Bright Lights Film Journal

Book Reviews: Video Premieres, Vampires on Video, Jackie Chan, Immoral Tales, Filmmaking on the Fringe, Horror and Science Fiction Films

VideoHound’s Vampires on Video, by J. Gordon Melton (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1997). Trade paper, $17.95, 335pp. ISBN 1-57859-002-7.

Vampires continue to be an important fixture on the cultural landscape, and no wonder. With their radical sexuality that obeys neither natural nor man-made laws, they’re as timely today as ever. The fearful resonances of blood as a result of diseases like AIDS have also buttressed their standing as very contemporary monsters.

In the present climate, it’s better to have our vampires between the pages of a book than lurking outside our window. J. Gordon Melton’s book obligingly puts them there in this comprehensive, reasonably useful compendium of every kind of vampire movie imaginable. It’s especially timely given that 1997 is the 100th anniversary of the publication of the book that started it all: Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Melton’s setup is based on a kind of grid that’s present in other VideoHound books. We get a title, a brief plot summary with a judgment call, an indication of parental caveats (“brief nudity, some violence”), along with date, rating, running time, country where the film was produced, cast and crew, awards, formats (VHS and laser only), and the distributor. A good resource on this basis.

Less compelling is Melton’s writing, which is plodding and not particularly insightful. Example: he says It’s Alive “rises above its origins to focus questions about human interference in the birth process.” This gives short shrift to the film’s powerful critique of the family and society. Luckily, most of the text consists of simple plot readings. Sidebars devoted to stars like Ingrid Pitt and Peter Cushing, and to generic detours like “Vampire Comedies” add interest.

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VideoHound’s Video Premieres, by Mike Mayo. (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1997). Trade paper, $17.95, 431pp. ISBN 0-7876-0825-4.

The idea behind VideoHound’s series of movie guidebooks is a worthy one – to help the overwhelmed consumer wade through the acres of titles available at the local video store. Mike Mayo’s entry in the series takes a particularly unusual tack. The subtitle of his book is “The Only Guide to Video Originals and Limited Releases,” and happily, this umbrella covers a wide array of direct-to-video productions, obscure independents, and imported art-house fare that surely need this kind of notice. The writing style is just lively enough to make the book fun to dip randomly into. On Dracula Rising: “The budget is anemic; the cast is young, attractive, and stiff.” On Guns of Honor: “Confusing Western is no better than the senseless title.” Mayo knows his stuff and – as in other books in this series – unearths many quite rare items, some of which are not available on video. The range is wide enough to include acclaimed imports like Krysztof Kieslowski’s Blue and home-grown horrors like Lobster Man from Mars. A lengthy cross-index at the back adds research value.

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Immoral Tales, by Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs. (New York: St. Martin’s/Griffin, 1995). Trade paper, $17.95, 272pp. ISBN 0-312-13519-X

In the Obscure-o-rama Sweepstakes, this hefty look at European sex and horror movies from what I suppose can be called the “golden age” of such stuff (1956 to 1984) marks some kind of milestone. Readers who’ve searched in frustration for references to the work of subterranean trash-meisters like Jean Rollin, Jesus Franco, and (gasp) Alain Robbe-Grillet will welcome this study of these and three other auteurs of the demimonde. The authors are convincing in defining what amounts to outsider art. “These bizarre flicks defy simple pigeon-holing. They’re too lowbrow to be considered arty, but too intelligent and personal to be described simply as Euro-trash. They’re a curious hybrid, milking the dynamism of popular literature and comic books, combining it with the perverse romanticism of real Art.”

Familiar exploitation titles like The Awful Dr. Orloff get the full-dress treatment, with lots of background info and critical appraisal, but so do lesser known (in some cases, virtually unknown) works like Walerian Borowczyk’s Story of a Sin. The same director’s The Bear caused a scandal when it was shown at a London film festival. The authors quote a review from the New Statesman that typifies the amusingly transgressive powers of these “immoral tales”: “What on earth does the British Film Institute think it is up to?” The film “featured only two characters – a bear and a woman – who then engaged interminably in sexual intercourse.” A fun, useful look at a little-known corner of cultural sleaze.

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Filmmaking on the Fringe: The Good, the Bad, and the Deviant Director, by Maitland McDonagh. (New York: Citadel Press, 1995). Trade paper, $18.95, 236pp. ISBN 0-8065-1557-0.

McDonagh is a rarity in the general sludge that constitutes most writing on exploitation cinema. She has something to say, and she knows how to say it. This pulls Filmmaking on the Fringe ahead of the pack.

The book is divided into six sections that cover many of the shining lights (and in some cases, dim bulbs) of trash filmmaking, from Jim Wynorski to Zalman King to Charles Band to those who’ve won mainstream acclaim like Sam Raimi, Wes Craven, and Joe Dante. The chapter on Zalman King (of dreaded Wild Orchid fame) is typical. King is almost unique in the field, making kitschy soft-core sleaze with “respectable” name actors like Mickey Rourke, Kim Basinger, and Sherilyn Fenn. Author McDonagh uncovers a surprisingly thoughtful, if somewhat self-deluded, character behind the man viewers have every right to assume is an idiot.

