With the holidays rapidly approaching, I thought it might be a good time to recommend some of the best film-related books to have surfaced in the past year, because - never mind the propaganda we hear about the death of bookstores and the imminent demise of printed matter - no gift so eloquently embodies the holidays as a beautiful book. And this year there have been quite a few that you might consider giving... or receiving.
FAB Press vault to the top of my list with the year's most notable coffee table book and impressive objet d'art: Nicolas Winding Refn's THE ACT OF SEEING, with text by Alan Jones. Lurking behind an outward presentation that doesn't quite tell you what's inside, this is actually a book that has been sorely needed: a retrospective of the art of exploitation poster design, focusing primarily on rarely seen sexploitation titles of the 1960s. Admittedly there have been other books that collected such posters, but there has never been another quite like this one, and not simply due to the extent of its rich indulgence. If you have ever, like me, responded to that mercurial, unnameable quality found in the posters for films like THE ORGY AT LIL'S PLACE, THE DEFILERS and THE UNDERTAKER AND HIS PALS - a quality that somehow encompasses unrepentant sleaze and a haunting quality otherwise found only in the highest forms of art - this is the book for you, because Refn recognizes it too and that is what this book is about, organizing these materials with a genuine curator's eye and aesthetic. Packaged inside a handsome slipcase and printed on heavy glossy stock that makes every color pop, this is a book that offers as much substance as surface, and its surface is considerable. THE ACT OF SEEING is a veritable aphrodisiac of sordid salesmanship, and Jones' witty and knowledgeable annotations put the exciting parade of images into meaningful context.
Over the last ten years, British journalist Paul Sutton has devoted much of his time to interviewing the surviving cast and crew members associated with the late, great British film director Ken Russell. Published as both a large softcover and limited hardcover edition with bonus color pages, TALKING ABOUT KEN RUSSELL (Buffalo Books) is the end result of that dedicated effort - more than 100 original interviews, including Russell himself on most titles, with additional comments drawn from other sources. What makes this book so special, almost unique of its kind, is that it presents generally without editorial adornment the history of a filmmaker's career from the points of view offered up by his crew, the people overlooked by most historians, which presents us with new and unusual perspectives of how films like WOMEN IN LOVE, THE MUSIC LOVERS and THE DEVILS were made. Sutton, who worked with Russell on his last video efforts, shows an inexhaustible passion for the subject while making no attempt to white-wash his findings. This balanced frankness enables the book to present Russell in a more human dimension, through the eyes of the co-workers who more than once followed him into battle through fires at heart's center; so we come away with a more three-dimensional view of this man whose temper, tendency to provocation, abuses of power, and professional recklessness are more easily aligned with what we know of his intelligence and creative authority. By the end of this book, we better understand what attracted Russell to certain subjects and certain actors, why his best work ended with VALENTINO and why the overall body of his work can be divided into specific periods, and how the most successful British film director of his generation became "unbankable." You might think this sounds like a "rise and fall" story, but if anything, this is a testament to one of the 20th century's great visionary artists and his indomitable spirit. Available from Amazon or directly from the author.
The winner of last year's Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award for Monster Kid of the Year was Frank J. Dello Stritto, who won the award primarily for writing I SAW WHAT I SAW WHEN I SAW IT - which Cult Movies Press has published as a handsome signed and numbered hardcover limited to only 1,000 copies. This book (which takes its title from a line in ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN) is a kind of autobiography told primarily through the author's initial and recurrent encounters with horror and other popular entertainment via neighborhood theater matinees, drive-ins and television. As such, it is particularly recommended to readers who share with Dello Stritto the uncanny experience of having grown up in the 1950s and 1960s and will glean a special pleasure from having their feelings about childhood companions like Abbott & Costello, the Frankenstein Monster, Rod Serling, Bela Lugosi, and Steve Reeves revived in eloquent, loving language. This may well be the definitive account of the "Monster Kid" experience published to date, and it follows its own central Monster Kid into adulthood and the way these characters abide through life with us. One reads this book with the uncanny impression that Dello Stritto has been taking careful notes toward this ultimate expression his entire life, and I'm sure he has.
