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INTRODUCTION

This project is the result of a lifelong love of genre filmmaking. Fantasy, horror and science fiction movies shaped my childhood, and while some critics may still consider them juvenile or lowbrow, to me they are the most important kind of films. The best examples of this genre not only transport the audience to another world, they also tell us a great deal about our own. Plus they usually have monsters and 'splosions and hearts being ripped out and other cool stuff.

My earliest movie memories are of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) - the former traumatized me so much that I was scared of sharks even when swimming in a pool, while the latter kick started my inner fantasy world. I knew even from an early age that the fantasy genre was where I felt most at home and as I grew older I resisted the urge to treat fantasy as something for kids, not worthy of the same level of discussion as serious dramatic cinema.

I grew up during the home video boom, which meant I saw lots of cult sci-fi and horror films that I would otherwise have been unable to see at such a young age, like The Evil Dead (1981).

Many of these films were classed as video nasties, but I don’t believe they warped me in anyway (apart from occasionally drinking the blood of virgins and small puppies, but hey, who hasn’t?). Although I was often scared by some of these films, there was something comforting about them too. The most terrifying screen monster is nothing compared to the horrors of real life we learn about when we grow up.

This is not an attempt to cover every significant feature film in those genres, which is why I have chosen 1975 as a starting point (coincidentally the year of my birth!). Although that means that I won’t be able to write about such classics as King Kong (1933), The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), I felt it was important (and, frankly, a lot easier) to limit myself to reviews of more recent fantasy films, some of which have yet to be extensively written about on a serious level.

If you want to read about fantasy, horror and sci-fi films from before 1975, I highly recommend the following books: "Fantastic Cinema" (a seminal book by Peter Nicholls, and a major influence on this project), "The Primal Screen: A History of Science Fiction Film" (John Brosnan), "Danse Macabre" (Stephen King) and "Nightmare Movies" (Kim Newman).

For me, the mid-seventies seemed like a logical beginning as it saw the rise of two filmmakers who would define the fantasy genre for modern audiences and spawn countless imitators to this day -

George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Jaws, Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) are important films for pretty much every movie fan that grew up in the seventies and early eighties. Those movies not only crafted the template for modern Hollywood blockbusters (much to the chagrin of those who think Lucas and Spielberg killed the art of cinema) but they took stories and archetypes that were mainly the domain of B movies and turned them into big budget pictures with mass appeal.

In all my reviews, I’ve tried to maintain a balance between an objective overview and injecting personal opinion where I feel it’s of interest. I should also warn you that there will be some plot revelations in my reviews (and the images that accompany them) that may count as spoilers, although I’ve tried to avoid transcribing the whole story scene by scene for the most part.

You won’t find any detailed writings on the production of the films in question. I do throw out some behind the scenes tidbits where relevant, but I feel there are more than enough “making of” books on the market, and spending too much time discussing the production process can be a little tedious. I’m far more interested in what’s on the screen, and the reactions to a film after its release.

As I personally believe that fantasy, perhaps more than any other genre, owes its success to a group of key auteurs, the first section of Imaginary Cinema deals with the directors that I believe have had the most influence over the genre in the last 30 years.

It’s an eclectic group, from the crowd-pleasing showmen Lucas and Spielberg, through the twisted and personal fantasies (or nightmares) of Tim Burton and David Cronenberg, to the epic and obsessively detailed films of James Cameron and Peter Jackson.

Obviously, there will be some important talents people think I have overlooked, and I apologise in advance for my bias for directors working in the Hollywood system. Since I hope Imaginary Cinema will be an evolving project, I may well add directors later on that are only just starting to make their impact on the genre (Bryan Singer is one name that springs to mind).

In the chapters on each director I’ve covered every fantasy film they’ve directed as well as any other genre projects they’ve been directly involved with (either as writers or hands-on producers). To give a full overview of a filmmaker's work, I will briefly mention their non-genre projects too.

