40 Years Of Memorable Movie Moments

Hammersmith Odeon circa 1983

Maybe it was the lockdown popcorn, maybe a great recent piece in Empire magazine initiated by director Edgar Wright, but this time away from the cinema has got me waxing all nostalgic.

Will the big screen ever regain its mojo? The alternative is a crushing thought.

Don’t know about you, but my idea of a night out at the flicks doesn’t involve wearing a mask and showing a security guard my vaccination certificate at the door. If that’s the future of moviegoing in Brave New Britain, forget it, I’m done.

And whatever the merits of Netflix et al, they can’t replace the shared experience watching a superb movie on a big screen with great sound and those ‘wonderful people out there in the dark’ (© ‘Sunset Boulevard’).

So, if it’s all over – and I hope it’s not – here are some memorable movie moments of the last 40 years (all in London cinemas unless otherwise stated), from the sublime to the shocking (with spoilers…). I hope they inspire some recollections of your own.

Seeing ‘The Exorcist’ at a cinema above a nightclub in Kingston circa 1989, me absolutely terrified as Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It’ was heard pulsating through the floorboards… The entire audience laughing throughout ‘Prince Of Darkness’ (it’s supposed to be a horror movie…) at the Hammersmith ABC circa 1987… A late-night screening of ‘Carrie’ at the Prince Charles circa 2012, the young, hip crowd jumping three feet out of their seats upon the famous finale…

At the same venue circa 1994, a ‘lone white male’ saying very loudly, apropros of nothing: ‘What a f***ing bitch’ as the credits rolled at the end of ‘The Last Seduction’ (it’s a female-fronted, neo-noir)… Almost having an out-of-body experience as Jeff Bridges walked through the plane at the end of ‘Fearless’ at the Prince Charles circa 1994… The ripples of hilarity echoing around the cinema during Michael Wincott’s cracking cameo as Kent in ‘Talk Radio’ at the Riverside Hammersmith circa 1988…

Spooked amongst the drinking/smoking audience during ‘The Blair Witch Project’ at the Notting Hill Coronet in 1998… The quietest, most rapt audience ever for Orson Welles’ ‘The Trial’ at the BFI (formerly NFT) in 2019… Audience hilarity during Hugh Grant’s performance in ‘Bitter Moon’ at the Prince Charles circa 1994… Early cinema revelations, seeing ‘Jaws’, ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’, ‘Airplane’ and ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ between 1980-1982… Seeing ‘Rain Man’ two nights in a row at the Richmond Odeon in 1988… The ‘Star Wars’ triple bill at the same venue circa 1985… A Laurel & Hardy all-dayer at The Kings Cross Scala circa 1988… Terrified watching ‘Scream 2’ on my own in a huge moviehouse in Times Square, NYC, the only other paying customer deciding to sit directly behind me… Meeting David Lynch – and getting his very odd autograph – after a screening of ‘The Straight Story’ at the NFT in 1999… Seeing ‘Fame’ at a huge, almost completely empty Hammersmith Odeon circa 1983… Not hearing one line of dialogue during ‘Fletch’ as the assembled teens screamed/laughed/threw food at the screen, Putney Odeon, 1985… Panic and nausea at the finale of ‘The Vanishing’ at a late-night screening at the Ultimate Picture Palace in Oxford circa 1991… Watching JG Ballard and David Cronenberg chatting amiably onstage after the London premiere of ‘Crash’ at the NFT, 1996… Sitting behind a constantly laughing Jimmy Page at a screening of ‘Beware Of Mr Baker’, the Riverside Hammersmith circa 2012… Seeing ‘Heathers’ at the same venue in 1989 and thinking: well, that’s almost the perfect film… Feeling the whole packed house take an inward breath as the body crawled out of the TV set during ‘Ringu’ at the ICA, 1998…and…and…?

The Cult Movie Club: The Dead Zone (1983)

What’s the ‘accepted’, untouchable shortlist of ‘successful’ Stephen King screen adaptations? ‘Misery’, ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘It’, ‘Carrie’, ‘Stand By Me’, ‘Salem’s Lot’.

