In our study is a tartan cardboard box containing hundreds of ticket stubs I’ve kept over the years, mementoes of movies, concerts and plays, dating all the way back to the summer of 1999. For the longest time I’d thought that must have been around the time that I decided to start keeping them, and wondered what I’d been to see in the years before then, when I was a teenager going to the movies with my friends.
Spring cleaning is a chore but the one bright spot is the things you sometimes uncover that have been squirreled away in the strangest places and forgotten about. At the back of a cluttered draw in an over-stuffed desk was a faded stationary box I’d had since I was a child, and inside were some wholly random items. A bag of wooden ladybirds with sticky backs. What was I planning to put them on? A box of paper clips with some drawing pins thrown in, presumably designed to stab you in the thumb whenever you try to take one out. Marbles. A leaflet advertising the release of The Fox and the Hound on VHS from Woolworths. Individual jigsaw pieces for puzzles I don’t even have. A finished, but undeveloped, camera roll which is now winging its way to be processed – I have absolutely no idea what will be on it. Also in there were a stack of collectible picture cards that used to come in packs of tea from a couple of big brands, featuring everything from wildlife, footballers, legendary monsters, Olympic sports, and my favourite – ‘Unexplained Mysteries’. These are the kind of hokey stories you find in documentaries on National Geographic about UFOs and sea monsters. I wish you could still be entertained by these when opening a pack of tea today. You could even order a themed booklet to keep your card collection in by sending off two 20p pieces in the post, which seems adorable now.
The Devil’s Hoofprints, one of the ‘unexplained mysteries’ bought to the attention of drinkers of Brooke Bond tea in 1987. This must have been a relatively common card since I had a duplicate.
But the discovery that amazed me was a stack of cinema ticket stubs, dating from 1992 to 1998. When I think about them I experience a strange sensation of cognitive dissonance, where 1992 really doesn’t seem that long ago, even though I know it’s been over a quarter of a century since I went to see…
… how embarrassing! This is the earliest ticket of the lot. Stop or My Mom will Shoo sounds a lot more fun than Stop or My Mom will Shoot actually was. A film where Estelle Getty waves her arms at petty criminals and sends them packing like a flock of flapping pigeons while Silvester Stallone fires his agent. Stop or My Mom Will Shoot currently has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 4%, where the reviews are funnier than the movie. To quote Bob Grimm’s zero-star summary: I can’t believe I watched this.
But look at the price. £2.20! You can’t buy a cup of coffee for that now. Not that you could readily buy a cappuccino in my hometown in 1992. In fact there wasn’t much to do as a teenager where I grew up, but the movies were cheap back then. In contrast, I remember around the same time that buying a newly released album would set you back £10-£15. You wouldn’t pay more than £10 for that now, but my latest trip to a multiplex set me back £15. The relative cheapness of the cinema kept my friends and I coming back, week after week, to watch whatever happened to be on.
The next one is a teen movie from 1991, released in the UK in a full year later, back when films could take that long to cross the Atlantic. Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead stars Christina Applegate as Sue Ellen, the eldest of 5 siblings who are left with a mean and spiteful babysitter for the whole summer while their mother goes to Australia. When the babysitter has a heart attack, the kids decide to fend for themselves… until they run out of money.
Although made in the early 90s, it’s very much an 80s movie at heart, with a heavy debt to films like Working Girl and The Secret of My Success in which young, attractive people climb the corporate ladder, with shoulder pads and filofaxes everywhere. In many ways it represents the tail end of that vogue for comedies revolving around success in the business world that populated the late Reagan-Thatcher era. When Sue Ellen (a name more associated with Dallas, another screen icon of 80s excess) realises she has to get a job, she fakes a CV and winds up working for a fashion brand as a PA, and by the end of the movie she’s saved the company from bankruptcy by designing a new line of school uniforms that appeal to teenagers, even putting on a fashion show at her house.
I have a very distinct memory of a montage sequence where Sue Ellen announces to a boardroom full of people that they are ‘pulling an all-nighter’ to the sound of groans from her colleagues – all to an upbeat soundtrack of synth-pop. The only time I pulled an all-nighter at work, I was by myself, had a migraine by 6am, and the only soundtrack was my internal monologue wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. The film also features a pre-X-Files David Duchovny as one of the slicked-back, smarmy office rivals who try to bring our heroine down. If you think the recent trend for movies aimed at young adults set in dystopian nightmare societies is depressing, just remember when they were all about the quest for a corner office.
Teenage dream: wear a power suit to your executive job, or bring down a dictator?
There are well over 100 films in the pile, over a period of 7 years, but there aren’t many between 1992 and 1994. Jurassic Park is in there, and I remember how thrilling it was to watch on the big screen, the effects unlike anything I had ever seen before – I still think it’s a great movie. There’s the good (Speed), the bad (Forever Young, The Three Musketeers, Junior) and the weird (Last Action Hero, which I actually enjoyed, and remember getting into despite not being 15). The stub for So I Married an Axe Murderer brought back memories of me and my friends quoting lines at each other ad nauseam for months afterwards.
