The perils of letting a frumpy film critic influence your way of thinking.
On my 13th birthday, I received a present that changed my life forever. It was Halliwell’s Film Guide, the fifth edition, the red one with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson on the cover. I’d asked for it of course, as my interest in cinema had been growing in the previous year or so and I needed guidance as to what to watch on Britain’s four television channels – plus we’d just got a VCR, opening up further libraries of possibilities. The sheer excitement I felt on receiving this book would not be understood by today’s youth, with IMDb and the rest of the internet at their fingertips – and that plurality of opinion is probably a good thing, because Halliwell sent me on a tunnel-like journey.
In his highly enjoyable and informative biography, Halliwell’s Horizon, Michael Binder quotes Mark Gatiss imagining that the “dishevelled tramp with the terrible BO who always sits next to you at the pictures is Halliwell’s baneful spirit, seeking to spoil cinema-goers’ enjoyment in death just as he did in life.” Even in the 1980s, Halliwell was seen as a Blimpish, tiresome figure by some, most notably The Observer’s Philip French. But I imbibed his views like a youthful convert, dutifully ticking films off I watched; and to be fair to Halliwell, he pointed me in the direction of many brilliant, classic movies that I have treasured ever since. But there were glitches, warning signs. My second favourite film of all time (after Hitchcock’s Psycho, since you ask) is Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955) but my edition had this to say about it: “Over-rated comedy in poor colour. Those making it clearly think it funnier than it is.” Sourness, parsimony and weird resentment waft from that brief description. There’s a lot more like it – in fact, aside from the relatively small amount of movies that Halliwell adored, mostly from the 1930s and 40s, he is extremely negative and scornful. The trouble is, his cynicism was catching.
The sheer relentlessness of his disdain for so much of what he has chosen to write about probably makes him a suitable case for treatment – a psychologist could have had a field day with Halliwell. It’s notable that Halliwell’s Television Companion, which he co-authored with Philip Purser, had more varied, lively and thoughtful entries than the film guide.
Look at the jaded weariness expressed in the following reviews:
Jaws (1975): “Slackly narrated and sometimes flatly handled thriller.”
Superman (1978): “Long, lugubrious and only patchily entertaining.”
The Evil Dead (1983): “Semi-professional horror rubbish.”
Educating Rita (1983): “Rather dismal, thinly characterised and ill-lit variation on Pygmalion.”
Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982): “The tiresome content of this teen comedy is slightly offset by bright handling. But only slightly.”
Sometimes he was hilariously taciturn. Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959), for instance, is dismissed with two words: “Crude shocker.”
His star rating system was emblematic of his mindset, and doesn’t speak of tolerance or generosity: it went from no stars up to four, with only a tiny fraction of films receiving the top rating and the majority receiving none. Two stars actually signified what could be an ‘excellent’ film. Now, I don’t want to come down too hard on him here because I think there has been a large degree of ‘grade inflation’ in ratings (not just of films) over the last few decades, and when, say, Empire magazine hands out four stars now, it’s not always to a must-see movie. But his stars say a lot about Halliwell’s inability to heap praise on the hard-working armies of creatives who brought him a product – a product that he sat on his arse to grumpily gaze at, and usually diss.
Halliwell’s attitude seeped into my soul, though. For starters it caused me to judge films quite harshly; when I wrote for SFX magazine the reviews editor frequently complained that I was too stingy with my star ratings. Music too – the editor of Sky magazine bemoaned my review of Ash’s album Free All Angels as “world-weary”. It’s affected my day-to-day life too. I think for many years I didn’t enjoy things like holidays, events and concerts as much as I should have done because of Halliwell-fostered negativity. My uncle used to tell the tale of how I stood in front of the Grand Canyon and grumbled, “Is that it?” I haven’t appreciated people as much as I should have done, including women I’ve known. I blame Halliwell! Alright, I suspect it may also have something to do with my inherited genes and the environment I was brought up in, but my introduction to this fellow’s film guide came at a point in my mental development when you are particularly susceptible to philosophies and teachings that are new to you. I may have been warped to become a grumpy old man before my time. Years later I’ve realised that you should always try to look for the good in someone or something because it’s a more generous way to live – always focusing on negatives is easy to do but unhelpful because perfection is rare and usually unobtainable. Enjoy your life.
Another thing about Halliwell was his readiness to give what we’d now call ‘spoilers’. I personally think those constantly yelling “spoilers!” nowadays have curled into our era’s ‘safe space’ culture a little too much, but Halliwell really did take the piss. It’s almost like it was part of his bloody-mindedness in wanting to rain on someone’s parade. Here are some of his plot summaries – skip any of them if it’s for a film you want to see:
I Know Where I’m Going (1945): “A determined girl travels to the Hebrides to marry a wealthy old man, but is stranded on Mull and marries a young naval officer instead.”
A Place In The Sun (1951): “A poor young man, offered the chance of a rich wife, allows himself to be convicted and executed for the accidental death of his former fiancee.”
Count Dracula (1970): “An English solicitor, Jonathan Harker, tracks Dracula to his castle after the Count kills his wife’s friend, and destroys him by burning his coffin.”
Death Of A Salesman (1951): “An ageing travelling salesman recognises the emptiness of his life and commits suicide.”
Superman III (1983): “Synthetic Kryptonite warps Superman’s character, but his conscience is reawakened by a plea from a small boy.”
Thanks for that, Leslie!
Halliwell’s wasn’t the only film guide I owned in my teen years. There was Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia Of Film, which I loved, but on reflection that too worsened my life: over subsequent years I’d waste many hours watching any movie that was listed in there, good, bad or incredibly bad, just for the precious tick. I don’t think I have an addictive personality, but this is the closest I got to a serious, life-damaging addiction. Incidentally, Psychotronic is a bit like Halliwell’s in that you read many of its entries now and think: Is that it?! All you’ve done is given a brief plot synopsis, an even briefer critical comment and a few names of the people involved in the production! Back then we consumers had lower expectations.
Then there was Leonard Maltin’s Movie And Video Guide, which had more films in it and, although the entries were even more capsule-like than Halliwell’s, were a bit sharper and more accurate – you sensed the writers (there were several) had actually seen the flicks they critiqued, unlike Halliwell much of the time.
I also got Elliot’s Guide To Films On Video and he sure hadn’t seen the vast majority of the 10,000 films listed, but it did later prove to be a valuable record of what had been released on video in Britain in the early days. Films that appeared on the nasties list had the line “Unlikely to be available in an uncut form in the UK” in the write-up; he included porn titles too. One quirk of Elliot’s book was the star rating system, which went from none to five – but the thing was, I think there are only something like three films in the entire book that get the top rating! (One is Bicycle Thieves.) Now that’s just weird, or incompetent.
But there I am moaning again. And there I am using the word “but” again. A shrink once told me off for using the word “but” too much. See, that’s the Halliwell effect. Despite all that I’ve written above, though, Halliwell’s guide somehow remains the most thumbed of my film review books, so it must have something good going for it. And there you go, that’s me ending on a positive. I’m improving.
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