Filler content with films

And May begins as April ended. These reviews originally appeared in Black Static #31:-

THE BOOK(S) OF THE FILM

The latest volume in the Devil’s Advocates line of horror film criticism, SAW (Auteur Publishing pb, 115pp, £9.99) by Benjamin Poole takes an in-depth look at the work that laid the foundations for the most successful horror film franchise of all the time. Academic Poole covers various aspects, from the history of how the film came into being and the personal elements that the creators incorporated into the narrative, dealing with the moral dilemmas implicit in the material and the horror fans’ love of the elaborate death traps, taking on board films that were its inspiration and those that were influenced by Saw. He discusses the film’s reputation as the first of the ‘torture porn’ subgenre, while ably demonstrating that there was much more to Saw than that slightly dismissive term implies, and he provides context, both as regards the aesthetics of horror cinema and the commercial considerations attendant upon a film’s genesis and subsequent appeal.

As far as the latter aspect goes, what perhaps most significantly distinguishes Saw from the films previously given the DA treatment, Witchfinder General and Let the Right One In, is its status as the progenitor of a franchise that had, as of 2008, earned studio Lionsgate in excess of half a billion dollars, and this is something that Poole addresses at length. He examines how the groundwork is done for each subsequent instalment of the franchise with hooks planted in the narrative to ensure the fans keep coming back for more, and shows how the greater story arc changes with each new set of revelations about the characters. Finally, he takes on board the ways in which Saw has been marketed, a gritty horror film transformed into a cash cow, each Halloween release pitched as ‘an event’, the ‘must see’ horror film of the year, while at the same time attempting to stay true to its indie roots and the aesthetic of the source material.

The end result is a fascinating and eminently readable book, one that makes a very credible case for the importance of Saw in the horror film canon. On a more practical note, I haven’t done a head count but my impression is that there are fewer illustrations than in previous DA releases, though they reproduce slightly better, and while it’s not typo free, such mistakes are no longer prevalent enough to be of as serious concern as before.

Black Static DVD reviewer Tony Lee abandons his usual acerbic style to produce a fan boy treatise on Ang Lee’s 2003 film HULK (Telos Publishing pb, 105pp, £7.99), based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I suspect that how you feel about the book will largely be filtered through your perceptions of the film. Personally, I liked it, but didn’t think Hulk was anything special. Lee however appears to have loved it, to the point that this isn’t simply a critical assessment, but on occasion feels like an attempt at canonisation. Stuff that other people objected to, as for example the lacklustre CGI, get dismissed as failure of suspension of disbelief on their part, and generally Lee appears to feel that its detractors have simply misunderstood the film.

Agree with him or not, Lee’s enthusiasm is infectious and his amiable prose makes his arguments all the more convincing. Taken on its own terms, the book is a powerful piece of polemic, and there is no doubting its value as a source book for those who wish to better appreciate Ang Lee’s achievement. Lee deftly chronicles the character’s past, from the Hulk’s origin as anti-hero of the Marvel Age of Comics through to mainstream success courtesy of the Bill Bixby television series, identifying the qualities that made the green skinned behemoth so unique and appealing, and showing how he has been reinterpreted for each target audience. He also pins down the Hulk’s antecedents in mythology and literature, with Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein among other obvious influences that get referenced in Ang Lee’s film.

Where Lee is at his best is in detailing the various familial relationships contained within the film and the underlying psychology of the work. Both Bruce Banner and romantic interest Betty Ross have lost their mothers and are at odds with their fathers. In many ways the relationship between Bruce and father David is the powerhouse that drives the plot, an almost oedipal rivalry with the Hulk’s gamma radiation charged power as the prize. On a lighter note, Lee delights in coincidences, such as the pervasiveness of the name Lee in Hulk lore and his much touted ‘rule of four’, while he enthusiastically sings the praises of rotary wing vehicles for bringing the action to action movies.

This Telos Movie Classics edition doesn’t have any illustrations, but the text is somewhat larger and clearer than in the DA volume, and I didn’t spot a single typo. All things considered, this is a nicely packaged text that’s insightful and informative, and a pleasure to read regardless of how you feel about the source material. And who knows, Lee might actually win you over to his point of view. Recommended for Hulk-o-philes the world over.

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