The first volume of Stephen Thrower's MURDEROUS PASSIONS: THE DELIRIOUS CINEMA OF JESUS FRANCO is one of the most absorbing and detailed film books of this past year, not to mention a beautiful artifact in both its standard and deluxe editions from Strange Attractor Press. Co-written with Julian Grainger, who contributes sidebar chapters elucidating the business side of Franco's collaborations with Orson Welles, Marius and Daniel Lesoeur of Eurociné, and Harry Alan Towers, this volume follows a lengthy introductory overview with individual chapters addressed to (one might say "appropriately") 69 feature films made between 1959 and 1974. While I must admit to having some problems with the book - it was written out of sequence, resulting in repetitions of some remarks, and feels impatient toward much of the work, as if the author was inspired by only a handful of the films and had to plough through the majority under duress - it is well-written and infectious about what it likes. Most importantly, it organizes Franco's sprawling and unwieldy oeuvre into a convincing chronological sequence that sometimes finds him filming as many as five pictures simultaneously; this is no small feat. I have a more detailed review forthcoming in VIDEO WATCHDOG 180, but if you are any stripe of a Franco fan, you must have it. Very much looking forward to the second volume, which will cover a wealth of films in greater detail than most have ever before received in English.
I've not yet seen it, but another imposing Franco book was just published - in France, in French. That book is JESS FRANCO OU LES PROSPERITÉS DU BIS by Alain Petit. Petit was the first journalist to cover Franco's work in depth, for both the French fan press and in professional magazines like VAMPIRELLA (the French edition, which unlike the US magazine had a film section), and he later appeared in some of his films, under his own name (TENDER FLESH) and as "Charlie Christian" (THE MIDNIGHT PARTY, JULIETTE). In the 1990s, he published a limited run fanzine devoted to chronicling Franco's entire career entitled THE MANACOA FILES - and this immense book updates and adds to their complete contents, which encompass complete credits and discussion of each film, interviews with Franco and a large number of his collaborators and more. Though the book is in French, it is illustrated with numerous never-before-seen photos and is accompanied with a special code that will allow the reader access to a complete English translation of the text. Published by Artus Films, the book includes a DVD of an otherwise unavailable Franco film - Operation Levres Rouges (1960), the rare French version of his second feature, Labios rojos, the first of several Franco films about the two female private detectives who run the agency known as Red Lips.
If you're looking for something a little more mainstream, a little more affordable, and no less an important achievement, go directly to the newly updated edition of Jonathan Rigby's ENGLISH GOTHIC, now subtitled CLASSIC HORROR CINEMA 1897-2015. When Rigby published the first edition of this now-classic text (then subtitled A CENTURY OF HORROR CINEMA) in the year 2000, his book had the elegiac air of a monument to a bygone age of industry - but happily, almost as if the appearance of the book had catalyzed a long-hoped-for response, the British horror cinema was subsequently resurrected. Consequently, this new edition not only extends the earlier text by some 50 pages but adds on another 75+ pages covering the period of 2000-2015 with discussion of such films as THE DESCENT, THE CHILDREN and THE WOMAN IN BLACK, as well as an added chapter surveying the immensely rich history of English gothic television. Published by Signum Books and sporting a somewhat revised layout that remains nevertheless true to the beautiful, imaginative design of the original edition, the revised ENGLISH GOTHIC is not yet available in America so cast your nets abroad.
