Filler content with books about films

Five reviews that originally appeared in Black Static #41:-

THE BOOK(S) OF THE FILM

The Devil’s Advocate range has gone from strength to strength, with each new volume of criticism a welcome addition to the library of any aficionado of horror films. Long gone are the days when your pernickety reviewer could have a whinge about poor proofreading or the shoddy reproduction of film stills.

Time then for a quick look at some of the latest releases.

CARRIE (Auteur Publishing pb, 100pp, £9.99) by Neil Mitchell presents a cogently argued critical analysis of the Brian De Palma film based on Stephen King’s first published novel, opening with a brief account of the film’s importance and then moving on to tell us how King came to the idea, the very real people who were the inspiration for Carrie White. Mitchell gives us an overview of the careers of both King and De Palma to that point, and discusses how Carrie transformed the fortunes of both (for King it was the breakthrough novel; for De Palma the film that gave him the commercial clout to pursue his creative ambitions). As well as an in-depth examination of the film and its subtext – the outsider with special abilities who seeks nothing more than acceptance but is turned into a monster by peer pressure – Mitchell places it within the context of the horror genre, showing how it tapped into the public psyche and teen trends, the influence the film has had, becoming the focal point of a whole new subgenre dealing with the kind of monsters critic Kim Newman has christened “psicopaths”.

In addition to the critical content there are also some fascinating titbits of film lore that aficionados will love, such as the fact that casting auditions for Carrie were held concurrently with those for Star Wars (Amy Irving was earmarked by Lucas for the role of Princess Leia and Carrie Fisher read for the lead role in De Palma’s film – there’s a doctoral thesis waiting to be written on how those cast substitutions would have transformed the fantasies of a generation) and that plans to shoot the opening scene from the novel, in which rocks bombard the roof of the White household, were abandoned when the conveyor belt loading them broke down. Overall what we have here is a fascinating and insightful book that is both eminently readable and for most will throw new light onto a classic of the genre.

Jez Conolly’s THE THING (Auteur Publishing pb, 108pp, £9.99) opens with a very personal reminiscence about the first time he saw Carpenter’s film, memories that glow with the fervour he brings to the page. As well as the obligatory plot synopsis, there’s a section in which he looks at the film’s history, going from its initial reception (poor box office and almost universal panning by the critics) through to cult status and then, thanks to celebrity boosters such as Tarantino and critical reassessment by Anne Billson, acknowledgement as a classic of the horror genre (moral of the story – it’s not over till the monster hit bursts out of the also ran’s belly).

Conolly examines such things as the feelings evoked by the almost totally white landscape of the Antarctic setting, the claustrophobia of the men imprisoned in US Outpost 31, the original story by J. W. Campbell, and Howard Hawks’ 1951 take on the material. He doesn’t gloss over the various inconsistencies in the story, but considers them largely irrelevant, and he looks at the film’s influence, finding in its scenes of gore and physical transformation an initial appearance of what has subsequently been labelled “body horror”, with the flesh rebelling against us. There’s also a consideration of the so-called prequel from a couple of years back. And interwoven with all this is an attempt to touch on the themes of the film, not just the intimate betrayal that is representative of body horror, but also the extinction event fears that underlie so much of what takes place, the idea of men involved in an impossible struggle, one they can’t hope to win.

Writer Barry Forshaw is the editor of Crime Time magazine, a publication specialising in crime fiction, and this I feel gives his assessment of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (Auteur Publishing pb, 102pp, £9.99) a slightly different slant to the other volumes in the Devil’s Advocates series. Forshaw sets out his stall early on, declaring that “this study will attempt to contextualise the work of Thomas Harris, demonstrating how the films made of his work (most notably Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs) are as crucial to his success and critical standing as the original novels”. It’s an unusual opening gambit especially for a book of film criticism that is supposed to be focused on a particular work, and I can’t help wondering if something else was originally intended and then quickly revamped to fit the Devil’s Advocate template. Certainly Forshaw seems very much a Harris fanboy, though as far as that goes it’s hard to dispute the claims he makes for the author, and there’s rather more concentration on the literary forerunners to the film(s) than I would have expected. Forshaw talks a lot about how Harris has revolutionised both the horror and crime genres, but that I can see he never actually comes out and says exactly how. Regarding both Harris and star Anthony Hopkins, Forshaw seems almost combative at times – those who accuse Harris of falling standards in his later work are dismissed but not really refuted, while the preference for Brian Cox’s rendition of Lecter from the character’s first cinematic outing in Manhunter that you find in some circles is described as “an interesting syndrome”.

