The cover art alone sells it, but LES CLASSIQUES DU CINÉMA BIS (Nouveau Monde Éditions, 27 Euros) -- a new reference guide (in French, of course) to outstanding cult movies released between 1955 and 2007 -- keeps the promise of its outward design for 552 interior pages as well. It's a pleasure to page through, and there are important lessons to be gleaned simply by doing that.
What is "Cinéma Bis"? It is generally accepted to mean "low-budget genre cinema," but it seems to be quite an ornate French pun, at once referring to B-movies (Cinema B's) and the serial nature of much genre cinema (the French word "bis" means "encore"); it may be a lucky accident or inspired design, but there is also something punny going on there with the incorporation of the English word "abyss," evoking the very bottom of the barrel. This book scrutinizes no less than 500 gems of this genus, commencing with Edward D. Wood Jr.'s BRIDE OF THE MONSTER and concluding, appropriately, with Quentin Tarantino & Robert Rodriguez' GRINDHOUSE.
In between, authors Laurent Aknin and Lucas Balbo cover horror, pepla (sword-and-sandal), science fiction, pulp, superhero fantasies, spy thrillers, westerns, krimis, gialli, erotica (including the odd porn title like DEEP THROAT), Bollywood curios and HK actioners. Also included in the generous overview are films by those artists whose names evoke genres unto themselves: Steve Reeves, Jess Franco, Franco & Ciccio, Bruce Lee, John Waters, Laura Gemser, Tinto Brass, Jackie Chan, Weng Weng. Even with 500 titles, the book cannot be all-encompassing, but it does take care to include a fair number of British and American titles from all periods, inviting such diverse names as Bob Clark, Oliver Stone, Andy Milligan, Donald Farmer and Eli Roth to the table.
The text is not superficial; it looks under the skin of the movies under discussion -- describing the scenes and moments which make these selections particularly worth seeing. French release is an impotant consideration in what is covered, but readers will undoubtedly have quibbles about missing titles -- one of mine is Jess Franco's FACELESS, which I consider a bizarre, high gloss culmination of his work, but I cannot say that Franco is under-represented here. I've not read every word, of course, but after numerous perusals, I've noticed only one textual error: a still of Irene Miracle escaping from the rail car in Aldo Lado's THE NIGHT TRAIN MURDERS finds the actress misidentified as her co-star Laura D'Angelo.
At the close of their Introduction, the authors declare their book as (I translate) "a modest tribute to a fundamental work, LES CLASSIQUES DU CINÉMA FANTASTIQUE by Jean-Marie Sabatier (1973)." I own a copy of M. Sabatier's book, an encylopedia of essays devoted to the most important actors and directors of horror and fantasy cinema, and though I can't read much of it, it is one of the books on genre cinema I would never part with; I can only say that Aknin and Balbo have aimed high with their intentions but have struck their target nevertheless. Their book awakens the itch to watch movies almost indiscriminately, for the sheer crazy love of movies, and it closes on a commendably sentimental note with various French ad mattes and a photo of the façade of the legendary Midi-Minuit cinema -- the Ground Zero of French genre film reportage.
The cover art, incidentally, comes from the Italian poster for the British horror film JACK THE RIPPER, painted by the marvelous Sandro Symeoni.