around in the shop, watching Top Gun on the TV as she got rid of the late night pervs trying to discretely rent their Saturday porn. I helped her lock up, pull the shutters down and off we went in my little Ford Fiesta to catch last orders at the Traveller’s Rest.

It was all very John Hughes.

Within 3 years we were married, the big day recorded for posterity on video. Trouble is, we no longer have a player to watch it on.




The Monico – A Cinema

The Monico – A Cinema

I remember.

Dark Fridays in November, when night would begin before day had a chance to properly end. When the air was cold and damp and light mist drifted along Pantbach Road, caressing the rooftops of the parked cars, swirling in arcs of light from the streetlamps. Friday nights when the queue would wind its way around the front of the large looming, yellow rendered picture house, disappearing into the darkness of the car park on Ty-Wern Road. Family treats – adults and children, husbands and wives, boyfriend, girlfriend, nervous young lovers in the first throes of awkward adolescent romance. Sombrely attired pensioners, silently judging the younger crowd.

Familiar faces. The woman with the earrings in the claustrophobic ticket booth, her bottom half forever hidden beneath the counter. The woman in the tuck-shop, her back always half turned, reaching for sweets or drinks. Mr Monico himself, standing at the back of the foyer, a bespectacled observer, immaculate in navy blazer and grey trousers, matching the neatly trimmed beard and receding hairline; his shadow crawling up the blue-grey wall, sandwiched between glass framed posters for ET and Rocky III. A man of severity, intolerant of those whose mischief threatened the wider audience’s pleasure .

We huddled, slowly moving, shifting patiently towards the small kiosk at the entrance to the foyer. Handing over money without thought for an evening’s entertainment – a ticket for the film and a box of something sweet. A drink – 7-Up or Coke or maybe a tub of orange cordial with the bendy straw that would spew juice as it pierced the plastic lid. Inching through the small and crowded foyer, adults holding children’s hands in the growing crowd of limbs and overcoats. A general murmur of clipped conversations as all headed towards the stairs; darkly lit and winding away from the hubbub below.That was the Monico.

Two screens, two theatres. Proudly boasting its use of Dolby Stereo. Cinema 1 – the original auditorium, bigger than its newer, more intimate counterpart. Soft lighting and an aura of red. The heavy velvet curtain at the front, draped from ceiling to stage. The piano to the left that harked back to an older, more silent age. Two tiers of deep red, soft cushioned seats, faded and worn by generations of backsides. Dust and nicotine tinged smoke drifting up into the spotlights as the theatre would slowly fill and settle. Underfoot the carpet, hidden in the darkness, detected only by its sticky grip from fallen popcorn and pastilles.

No matter the film, the feeling always the same. Anticipation and excitement that grew with the bobbing heads and swaying shoulders, with the elbows that rubbed on reluctantly shared arm rests; while the curtain slowly raised, the huge screen tantalisingly revealed. It was the knowing. The knowing of what would follow. The same old comforting rituals of commencement. A shaft of dusty light overhead firing from the small window at the back of the theatre, the screen before us turning blue, a black splodge within. The music starting and faint white writing appearing, moving closer in a wonderful, ludicrous, 20 second fanfare of our childhood.

Pearl & Dean, purveyors of cheap local advertising. Poorly scripted, badly filmed, jumping and skipping grainy images to entice us to the local Indian restaurant, travel agent, tyre repair specialists. To remind us of the treats in the foyer, Westlers Hot Dogs, cowboys and Indians informing us all of bite after bite after bite of processed pleasure; or Butterkist popcorn with its cheerleading chant:“Butterkist, Butterkist, rah, rah, rah.”

And then the trailers. The teasers of films to come – as exciting as the main event itself. A glimpse into the future. A source of conjecture and anticipation.

“I’ve got to see that.”

I remember these nights and the many films. The screen fading, the theatre dimming to black, the hushed silence or the whoops of over-stimulated teens. The whirr of the projector, the BBFC classification page, wobbly on the screen and then…

Star Wars, Grease, ET or Indiana Jones. Sci-fi or comedy, action, romance. James Bond or Crocodile Dundee.

That was the Monico. Rainy school holidays watching Disney’s latest fairytale. Visits with mum, with dad, with friends, with cousins. Later, with girls. That was Saturday morning cinema club. An onslaught of local kids, dropped off on wet weekend mornings; minors hopped up on e-numbered treats, entrusted to the care of Mr Monico and the cheery patience of Uncle Ian, the good-natured moustachioed host with the thankless task of containing and entertaining armed only with scratched copies of old Flash Gordon episodes and the delights of the Children’s Film Council – Calamity Cow or Anoop the Elephant. Being called onto the stage to a chorus of cheers and jeers if it was your birthday. Little kids standing somewhere between proud and shell-shocked with their 10 Today badges pinned to their jumpers while Uncle Ian tried to lead a tone-deaf rendition of Happy Birthday that could make or break your big day.

