Sunday, 23 October 2011

Hollywood Babble On & On #826: Where Have All The Movies Gone?

Every filmmaker has influences, and this goes even further for every movie lover. One of the biggest influences I ever had when it comes to loving movies was a guy named Eddie Driscoll.
Eddie Driscoll

Eddie Driscoll wasn't a director, and he wasn't a critic. He hosted a TV show out of Bangor, Maine called The Great Money Movie.  

The show aired every weekday afternoon and it had a beautifully simple premise. Eddie Driscoll would introduce a movie, usually based around the week's theme (usually a star, a genre, or a franchise), and during the movie they would flash the movie's "secret word."  Then, before the commercial break, Eddie would pull a name and phone number from a barrel, and call that person to see it they know the secret word, and if they did, they won $25.  Sometimes they'd know, sometimes they didn't know, and quite often there would be no answer at all.  But that didn't matter, Eddie would just move on, because on this show, it was the movies that mattered.

And boy did they show a variety of movies on The Great Money Movie.  They showed black and white movies, color movies, A-movies, B-movies, TV movies, foreign movies, and no genre or style was out of bounds.  If they fit the week's theme, you could be watching a big budget Hollywood epic one day, and a badly dubbed low budget Italian imitation the next day.

And that was the key to why I loved the show, variety.  It introduced me to Hammer and Universal horror movies, slapstick Abbot & Costello comedies, Spaghetti Westerns, film noir, and, on Money Movie's late night sister movie show Weird some of the strangest science fiction and horror movies I've ever seen.

We lost access to the Bangor TV channels when our then cable company switched all their American stations from Maine, who we actually had something in common with, including weather, to Detroit, who we had extremely little in common with.  

It also marked the beginning of a trend I noticed that has only grown worse.

The movies started to disappear. 

I first noticed it in the 1990s during my night-owl college years.  The low budget horror and science fiction movies that used to run late at night on local stations started to disappear.  The black and white ones were the first to go, then the color movies, and they were replaced by either talk shows, infomercials, or something even more mystifying: Disney movies.  I mean who turns on the TV after the bars have closed wanting to see Honey I Shrunk The Kids, or The Mighty Ducks.

But it only got worse...

A good way to illustrate this came on the first rainy weekend I had a satellite dish with double the channels I had under my old cable deal. I found the movie The Hunt For Red October playing on four different channels on the same day.  Two local stations, one American, and one Canadian, and two different cable channels were running it within a half hour of each other.

At first I had assumed that this had to be an isolated coincidence. 

I was wrong.

The more channels that came along, the fewer movies would make the rounds. A quick glance at the listings showed that the same movies would appear again and again, and again, regardless of whether they really belonged on the channel or not. It's pretty much a never ending replay loop of the past decade's (mostly failed) blockbusters and low rent "Woman In Peril" movies from the Lifetime channel get played until the tapes wear out. Even our specialty "Mystery" channel regularly runs non-mystery Christmas movies in July, simply because the tape's next on the shelf.

Of all the channels I get, only one is even willing to show black and white movies, and the sort of odd-ball B-movies that I knew growing up.

If this is the same for everyone, I think popular culture will suffer for it.

Right now the movie business is stagnating badly.  Box office slumps are becoming the norm instead of the exception, and the industry is trying to save itself by repeating the same mistakes they made in the 1950s and 1960s by going all in on mega-budget spectacles and gimmicks like 3D.  

The movie business was pulled from the brink of total collapse in the 1970s by the arrival of brash young baby boomers who made radically different movies that caught the popular imagination.  Ask them now about their influences and they'll tell you about Goddard, Truffaut, and the Nouvelle Vague, and while it might have been true about their time in film school, the answer is different when you dig deep down. When you dig down to the cores of these filmmakers you will learn that they had been inspired to love movies by a legion of Eddie Driscolls, every market had at least one, and the oddball collection of movies they showed on after-school and late night television.

These movies, most of them B-Grade, taught that generation about the importance of imagination and narrative skill over budget.

I don't see today's kids getting that from the movies that air on television these days. There's the choice of either a big budget movie that's most likely crap, or a low budget movie that's not only most likely crap, but looks like it too.  And what really bugs me about the low budget movies, especially the sci-fi and horror movies, is their attitude.

One thing I used to admire in the low budget movies I watched as a kid, even the bad ones, was how they tried to get the most of the little they had.  If their monster looked fake, they kept it creeping around in shadows, and kept viewings of it to a minimum.  If they couldn't afford big stunts or explosions, they edited around them to make things look more dramatic and exciting than they actually were.

That's called "filmmaking."

Even the films that failed at their intended mission still held some sort of educational value because at least the people behind them were trying and you could see where and why they failed.

I don't get that with a lot of the movies recycling around TV these days.  There's an attitude that since it's not a big budget studio picture there's no real point in burning any calories trying to make it look good. Just toss in some cheap CGI, and hope people will think it has some sort of camp value in it cheesiness.

That's a shame in my opinion, there's no real inspiration to be found in irony.




  1. What ever happened to KUNG FU theatre? Saturday for for cartoons, by Sunday morning was for some chopsockey action.

    Here in DETROIT we do have Wolfman Mac, who is holding the torch for the late nite, horror-sci film show. it is on a local Tv affilate. maybe that is the hope for old films.

    I wonder if the DVD market is to blame for this, it was youtube and the net why MTV no longer plays videos. because they do not need to. Want to see your fav video, you used to have to wait for it to show up on MTV. now just go on facebook,youtube etc. Find the artist, and watch the vid until you go blind.

    I suspect that since some of these old films might be public domain now and the guilds only want films being aried that will get someone residuals.

  2. Correction -

    MTV stopped playing music videos YEARS before there was a youtube. By the time Youtube premiers, music videos are only played on their satellite channel, MTV2 - and even then, only at very late night, between 2 and 4 in the morning.

    It had nothing to do with availability, and everything to do with, well, for lack of a better term, the people who run MTV being evil.

  3. the DVD market has been the only thing keeping low budget horror films alive. While I agree with the general comment that nowadays low budget horror has lost its pride, there are still a few exceptions.

    I have noticed that the old canard of "100 channels and nothing on" is still perfectly true. While I don't even HAVE cable myself, when I visit my parents and look at the assortment they have available, it's discouraging.

  4. And now here is my question for Mr. D.

    Why do entire national film markets sometimes suddenly dry up? Look at Italy - it had a thriving, healthy movie industry which suddenly started to falter in the 1980s, and then pretty much died by the mid-90s. Look at Hong Kong - they were still going strong until 1999 - did the Commie takeover really make THAT big a difference? Now Hong Kong films are in the crapper. English movies took some heavy hits too.

    What is going on? Is it just competition from Hollywood? Is it some change in the way movies are financed or marketed?

  5. Nightmare Theater-Double Feature was what kept me sleepless at night. Black Belt Theater, Tarzan, Old West, etc and all now gone.


    I wish more of the oldies were on Netflix streaming. Heck I wish more of the new ones were on Netflix streaming. It would make the service more worthwhile.