Sunday, September 30, 2007

Incredibly Strange Films

My latest random book read was RE/Search #10: Incredibly Strange Films by V. Vale and Jim Morton (1986). This book explores the world of B-movie, exploitation, horror, and genre films through interviews with directors, actors, and producers; articles on film genres; and essays on individual films. The entire book is nicely illustrated with film stills and movie posters.

The interview section is by far the strongest part of the book, particularly the interviews with Larry Cohen, Frank Henenlotter, Herschell Gordon Lewis and Russ Meyer. My head is still reeling from the oddness of the interview with Ted V. Mikels. The interviewers for the most part ask interesting questions and let the director speak at length about his or her process, work, philosophies, and interests. The directors come from different generations and focus on different genres, and while some come to the business with their eyes on the profit margin, you can still tell that they all really enjoy telling these stories and working outside of the mainstream.

The essays on film genres (including biker films, J. D. films, beach party films, LSD films, sexploitation, and women in prison films) are often interesting and provide an overarching history of low-budget cinema. I particularly liked the section on Industrial Jeopardy films by none-other-than Rick Prelinger (of the totally awesome Prelinger Archives available on the even more totally awesome Internet Archive.)

The low-low-low point of the book are the film essays, particularly the ones on Young Playthings and Wizard of Gore [sample sentence: "The temporal regression toward the idyllic Golden Age parallels the psychological transformation of the group members as they uncover and adopt an instinctual awareness (much like a newborn's) untainted by modern accretions of sexually repressive attitudes and conformist obeisance to society's dictums." Ugh.] I'm not sure why the editors decided to include these essays that weigh down the films with unnecessary (and honestly, unreadable) academic interpretations.

One of the film essays, however got me excited about seeing Daughter of Horror (aka Dementia) a movie filmed in 1955 with no sound, but narrated (oddly enough) by Ed McMahon and with a theme song composed by George Antheil and sung by Marni Nixon (who did the singing for Natalie Wood in Westside Story and Deborah Kerr in The King and I). And speaking of the greatness of the Internet Archive, the entire film is available here!

After the essays, the book is finished up with some miscellaneous sections including a brief encyclopedia of strange films, quotes from movies, and a list of the editor's favorite genre films.

Even with its weaknesses, this book is definitely worth reading for anyone who enjoys low-budget films, or who is interested in the film making process. In a way the book serves as a time-capsule of low-budget genre film-making in the 1980s. Many of the interviewees mention the advent of VHS and how it is changing the playing ground for film distribution and funding. I'd love to see follow up interviews with some of these directors to see what they think of the internet, digital film making, and the other changes that have happened in the past twenty years.

[Oh, and excerpts from the book are available on the RE/Search page, here.]


Anonymous said...


I really hope you will see this comment...

I discovered the front cover of this book (Incredibly strange films) an hour ago...

But I don't know which movie this huge skull comes from...
Can you tell me please ?

Spacebeer said...

It looks like the cover image is from The Mask (1961), a 3D movie directed by Julian Roffman and described in the book as "an extraordinary 3-D film about a mask that enables the wearer to see into his own psyche -- at the risk of his sanity." []

Anonymous said...

Thanks a lot for the fast and accurate answer !

Best wishes, from France.