© Paramount Pictures
At some point during my formative years I realised I was obsessed with films. Unfortunately, my formative years occurred at a time when being a film obsessive was expensive.
It meant shelling out money to see the things at the cinema or, a little way into the 1980s, rent them from the video-shop – the alternative was waiting for what seemed like 25 years before they turned up on one of the UK’s four terrestrial TV channels. But it also meant paying serious money for film magazines to get background information about them.
Actually, from the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s I must have spent an amount equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of some developing-world countries on film magazines. At one time or other I was purchasing Cinefantastique, Cinema, Empire, Fangoria, Fantastic Films, House of Hammer, Monster Mag, the Monthly Film Bulletin, Premiere, Sight and Sound, Starburst, Starlog, Stills and Total Film.
How different it is today. Thanks to the Internet, a million websites devoted to movies old and new are available at a click of the mouse or a tap on the touch-pad; and most of them are free to read. The magazines above – at least, the ones that’ve survived to the present day – have their own sites but many more movie-websites are creations of the Internet era alone. Here are a few of my favourites.
© DEFA / BBC
According to its blurb 366 Weird Movies is a site dedicated to “the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!” Hence, it provides articles on everything from 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild to 1955’s Night of the Hunter, from 1990’s The Reflecting Skin to 1973’s O Lucky Man! Covered here is work by all the cinematic mavericks you’d expect, like David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell and Lars von Trier.
One reason why I’m kindly disposed towards this website is because I’m quoted on it. At the bottom of each film-entry is a What the Critics Say section and my thoughts have been published about, of all things, The Singing Ringing Tree – the freaky 1957 East German fairy-tale movie that was chopped into episodes and broadcast as a children’s TV series by the BBC. Of which I wrote (originally on this blog): “for pure weirdness you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree… (It) resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch.”
© Sol Lesser Productions / RKO
More weirdness appears at Atonal Cinema for Zombies, which focuses on ‘strange black and white American films’ from the 1930s to 1960s. It gives brief but droll accounts of items like Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), Teenage Doll (1957), The Maze (1953), I Married a Witch (1942) and Island of Doomed Men (1940), i.e. all those monochrome movies that long ago would be broadcast on TV as filler for the then-graveyard-slots of the late morning, mid-afternoon and late-evening; movies that, even when I saw them as a kid, I found memorably odd.
Meanwhile, the splendidly-titled Jollygood Babylon looks at old British movies. And not the ones that get celebrated in expensive coffee-table tomes about the history of the British film industry. It deals with British exploitation movies of yore – all those cheap, unsavoury crime, horror, sex and sex-comedy movies that respectable British critics at the time liked to pretend didn’t exist. Thus, you get entries on the gloriously tacky likes of 1982’s Xtro (killer aliens, killer toys, slime, sleaze), 1971’s Revenge (child murders, vigilantism, Joan Collins in her underwear) and 1970’s Groupie Girl (swinging London, drugs, foursomes, decadent rock ‘n’ roll bands with names like Orange Butterfly whose music actually sounds more like “Brotherhood of Man than Led Zeppelin”).
Over the decades, horror movies have formed much of the British film industry’s output. For coverage of older examples of these, i.e. from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, check out British Horror Films. Alas, this site has been inactive for a few years and its extensive film-review section has become harder to access, although the following link should get you there:
The site’s creator Chris Wood tackles his subject matter with a fond but faintly mocking tone. Thus, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1970) gets the endorsement, “Brush up on ‘O’ Level English and watch some extreme violence at the same time” (which were certainly the reasons why I watched it as a teenager); whereas Nicholas Roeg’s much-praised Don’t Look Now (1973) is brought down a peg or two by the observation, “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”
© British Lion Films
For modern British horror movies – products of a boom that began in the late 1990s and continues to the present, helped immeasurably by indie filmmakers churning out movies that bypass the cinema-screen and reach an audience via DVD and Video on Demand – look no further than the blog M.J. Simpson: Film Reviews and Interviews.
