If you want to delve into schlock scholarship, watching and interpreting esoteric cult cinema is just the beginning. Once you fall under the spell of schlock filmmaking, it’s highly likely that you’ll want to know how they got made and exactly who was involved in making them. The obvious road to this knowledge is biographies and interviews. Tales of schlock exploits don’t get the same shelf space at bookstores as the more generic, mainstream celebrity tell-alls but quality biographies and interview collections are available if you know what to look for.
With that objective in mind, here is an entertaining triumvirate of books that will get you started: two autobiographies from known schlock icons and a collection of interviews that offers a similar amount of biographical fun in more compact doses. Each dishes up an eye-opening glimpse into the influences and formative experiences that can lead someone into a life of schlock artistry.
A YOUTH IN BABYLON by David Friedman (1990 – Prometheus): For those of you not up on your early exploitation cinema history, David Friedman is one of the founding fathers of this cinematic style and most influential figures. He was there when exploitation filmmaking was still a carny-style business and was a vital, working part of its seedier edges, continuing to produce and release films well into the 1970’s. This colorful tome finds Friedman laying out his story in all its widescreen glory, telling the tale of how he left a legit Hollywood career to make nudie movies, cavort with Playboy Playmates and eventually invent the gore film with fellow schlock-maker Herschell Gordon Lewis. There’s a lot of great material to be savored here, particularly the blow-by-blow accounts of how early exploiteers would “four-wall” theaters – i.e., renting the theater outright for a full take of the profits – and then create a multi-media experience to fleece the audience members, including bogus doctors hawking “educational manuals” and phony nurses to take care of anyone who became overworked by the presentation(!). The details of the story alone are enough to appeal any cult film enthusiast but the pleasant surprise here is how skillful a writer Friedman is: he always wrote the ad copy for his productions and he brings the same sense of excitement to his autobiography, laying it all out in splashes of bright Technicolor detail but never allowing the pace to flag. His witty, urbane prose does a lot to dispel the notion of sleaze mongers as brain-dead deviants – indeed, Mr. Friedman comes off as a rather intelligent deviant. His passion for his work is engaging and his tales of cinematic con-artistry will be inspirational for anyone who’s ever dreamed of crafting their own sleaze epic.
SHOCK VALUE by John Waters (1981/1995 – Thunder’s Mouth Press): John Water’s classic autobiography is one of the finest books ever written about independent filmmaking, bar none. If I ran a film school, I’d make every student read this instead of all those useless books on screenwriting. Starting with a hysterically funny account of the shooting & aftermath of Pink Flamingos’ infamous finale, John Waters tells the anarchic tale of his rise from suburban Baltimore obscurity to indie filmmaking godhead with plenty of sly wit. You get great behind the scenes stories on each of his films through Desperate Living – one of Your Humble Reviewer’s favorite anecdotes is the tale about the San Francisco debut of Multiple Maniacs – but this book has much more to offer than cinematic war stories. There’s also plenty of stuff about Water’s anarchic adolescence, which makes modern ‘troubled youth’ look like a bunch of mommy-coddled wusses. In fact, the stuff about his childhood and teen years would make a wonderfully anarchic variation on the traditional coming-of-age film. Elsewhere, Shock Value finds Water talking about his hobbies – like attending murder trials – and devoting a great chapter to tales about meeting his heroes (everyone from Russ Meyer to Douglas Sirk) and hanging out with fellow filmmakers. If you any love for schlock, you will take this book to heart. If you are a schlock fan who wants to make a film, Shock Value is downright inspirational. As Judge Reinhold said to the bemused stoner trio in Fast Times At Ridgemont High: “Learn it. Know it. Live it.”
FILMMAKING ON THE FRINGE: THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE DEVIANT DIRECTORS by Maitland McDonagh (1995 – Citadel): This is one of a handful of books that takes a serious look at directors of schlock as auteurs. It was assembled by veteran genre critic McDonagh, author of the respected Dario Argento study Broken Mirrors Broken Minds and currently the senior film editor for TV Guide. In it, she interviews an excellent cross-section of directors who have done time in the schlock mines, covering everything from fairly well-respected directors (Wes Craven, Sam Raimi) to completely unrespected schlock merchants (Fred Olen Ray, Zalman King). Further value is added by a handy-dandy appendix that includes credits and capsule essays for other genre/schlock personalities of note. McDonagh takes her chosen subjects seriously, approaching the task in a way that treats the filmmakers with intelligence but doesn’t attempt to sentimentalize them or their work. Filmmaking On The Fringe has a different tone from genre interview books because McDonagh avoids a fawning approach in favor of presenting a more challenging and dimensional view of the subjects as both filmmakers and people – for instance, disgruntled ex-employees get to lodge their complaints about schlock producer Charles Band and Zalman King is given plenty of room to show off his prodigious ego. She also asks tough questions, pressing Sam Raimi to discuss the distribution/re-editing problems that dogged his immediate post-Evil Dead work and cornering Wes Craven to get an admission of what motivated the brutality in Last House On The Left. Even if you disagree with her take on some of these genre mavens, it does challenge you to think about their work beyond the films themselves and that’s a rarity in genre press.