In 1995, by which point I had a Saturday job, I went a whopping 31 times, prices ranging from £3.25 to £4.25. According to the tickets I went to see Interview with the Vampire, but I wasn’t 18, so that must have been another mild act of youthful rebellion. Some of the contrasts are pretty stark – Immortal Beloved, a lavish biopic in which Gary Oldman hams it up as Beethoven, followed a few days later by Terminal Velocity, a risible skydiving flick that tried to pass Charlie Sheen off as an action star. One would be Oscar bait today, the other a straight-to-DVD mess with someone like Shia LeBeouf. Kicking off the summer was Bad Boys, which was great fun, but in retrospect left us stuck with Michael Bay and his increasingly diabolical output; Batman Forever, the first post-Burton-and-Keaton Batman movie of the 90s, which not only poses the question ‘Can this get any worse?’ but answers it a few years later with a resounding ‘Yes’ in the form of Batman and Robin, which is also in the pile; and Judge Dredd, the second awful Stallone movie of the pack. Apparently, I went to see Die Hard with a Vengeance four times, with a never-to-be-repeated trip to Waterworld in the middle. That winter I saw Clueless twice, which I loved; Mortal Kombat, which I can’t really remember if I enjoyed; and Goldeneye which rejuvenated the Bond franchise and is still a cracking instalment. One of the things that struck me that year was the mid-budget romantic period dramas that don’t seem to get made much anymore. 1995 contained both Legends of the Fall and A Walk in the Clouds. Neither was a particularly great movie, but I’d struggle to find comparable films made recently.
In 1996 I distracted myself from my impending A-Levels with 46 trips to the cinema but it still costs no more than £4.50 at my local multiplex. Johnny Mnemonic and Chain Reaction make it a pretty bad year for Keanu Reeves, and Fargo is my first Coen Bros movie. I was amused to find Jumanji in there with the sequel currently at the box office. And I don’t know what was happening on 2 June, when I saw 3 films in one day…
The Muppet Treasure Island, Moonlight and Valentino, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn.
I’m not sure you could find three more different movies if you tried. I also don’t understand why the top two are differently shaped given they’re from the exact same cinema. The £1 price means there must have been some kind of promotion on.
Two films I saw that summer were Now & Then and How to Make an American Quilt. In the 90s it wasn’t unusual to see comedy-dramas about women aimed at women, and both of these were middling films about small town life for groups of female friends, following in the footsteps of the huge success of Steel Magnolias in 1989.
By now, the 1990s had left the 80s behind and found their own aesthetic. The presence of sluggish action films like Eraser, Sudden Death and Daylight feel like hangovers from another age. Hollywood’s attempt to co-opt indie sensibilities was in full post-Pulp Fiction swing. The same year I saw Desperado, the sequel to Robert Rodriguez’ ultra-low-budget El Mariachi, and Gen-X spins on romantic comedies like The Truth about Cats and Dogs. Meanwhile in British cinema, Trainspotting felt like a breath of fresh air after a hundred films in which Hugh Grant stutters and ruffles his hair. It was a brief bright point before Guy Ritchie ushered in the era of East End geezer movies.
Another film genre that’s disappearing is the mid-budget thriller. In early 1997 I saw Ransom, a by-the-numbers kidnapping movie with Mel Gibson that will just make you want to watch Taken instead, and Extreme Measures, a lacklustre medical thriller made when Hollywood was trying to figure out what to do with Hugh Grant after Four Weddings and a Funeral. They were both disappointing enough that afterwards I went back to see The Frighteners for a second time, which I haven’t seen in years and now want to track down.
The Frighteners was Peter Jackson’s first Hollywood movie. I’d seen his ultra-low-budget homegrown horror comedies like Brain Dead and Bad Taste on VHS. Then he’d made Heavenly Creatures, a wonderful and terrifying true-crime film with a young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey that contained remarkable special effects to bring to life the shared fantasy world of the two girls. The effects company Weta was founded to make the effects in Heavenly Creatures and subsequently worked on The Frighteners, in which Michael J Fox uses his psychic ability to send ghostly friends to haunt people before charging for exorcism. It’s a strange mix of indie sensibilities – the whole thing was shot in NZ with many of Jackson’s regular collaborators – and big budget effects, with Weta working for 18 months in post-production to make the mix of digital and practical effects work.
It was also Michael J Fox’s last big movie. I highly recommend tracking down both Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners if you haven’t seen them. These two films ultimately led to The Lord of the Rings and Weta are now one of the biggest visual effects companies out there.
In 1997 the film count drops to 36, and includes the reissue of all 3 of the original Star Wars trilogy. It’s a largely disappointing year, peppered with poor sequels of great films (The Lost World, Alien Resurrection). There’s a ticket for The Peacemaker, a dull thriller about stolen nuclear weapons that got more publicity than it deserved at the time due to being the very first movie from the newly formed DreamWorks studio. But the best juxtaposition has to be Hamlet followed by Batman and Robin.
The Hamlet in question is the Kenneth Branagh 4-hour epic where he mashed together the First Folio and Second Quarto versions of the play to make the longest possible script. Needless to say it wasn’t on at my local multiplex and I had to travel to a larger town where it was being screened in a theatre. I remember sitting in the balcony, and there being an interval in the middle of the film because it was so long, with the curtain coming down over the screen as if it were a play.
I seem to have blocked watching Batman and Robin from my memory. It also cost more to see, which seems wholly unjustifiable with hindsight.
By 1998 I was at university and there weren’t many tickets after that. The last one in the stack from August 1998 is The Avengers, the horrible misfire reboot of the classic 60s and 70s British spy-fi show, where the price for an evening screening finally hit £5. Twenty years on, there’s a different Avengers on the horizon this summer, with a much bigger price tag. In another twenty years I hope to look back again at another stash of tickets and see what I make of them. I’m sure we won’t still be existing on a diet of big-budget superheroes and low-budget horror, but I can’t see some of those old genres coming back again to the big screen.