But David Cronenberg’s ‘The Dead Zone’ seldom appears in that top tier. Why? Possibly because it is seemingly part of the early-‘80s big-budget horror era, when the studios were trying to cash in on ‘slasher’ hits like ‘Halloween’ and ‘Friday 13th’ (see also ‘Omen III: The Final Conflict’, ‘Halloween III: Season Of The Witch’, ‘Psycho II’, ‘Christine’).

Cronenberg had just completed sci-fi/horror shocker ‘Videodrome’ when he was invited onto the project by Debra Hill, producer of ‘Halloween’/’The Fog’ and ex-wife of John Carpenter (‘The Dead Zone’ had apparently previously been earmarked for Stanley Donen, director of ‘Singin’ In The Rain’!).

King himself supplied the first draft of the script. According to Cronenberg, it was a ghastly, serial-killer-on-the-loose gore fest. Jeffrey Boam and Cronenberg worked on it and built the story around Johnny Smith, played by Christopher Walken, who develops second sight after five years in a coma following a devastating car crash.

So how does ‘The Dead Zone’ stand up today? Exceptionally well. It’s Cronenberg’s first film about ‘God-fearing’ people, and also his first warm-hearted picture. It takes place in King’s fictional town of Castle Rock, supposedly a combination of various real locations in Maine – all very Norman Rockwell.

These are the first Cronenberg characters we care for (he has described it as ‘a lost-love story’). Brooke Adams, Herbert Lom, Tom Skerritt and Walken are excellent, playing it completely straight, and there’s a terrific, terrifying performance by Martin Sheen as the Jim Jones-like Greg Stillson.

But finally it’s Walken’s film (Cronenberg described his face as the ‘subject of the movie’), another brilliant performance. We totally accept Johnny’s story and want him to succeed. He’s a good man in pain who has lost the love of his life.

The movie is relentlessly downbeat with no ironic escape route. It’s totally Cronenberg’s milieu – a snowy, crisp mise-en-scene (shot in and around Toronto), with a typically great car crash. He casts his cold, clinical eye over some pretty preposterous material, but it’s stark and chilling, with the director’s customarily-abrasive cutting and editing style. It’s NOT a film for kids…

Importantly, Johnny’s visions are genuinely scary. But is he God or Lucifer? (There may be minor similarities of the film with John Landis’s opening segment of ‘Twilight Zone: The Movie’, released three months before ‘The Dead Zone’). Walken plays with this dichotomy perfectly.

Like King’s ‘Misery’, ‘The Dead Zone’ takes a none too fond look at the ‘great unwashed’, with Johnny getting endless pleading/begging letters from people with ‘lost dogs, lost lives’. And it’s also unfailingly negative about the US political process during the early 1980s (Boam reportedly delivered his first draft the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration).

There’s a lush, superb score by Michael Kamen. Its main five-note motif is almost as memorable as anything John Williams wrote for Spielberg, speaking to Johnny’s tragic dilemma.

Of course there are some bum notes: the poor performances of a few minor characters; a very gratuitous, unpleasant sexual assault/murder scene (apparently not in King’s book); and the constant dilemma of second-guessing his physical contact with others. What is Johnny withholding from us/the other characters when he shakes their hand or embraces them? Also the film rather lurches from one section to another, with Johnny basically inert and ‘in hiding’ until he is called on to act by the townsfolk.

‘The Dead Zone’ did pretty good business at the box office, earning double its costs and ushering in Cronenberg’s brief flirtation with the mainstream (he was offered – but turned down – ‘Flashdance’, ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and ‘Top Gun’ during this period): next up was ‘The Fly’, a huge hit. You could make the case that he was one of the key directors of the 1980s. From the landmark sci-fi/horrors ‘Scanners’, ‘Videodrome’ and ‘The Fly’ to the ice-cold ‘Dead Ringers’, he consistently pushed the envelope.

Further reading: ‘Cronenberg On Cronenberg’ (ed. Chris Rodley)