Monday, 11 June 2007
Over the weekend I read two new cult cinema related books, neither admittedly about the giallo. One is a must buy and the other the kind of thing that I feel like warning others against spending their hard-earned on. The must buy, is Stephen Thrower's Nightmare USA, a hefty (500+ page) examination of the American “exploitation independents” of the period 1970-1985. The should avoid, is Sinclair McKay's ostensibly self-explanatory A Thing of Unspeakable Horror: The History of Hammer Films.
Taking the bad first, the issue with McKay's book is its sheer pointlessness. While it's still possible to find something new to say about Hammer – Wayne Kinsey's books are a perfect illustration, through their year-by-year approach and engagement with each and every production regardless of where it fits generically – what we have here is a retread of the same old material with a predictable focus on the more famous productions to the exclusion of a Never Take Sweets from a Stranger or Demons of the Mind. Indeed, about the only thing I got out of it was a new word for describing Hammer's leading ladies – embonpoint, “the bodily property of being well rounded.”
Nightmare USA is an altogether different proposition. After a scene-setting introduction to the world in which the exploitation independents operated – the slow replacement of the drive ins and grindhouses by home video; the shift from softcore to hardcore; the difficulties in recognition that stem from an auteurist approach whose search for recurring signatures in a sustained body of work ill-fits the one-off and anonymous nature of much independent exploitation production – the bulk of the book comprises a series of chapters discussing a range of individual films and film-makers, rounded off with 100 or so pages of shorter reviews.
Let's throw in some names: James Bryan, Fredrick Friedel, The Deadly Spawn, Don Jones, Screams of a Winter Night, David Durston, Messiah of Evil, Fight for Your Life, Death Bed: The Bed that Eats – the point is that these are names which even most cult film fans may well never have heard of.
More importantly, Thrower also has the knack of making you want to see the films he discusses for yourself. His approach is a simple but brilliantly effective one, of approaching each film and film-maker in their own terms, acknowledging that there are fundamental differences between – say – the ultra low-budget film intended as a Hollywood calling-card by young first-time film-makers; the grind-'em-out and put bread on the table product from the middle-aged professional trying to adapt to the changing cultural landscape; and the obsessive individual committed to his art, however defined.
Thower knows that you may not want to ever actually see a film like Zebedy Colt's Sex Wish, for instance, but also establishes a framework in which you could at least begin to approach it through a confrontational stance that frequently asks what is the point of a horror film if it doesn't, in some way, actually horrify you?
Thrower also has the breadth of knowledge to make you understand where the individual work fits. Here – and by way of bringing in something more on-topic for this blog – his deep familiarity with Italian exploitation pays dividends, with a number of comparisons to Bava, Argento, Fulci and so on. Crucially, however, these never feel like gratuitous name dropping – you know that he has sought out, watched and thought about each and every one of these films, what they do and how they do it.
The comments from the film-makers themselves, many speaking for the first time are equally valuable and should be required reading for anyone interested in the film business. The story they tell, again and again, is that it's not a question of whether the independent exploitation film-maker was going to get fucked over by the distributor, but how badly. (Sometimes, as with Death Bed, whose revival largely came about through the existence of a bootleged tape its creator was unawares for a quarter-century, this can have positive consequences.) Likewise, their comments help address one of the criticisms made (by Tim Lucas in his Video Watchdog review) of Thrower's earlier study of Fulci, Beyond Terror, by contextualising his sometimes theoretically-inclined thoughts with the nuts-and-bolts of the film-making process, sometimes to indicate that, yes, a cigar is just a cigar and there is little or no subtext, but sometimes indicating that a deeper meaning might well have been there (e.g. the phallic and vagina dentata symbolism of The Deadly Spawn monsters).
In the end, the key difference between the two books is that whereas McKay's comes across as an opportunistic exploitation of “cult” – i.e. the Hammer name sells, at least for certain narrow definitions of “Hammer” – Thrower's is a genuine labour of love, the kind of thing that can only come from someone who has an authentic commitment to spreading the word about obscure films to whoever will listen. Please do...