My ten favourite things about the May 98 issue of Empire Magazine

Monday August 22nd 2011

It was my birthday last week and to celebrate, a couple of my dearest friends raided the Vintage Magazine Shop in Soho in search of appropriately awesome gifts. Knowing my love of Scream 2, they found such a gift in the shape of the May 1998 edition of Empire Magazine — the ‘horror special’ with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Courteney Cox, Neve Campbell and Jada Pinkett on the cover.

I know it’s not exactly ground-breaking comedy to simply point out things in the past that seem funny in retrospect, but this particular artefact is such a perfect distillation of late-90s pop culture that I thought I’d offer you a few highlights anyway…

The May 1998 Horror Special marked the 107th issue of Empire (they’ve racked up 160 more since then), was edited by Ian Nathan (who today is ‘Executive Editor’) and cost £2.70, or 18 Deutsche Marks if you prefer. The spine message was “I feel like a human sacrifice…” (Google suggests it’s from 1989’s New York Stories), the cover movie was Scream 2 and the next issue preview promised a ‘FREE VIDEO! Empire’s near-legendary trailer tape makes its return, previewing a host of this summer’s biggest movies including Godzilla, The Avengers [no change there then], Armageddon, Lost in Space and many more!’

The big story that month was the 3rd Annual Empire Movie Awards (I attended the 16th edition back in March) which was at that point sponsored by Stella Artois rather than Jameson. Dennis Hopper won a lifetime achievement award, Men in Black got Best Film and Kevin Spacey walked away with Best Actor for LA Confidential. But far and away the best bit of the night must have been when ‘Peter Cattaneo accepted the Best British Film Award from Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown’.

The majority of the magazine’s ad space is reserved for enticing offers of VHS bargains (Virgin Megastore have Road House for just £5.99 while a Star Wars laserdisc box set can be yours for just £99.95 at The Cinema Store) but the most surprising advert placement is for a product that hasn’t changed at all in the intervening years. Before the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002, cigarette manufacturers were free to advertise wherever they wanted, so three pages on from a poster for Anastasia is a double-page spread extolling the virtues of Marlboro.

The brief ‘Talent Scout’ section at the front of the magazine introduces readers to ‘the latest Australian actress to excite international raves’, Cate Blanchett. Written in much the same style as a personals ad, the piece reveals that Blanchett enjoys ‘being at home, cooking and “drinking a little bit too much; I’m a great fan of Australian reds”‘. Elsewhere, ‘top telly host’ Les Dennis is still considered big enough news to endorse the magazine’s monthly quiz and an advert for Sky Magazine sports the irresistible offer of a MASSIVE DOUBLE-SIDED POSTER of Casualty‘s Claire Goose in a bikini.

Refreshingly, most of Empire’s captions are short, explanatory statements rather than the cringe-worthy, often nonsensical puns they favour today (check out the amazingly restrained entry on the right), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t space for a cheeky bit of wordplay. Their Scream 2 feature has one of the cleverest titles in the history of magazine publishing, the spectacularly multi-layered ‘Strike While the Irony is Hot’.

It’s re-assuring to know that even back in 1998, there were ‘unconfirmed reports’ about Ghostbusters 3. Elsewhere there’s news of a Nicholas Hytner-directed Chicago starring Madonna and Goldie Hawn (CAN YOU FUCKING IMAGINE?!), rumours of an X-Men film (‘Elizabeth Hurley is hot favourite for the female lead’) and the first reports of Big Daddy, which at that point had the considerably more Sandleresque title of Guy Gets Kid.

Opening with a 5-star review of The Big Lebowski that they can be proud of to this day, the critical opinions on display in the magazine’s review section have, generally speaking, held up pretty well. There’s a fair if under-starred review of Harmony Korine’s masterpiece debut Gummo written by Kim Newman (‘A melancholy edge of deliberate poetry mutes the ugly realism but also serves to make bearable what might otherwise be an hour and a half of hell’), a surprisingly effusive 4-star take on Mouse Hunt and a look ahead to Deep Impact, which is ‘expected to score highly’. Rightly so.

Few sentences scream ‘1998!’ louder than ‘For an alternative view of the world updated on a daily basis, consult the oracle: Empire On-Line at‘. Once you get there (there being the monstrosity you see on the right –>) there are ‘weekly film conferences, the latest gossip from the States and opportunities to talk to top actors and directors’. And if you’re not online yet, fear not, because ‘Empire has got together with CompuServe, the UK’s leading Internet company, to get you online for free.*’

*’Free first month’s membership with 10 hours online time.’

Seven weeks into its release, Titanic was still firmly outstripping the competition at the UK box office, grossing four times its nearest competition, hee-larious Robin Williams mad scientist comedy Flubber. Also in the top ten: Good Will Hunting, Boogie Nights and Paws, a movie in which Billy Connolly voices a live-action dog.

Unsurprisingly, the true gems of this historical document are to be found within the letters page, in which Stuart Fletcher from Stoke desperately wants to know ‘why rental video boxes are much bigger than sell-through cases’ (answer: ‘the plastic box is much more robust and can stand up to greater handling’) and Barry Hyman [lol, hyman] from Hertfordshire is concerned about the fate of 20th Century Fox’s era-specific moniker in the new millennium. There’s also a proto-IMDb section called ‘Lost and Found’ in which readers send in vague details of various forgotten movies and Empire tell them what they are. So the film with ‘Jason Patric and a tank’ is revealed to be The Beast and the medieval movie about ‘a possessed pig put on trial by villagers’ turns out to be the Colin Firth-starring Hour of the Pig. And I think we can all agree that’s a movie worth knowing about.