Here is the transcript for Darrell Buxton’s introduction to our double bill of Straight to Video classics Ghost Town and Maximum Overdrive. Next up on Fright Club is our annual horror allnighter Dead and Breakfast VII on Halloween itself – Tickets are on sale here
Hello and welcome to QUAD for tonight’s special double bill as part of the nationwide Scalarama celebration of cult cinema, taking place throughout September.
Tonight we’re bringing the small screen to the big screen. Last year at QUAD we staged a VHS night, setting up our own version of an old-style videocassette rental store and screening the exciting Canadian thriller SIEGE directly from a VHS tape. We’ve left the tapes at home this evening, but the spirit is very much the same, as our programme is made up of two titles that typify the label ‘straight to video’, with Stephen King’s MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE and the Charles Band production GHOST TOWN.
Video rental was enormous in Britain. It’s hard to believe nowadays, but here in the U.K. everyone seemed to stop going out to the cinema during the late seventies, and by the mid-80s it was often only nutters and obsessives – I’m raising my hand here – who found ourselves among scattered handfuls of fellow enthusiasts at theatrical screenings.
The general public must have been put off by a variety of factors – high ticket prices, run-down and poorly-maintained facilities, expensive popcorn and Kia-Ora.
Or perhaps the very act of having to haul yourself off a comfortable sofa only to find yourself in a dodgy part of town at an unhealthy hour. But it certainly wasn’t the films themselves, or the act of watching them, that drove audiences away. For the emergence of home video caught on like wildfire over here, probably more so than it did in any other country in the world.
In the very early days of video frenzy, a strange and unexpected situation occurred. Promised the chance to take home cassettes containing movies, we film fans circa 1980/1981 thought we’d be getting a selection of recent Hollywood cinema hits to play in our living rooms. It didn’t quite work out that way. Many of the major studios were initially reluctant to let their big screen successes out on video, most notably Warner Brothers who took some considerable time before entering the marketplace. This left the way clear for a great British tradition – the ‘Del Boy’, the fly-by-night entrepreneur. Small and often dodgy video labels sprang up in their dozens, literally overnight, releasing anything they could get their hands on, which is why the early rental stores’ shelves were crammed with violent European cop thrillers and horror films, American pornography, cheap STAR WARS imitations, and thousands more titles you’d never heard of.
As the eighties progressed – and for once I’ll skip over territory such as the video nasties panic, censorship, and so on – other factors began to affect the home entertainment business. By this point the majors had seen the light and were releasing all of their top product, largely as a response to the enormous and profitable black market in bootleg tapes – it seemed that everyone had a mythical ‘mate at work’ who could get them a pirate copy of E.T. or the Rambo films. In 1989 a major development was announced. The Dustin Hoffman/Tom Cruise smash, RAIN MAN, was to be made available for sale on VHS, not at the standard trade prices of £70 or so charged to rental outlets, but for about £14 in high street shops! This caused all kinds of seismic shifts, and where previously the O.C.D. types among us had made do by collecting coins, stamps, comics or records, suddenly we could collect films!
Despite the surge in accessible blockbuster movies, the video markets – both traditional £2 per night rental, or this new arrangement where you could buy tapes from Woolworths or W.H. Smith’s to keep for ever, which became commonly known as ‘sell-thru’ – were still so hugely popular in Britain that suppliers could barely keep up with demand. Hence the area we’re celebrating tonight – the ‘straight to video’ release. The phrase “direct to video” did quickly take on negative connotations – even if no-one here was going to the cinema anymore, they still remembered that their parents and grandparents had done, and the ingrained tradition remained part of a collective memory. So, if a film was being released on video, but hadn’t been shown in cinemas, well surely it must be a load of old rubbish, no? This was the general consensus, and to be fair much of the stuff put out straight on to tape didn’t exactly challenge that view. However, a whole new breed of young movie critic, and a certain layer of discerning film fandom, began to sift through the VHS bins and soon realised that there were diamonds to be found. It was not dissimilar to cinema patrons going along to see double bills in the 60s or 70s, paying their money to see the new Clint Eastwood or Burt Reynolds offering, but finding to their surprise that the low-budget western, action picture, comedy or shocker shown alongside the main feature was occasionally pretty damn good too.
