Monday, 31 October 2011

Horror Film Books

Taking my cue from Wes at Plutonium Shores I have put together a list of horror film books that I think are particularly good. Each title is linked to Amazon. Some are a little bit pricey! If you live in London or plan a visit I would highly recommend a trip to the British Film Institute Library where you can find most of these titles. Buy a day pass to their reading room - it's a treasure trove for film buffs and film scholars. I have spent many a happy day there researching Shocks to the System.

The Zombies that Ate Pittsburg: The films of George A. Romero - Paul R. Gagne (still the most comprehensive study of Romero's work - although it only goes up to Day of The Dead). Link

Wes Craven's Last House on the Left- David Szulkin (fascinating behind the scenes look at Craven's notorious film covering everything from the origins of its conception to its cultural impact) Link

English Gothic - Jonathan Rigby (excellent overview of the British horror film - including obscure wonders like Todd Slaughter) Link

Making Mischief: The cult films of Pete Walker - Steve Chibnall (Chibnall is the Walker expert - highly recommended) Link

Dark Carnival - David J Skal & Elias Savada (the only Tod Browning biography to have been written so far, to my knowledge, and brilliantly researched as you would expect from David Skal) Link

Shocking Representation - Adam Lowenstein (a fascinating critical study of the horror genre as allegory of historical trauma)  Link

The cinema of David Cronenberg - Ernest Mathijs (comprehensive critical study of Cronenberg's career from the early days of experimental shorts to Eastern Promises. Mathijs examines the production context of Cronenberg's films, their cultural context within Canadian cinema and their critical reception. Easily the best book on Cronenberg. Link

The cinema of George A. Romero - Tony Williams (Williams is the Romero expert - this is indespensible for Romero scholars) Link

George A. Romero Interviews - Tony Williams (a new book of interviews with Romero spanning his entire career - read my review here) Link

The Remarkable Michael Reeves - John B Murray (Excellent biography of the tragic British director) Link

Tod Browning (Hollywood Professional) - Stuart Rosenthal (an early critical study of Browning but still one of the best) Link

What the Censor Saw - John Trevelyan (fascinating memoir from the 1960s censor) Link

Horror in the Cinema - Ivan Butler (early survey of the genre but still very good - the section on Polanski's Repulsion is excellent) Link

Horror Movies - Carlos Clarens (another classic early survey) Link

Michael Reeves - Benjamin Halligan (excellent companion-piece to John Murray's biography. This one also offers an insightful critical appraisal of Reeves's films) Link

The Exorcist - Mark Kermode (Kermode is the expert on The Exorcist. What more can I say?) Link

Horror Films - James Marriot (very good and accessible survey of the genre from Virgin books) Link

James Whale - James Curtis (comprehensive and well-researched biography of the great British director) Link

Nightmare Movies - Kim Newman (newly revised and expanded - still one of the best and most accessible surveys) Link

Book of The Dead - Jamie Russell (the last word on zombie films from the brilliant FAB press) link

Horror Films of the 1970s/80s/90 (three volumes) - John Kenneth Muir (meticulously researched database including some of the more obscure releases from each decade) link

Beasts in the Cellar - John Hamilton (fascinating and detailed study of Tony Tenser's career as British horror producer in the 1960s and 1970s - another FAB press triumph) Link

Wounds of Nations - Linnie Blake (important study of horror films in relation to historical trauma and national identity. A dense, sometimes difficult read but a rewarding one) Link

Men, Women and Chainsaws - Carol J Clover (classic text on representation of gender in the horror film) Link

Dark Dreams - Charles Derry (another classic text - this one examines horror films by themic 'type') Link

Danse Macabre - Stephen King (proof of King's deep knowledge and understanding of the genre - entertaining too) Link

Night of The Living Dead Film-book - John Russo (Detailed behind the scenes account by the film's co-writer) Link

Poverty Row Horrors - Tom Weaver (excellent and unique look at horror films made by the poverty row studios - PRC, Republic, Monogram - in the 1940s) Link

Deformed Destructive Beings - George Ochoa (New book on the horror film by fellow blogger, George Ochoa) Link

Dario Argento - James Gracy (New book on Argento by fellow blogger and Fangoria writer James Gracy) Link

Monday, 17 October 2011

A Tribute to David Hess

David Hess died recently at the age of 69. By way of tribute I wanted to look at the part he played in the original Last House on the Left both as actor and composer. Of course, playing the role of ‘Krug’ was something of a mixed blessing for Hess. Although it was the big break in his acting career, he was to become typecast as a psychotic killer as a result (notably in House on the Edge of the Park), and his musical achievements have been somewhat overlooked.

Hess was first and foremost a singer- songwriter. He had begun his professional career under a pseudonym, David Hill, writing and performing “All Shook Up”, which Elvis Presley later made a hit.

Wes Craven hired him not just to act in Last House on the Left but also to compose the soundtrack. In interviews and commentaries on the film, Hess emerges as the collaborator who comes closest, with Craven, to understanding the moral complexities of the film, and this is evident, not just in his extraordinary portrayal of Krug (“a character just like anybody else…who just happens to kill people sometimes”) but also in his approach to creating the soundtrack.

The soundtrack to Last House on the Left is in itself lyrical, memorable and beautifully composed but it is in conjunction with the film that the full power and meaning of the music comes across. The same can be said about the film: the soundtrack and film are symbiotic.

