Category Archives: Book Review

PHIL HALL’S IN SEARCH OF LOST FILMS

Only Phil Hall, of the late and much missed “Film Threat,” would have the gall (or the balls) to (rightly) include ‘s Oscar nominated Mystic River (2003) in a 2013 book entitled “The Greatest Bad Movies of All Time,” right alongside Plan 9 from Outer Space and the 1970 “UFOs built the pyramids” documentary Chariots of the Gods. Of course “Film Threat” was so titled because it was a provocative endeavor, frequently taking the likes of Steven Spielberg to task for complacency while promoting the riskier independent film scene—which was slowly and inevitably devolving into a crowd-pleasing landscape itself. Yet, “Film Threat” was also (and primarily) a pedagogical effort, written and edited by a team of writers who knew and loved film and saw it as the youngest of the major art forms, one that had boundless potential for experimentation and growth. Thus, it’s really not surprising to see Hall dipping into the history of film and its missing gems in his 2016 opus “In Search of Lost Films.”

Hall opens with a concise dissertation on the history of lost films, writing that the tragedy of lost films is all the more unfortunate because, unlike a lost painting, film is a collaborative work of art. Correcting the general misconception that lost films are confined to those produced during the silent era, Hall propels the reader through examples that expand into the 1970s.

One of the most compelling sections focuses on the lost films of “vamp” Theda Bara. Bara’s reputation as America’s first cinematic sex symbol was once so pronounced that even Marilyn Monroe paid tribute to her predecessor in a famous photo shoot with Richard Avedon. Yet today, with only four of Bara’s forty four films in existence, it is difficult to fully fathom her impact. Of the four survivors, only one is a starring role in a feature film tailored around her screen persona. Fortunately, it is among her most famous films and the one that established her “vamp” image: A Fool There Was (1915). Less than thirty seconds of her biggest box office hit, 1917’s Cleopatra, survives. That film was so popular it spawned numerous imitators (including one by Cecil B. DeMille) and spoofs (including one by ). For nearly a decade Bara ranked behind only and among major silent film stars, but her oeuvre has suffered the greatest loss, primarily due to a 1937 Fox Studio vault fire. Although Bara had been one of Fox’s biggest stars, the studio was negligent in preserving her films after its contract with the star expired[1] in 1919. By 1937, a renewed wave of puritan values had created the Production Code and Bara’s screen persona became an erotic relic (A Fool There Was bears this out). Coupled with a general studio attitude that saw no value in preserving films beyond their initial release period, this set the stage for Bara’s main body of work being reduced to nitrate ash.

London After Midnight (1927) publicity still
Lon Chaney in a publicity still from Tod Browning’s lost film “London After Midnight” (1927)

Naturally, Hall discusses what is perhaps the most famous and  sought after lost film: London After Midnight (1927). A still photo reproduction of this / production was released by Turner Classic Movies several years ago, and only inspired further speculation and futile hope of finding it. The late Forrest J. Ackerman, undoubtedly the horror genre’s most famous fan, had already fanned the flames of desire when he claimed to have seen the film and declared it a lamentably lost masterpiece. 1927 audiences apparently shared Ackerman’s enthusiasm. Up until 1931’s Dracula, it Continue reading PHIL HALL’S IN SEARCH OF LOST FILMS

  1. Due in part to the actress’ ill-advised effort to escape typecasting—although she had earlier vowed to “vamp” as long as people sinned. []

BOOK REVIEW: “MADELEINE E.” (2016, GABRIEL BLACKWELL)

“…the forger… [produces] what the archaeologist or historian is already looking for, artifacts or documents quite familiar and a little strange. The familiarity makes the work meaningful, and the strangeness makes it valuable.”–Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy, quoted in Gabriel Blackwell, Madeleine E.

“It’s clear that Vertigo isn’t really about what it appears to be about. But, what it really is about isn’t entirely clear.”–G. Smalley

Madeleine E.

This is a book about a writer named Gabriel Blackwell who is writing a book about Vertigo. Just as he begins, he learns that his contract as an associate professor of creative writing will not be not renewed. He finds himself distracted and anxious, suddenly dependent on his wife’s income to survive. After he has already started working on the book, the 2012 Sight and Sound poll unexpectedly naming Vertigo the critics’ favorite film of all time comes out. His agent insists that he needs to take advantage of the fact that he has a head start on the flood of books about to come out on the film, which makes him even more nervous about the project.