An absolutely revelatory art book with strong but unusual ties to the horror genre is Ulrich Merkl's DINOMANIA: THE LOST ART OF WINSOR McCAY, THE SECRET ORIGINS OF KING KONG, AND THE URGE TO DESTROY NEW YORK from Fantagraphics. In the last years of his life, which ended in 1934, cartoonist Winsor McCay - the inventor of the animated cartoon - was planning a new comic strip that would follow in the surreal footsteps of his classics DREAMS OF THE RAREBIT FIEND and LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND. The strip was to be called DINO and would document the troubles that a Gertie-like dinosaur would get into if freed from its resting place into the modern day. Only six pages of such art exists, a combination of McCay's own finished art, as well as some strips scripted by him that had to be completed here in his style by other hands, but it is terribly impressive; however, what is even more impressive is that these strips are just the stepping-off point for the book's primary task of underscoring McCay's paternity of nearly all the popular iconography that is associated with the invasions of great cities by giant monsters, and particularly the way dinosaurs have been depicted over the last century in modern fantasy and storytelling. (As Merkl helpfully points out, dinosaurs only became known to modern man within the last 170 years!) The book not only covers such creatures in the arts, but in general iconography, most impressively reproducing a two-page April Fool's Day spread from a 1906 CHICAGO TRIBUNE documenting a supposed assault on the city by battling dinosaurs - whose fabric is directly traceable to McCay's "Gertie the Dinosaur" and "The Pet." Subsequent chapters draw distinct parallels between McCay's body of work, THE LOST WORLD and KING KONG by demonstrating their shared iconography, particularly in terms of McCay's fascination with giant monsters, giantism in general, and the destruction of cities like New York. Merkl also explores earlier iconography of apes climbing buildings and abducting fair-haired women with results that are sometimes jaw-dropping. A masterpiece of book design, and a history of dots that very much needed to be connected, DINOMANIA will greatly extend your knowledge and enrich your appreciation of subjects dear to your heart.
For those of you who may be partial to the 1950s vintage of horror, may I reach back slightly farther than a year ago to recommend THE CREATURE CHRONICLES: EXPLORING THE BLACK LAGOON TRILOGY by Tom Weaver with David Schecter and Steve Kronenberg? (Not to mention the King of Creach Fetishists, David J. Schow, who kicks in a couple of bonus chapters of his own!) McFarland has indulged this project with production value that includes interior color and glossy paper - it literally doesn't feel like the typical McFarland release - and it's easy to see why they went the extra several miles. This is literally everything you wanted to know about Universal's CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON - its origin, its design, its production, its stars, its sequels, its homages, its mind-boggling merch, and its abiding hold on Monster Kid consciousness. This book won last year's Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Award for Best Book. With a detailed Introduction by Julie Adams, this book raises a serious appetite for similarly focused, deluxe books on Universal's other classic monsters series. How about a long overdue revised edition of Greg Mank's IT'S ALIVE?
And lastly - because we weren't sent every new film-related book that came out this past year - this year also saw the publication of MIDI-MINUIT FANTASTIQUE VOLUME 2 by Michel Caen (who sadly passed away while the book was in production) and Nicolas Stanzick - continuing the ambitious, deluxe, hardcover repackaging of the greatest of all European magazines devoted to fantastic cinema. This new volume includes the complete French-language contents of #7 through the double issue of 10-11, a spread that happily encompasses MMF's legendarily banned (and now difficult-to-find) 8th issue, devoted to eroticism in the fantastic cinema. One of the purposes of this series is to refurbish and preserve the contents of these precious magazines in state-of-the-art quality whenever possible, so one of the most impressive aspects of this particular volume is seeing the racy stills exclusively presented in that eighth issue - from the "continental" versions of films like THE FLESH AND THE FIENDS, JACK THE RIPPER and THE HELLFIRE CLUB - digitally scanned from original photos and presented herein with startling (and sometimes full-page!) clarity. To make an already incredible document still more impressive, extensive new text and photographic content pertaining to the period covered has been added, including Ornella Volta's ground-breaking 1970 interview with Mario Bava; a revealing color pictorial of actress Sylvie Bréal (Robbe-Grillet's THE MAN WHO LIES); an article by Stanzick documenting a Dracula graphic art project by Philippe Druillet and Jean Boullet; a recent essay by former MMF editor Jean-Claude Romer about lost films; and also Stanzick's introductory tribute to Michel Caen. I dearly wish these books were available in English, but it is still extremely easy for a monolinguist like me to get lost in them. I can't point to any other book or books that better capture, pictorially, what I love most about the horror genre. VOLUME 2 also contains a 150 minute DVD consisting of many choice rarities, including Patrice Molinard's 1963 short film Fantasmagorie (40m) starring the great Édith Scob (EYES WITHOUT A FACE, JUDEX)!