What Hess detected in the screenplay was its sense of moral contradiction, its absurd violence. He is, for example, one of the few, who understands the ironic counterpoint of violence and buffoonish comedy in the film (“absurd violence – absurd comedy”) and his music for the film counterpoints the on-screen action in the same way, at first confusing the viewer’s responses but ultimately leading to a deeper engagement with the moral complexities of the film.

One of the most extraordinary scenes in Last House on the Left is Krug’s moment of self-revelation after raping Mari by the riverbank. It is both profoundly disturbing and strangely moving because - while Krug has committed the vilest of acts – the violation and humiliation of another human being – we cannot entirely distance ourselves from him. His reaction to what he has done – and the best way to describe it I think is to say he is shocked at himself, at his own depravity – elicits sympathy – however fleeting - because we suddenly see his vulnerability, and it forces us to recognise the aggressor in ourselves.

It is a beautifully edited scene by Craven – made up of gazes averted, fingers picking dirt from hands, clothes being straightened, but the moment is given its full disturbing power by Hess’s ballad which counterpoints the scene. The song – deeply ironic – is tender, plaintiff and speaks of loneliness and the search for comfort in a loveless environment (“Now you’re all alone, feeling that nobody wants you, and you’re looking for someone to hold your hand, someone who understands.”) - but its counterpointing with the scene brings out the full horror and sorrow of what has just taken place: the feeling of alienation, powerlessness and isolation that violence creates in both the victim and the aggressor - and also in the observer.

I remember when I first realised (after having seen the film) that the actor who played Krug and the singer-songwriter whose gentle voice graced the soundtrack were one and the same. I couldn’t believe that one man could portray such brutishness as an actor and at the same time create such poignant music - in the same film!

That, perhaps is the true testament to Hess’s achievement: his ability to encompass the moral contradictions of Last House on The Left (‘The duality of man’ as Jung said). While Craven has to an extent, distanced himself from the film over the years, following the effect it had on his personal reputation in the 1970s, Hess embraced the film, discussing it with insight during his appearances at conventions since its re-emergence on DVD in the late 1990s. His contribution to this most disturbing and haunting of films cannot be overestimated.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Review of George A. Romero Interviews

Of particular interest to Romero fans is this new collection of interviews edited by Tony Williams. Prof. Williams’s previous work includes the critical study The Cinema of George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead (Wallflower Press, London, 2003) and the acclaimed study of family in the horror film, Hearths of Darkness (Associated University Presses, London, 1996). The interviews in this new collection cover a period of over forty years – from 1969 to 2010 – spanning Night of the Living Dead to Survival of the Dead.  The interviews illustrate the various stages in Romero’s career with the majority covering the years from 1973 to 1982 – arguably Romero’s richest period creatively. 

Three of the interviews are conducted by Prof. Williams himself (including one taken especially for the book). Many are rare and difficult to find, including an important one from 1979 by Williams, Robin Wood and Richard Lippe at the Toronto Film Festival retrospective of horror films (the event for which Wood wrote his landmark essay, The American Nightmare). Also included is a Paul R. Gagne interview from 1985 - Gagne’s The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh (Dodd Mead, 1987) still being the most comprehensive book written on Romero – and two interviews by Dennis Fischer, who wrote the influential Horror Film Directors (McFarland and Co, 1991), including one previously unpublished that covers Bruiser.

There is much here for fans and scholars alike: Romero talks openly about the themes in his films (intriguingly, he speaks of Night as an allegory as early as 1973), about his artistic methods and his (often painful) experience in the film business. He is sometimes wary about pinning specific interpretations on his films but his commitment to social commentary is clear and consistent throughout. As critical appreciation increases over the years so do the quality of the interviews: those taken around 1982 show the director at the height of his powers, in complete command and knowing exactly what he wants to say. However, readers seeking the definitive Romero political ‘statement’ may be disappointed: when Robin Wood asks Romero his attitude to the possibility of social change, Romero by no means rejects notions of social engagement but says he doesn’t think of his work primarily in such terms; the desire to change society might be present but is not a primary conscious motivation. Instead of glib answers, what we get from Romero – in both his films and interviews - is the sense of his working through a complex set of ideas about society, the individual, communication and responsibility. This process is on-going and subject to refinement as each interview – and film - proves, but the themes themselves remain consistent and coherent.

Prof. Williams presents each interview in full with no evidence of editorial tinkering. At times this means some repetition; many of the interviews rehash Romero’s background and Night of the Living Dead. This also makes the featured chronology and filmography seem a little redundant. Romero scholars may experience déjà vu at times. Parts of the interviews, for example, have been quoted by Gagne in The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh. Land of the Dead is under-represented: only a short piece is included which even then is more an article than an interview. This seems a bit slim considering the importance of Land as Romero’s return to the screen after several years away. Having said that, the interviews covering Romero’s experience in Hollywood 'developmental hell' prior to Land are particularly fascinating, detailing as they do his failed projects such as The Mummy and Resident Evil.

Prof. Williams omits an afterword from the collection; presumably so that more interviews can be added in future editions. Let’s hope that this is the case. Romero seems to have more films in him – Let’s hope he gets the chance to make them.

George A. Romero Interviews (ed. Tony Williams), University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, 2011.