Thursday, 26 January 2012

Book Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

The Peter Biskind approach to film history (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls) at its best captures – in its life and times methodology – a sense of the defining cultural moment,  of how events and personalities conspire to create a new epoch.  At its worst it falls into tittle-tattle and gossip (like Biskind’s latest book on Warren Beatty). Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value falls somewhere in between.

The book’s full title is Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror. This makes it pretty plain that Zinoman intends to follow the Biskind approach, only instead of charting the revolution of Hollywood by the Movie Brats of the 1970s, Shock Value focuses on the revolution of the horror film by directors like Romero, Carpenter, Hooper and Craven. Zinoman’s main conceit is that up until Rosemary’s Baby, horror was stuck in the doldrums of gothic schlock and rapidly losing its audience. Then along came films like Targets and Night of the Living Dead that revived the genre by creating a ‘New Horror’ set in the modern everyday world. Zinoman describes the exact moment that this happened: during a television programme called The Mike Douglas Show in June 1967. Vincent Price, the guest, is taken to task by Dr Frederick Wertham about the ‘harm’ that horror films do to children. Price defends his films as harmless fun, full of silly capes and goofy costumes. Protesting that real horror is not the violence of the movies but the real-world violence of Vietnam, Price inadvertently admits his own - and along with it, ‘Old Horror’s - irrelevance. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Roman Polanski prepares to film Rosemary’s Baby and the rest is history. It’s a great story - Zinoman never lets the facts get in the way of a great story – and so it is with the rest of the book.

The Biskind approach relies on conflict to create an entertaining narrative. In Easy Riders this arises mainly from the clash of egos between free-wheeling eccentrics like Hal Ashby and the Hollywood suits.  In Shock Value there is tension between ‘Old Horror’ and ‘New Horror’, dramatized in the case of Rosemary’s Baby, in the conflicting approaches of Roman Polanski and his producer, old-school schlockmeister, William Castle. There is bitterness between Dan O’Bannon and John Carpenter, who fell out after making Dark Star together. There are creative differences between Sean Cunningham (the moneyman) and Wes Craven (the artist) on Last House on The Left. This makes for an engaging read on the whole but sometimes it feels a little forced. In “The Problem with Psycho” Zinoman argues that the notion that Hitchcock invented the modern horror film with Psycho and The Birds is overstated. Although the younger directors were influenced by Hitchcock, he claims, they also rebelled against him. It’s an interesting point but one Zinoman never really manages to back up adequately, relying too much on reports of personal slights and a bit of old gossip (such as the occasion when Hitchcock instructed the young William Friedkin to wear a tie on set.) As a piece of film criticism, it simply does not stand up to the likes of Robin Wood and Christopher Sharrett, both of whom have argued for the primacy of Psycho and The Birds much more persuasively…

Zinoman had access to most of the directors in the book, and is clearly a skilled interviewer. One of the best things about Shock Value is the way Zinoman prises intimate details about their personal histories from the film-makers; vividly told, these offer new insight into their lives and work. We learn about the parental feuds that made Tobe Hooper come to dread mealtimes and family get-togethers; we learn how a troubled home life lies behind the voyeurism theme in Brian DePalma’s films. Perhaps most touching is the account of how Wes Craven’s life fell apart prior to his making Last House on the Left as he struggled against the conformism of his Baptist background. These sections alone make the book worth spending money on.

Déjà vu does set in at times. Sometimes Zinoman’s narrative momentum falters and he lapses into a ‘making of’ commentary – this is especially so in the chapter on Alien. Zinoman retells the story of how Dan O’Bannon conceived the original story, how Ridley Scott came on board etc. Really there isn’t much new here and I found my attention wandering.

There are also, as many reviewers have noted, a lot of factual inaccuracies: far too many for me to want to go into them all here. (There is an excellent review by Jon Putnam that lists all of the book’s mistakes, which you can read here.) I will say, however, that these mistakes sometimes make you question how well Zinoman knows the actual films. Describing Last House on The Left, for example, he writes ‘a character is slashed to death with an electric boat fan.’ Perhaps he was thinking about I Spit on Your Grave. Unfortunately when you read such a mistake as early as page two (‘Krug carves the word ‘love’ onto his victim’s chest’) it immediately makes you doubt the writer, which is a shame, because inaccuracies not-withstanding, Shock Value is a worthwhile read.