But the writer still does not have a handle on what he wants to do with the material. While doing his research he has collected a tremendous amount of quotes about the movie, direct quotes from Alfred Hitchcock and Kim Novak, interpretations from critics, and indirectly related thoughts from writers discussing themes that also appear in Vertigo. He intersperses these quotations with his own reflections about the film, but the result still does not seem right. In a stroke of inspiration, he invents (or does he?) a story about a double; about seeing another Gabriel Blackwell’s name pop up on the Internet, a man who is also a writer but who has written books our Gabriel Blackwell did not write. He travels to San Francisco and is shaken when he sees a man there who looks exactly like him. He talks about the stress his marriage is under, and admits to following his wife and spying on her from a distance when she leaves for work. Sometimes, the autobiographical parts of the book appear to contradict each other. At times he has a wife, at times a girlfriend, and we are not entirely sure if these sets of memories come from two different times in his life, or if they are written by two different Gabriel Blackwells, each of whom is working on a book about Vertigo. He includes several synopses of a book called Madeleine E. (sometimes titled Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo), sketches of novels that were never written, mysterious stories about detectives and screenwriters and mistaken identities and deception, tales that read like magical realist parables. In the end, Blackwell abandons writing and becomes a paralegal.

Or so he tells us. The whole thing could be made up. Or true.

Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. is a bravely experimental work; a Continue reading BOOK REVIEW: “MADELEINE E.” (2016, GABRIEL BLACKWELL)

BOOK REVIEW: “TWISTERN: 50 TWISTED WESTERN MOVIE REVIEWS”

Written by Kelly Knight; 149pp, ISBN 978-0-615-62472-3; Ronin Productions, Inc.

What, exactly, is a “Twistern”? Well, as the foreword explains, it’s basically one of two things. Either it’s a western which in some way resembles another genre, or vice versa. As the author puts it: “Like peanut butter and chocolate, the mixture of science fiction, horror, comedy and psychedelic genres with classic Western results in a delicious concoction.” Leaving aside the bizarre peanut butter and chocolate analogy, this is potentially the basis for an extremely interesting study of how the most prolific of all classic movie genres has, during its long evolution, spawned many strange mutant offspring.

Sadly, this book isn’t it. It does exactly what it says on the cover: reviews 50 movies which more or less fit this extremely broad category, but are otherwise apparently chosen at random, irrespective of quality, obscurity, or degree of “twistedness.” If you read the title carefully, it doesn’t claim these are the 50 best, worst, or weirdest twisted westerns—they’re just 50 twisted westerns. Which is disarmingly honest, and perfectly true. Of course, you have to accept the author’s personal definition of “twisted.” The foreword explains that spaghetti westerns have been left out because they all have plots very similar to ordinary westerns, or are too “well known and beloved” to merit inclusion, but Django il Bastardo gets in because the hero is a ghost, and that’s “twisted.” The Proposition is ”twisted” because it’s set in Australia. The Apple Dumpling Gang (mass-produced Disney pap from 1975) is “twisted” because it’s a comedy, and the protagonists are children. The North Star is “twisted” because there’s snow on the ground throughout the film, and the author wants an excuse to mock Christopher Lambert’s miscasting as a half-breed Eskimo. And so on.

Since only 50 films are covered, it’s literally a waste of space to discuss huge, mainstream blockbusters like Back to the Future Part III or Cowboys & Aliens, especially when the author justifies leaving out all but one spaghetti western on the grounds that readers will be familiar with them already. They might also have heard of Westworld, Blazing Saddles, Outland, Serenity, Wild Wild West, and many others. In a book this slim, there shouldn’t be anything like this much dead wood. Even the weirder films are in some cases the usual suspects that have been wearily popping up in every book that laughs ironically at bad movies since the Medved brothers originated the fad in 1979. Do we really need to hear yet again about Billy the Kid vs. Dracula, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter, or The Terror of Tiny Town?

This is not a book for those seriously interested in cinema. It’s very lightweight indeed, and written throughout with such breathless enthusiasm that sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or not the author actually likes the film. A few interesting and/or unjustly neglected movies are discussed: for example, the rather weird and strangely compelling The Tears of the Black Tiger, or the non-weird but pretty good Australian thriller Red Hill. But most of those you haven’t heard of are obscure for a very good reason—Cowboys & Zombies, for example, about which the book says: “So, here’s another extremely low budget Twistern for all you dudes and dudettes. If you’re in the spirit, you could do a lot worse. Slide on your armoured chaps, strap on two bandoliers, and aim for those zombie heads!”