So tonight we hope that we’ve picked out two sparkling ‘straight to video’ offerings for you. I think our programme absolutely typifies the term – both films were released on tape only in the U.K., bypassing theatres, and yet both are of sufficient interest to have possibly pulled in an audience had they been shown theatrically. MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is the better-known and more notorious of the pair – multi-million-selling horror novelist Stephen King was one of the pop culture heroes of the day, and his career had been done no harm by a succession of film adaptations of his work, including Brian de Palma’s CARRIE, John Carpenter’s CHRISTINE, Lewis Teague’s CUJO, David Cronenberg’s THE DEAD ZONE, and Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING.
So it seemed inevitable that King himself would be given the opportunity to make his own movie. His inexperience really shows in MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE, you can tell it’s the work of an enthusiastic horror film fan rather than a professional director, but you can’t go too far wrong by making a flick about killer machinery and haulage coming to sentient life, and director King was canny enough to realise that even if your movie isn’t turning out quite the way you want it to, you can paper over the cracks by throwing a few incendiary AC/DC numbers on to the soundtrack.
Younger film fans may think of Willem Dafoe when they hear the name ‘Green Goblin’, but for anyone over 35 it’s likely to be MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE which comes to mind first. Perhaps fortunately, Stephen King hasn’t directed again – but I for one am glad he had a go. MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE was based on his 1973 own short story ‘Trucks’, and Stephen himself describes it as “a moron movie”, also claiming that he was coked out of his mind when he made it. Should you be desperate for more after you’ve seen it, I can tell you that a 1997 made-for-tv remake of the story, this time actually called TRUCKS, directed by Chris Thomson and starring Timothy Busfield, is worth a look if it ever turns up on late-night telly.
If MAXIMUM OVERDRIVE is designed to appeal to the six-pack chugging side of your personality, then perhaps GHOST TOWN might exercise your brain cells a little more. Released on video in 1988, GHOST TOWN is a fine example of the horror western, and is a well above average offering from Charles Band’s prolific Empire Pictures. Band has been churning out video and DVD winners and establishing several key franchises for four decades, including the PUPPETMASTER series, the GHOULIES films, the DOLLMAN and DEMONIC TOYS movies including DOLLMAN VS DEMONIC TOYS, the TRANCERS saga, and the terrific early work of Stuart Gordon Including RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND. Empire folded soon after the release of GHOST TOWN but Band soon made a comeback with the even more successful Full Moon label.
GHOST TOWN is an extremely effective spooker, which might be surprising given the project’s torturous production history. Credited director ‘Richard Governor’ apparently doesn’t exist – it’s believed that an unnamed Australian director was appointed to the movie, and had to work under a pseudonym as this was a non-union shoot. The mysterious Aussie is then said to have diverted wildly from the script and started making up his own ideas on the spot, leading to him being sacked and replaced by the film’s experienced cameraman Mac Ahlberg. It’s also believed that the movie was never properly finished and that the released version is an incomplete workprint. Don’t let this spoil your enjoyment, though – GHOST TOWN is a super little picture, deftly lacing shocks into its standard western setting and emerging as one of the very best offerings from Empire. Tonight you’ll join what must only be a tiny handful of viewers who have managed to see this one on a big screen, but I think you’ll find its cowboy trappings adapt well to the cinema.
So it’s time to pretend you’re sitting in a giant version of your living room, reach for that imaginary VCR remote control unit, switch on, and enjoy our direct-to-video programme. You don’t have to adjust the tracking, or rewind at the end, and there are no additional rental fees for late return. Back to the eighties!
For more Stephen King goodness, don’t miss Pet Sematary on Saturday 21st November at QUAD. Tickets here.