Buy it, then, if you are looking for an entertaining overview of 1970s American horror cinema.

Jason Zinoman is appearing at the Roxy Cinema in London on 29 January 2012 where he will introduce a double bill of Texas Chainsaw Massacre + Shivers. Info here

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Save The British Film Industry!

This week’s report on the British film industry by a panel of experts, including Lord Julian Fellowes, and chaired by Rt Hon Lord Smith of Finsbury, former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (AKA Chris Smith) recommends that the industry should concentrate on producing low budget horror films. Not really, of course. I’m making it up. Wouldn’t it be great, though, if it did?

Instead the panel recommends that the industry continues to support a range of films, from mainstream to ‘arty’ (good!) but also urges film-makers to move away from a reliance on government subsidy (bad!)

In my last post I extolled the virtues of Mum and Dad (2008), not just as a good horror film but also as a great piece of regional film-making (it was co-produced by East Midlands Media) and exemplary micro-budget film-making. With 50% of its financing provided by Film London’s Microwave Scheme (a scheme to produce feature films with a budget ceiling of £100k), it is a film that may well not have been made if it hadn’t have been for government subsidy in the form of lottery money.

Monday's report also recommends that producers forge closer relationships with distributors to ensure a healthier profit return to the British Film industry. This, of course, is easier said than done. In terms of the horror film, there was Hammer Studios whose output was handled by American distributors (Warner – Seven Arts) ensuring a healthy return to the company which enabled them (during the height of their popularity) to run a British franchise second only to that of Cubby Broccoli. Things have changed since then, sadly. Production companies of a similar size to Hammer, such as Working Title Films, are now owned by American conglomerates. There lies the reason why subsidies for the British Film industry are necessary. The American domination of the industry extends to not only to UK production, but also to UK distribution and exhibition, making it so much more difficult for British producers and distributors to take a share of the UK market.  It is difficult for a UK feature film to find English-language distribution without an American-distributor, and even an independently produced hit like The King’s Speech – well, good luck getting your net profits out of the Weinstein Company accounts, boys.

Ironically, the epitome of Tory film policy was probably Pete Walker. He funded his films himself (from the profits of his previous films), kept his production budgets low and production values high (through sheer competence and a good crew) and didn’t need to rely on funding bodies or financiers. He sold his films to the American drive-ins, and when the drive-ins closed down in the late 1970s/ early 1980s, his market dried up.

The domination of the multiplex has now made such independence almost impossible.

Pete Walker: show 'em how it's done
It used to be that in Britain a levy was place on American imported films (the Eady Fund) creating a pot of money that went towards financing British films. The Eady Fund enabled film-makers like Ken Russell, Nicolas Roeg and John Boorman to secure international co-funding for their work. However, Thatcher’s government put an end to the Eady Fund in 1985 in a bid to minimise trade-barriers to the USA. Since then, ‘how can we revitalise the British Film industry?’ has become the perennial question.

The answer is  – we can’t.  Not in the face of American domination. The British Film industry is likely to remain a cottage industry - a niche industry. This is why government subsidy is a necessity.

This perhaps suits horror film production well enough, as horror is a niche product; as long as budgets remain low, the  horror film, by virtue of its appeal is likely to remain profitable – the key issue is to make sure those profits are returned to the film-makers so that they can keep producing.

To read the Chris Smith’s report on the British Film industry – if you can get through the buzzwords and the blah – follow this LINK

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Mum and Dad (2008)

Continuing the short series of posts on degenerate families that I started with We Are What We Are, is this 2008 Brit-shocker, the feature debut of Nottingham-based film-maker (and co-founder of Nottingham’s annual Mayhem Horror Fest), Steven Sheil. Mum and Dad was produced under Film London’s low-budget microwave scheme for £100K and provides a great example of edgy low-budget horror. Nottingham has produced some outstanding film-makers, including of course, Shane Meadows and Chris Cooke (another co-founder of Mayhem), director of the excellent DV feature, One For The Road (2002).

As a Nottingham-born lad myself, I am bound to be a fan, especially as Sheil has, in Mum and Dad, consciously drawn on British ‘domestic horror’ of the 1970s like Frightmare (1974) and Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (1970) to create a ‘fucked-up family’ horror par excellence.