I haven’t seen this film, and judging by every other review I can find, I don’t want to. Other reviews of films that were new to me suffer from the same problem – the author is so enthusiastic about what sounds like a terrible movie that you have to look it up elsewhere because you don’t believe him. Which completely defeats the object of a book of film reviews. As for the “twistern” concept tying it all together, it’s stretched so thin that it becomes a meaningless and counterproductive gimmick that forces him to include predictable, over-familiar movies. In short, this book is obviously a labor of love, but I can’t imagine anyone but its author loving it.

Book Review: FERVID FILMMAKING: 66 CULT PICTURES OF VISION, VERVE AND NO SELF-RESTRAINT

Written by Mike Watt; Foreword by ; 245pp, illustrated, McFarland and Co., Inc. ISBN 978-7864-7044-2; McFarland Books

I think that Cult Film is Dead—personally, I blame the Internet.

What I mean by that statement (that many are going to disagree with, I know) is that the very definition of what we understand as ‘cult film’ has been undermined and misconstrued due to the very nature of the Internet to highlight and champion the obscure. In the pre-Internet age, most of the guides into the dark recesses of the film world were the Danny Peary “Cult Films” books and the efforts of freelancers working for mags like “Cinefantastique,” “Psychotronic Film,” etc.

When the Internet came upon us, it did allow for wider exposure of film treasures—which led to ‘overnight experts’ popping up to spread around equal amounts of information and disinformation, which was accepted as gospel. Whereas before it took some searching to find any sort of film guide pertaining to cult film, one can now walk into almost any bookstore nowadays and stumble over several volumes sitting in the aisles; most of said guides usually feature the same lineup of films that have been discussed and re-discussed over and over again.

It (the Internet), and to a degree, the MST3K Effect[1], changed the definition of Cult Film from “films which didn’t get their due” more towards “bad films with a following”; which, indeed, may be an apt description of some cult films (*cough* Manos: Hands of Fate, The Room *cough*), but it shouldn’t be the sole definition.

Anyway… when it comes to cult film, there are a lot of pseudo-experts out there, flogging the same old titles on blogsites and books, but fortunately the pretenders haven’t squeezed out die-hard stalwarts such as “Shock Magazine,” “Video Watchdog,” and a couple of others. Of course, such harsh words aren’t leveled at Mike Watt (who is a writer for publications like “Cinefantastique” and not the ex-Minuteman punk musician, despite what the Internet will tell you). He’s written about cult film for quite a few years and has a review site, Movie Outlaw, that I discovered sometime back.

When the site went on hiatus, I was concerned that Watt had decided to throw in the towel as far as reviewing/blogging went; fortunately my concerns were smoothed over when I discovered that he was taking the time to work on a book: “Fervid Filmmaking: 66 Cult Pictures of Vision, Verve and No Self-Restraint.”

As Watt defines it, the films featured in ‘Fervid Filmmaking’ are examples of “Kitchen Sink Cinema,” films that throw in “everything but…” said sink. Such films are rarely the result of committee; rather, they tend to be of a singular vision and fueled by passion. They rarely find mass audiences, but do get small and highly devoted audiences.

Among those sixty-six films that Watt mentions are Head, Tideland, Santa Sangre, Tromeo and Juliet, Repo! The Genetic Opera, which are probably not surprises to any serious cult film devotee. But Watt goes much further, unearthing gems such as Shanks, The Final Programme, Forbidden Zone, Coonskin, Twice Upon a Time and even lesser known films such as The Baby of Macon, Sixteen Tongues, and Fearless Frank. His selection of films is refreshing. He doesn’t limit himself only to movies made within the past 20 years or so, and his breakdown on each film is thorough. Best of all, most of his selections will be familiar to regulars of 366 Weird Movies. There’s even a mention of the site in the section on Dr. Caligari (of which, there is a big difference of opinion on… sorry, Greg!)

Being published by McFarland Books means that this title will be pricey, but like most of McFarland’s genre releases, it’s worth every penny. :”Fervid Filmmaking” is a “must-buy” for any cult film aficionado.

  1. Mystery Science Theater 3000 Effect – the need to loudly and humorlessly belittle the gaping flaws in a film. []