Thursday, 14 June 2012

The Place Over The Market: My Early Adventures In Horror VHS


My initiation into the ranks of underaged horror fans began around the age of 12, thanks to me being cheeky enough to try and buy cheap horror films from dodgy market stalls. There were two within close proximity to each other; One outdoors between the Castle and Sheaf markets in my hometown of Sheffield (years before the Sheaf was demolished), and one in a far scarier place – the upstairs 'speciality' shops over one side of the Castle market.

Those shops were a strange netherworld to me. They were dank and dirty, tacky and dilapidated, but teeming with charm (and probably TB as well). Along the walkway once you had braved the filth-ridden staircase outside the market's main entrance, you were greeted by the smell of piss from the path itself and the musty air of places which had been left behind by the passage of time.

One large place housed four or five small stalls selling records, stamps, books and magazines. That was an early hunting ground for cheap metal vinyl for my burgeoning rock and metal fixation, but it was a couple of doors down from there, at the video shop run by a lady with questionable morals (or who just didn't care), where my imagination really took flight.


I can't remember what the place was called, or even if it actually had a name over its door, but I do remember the racks of ex-rental video tapes at 1.99 each, and their gaudy covers and titles. The first two tapes I bought from there were to build on my limited experience with genre film at the time (Elm Street 3 and Day of the Dead were very early titles my impressionable mind was exposed to) were the schlocky comedy-horror sequel Return Of The Living Dead Part 2 and martial arts b-movie cheese masterpiece China O'Brien. Not the best films ever made, but they were magical to me.

You may pass judgement on a child being able to watch adult themed movies at such a young age, but those films were clearly fantasy (be they horror, action, sci-fi or otherwise), and light-years away from the torture porn which calls itself horror right now. The horror films I watched at that age had a sense of humour and real atmosphere, and it was very clear to me that it was all pretend. My childhood fascination with special effects may have had something to do with it, as by the time I saw horrific gore scenes, I could pick out how each one had been done, which was absolutely fascinating to a kid.

Did my mother approve? Not really, but as long as I knew these films weren't real, then she tolerated it. I watched a ridiculous amount of horror between 12-13, and I am yet to become a serial killer (no matter how tempting it may become during dayjob hours sometimes).


The videos themselves seemed huge to me back then, such was the size of the large format clamshell boxes in my young hands, and there was an atmosphere to the place which made those tapes seem taboo, dangerous, exciting. That was the allure of horror movies and the action films of the era, and it is an allure which still drives me to seek out more of them from those days. There is definitely an element of nostalgia for me and my quest, but there is also the point that if I don't rescue these films, then they may be thrown away and lost forever.

There was something grimy and seedy about the shops on that upper level, a little dangerous and a little scary, thanks to the gangs and drunks who would hang around at either end of that level and the strange people who both worked in those places and frequented them. That was my own version of the famous Grindhouse cinemas over in the USA. This was my 42nd street. Awful yet exhilarating.

Passing by the place on a recent visit back to my home town, all traces of those shops are long gone, erased in the council's slow, ponderous crawl towards renovating the area, which has now been going on for about fifteen years. I just wish my memory of the place was clearer. I wish I knew its name, or where the people who ran it went. I remember those racks of scary and exciting video tapes on shelves that were difficult to reach very clearly, and viewing the many films I bought from there all these years later, I remember the thrill of those early days of my endless genre film hunt. There's magic in those memories, and still magic for me in the films I collect and enjoy to this day.

Friday, 8 June 2012

DREAM DEMON (1988)

A delight which had taunted me from many a video trailer, Dream Demon is an oddity in 80s horror movies, in that it was made here in the UK and features two British TV stars in supporting (and very creepy) roles. I finally own a copy (in the set of Palace Horror tapes I'm trying to amass – the ones with the brightly coloured covers and unified title font), and it's a very worthy and rather fun watch.

In terms of atmosphere, it reminds me a great deal of Dario Argento's 'Suspiria' and 'Inferno', that sort of dreamlike horror where reality and a strange fantasy world seem to be blending together. Add a touch of A Nightmare on Elm Street (only a touch, mind you) and you have a recipe for 90 minutes which are in turn entertaining, confusing and deeply atmospheric.

A young lady is about to be married to a military hero, but in the run-up to her wedding she begins to have nightmares about a pair of demons, played by Timothy Spall and Jimmy Nail.


In the waking world, those two guys are a pair of crude newspaper reporters after the dirt on her husband to be, but how much has the line between worlds been blurred? As murders begin to be committed, it seems the dream demon may have crossed over to our realm.

The young woman, Diana (played by Jemma Redgrave) finds a kindred spirit in visiting American girl Jenny (an intriguing Kathleen Wilhoite), who is in the country searching for her forgotten past, but even she seems to be caught up in the dreams too...

Timothy Spall gets all of the best moments of the movie, especially when his appearance begins to change in every shot. His performance is sinister and restrained, which makes the character that bit more frightening. Some may claim it is nothing more than a retread of A Nightmare on Elm Street, but it's a far more refined and dreamlike film that Craven's masterpiece.

Dream Demon may not be particularly elaborate or gory, but what it lacks in scale and splatter is makes up for with bags of tension, otherworldly unease and nightmarish moments of psychic bait-and-switch. Is it a dream? Is it real? I don't really care, to be honest. It's just a very watchable horror movie with more brains than guts, and that's fine by me.