Sheil’s film closely mirrors the theme and plot of Mumsy: airport workers Birdie and her silent brother, LB, bring home unsuspecting waifs and strays to ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, who force them into perverse role-playing games in which they are the perfect family; those who refuse to obey the rules or try to escape are ritualistically murdered. One day they bring home a polish migrant, Lena, who turns out to be more than a match for the family in her sense of fight and determination to survive.

Both Mumsy and Mum and Dad are concerned with the threat posed to the traditional family by social change. But whereas in Francis’s film it was the alternative lifestyle of the hippie and the drifter that ‘threatened’ the family structure, Sheil’s film draws on contemporary fears of mass immigration and its challenge to British identity for its subtext.

The film quickly gets down to brass tacks. As soon as Lena enters the home of Mum and Dad, she is knocked unconscious, drugged and imprisoned. Mum takes sexual gratification by scarifying her with a scalpel; Dad’s proclivities are even more degenerate: he likes to dismember his victims and masturbate with their body parts. Indeed Sheil plunges us so suddenly into depravity that for a moment it becomes unclear where he could possibly take us next. It is a risky ploy (the ‘torture porn’ scenario immediately threatens to turn the viewer off) but Sheil makes it work, taking us from there into a parody of family domesticity, made all the more perverse by the knowledge of Mum and Dad’s true nature.

‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ attempt to play the role of ‘parent’ to Lena. She is given a pet name, ‘Angel’, and the rules of the house are explained. In effect she must submit completely to the will of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ if she wishes to survive. It becomes clear that everyone in this ‘family’ is merely playing a ‘role’: ‘Mum’ is emotionally needy and overbearing; ‘Dad’ makes the rules and punishes those who disobey; ‘Birdy’ is the favoured sibling who feels in danger of being usurped by ‘Angel’, and ‘LB’ is ‘Little Brother’, the dogs-body. Both ‘Mum' and ‘Dad’ spout cliches of parent-ism (“If you live under my roof, you'll abide by my rules”) and Shiel plays up the parody with soap/sit-com-like scenes set around the breakfast table. Think the Oxo family played by Fred and Rosemary West.

The falsity of the situation is not lost on Lena or the viewer: none of these relationships are ‘real’ (except, perhaps, ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’s) and there is no real emotion except the desire to control. At first, Lena attempts to play along in an effort to win the favour of ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’, but it soon becomes clear that they see through this. “You have to make them love you” Birdie tells ‘LB’, but here, as in We Are What We Are, love is a masquerade for hatred. Birdie understands that perhaps the only way to gain ‘Mum and ‘Dad’s approval is by becoming like them; LB understands this too, but his sensitive nature precludes him becoming like ‘Dad’, and Lena’s sense of fight secretly reawakens hope in LB that he too might escape ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’s clutches.

As they so often do, family tensions come to a head at Christmas (and the parody of the typical British family Christmas in Mum and Dad has to be seen to be believed). Lena has it spelt out to her that she is merely the family pet. (Her outsider status as a Polish immigrant precludes her assimilation into the family – she remains an object of loathing, a perceived threat to the family structure). Realising that her time is almost up she makes a desperate bid to escape, in the process forcing all allegiances in the family to be revealed.

Interestingly, Steven Shiel has remarked that much of Mum and Dad arose from thinking about the implications of Margaret Thatcher’s dictum that ‘there is no such thing as society. There are individuals, and there are families.’ (In Mum and Dad it is therefore left up to ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ to make the rules, and there is no wider community to tell them that those rules are unacceptable.) Which, of course, is all very well unless your Dad happens to be Josef Fritzl, in which case having a society to which such people can be held accountable might just be desirable – eh, Maggie?

Shiel has just finished his second horror film, Dead Mine, shot in Indonesia, hopefully scheduled for
release later this year. Meanwhile check out the Mayhem website here

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Gone Hollywood

On a recent trip to Los Angeles (Hollywood no less), I took the opportunity to do some film-related stuff and visit places connected to Shocks To The System.
Hollywood Forever Cemetery entrance on Santa Monica Boulevard

Hall of David: resting place of Edgar G. Ulmer

Fay Wray's grave

First on the list was a trip to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery to see the final resting places of some horror movie luminaries. Hollywood Forever is a pleasant green sanctuary off Santa Monica Boulevard and situated behind Paramount Studios. Amongst those laid to rest in the cemetery are Maila Nurmi (AKA ‘Vampira’), Darren ‘Kolchak’ McGavin, Peter Lorre, composer of ‘Bride of Frankenstein’, Franz Waxman, ‘Ruby’ director Curtis Harrington, director of the 1941 ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, Victor Fleming, ‘Black Cat’ director Edgar G. Ulmer and star of ‘Mystery of the Wax Museum’ and ‘King Kong’, the original scream-queen, Fay Wray.

