Continuing on from Monday’s post, here’s the second part of the feature on horror film based books that originally appeared in Black Static #52:-
THE SILVER SCREAM (continued)
For those who found the gore effects in Romero’s film made them come over all peculiar, I suspect FILM GUTTER VOLUME 1 (Ginger Nuts eBook, 151pp, £2.31) will not be the book for you, or possibly it will be indispensable as a guide to what to avoid when picking your next DVD.
Written by Alex Davis, Film Gutter is a column that features on Jim McLeod’s Ginger Nuts of Horror website (gingernutsofhorror.com), an invaluable online resource for fans of the genre, which I recommend unreservedly, not least for the proprietor’s enthusiasm for all forms of horror. In the Film Gutter column Davis casts a critical eye over films that fall in the category of extreme horror, and this eBook, the first release from Ginger Nuts Books, collects together all of his reviews from the column’s first year and adds in some interviews with luminaries working in this field of acquired taste.
Which is where things get a little awkward for this reviewer, as I’ve never been a big fan of the type of film under discussion in the pages of this book. When it comes to the written word, I’ll happily read anything, no matter how distasteful or violent, but celluloid is another matter. I am too conscious of the old saw about being unable to unsee things, and opt for caution when it comes to films with titles like Slow Torture Puke Chamber. It’s been over eight years since I bought Ichi the Killer and I still haven’t plucked up the gumption to watch it, and I’ve only watched one of the films reviewed in this book (Necromentia, if anyone is interested, and I didn’t think much of it), which is a pretty poor showing by anybody’s standards. I don’t have any problem with the production of such films or other people watching them, but choose not to do so myself, just as I don’t have a problem with people who eat cabbage, even though I personally regard it as akin to vomit in the mouth.
Bottom line: I’m a bit of a woose and not really the person to tell you how good a reviewer Davis is, given my almost complete ignorance of his area of expertise.
In general terms though, I can tell you that he is an eminently engaging writer, one who obviously loves extreme films, and who can communicate his enthusiasm with great skill and insight. Nor is he an uncritical consumer, the stereotypical gore hound of Daily Mail video nasty culture who delights in atrocity for its own sake and would probably go off on one with a machete if he only had the opportunity. Davis is adept at categorising why certain films work and deserve the status of art, even if their visual content is challenging, the sort of films I’d love to watch if only I felt I had the stomach for it. Similarly he doesn’t shy away from identifying films that have no redeeming values, that offer atrocity simply for its own sake, where the only reason for many viewers to watch is simply to prove they can, a kind of rite of passage into the blood soaked realms of human nature at its very worst.
Some quibbles. The book has rather more typos than I’m comfortable giving a free pass to. The material is arranged alphabetically by film title, whereas I think I would have preferred to have them presented either chronologically or in the order they first appeared on the website, so that readers can watch the reviewer’s taste developing and follow the ongoing dialogue he is having with himself as to what is acceptable and when, if ever, a line can be crossed. And while the interviews that appear at the end of the book, with various directors and performers, are certainly engaging and worthwhile, I didn’t at any point feel that Davis was challenging his subjects.
Those are only quibbles though. Davis writes well, and I particularly liked the way in which he uses a “foul waters” imagery to ease us into each review, skilfully linking the material so that there’s a feel of a gestalt emerging, some overarching design, with the reviewer in search of the Holy Grail of extreme cinema, a film that he himself will not be able to watch to the end (Davis comes close several times, but always manages to hold back from hitting the Stop button on his DVD remote, for which kudos – he sits through this stuff so we can make informed choices as to whether we wish to). Each review comes with a neat summation of Davis’ views and a score of marks out of 10 – Flowers gets 10/10 while Chaos scores a humiliating 0/10. There’s supplementary material besides the interviews, including a list of the reviewer’s ’10 Most Disturbing Films 2015’, and a retrospective appraisal of the Guinea Pig series of films, one of which was (in)famously reported to the FBI as an example of a snuff film by the actor Charlie Sheen.
Okay, the films may not be to everyone’s taste but the book is most definitely worth a read through, entertaining and informative, even if you’re a woose like me. And if you’re in any doubt as to whether Davis’ style or subject matter will be to your taste, then it’s easy enough to pop over to the website at gingernutsofhorror.com to sample a column or two, or three or four (they’re addictive).