I’m possibly getting hung up on a side issue here, as certainly the book does Jonathan Demme’s film ample justice, all Harris adulation aside. It is an absorbing and worthwhile read, a volume that, if at times the structure feels slightly ramshackle, contains a wealth of fascinating material, Forshaw delineating the popularity of the serial killer in fiction and film, then going on to show why Lecter is such a formidable and distinctive example of the type. There are potted biographies of the three main contributors, Hopkins, Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster, plus a balanced consideration of some of the controversy that surrounded the film and its sequels (e.g. the different ending to Hannibal in Harris’ book and the 2001 Ridley Scott film), a look at the director’s visual palette and examination of feminist themes in the way Starling is treated by her colleagues. I’d say it’s not quite on a par with other DA volumes, mainly because of Forshaw’s focus on the writer (Mitchell gets the balance right in his consideration of King and Carrie), but still an engaging and eminently interesting text.

As well as the Devil’s Advocate range, three times a year Auteur publish a magazine of more general film criticism, and while this would usually be outside my remit SPLICE Vol7 #1 (Auteur Publishing pb, 84pp, £14.99), edited by John Atkinson, celebrates the twenty fifth anniversary of Tim Burton’s Batman by devoting a whole issue to the director’s oeuvre, and Burton is most definitely a person of interest for horror buffs

James Rose kicks off with a critical appraisal of Batman Returns, discussing themes found in the film, how they recur in Burton’s work, and showing how far ahead of its time the film was. In particular he explores the theme of inversion and how this relates to the person of Selina Kyle/Catwoman, offering us a fascinating interpretation of the character. In ‘Behind the Picket Fence’ Matthew Hammond takes a look at the concept of the American family as presented in Burton’s work, contrasting the societal ideal with the director’s model in which we celebrate the camaraderie of outcasts, the family unit reified along lines that don’t hinge on a blood relationship and, ultimately, may prove more inclusive. Warren Holmes tries to pin down the appeal of Edward Scissorhands, identifying and discussing both its universal themes and those that are Burton’s alone, noting the Gothic fairy tale nature of the narrative and wondering if it is correctly regarded as a family film.

From Antony Mullen we have a consideration of Burton’s films for children, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, and not the least of what he discusses is whether these films contain more than their fair share of darkness and madness. After some lucid book reviews by editor Atkinson, we get back to Burton with Judith Gunn’s assessment of Sleepy Hollow, my personal favourite from the director’s oeuvre. Her essay touches on the historical context provided by the story, the visual look of the film and the themes that it contains. These are all elegant and informative essays, well-argued and not afraid to take an unpopular stand. You may agree or disagree with the fine print, as is your want, but there is no doubting that the authors know their stuff and will provide plenty of food for thought.

A word about the book itself – I’ve only seen a PDF, but it appears to be a well-designed package, with excellent layout and black and white film stills used generously throughout, plus the occasional colour shot. More succinctly – looks good.

THE SORCERERS (PS Publishing jhc, 239pp, £30) adopts a somewhat different formula, but before discussing the book some background information. Starring Boris Karloff and Ian Ogilvy, and made in 1967, The Sorcerers was the third film of wunderkind Michael Reeves, who then went on to direct Witchfinder General before his untimely death from an overdose. Reeves and Tom Baker are credited for the script in the film version, with no mention of the contribution of prolific scriptwriter and pulp novelist John Burke, who came up with the idea for the film and provided the original script, much of which was included in the final version. A friend of Burke, editor Johnny Mains determined to right this injustice, and the book of The Sorcerers is the end product of that determination.

At the heart of the book is Burke’s original script, which contains the central themes of corruption and abuse of power made manifest in the film, with the elderly hypnotist and his cohorts indulging their lusts vicariously through the young man they have made their cat’s paw, but with enough differences to justify its existence as a separate entity. It is a fascinating story, one that grips the reader’s attention from first page to last, and you can’t help wondering what the result would have been had Reeves stayed with Burke’s ideas. Almost as fascinating is the back story to the book, told through various facsimile letters and essays, liner notes from the DVD release of The Sorcerers and an account of the background to the making of the film, an assessment of the role of Tigon films in the affair and the historical context, sections on the life of both Reeves and Burke.

This book is obviously a labour of love on the part of editor Mains, and what comes through strongly is his desire to see justice done, to ensure that Burke gets the recognition he deserved, even if it does come posthumously (John Burke passed away in 2011). As far as that goes, it’s most definitely mission accomplished, and for the reader there’s an interesting story to be had and a compelling look at how things got done in the budget film industry way back when, the players and the played, and of course the pleasure of knowing the good guy can come out on top, and that the truth will out.

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