4565 Dundee Drive: James Whale's home in the 1930s

On my way to visit Pasadena, I stopped off in the Los Feliz district to visit the home of James Whale. Situated at 4565 Dundee Drive, the ‘Villa Sophia’ is a magnificent Mediterranean house that was Whale’s residence in the 1930s while making ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’. This photograph taken from Dundee Drive does not do justice to the size and scale of the place, but you can see more photographs that show the sheer scope of it by following this link.
The Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard

When James Whale first arrived in Hollywood, he stayed here at the Roosevelt Hotel. The Roosevelt also housed the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. The hotel is famously said to be haunted by the ghosts of Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift, and was the inspiration for the film '1408'.
Cecil DeMille's Barn : the first Hollywood Studio

Door to DeMille's Office

Cecil B. DeMille's office in the Barn

Although not horror-related, I just had to visit this old barn situated on North Highland Avenue. It was the first film studio in Hollywood, built by Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille for the filming of the first-ever feature length film, The Squaw Man (1913). Now the Hollywood Heritage Museum, the barn still houses a recreation of DeMille’s Production Office, as well as other film memorabilia including a shrine to Rudolph Valentino.
Musso and Frank's: legendary Hollywood restaurant

Inside Musso and Frank's

Back on Hollywood Boulevard, for lunch in The Musso and Frank Grill, the oldest restaurant in Hollywood. It is also famous as being the drinking den of choice for veteran scriptwriters such as Raymond Chandler and William Faulkner. It is the place where Paul Schrader and Brian De Palma first dreamed up the idea for Obsession (1976). Well worth a visit, it retains the genteel charm of Old Hollywood and the waiting staff all seem to be well into geriatric-age with plenty of tales to tell of days gone by.
Exterior of Larry Edmunds Bookstore

Inside Larry Edmunds.

Practically opposite Musso and Frank’s is another Hollywood institution, Larry Edmunds’ Bookshop, an absolute treasure trove of rare and second hand movie books and Hollywood memorabilia, lobby cards, movie posters and scripts. This is the place to go if you need something out of print and Larry has now got a website going which you can visit here.

Samuel French on Sunset Boulevard

The film section inside French's Bookshop

Another famous movie bookshop is Samuel French located on Sunset Boulevard. The shop is divided into two main rooms: Theatre and Film. The film section has pretty much everything you could ask for including an extensive horror and cult film section. I bought a copy of Jason Zinoman’s account of 1970s horror, Shock Value (review to follow).
The American Cinematheque on Hollywood Boulevard

The Cinematheque is house inside Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

Showing a Ken Russell tribute

On Hollywood Boulevard again, I was very impressed by the American Cinematheque. Housed at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, the Cinematheque is a non-profit cultural organisation devoted to the presentation of film in all its forms, from the classics to fringe cinema. I was disappointed to miss a screening of Vertigo in 70mm but delighted to see a Ken Russell retrospective this month that includes a screening of The Devils – although I’m not sure which version. Check out their website here.
1537 Orange Grove Avenue

Across the street: 1530 Orange Grove Avenue

Of course Los Angeles is itself a museum in terms of movie locations, many of which are instantly recognisable. But I was surprised and delighted to discover that John Carpenter filmed some of the most famous scenes in Halloween only two roads away from my sister-in-law’s house, here on Orange Grove Avenue, just off Sunset Boulevard.

Anyone interested in finding out more about movie locations in Los Angeles should check out Robby Cress’s excellent blog Dear Old Hollywood.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Communizine's 50 Best Blogs for Movie Fans

Will Roby at Communizine has included Shocks to The System in his 50 Best Blogs For Movie Fans at #3 in the Horror Movie Blogs category.

Thanks, Will - it's an honour!

Communizine is a 'Website Community For Blogging' - check it out here!