The second installment of the Basic Schlock Bookshelf lifts us up from the underground and into tonier, more high-minded territory. This might make your inner grindhouse fan flinch but it’s a good thing. While zines and genre publications are the lifeblood of schlock studies, it’s also good to mix it up every now and then by reading something that’s a bit more intellectual; the kind of critical reference that seeks out a meeting point between schlock and the critical orthodoxy.
The following trio of entries illustrate this approach. All the authors involved in these books utilizes a classical “film studies” approach to cult cinema. None of them have an exclusive schlock focus but each dips into schlock territory without shrugging it off in an indiscriminate manner. There isn’t as much rabble-rousing fun in these books as you might get with something penned by Michael Weldon or Bill Landis but they do offer a line of thinking guaranteed to challenge your aesthetic.
MIDNIGHT MOVIES by Jonathan Rosenbaum & J. Hoberman (reprinted 1991 – DaCapo): Probably the best-written book in the Basic Schlock Bookshelf – both Hoberman and Rosenbaum are seasoned film scholars and journalists with years of newspaper work and books to their credit. Fittingly, they approach the titular subject with respect and intelligence as they explore both the rise of the theaters who invented the concept of the midnight movie and the left-of-center filmmakers who provided the necessary screening material. Everyone from John Waters to Alejandro Jodorowsky gets their day in the sun, plus the authors make an interesting connection between the experimental filmmakers of the New York scene and the filmmakers who would become midnight movie stalwarts – this distinction helped me broaden my tastes to appreciate avant-garde fare and illustrated that the difference between grindhouse auteurs and arthouse legends was often quite slim (after all, George Romero’s best work is as thematically challenging as it is viscerally exciting). Plus, all the stuff about the midnight movie scene and the distributors who locked into it is fun reading and educational for anyone who ever wondered how this phenomenon came to be.
HORROR (THE OVERLOOK FILM ENCYCLOPEDIA SERIES) Edited by Phil Hardy (1995 – Penguin): This is one of a series of film genre encyclopedias masterminded by British author Phil Hardy – each is interesting in its own right but this one is the best of the lot. I picked it up during my mid-1980’s period of horror genre obsession (the Fangoria days, as it were) and it has remained a beloved reference ever since. The format of Horror is simple: genre entries from around the globe are covered year by year via capsule reviews that doles out plot details, production info and contextual insights in equal measure. There are also short essays that preface each decade’s worth of entries to set the scene for the cinematic developments of that ten-year period. What makes this book special is the quality of the writing – the British critics who penned this tome have the appropriate deep knowledge of the genre but are refreshingly lacking in pretension: H.G. Lewis gore-a-thons and Italian cannibal epics get just as much time and serious critical consideration as all the acknowledged genre classics. Better yet, the critics are willing to go out on a limb for obscurities – I discovered faves like Evilspeak and Alice Sweet Alice through this volume – and the book’s international approach will teach the reader plenty about foreign horror cinema (I owe at least half my knowledge of Italian horror directors to this book). To sum up, Horror is a reference work with a surprising sense of personality and the kind of book you’ll return to again and again.
CULT MOVIES 1, 2 & 3 by Danny Peary (1981 – 1988, Fireside): These books were a vital influence on my viewing habits as a high-schooler, shining a light on how to appreciate my favorite cult films from an intelligent standpoint. Each of these three books covers the gamut of cult cinema, sizing up everything from fringe auteurs like Russ Meyer and John Waters to old school Hollywood faves like The Wizard Of Oz and Vertigo. He even covers a couple of adult films from the 1970’s porno-chic era along the way. Peary cleverly deals with the trouble of balancing plot description and analytical content by dividing the two up – each film has two text entries: a detailed plot synopsis and an essay that mixes critical commentary with research that puts the film into its proper historical context. The essays are the main part of each entry, offering a polished combination of critical commentary and film fan passion.
Another great aspect of these books is that the essays work in a wealth of cool behind-the-scenes info that you’d have a hard time finding elsewhere: for example, Peary’s Billy Jack essay lays out the fascinating story behind the filmmakers’ epic struggle to retain control of both the production and distribution of the film (and how these efforts helped make it a grassroots cause célèbre). My one criticism is that Peary tends to get uptight when dealing with the extremes of cult cinema – the essays on Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls and Pink Flamingos in particular get bogged down in a lot of moralistic hand-wringing over politically correct concerns. Despite this flaw, Peary’s work here remains trailblazing and inspirational for the novice cult film fanatic: I can’t fault the guy too much because these books played a crucial role in helping me find my way to the particular avenues of cine-cultism that I found the most appealing. They remain well worth a read for novice film cultists looking to develop their chops.