Charles Band is another rarely noticed toiler on the exploitation highway who gets some deserved exposure here. Band’s interview is typical of the relentless self-promotion low-budget directors must engage in to survive, but McDonagh wisely adds context by quoting a disgruntled former associate who describes in detail how he was ripped off, financially and artistically, by Band’s company over a film called Psychos in Love.

The author provokes her subjects to confront some of the more troubling aspects of their work with bracing, sometimes brutal questions and comments. Discussing Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left with the director, she says it “certainly isn’t titillating; it’s disgusting and disturbing.” This triggers a discussion about violence toward women, Vietnam, the place of the disenfranchised exploitation director, and a host of other intriguing topics. Pithy sketches and filmographies of a large number of additional filmmakers conclude the book. Highly recommended.

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Jackie Chan: Inside the Dragon, by Clyde Gentry III. (Dallas: Taylor Publishing Co., 1997). Trade paper, $18.95, 194pp. ISBN 0-87833-970-1.

Hard to believe, but this appears to be the first serious English-language bio on one of the superstars of world cinema. (I can’t be certain about this; there may have been others published in Hong Kong that haven’t made it to these shores.) It has the additional virtue of being based on primary sources – interviews with Chan, his co-stars, his directors (including Stanley Tong), and the stuntmen who’ve risked their lives alongside him.

This book is review-proof. Since there’s nothing else out there, there’s little point in going into an extended discussion of the merits or demerits of the writing or the level of insight; anyone in the English-speaking world who’s interested in this extraordinary talent will simply have to buy the book. I will mention some of the unusual items it contains in case anyone needs a nudge. There’s a comprehensive filmography, including bit parts; a diagram of the star’s body showing all of his injuries; sidebars devoted to various martial arts styles; a list of resources for Chanabilia, web sites, and fan clubs; and a rendering of film titles and actors’ names in both English and Chinese characters, to ease that visit to the local Chinese video store (or market) to get first dibs on his latest titles.

The author is the editor-in-chief of the zine Hong Kong Connection.

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Horror and Science Fiction Films IV, by Donald C. Willis. (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1997). Cloth, library binding, $89.50, 643pp. ISBN 0-8108-3055-8.

Save your pennies, kids – this one is it. In the search for new cultural forms to document and describe, the publishing industry has responded mightily. Even a glance at this group of book reviews shows how far publishers are willing to go in ferreting out the unusual and the obscure for readers obviously starved for this stuff – with understandably mixed results. Some cinematic guidebooks are indispensable (Maltin’s TV Movies), some are useful but too expensive (the Psychotronic series), some qualify as impulse buys (John Stanley’s Creatures Features books), and others are only for fans with empty space on their shelves and too much money (no need to name names here).

Donald Willis’s large, thick, overpriced-but-worth-every-penny fourth volume in a series is a stunning achievement in the field. Willis has a wonderful sensibility and a genuine writing talent, using a kind of witty shorthand style to bring these often strange films to brief, vivid life. Some of the reviews are almost maniacally terse, undoubtedly due to the lack of information on the film. The 1907 French movie Le Ceinture Electrique, for example, sounds weirdly intriguing in its single line of description: “‘Electric belt’ jolts wearer into ‘super-vitality.'” The quoted phrases here appear to have been culled from one of the author’s many sources of information and quotes: poster art, pressbooks, video boxes, archival catalogs, reviews. The 1987(?) Hong Kong epic Centipede Horror gets a longer, hilarious entry that’s typical of the breezy style and deserves to be quoted in full:

“When she died, many insects crawled out from her wounds” – a sure sign of the “most venomous spell in S.E. Asia . . . the centipede spell.” A cobra-coming-out-of-the-head spell, however, finishes our evil wizard; the masses of centipedes attacking the hero wilt and die; and the possessed heroine, Yeuk Chee, vomits up a last lovely bunch of centipedes. . . Standard Hong Kong sorcerer-vs.-sorcerer stuff delivers worms-plus yuckiness. Unusual elements here include (during a climactic magic duel) a flying burning chicken skeleton and, earlier, a priest who “rears ghosts”: “He steals the corpses of children, grills [their] chins . . . until the oil drips out,” then places two dolls in the oil, and the dolls become “his adopted ghosts.” The latter prove handy during exorcisms, when they make the possessed vomit up blood and scorpions.

Author Willis includes a dazzling amount of info even on some of the most obscure titles, and some of the films included here, I think it can safely be said, won’t be found anywhere else. These include everything from South Korean ghost stories (Samwonnyo, 1981), to Indian “were-snake” epics (Naan Nagin, 1989), to Austrian science fiction (Time Troopers, 1984.) The inclusion of shorts and a long list of alternative titles adds solid research value.

Scarecrow Press should be applauded for publishing this kind of book, and cursed for pricing it out of most buyers’ reach. You can order it from your local bookstore or direct from Scarecrow at 1-800-462-6420.