After the directors section, the next three chapters (when I finish them) will focus on other fantasy, horror and sci-fi feature films since 1975. I have to admit my categorization of films is purely subjective, and I’m sure some people will complain that I’ve put certain films into the wrong genre. Sci-fi and fantasy seem relatively easy to define (while they are both speculative fiction, the former usually offers some rational explanation for the incredible events, while the latter needs no explanation) but there are many films that blur the boundaries of the genre.


Kill Kill Kill Kill Kill ...

Horror is even trickier to pin down. I’ve tried to limit myself only to films that feature a supernatural plotline, but again there are some that defy easy classification. There are horror films that have no supernatural elements, while some supernatural films don’t really fit into the horror category. There’s a very fine line between horror and plain old psychological thriller. Many people would class films like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Seven (1995) as horror (and rightly so) but since they’re about human monsters, I don’t believe they really belong in a discussion of fantasy cinema.

The exception is slasher films such as the Friday the 13th franchise. Even though many of those films have a human antagonist, they have little to do with the reality of serial killers, so I have reviewed some of the key works in that influential subgenre.

Nature gone wild films are another gray area, but I've decided to include films where the animals are treated as if they were monsters, such as the aforementioned Jaws, as well as films like Cujo (1983), Arachnophobia (1990) and Snakes On a (muthafuckin') Plane (2006).

The fantasy, horror and sci-fi chapters are also divided into subsections examining the different types of films in each genre, from obvious ones likes vampires and time travel, to less obvious subgenres such as Cyberpunk. While I’ve tried to include all the films I feel are important to these genres, I’ve deliberately chosen not to put a great deal of focus on TV movies and direct to video (or DVD) releases. While there are some gems among them, I felt it would take attention away from what is meant to be a celebration of big screen fantasy. I’ve also left out most spoofs of the genre, except in the rare case where the parody itself is a landmark film.

The next section deals with miscellaneous films that don't fit into the above categories. The first chapter of this section focuses on animated feature films. While it could be argued that all animated movies fit into the fantasy category - what with the preponderance of talking animals and cartoon physics - I’ve tried to focus on films that have an obviously fantastical story that just happens to be told in animation form.

My rule of thumb is: if the unreal elements are put into the story just to help us relate to the characters (the aforementioned talking, anthropomorphized animals found in 99% of animated movies) then it’s not fantasy. Hopefully that makes sense to someone other than me.

The next chapter in this section covers Foreign Fantasy Cinema. This examines the sometimes-overlooked films that don’t come from Hollywood or the English-speaking cinema world. Many of the most exciting fantasy directors working today (such as Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón) got their start in foreign cinema and some continue to make foreign language films to this day.


Look, I've seen a foreign fantasy film! It was about a Delicatessen, but I forget what it's called

After that, the following chapter deals with all the films adapted from the work of author Stephen King. With around ten million or so adaptations and movies influenced by his work at last count, King is virtually a genre by himself. Though he's only actually directed one of these films, the poorly received Maximum Overdrive (1987), he has written the screenplays for a number of other films. His books (and subsequent adaptations) have had such a big impact on the horror genre that I felt he deserved his own chapter.

Finally, I’ll also include some fun things in the appendices, such as my personal recommendations for the DVDs every fantasy, horror and sci-fi fan should own. This list is by no means exhaustive, as there are classic titles being released and re-released every year. But it should give the reader an idea of some of the best genre DVDs to seek out if they don’t own them already.

I’ve tried to review the DVDs that have the most interesting extra features to give people value for money, although some films are worth owning regardless of how many special features there have. You’ll also have noticed I’ve stepped outside the boundaries of this project to review DVDs of films from before 1975. That’s simply because it’s the one area I felt I could pay respect to the fantasy classics of the golden age without making Imaginary Cinema too broad in scope.

I hope Imaginary Cinema will give newcomers an insight into the depth and variety fantasy films have to offer, while perhaps offering longtime genre fans a fresh look at some of their favourite (and not so favourite) movies. If it proves successful, this will become an ongoing project that I can update whenever important new genre films are released (or when I catch up with some old ones).

And now comes the part where I say something cheesy like, “Prepare yourself, as we journey into the world of Imaginary Cinema!” Except I won’t.

READ THE CHAPTER ON DIRECTOR TIM BURTON

   

 

 

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