The lights of the projector dimmed for the final time in 2003; another independent cinema wilting and ultimately dying from the might of the multiplex. Ten and twelve theatre behemoths sucking the life from the smaller sites.  In its place a block of inoffensive but largely uninspired apartments – we used to call them flats.

I’m as guilty for its demise as anyone else. As numbers dwindled and the breeze became more pronounced through the fire exits; as the yellow stuffing forced its way through the stitching of the worn red seats, I, like most other regular cinema goers, finally succumbed to the comfort and variety of the large cinemas down at Cardiff Bay and Nantgarw. The Monico’s time had past. And yet its passing left a void. Bulldozers rolled sadly in and the walls finally crumbled, leaving in its wake a poignant void as another monument to my youth disappeared, fading into a foggy past.

That was the Monico

A cinema.

Snakes…Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

Snakes…Why Did It Have To Be Snakes?

“Asps! Very Dangerous. You Go First.”
Sallah, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

I am, in many ways, a lot like Indiana Jones.

For instance, we both like hats whilst we both dislike Nazis. And, given that Dr Jones is an archaeologist, I’d imagine that he shares my interest in history.


Ok, so it’s been a while since I last had to outrun any giant boulders or fight off an entire truck load of Wehrmacht Commandos. And, to be honest with you, I’ve never been in the presence of demonic spirits with a penchant for melting faces.

But still.

There is one particular facet of our make up in which Indy and I are entirely on the same page however. I refer, of course, to snakes.

Snakes, and just typing the word gives me more than a small dose of the heebie-jeebies, are frankly terrifying. To see one on the television, within the pages of a book, or even mentioned as part of a story, sends me rigid with fevered terror.

Quite recently, as my wife and I took our kids to the opening viewing of the new Percy Jackson film in the cinema, did this chilling phobia rear its ugly head as I found myself shivering and having to look away from the screen at the sight of two tiny talking, clearly animated, snakes on the big screen before me.

Yes, you heard me correctly – I’m even scared of animated asps.

And, when you have such a phobia, it’s really quite amazing how often you begin to encounter them, in one way or another. They crop up all the time – particularly when you have a couple of sons in the house. Sons who absolutely love Steve bloody Backshall and his ‘Deadly Sixty’ programme.

Actually, this is a really good show – for the most part. Backshall and his crew (a sort of British version of the late Steve Irwin) are pretty amazing at getting up close to some of the most astonishing animals on the planet – his encounter with a Blue Whale is something to behold. But, given the nature of the show, invariably he will get around to introducing us all to yet another breed of snake for which he will delightedly inform us is capable of killing you about 300 times before you’ve had a chance to say ‘SN…!’

At which point I have to take my leave, asking the kids to let me know when the Hippos are on – Hippos are brilliant, and really ferocious.

In many respects, Indiana Jones plays a role in my fears – the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as he looks down into the Well of Souls, the ever observant Sallah asking:

‘Why does the floor move?’

It was, for the eight year old version of me, watching the film in the Monico for a school friend’s birthday party back in 1981, a prolonged scene of horror that would stay with me forever. I’d describe the scene were it not for the fact that I’d likely faint as I attempted to type it out.

But, while this was a contributor to my fear, it wasn’t the trigger.

That honour goes, fairly and squarely, to Tales of the Unexpected.

It was a Saturday night, about a year or so before the Raiders viewing, staying with my Nan and Bampy for the evening and biding my time until Match of the Day. Nan and Bampy were really lenient with the bed time rules and we (my brother and I) were often allowed to stay up way past our normal time. They also let me eat cornflakes at night, not even worrying about the amount of sugar I heaped onto them.

Nan and Bampy were ace.

I never really liked Tales of the Unexpected, probably because I was only seven at the time and the show really wasn’t aimed at me, although I did like the theme tune. This particular episode featured a man lying in bed, waking up to discover that a poisonous snake was resting on top of him. He couldn’t move and had to play a waiting game for someone to come and hopefully rescue him. I can’t remember the outcome, although I don’t think it was a particularly happy ending, but I do remember the abject horror that flowed into me that night – never to be exorcised. Imagine, having to stay absolutely still as this slithery, dead eyed, legless beast lay atop you, waiting to pounce and…do you know, I rather feel that there may be some double meaning going on here to which the seven year old version of me was unaware. I’d dwell more on it if I could. Unfortunately, I’ve gone rather rigid and unnecessary with fear – fear of a thirty year old TV episode from the creator of Charlie & the Chocolate Factory.

I’m not proud.

The owner of this website is a participant in the Amazon EU Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising programme designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to
Home Privacy Policy Terms Of Use Contact Us Affiliate Disclosure