I love books. I love movies. I guess it’s no surprise I’ve enjoyed some books about movies. There are plenty out there, from those 501 movies you must see to consummate tool Leonard Malton’s book of reviews. And in this day of the internet, you’ve obviously got a lot of places to turn to for info on movies. But sometimes it’s just fun to pick up a book, flip through the pages and get inspired to check out something new. These books have led me to some great (and awful) movies, and I recommend them for any film buff’s bookshelf.
Out of the Past- Adventures in Film Noir by Barry Gifford: The writer behind some truly weird and awesome books like Night People and Wild at Heart, Barry Gifford is also the co-writer of one of my favorite films, Lost Highway. With this book, he discusses his love of Noir. Like me, he has wide and liberal view of what counts as Noir. So, you’ll occasionally get movies like Night Moves (1975) or King Creole (yes, the 1958 Elvis vehicle), along side more typical entries like Pickup on South Street (1953) and Dark Passage (1947). Gifford’s reviews are sometimes vague, half remembered notions of films he once saw, recollected while sitting in a café somewhere. He was not sitting in a darkened screening room, scribbling away as he watched. So, there are times when he gets things wrong, left with impressions not actually true to the film. It’s like someone telling you about a movie they watched a few weeks back, getting to a few of the details that really struck them, but maybe getting the order of events wrong, or having missed a bit of dialog, thinking an action meant something totally different. But, the love of the movies is there. And he makes you want to check them all out. Even the ones he didn’t really like. I’ve gone on to watch a whole bunch of movies from this book. Some I’m sure I’d have seen anyway, but others I may have never even heard of. And if you’re gonna watch Lost Highway, you should probably watch 1944’s Double Indemnity. (ISBN: 978-1-578-06290-4)
Immoral Tales- European Sex and Horror Movies 1956-1984 by Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs: Europeans have had a strange love affair with film. And I’ll admit it. Most of the time I just don’t understand. There was a time (in my teens and early 20s) when I dug really nasty gore films, which led me to watch a lot of Italian movies from the 70s. And there was a time (circa 1981 to…well today) when I really enjoyed seeing women in various stages of undress. Again, this led me to watch a lot of Italian movies from the 70s, as well as French films, Dutch films, UK films, etc. But one of the reasons I moved away from European movies in general was the combination of those two things. I got sick of seeing beautiful women mutilated, often in sort of sexual ways (cutting off naked breasts being a particularly common event in Italian horror). And just generally, the way European film tended to treat women and sexuality started to genuinely bother me. In French film, the men are frequently hideous middle aged ogres, while the women are comely and young. Even when they’re not being raped, there’s a very rapey vibe to things. But when I acquired Immoral Tales, I had yet to drift away from Euro-horror. The book is packed with pictures that capture a lot of the WTF? nature of these films, in spite of being mostly in black & white. The write-ups on these movies are informative, not only with lurid descriptions of movie content, but also with contextual references about the times they were being made and released, and about the people in front of and behind the cameras. There are chapters on certain countries’ work (France, Italy, etc.) and on certain filmmakers (Jess Franco, Walerian Borowczyk, etc.). And going back to the book now is nice, as I have developed an appreciation for the works of Jean Rollin I certainly didn’t (and likely couldn’t) have when I first got this book. Rollin has lured me back into Euro-sleaze of the that era in part because while his films features some blood (and occasionally some gore), violence, and plenty of sex, there doesn’t seem to be that ugly sexual violence so common in that time. Over the last couple years, I’ve found myself getting in tune with Rollin’s dream-logic storytelling. And reading up on him as I flip through Immoral Tales again, I want to check out some more of his movies, and maybe revisit some I’ve already seen. But this brings up a frustrating fact with all of the books on this list. Often, outside of expensive purchases online, or lucky strikes, many movies discussed in these pages are near impossible to find. I’ve lucked into some on NetFlix and other such places. A few I’ve even found in stores. But a lot of them still exist in some netherworld for me, beyond my reach. And dropping serious dough on unseen movies isn’t a good idea, even when the review is glowing. For example, Le bete, which sounded like it would be pretty danged amazing, turned out to be super dull. $30 dollars I wouldn’t get back for something I watched once and would not be returning to. (ISBN: 978-0312-1-35195)