Like Karr before him, Davis is writing as a fan and for the benefit of other aficionados. For film criticism coming at things from a slightly more academic angle, though still eminently accessible to the general reader, Auteur Publishing remain the go-to-guys with the slim and elegant volumes in their Devil’s Advocates series, each one of which focuses on a particular film of significance to horror cinema.
Let’s take a look at some “recent” releases.
I couldn’t help but smile at the copy on the back cover of HALLOWEEN (Auteur Publishing pb, 112pp, £9.99), describing the film as “October’s equivalent to It’s a Wonderful Life”. Author Murray Leeder’s book contains all the usual elements we have come to expect from these works, with plot summation, an account of how the film came into being (it was originally titled The Babysitter Murders), its relationship to the slasher film subgenre and standing as a representative of small town horror etc. And from there Leeder moves on to discussion of the aspects of the film that made it unique and such an influential work. The role of Carpenter’s self-composed soundtrack in enhancing the minatory air of the film. The way in which the film codifies the various attributes of the figure of “the Final Girl”, helping create a new archetype. Naturally, given the film’s title, the festival of Halloween is of significance, and Leeder details traditions of the season in the US, where it’s much more important than over here, its appearance in past films and those yet to come, with a consideration of how little input Halloween actually has into the film that bears its name. Leeder finds a connection to the work of Lovecraft through the figure of the psychiatrist Dr. Loomis (a name borrowed from a character in Psycho), and interestingly examines the idea that, in many ways, the film is a ghost story without a ghost. He also identifies the central role of youth in the film, the way in which adult figures are marginalised, so that a direct connection is made with the film’s core audience. Halloween has been so completely absorbed into the bloodstream of horror cinema that it’s easy to forget how important it was to the genre’s development, and this book goes a long way to redressing the balance.
Redressing a balance is also of concern to author Marcus K. Harmes in THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (Auteur Publishing pb, 102pp, £9.99), who argues that the importance of this 1957 release is now chiefly based not on its merits as a work of film, but on its role as a launch pad for the Hammer Horror years and all that came after. Harmes in his introduction captures some of the excitement of Curse’s debut, the way in which a film that was to all appearances totally out of tune with expectations of the time, confounded and outraged the critics by becoming a smash hit, despite its obvious tackiness, making the careers of the two stars, horror legends Lee and Cushing, and director Terence Fisher. But of course films don’t materialise out of thin air, and Harmes excels in showing us the various factors that contributed to Curse’s making – not just Shelley’s novel, which had to be carefully and judiciously adapted to avoid a legal challenge from the copyright holders of the James Whale 1931 film, but also the inspirational input of “the Gainsborough bodice rippers of the 1940s and the poverty row horrors of the 1950s”. Harmes is at his best when discussing the film itself, showing how certain effects are achieved and dissecting the way in which a scene works, but there isn’t enough of the book devoted to this sort of “close reading” for my liking. I’m also not that keen on his prose, which often feels inelegant and laboured: Harmes has a tendency to repeat points when once would have been enough, a habit exacerbated by “Conclusions” at the end of each chapter in which he summarises what’s gone before, presumably for the benefit of those not paying attention. To this reader it felt a bit like padding. Regardless, this is a fine commentary on an important work, and one which will reward study.
From the faux-Gothic of 1957 to the thoroughly modern 1999 release of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (Auteur Publishing pb, 96pp, £9.99). Writer Peter Turner opens the book with an account of the state of the film industry in the late 90s, contrasting two of 1999’s most significant releases, the big budget and highly anticipated Phantom Menace and the eponymous, made on a shoestring film that turned out to be the year’s surprise hit. He argues that, with most of the old seams mined out, horror was waiting for directors to strike a new motherlode, and courtesy of directors/screenwriters Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick with Blair Witch the goods were delivered.
Turner outlines both the plot of the film and the mythology that helped to ground it in the “real world”, blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. He examines the matter of authenticity from an aesthetic perspective and looks at the way in which Project was pitched as “found Film”, helping establish a new school of horror film making, leading to such things as the Paranormal Activity series. The role of the witch in horror films is examined, tying Project into the fairy tales we consume as children, and finding a subtext regarding fear of the dark woods. Central to the film’s originality is the way in which it was shot, with the camera almost a character, the unseen but constant observer. Turner captures this sense of, for want of a better term, the metafictional, and compellingly argues that it contributed to Project’s commercial and critical success.