Looking back at the BBC’s Moviedrome

News Ryan Lambie 21 Apr 2011 - 04:15
Moviedrome

Ryan salutes the BBC2 series Moviedrome, which for 12 years introduced a plethora of cult films to unsuspecting UK audiences…

For better or worse, I have Alex Cox to thank for my enduring appetite for film. In the late 80s and early 90s, when I was still at school and the Internet was still the preserve of the rich and the US military, the BBC2 series Moviedrome introduced me, and I suspect a legion of other impressionable youngsters, into the fascinating alternate world of obscure or low-budget movies.

Beginning in 1988, director Alex Cox introduced a series of cult and exploitation movies, commencing with Robin Hardy's folk horror, The Wicker Man. Before long, Sunday nights became an oasis of the weird and the sensational, and as a youth still watching cartoons like Transformers and Thundercats, films like Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and The Fly seemed like startling broadcasts from another universe.

I still remember watching Roger Corman's 1963 sci-fi horror, The Man With X-Ray Eyes with rapt fascination, and in spite of its noticeably cheesy special effects, I found its story of a scientist and his increasingly weird view of reality absolutely riveting.

Aside from the occasional brilliance of the films themselves, it was frequently Alex Cox's lively introductions that were most interesting. A film director himself, responsible for such films as Repo Man and Sid & Nancy, Cox's introductions were full of enthusiastically delivered information, much of which, in the pre-IMDb days of the late 80s, was absolutely invaluable.

In his introduction to Halloween, for example, Cox placed the film in the context of John Carpenter's later work, none of which I'd seen at the time. Having had the wits frightened out of me by Halloween, I took careful note of Carpenter's other films, which at that point, and scanned the television schedules for them with eager eyes.

It was Cox who got me acquainted with the unique films of David Cronenberg, and I'll never forget the evening in 1992 when I settled down to the startlingly dark, gory and subversive Rabid.

Cox's introduction to Rabid brilliantly exemplifies his personal, admirably opinionated style of presenting. Boldly (and rightly, I'd argue) describing Cronenberg as the "master practitioner of horror" and ranking the director above Wes Craven, Todd Browning, Mario Bava, John Carpenter and James Whale in terms of sheer talent.

"Of the above mentioned, only Argento has as thoroughly thought out a world view and consistent take on vicious horror lurking behind mundane things," Cox pronounced. "But while Argento is preoccupied by a rather infantile misogyny of the De Palma brand, and like De Palma, makes ultimately boring films, Cronenberg transcends misogyny and misanthropy."

It was this unapologetically subjective viewpoint on cinema in general that made Cox's introductions so fascinating and unpredictable, and he wouldn't pull any punches if he didn't particularly like the film screening that night. [Thanks to reader MaxRenn for pointing out that it was a BBC producer who chose Moviedrome's films.]

"Just because a film has become a cult movie does not automatically guarantee quality," Cox said in his first ever Moviedrome presentation. "Some are very bad; others are very, very good."

Cox was also insightful enough to tell you things you probably wouldn't have found out by simply looking the film up in a movie encyclopedia. In the preamble to Race With The Devil, the endearingly daft occult thriller that Kevin Smith has since cited as an influence for Red State, Cox pointed out the absurd irony of casting a well-known gun enthusiast like Peter Fonda in the role of an anti-gun pacifist called Roger.

"Fonda was a renowned gun freak, whose armoury of people killing devices was reputed to rival the armouries of the duke, Elvis Presley and John Wayne," Cox said. "All of which adds to the piquancy of this bizarre and frightening film."

That you could never guess just what Cox would introduce next merely added to the excitement each instalment of Moviedrome could bring. One week you could be watching a spaghetti western like The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the next you might be sitting through George Lucas' unforgettably eerie pre-Star Wars sci-fi classic, THX 1138.

In some instances, Moviedrome managed to find films that, as far as I'm aware, weren't even available on VHS in the UK at the time. At any rate, I would never have heard of Herk Harvey's stunning, unforgettably atmospheric 1962 chiller, Carnival Of Souls, which still stands as one of my all-time favourite genre films.

After six glorious years of weird and wonderful films, opinion and trivia, Alex Cox handed over the Moviedrome presenting reins to the well-meaning but less engaging Mark Cousins in 1994. Moviedrome continued to select some fascinating, individual films, though, from 50s B-movies such as Fiend Without A Face to splashy 80s epic, Scarface.

From its debut in 1988 to its cancellation in 2000, Moviedrome constantly brought obscure and underappreciated films to a new audience, and there's never been anything quite like it on television since. I can only compare it to the feeling of being in a tiny film appreciation club, with every week expanding your knowledge and enjoyment of cinema by a tiny margin. The closest analogy I can make is with Joe Dante's brilliant site, Trailers From Hell, which offers a treasure trove of commentary on obscure movies.

The ubiquitous flow of information provided by the Internet may have rendered the trivia of Moviedrome obsolete, but I still miss its infectious enthusiasm and aggressively personal appreciation of film watching, and few commentators expressed their love for the obscure and the forgotten as engagingly as Alex Cox.

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