My Year of Flops by Nathan Rabin: The newest book on this list, I had an absolute blast reading it. Rabin is a guy about my age, with a very similar outlook on movies. Like me, he loves ‘em. He even loves the ones he hates. Maybe especially the ones he hates. With his rating system of Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success, he gets to the heart of movie flops. Great movies nobody ever saw, like The Rocketeer, amazing disasterpieces like Heaven’s Gate, and all bookended by the strange cast of Elizabethtown. His reviews are often hysterical, expletive heavy, and referential. But he also has a lot of information to pass on, even getting the straight dope from some of the people involved in making some of these bombs. Again, for anyone who loves movies, a must read. Flops are a part of the magic of movies, and this book is a celebration of that magic. (ISBN: 978-1-4391-5312-3)
Sex and Zen & A Bullet in the Head- The Essential Guide to Hong Kong’s Mind-Bending Films by Stefan Hammond & Mike Wilkins: I used to catch bits of marital arts on TV and in movies, and sometime in my teens, a friend showed me a few classic Shaw Brothers films. But truth be told, I didn’t get consciously into Martial Arts cinema until I saw Jackie Chan’s Rumble in the Bronx at a local theater. Around the same time, I started watching some Gong Li movies on video, mainly because she was so beautiful on the VHS covers. Eventually, I started to realize that Hong Kong was a happenin’ berg, and putting out some of the strangest, coolest movies. I began consuming everything I could find at my local video stores. As my newfound fascination with the HK film industry grew to new heights over the latter part of the 90s, I was rewarded by a one-two punch of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which really pushed some of that Hong Kong style into American cinemas like never before. And suddenly, the video market exploded with new and old titles for sale and rent. This book came to my attention right around that time, and has served as a handy guide ever since. Though it’s kind of out of date now (as these books are destined to become), it features some fairly in depth explorations of various movies, focused on the so called Hong Kong New Wave of the 80s and 90s. An energy gripped movie makers, drawing on the film language of the West and on cultural changes in Hong Kong. Out of that energy came a sort of neo-Noir, realism, and a rediscovery of Chinese classics. The book covers everything from Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies to early Wong Kar-wai, to the difficulty created by actors having multiple names, to the often hilariously awkward subtitle translations (“He wants to be the toppest fight, shit!”). If you’re interested in Honk Kong cinema, or just want suggestions for something a little different, this book is a must. There are books out there that focus on martial arts, or on solitary figures like Bruce Lee, but this one gives you a nice sample from across the wide spectrum of genre, even if only from a limited time period. (ISBN: 978-0-6848-0341-8)
Lurker in the Lobby- A Guide to the Cinema of H.P. Lovecraft by Andrew Migliore and John Strysik: It’s no secret I’m a fan of pulp horror/sci-fi writer H.P. Lovecraft. I love his soul blasting revelations of insignificance in the face of things so far outside human understanding his heroes often find themselves able only to escape through madness or death. Though his stories typically dwell primarily in the minds of his protagonists, I’ve always felt they could make for excellent films. Certainly, his concepts and themes do and have. From direct adaptations like Re-animator (1985) and The Call of Cthulhu (2005) to thematic descendants like Alien (1979) and The Quatermass Xperiment, the book covers a lot of movies from way back all the way up to recent years. It also gets into TV episodes (including The Real Ghostbusters!) and short films. And there are a few extensive interviews with filmmakers and actors like Jeffery Combs, Guillermo del Toro, and the late Dan O’Bannon. Plenty of illustrations and photographs give tantalizing glimpses at the various movies. Annoyingly, like the above books, many of these films are difficult to come by without dropping some serious bank, or attending distant horror conventions. Still, it’s a helpful look at some of the many movies influenced or directly inspired by a literary master and his fellows. (ISBN: 978-1-892-38935-0)