I don’t agree with all of M.J. Simpson’s opinions – there’s a hint of reverse-snobbery that makes him uncomfortable with anything mainstream, big-budget, critically-acclaimed or directed by Ben Wheatley – but I admire his courage, strength and indefatigability when it comes to reviewing just about everything that appears, no matter how obscure, cheap, nasty or bizarre. We’re talking items like Devil Dog Shuck Returns (2016), Killer/Saurus (2015), Fluid Boy (2015) and Where Seagulls Cry a Song (2010). Never heard of those? Don’t worry, neither had I. With his ‘someone made it, so someone ought to watch it’ ethic, Simpson is to modern British horror films what the late John Peel was to alternative music, and there’s no higher compliment than that.
© 88 Films
Now from Britain to Italy, home to two of my favourite movie sub-genres. If you admire the way the Italians reinvented the western, that most American of film-forms, in the 1960s – introducing squinty-eyed heroes, bearded villains, monosyllabic dialogue, shonky dubbing, operatic violence, Catholicism, cigar butts, ponchos, twangy musical scores and the landscapes of Andalusia and Lazio pretending to be the US / Mexican border – then The Spaghetti Western Database is for you.
I don’t know how many films’ details are stored here, but there are a lot; running from 1910 to 2009, with an obvious glut around the glory years of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Productions are listed not just from Italy but also from Spain, Germany, France and Turkey. British-made Westerns don’t count as spaghetti westerns, though, so there’s no mention of Carry On Cowboy (1965).
The Giallo Files, on the other hand, is an invaluable guide to the Italian horror / thriller form known as giallo – Italian for ‘yellow’, after the colour of the pulp crime paperbacks that were once popular in the country. The site helpfully defines what constitutes a giallo, narrowing it down to four essentials: being European, being stylish, having (preferably multiple) murders and being mysterious. “In a giallo, the killer may be a deranged psycho with or without a motive, but his identity is kept a mystery until the end of the movie.”
There’s also a helpful checklist of things common to giallo movies: ‘murders’, ‘attempted murders’, ‘fake murders’, ‘inept police’, ‘main character in a creative profession’, ‘scene in a cemetery’, ‘bad 1970s art’ (“Apartment and houses in gialli are usually decorated with awful, amateurish abstract art”), ‘spiral staircase’ (“Maybe they symbolise the twisting plot… Maybe they’re just cool”), ‘red phone’ (“I don’t know why this is a thing but it is”) and J & B Whisky (“The drink of choice for giallo characters”).
Back to horror films now. A general site about scary cinema that I like is Brutal as Hell which, despite its in-your-face title, manages to be intelligent, thoughtful and balanced. It tries to review new releases, no matter how gruelling they are, with an open mind; whilst treating old movies (which are usually reviewed when they come out on Blu-ray) with respect and affection. Mind you, from what I can tell about the site’s contributors, they’re all young enough to qualify as being my offspring. And when they grumble, occasionally, about the undemanding horror-movie tastes of ‘kids today’, I feel really old.
© Kadokawa Pictures
And finally, my favourite movie website at the moment. To get to Breakfast in the Ruins you first have to navigate a Content Warning by Google, which is nonsensical. You’ll see the odd bare boob or splash of blood there (usually from some 1970s schlock-fest that’s tame by today’s standards); but I’ve viewed far worse on more mainstream movie websites.
A skim down the site’s sidebar shows what sort of films are featured heavily. For instance, you get German krimi movies, 1960s crime thrillers based on or inspired by the writings of Edgar Wallace. You get Japanese pinky violence movies, 1970s action films emphasising sex as well as violence but with tough female characters. You get Japanese movies about Zatoichi, the fictional blind swordsman who made his first cinematic appearance in 1962. You get movies from the Spanish director Jess Franco, who made all sorts of weird and wonderful (and admittedly sometimes terrible) stuff at an industrial rate. You get movies from the French director Jean Rollin, who, though his filmography contains about 60 titles, was only a fraction as prolific as Franco.
This eclecticism and internationalism are what make the site so enjoyable. I check it practically every day in the hope that something new and fascinating has been posted.