Book Reviews By Rich Behrens & Mike White. A Taste of Blood by Christopher Wayne CurryThe first time I viewed the 1968 epic tale of teen destruction, Just for the Hell of It, I became a Herschell Gordon Lewis convert...
A Taste of Blood by Christopher Wayne Curry
The first time I viewed the 1968 epic tale of teen destruction, Just for the Hell of It, I became a Herschell Gordon Lewis convert. After reading Christopher Wayne Curry’s A Taste of Blood, I now know that Robert Lewis, Herschell’s son, is the guitar player in the teen club garage band. That kind of attention to detail makes A Taste of Blood a terrific book about an under-appreciated filmmaker!
According to legend, Lewis never lost money on his pictures. The director is now a recognized expert in advertising and more specifically, direct marketing. Lewis honed his marketing abilities in the 1960s, starting with nudie films like The Prime Time and moving into gore with Blood Feast. He impeccably foresaw the need of certain types of exploitation pictures and then made films to fit the perceived need. A look at the type of financial returns from his films proves that Lewis knows human nature!
A Taste of Blood features interviews with Lewis along with David Friedman. Curry’s interview questions are satisfyingly in-depth, allowing the reader to glean how well Lewis knew his audience and how to produce custom-tailored product on a shoestring budget. Likewise, Lewis’s responses are refreshingly honest, regarding his first feature The Prime Time he says, “The worst mistake that I made was listening to a guy named Fred Niles, of Fred Niles Communications or Niles Productions, or something. He is the one who produced the screenwriter. And, I’m using a euphemism there. Anyway, in my opinion and historically speaking, at the time I was thrilled at having my name in the credits as a producer.” This experience led Lewis to insist on complete control in his next picture, Living Venus, which stars Harvey Korman from TV’s “Carol Burnette Show.” The film is a passable picture with a cohesive plot. It centers on a thinly disguised Playboy Magazine rip-off called Pagan. At the time, this was a more exploitative subject. Forty years later, this comes across as a B-film about Hugh Hefner that breaks no new ground.
Lewis had his financial breakthrough with Blood Feast in 1964. This film set the stage for all gore films to come. It took mainstream filmmakers another decade to bring gore movies to the masses, with material like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Here, Mal Arnold plays Fuad Ramses, an Egyptian caterer in the process of assembling an altar to the ancient Egyptian goddess Ishtar. Meanwhile, people are turning up missing left and right. Blood Feast made a ton of cash, proving that Lewis could give the consumer what they wanted for a minimal amount of money.
2000 Maniacs was Lewis’s breakout film. It has an amazingly appropriate theme of “The South’s Gonna Rise Again.” The southern hamlet (Pleasant Valley) is having a celebration commemorating The Civil War. Unfortunately, a bevy of captive Yankees provide the entertainment for the festival. Filmed in St. Cloud, Florida, ironically, the setting of 2000 Maniacs would later become the home of Walt Disney World.
After dabbling in psychotronic kids movies like Jimmy The Boy Wonder, Curry considers Suburban Roulette a comeback vehicle for Lewis. With a narrative showing that lives in the suburbs is not as happy as the tranquil surroundings would have you believe, Lewis explores (and exploits) the topic of wife-swapping as a possible cure to suburban malaise. Suburban Roulette proves a difficult movie to take seriously. When the main character tries to flee his alcoholism and his wife’s promiscuousness by moving to the suburbs, I can’t help but laugh at his high-minded idealism. Of course, at the couple’s first party in their new neighborhood, he gets drunk and his wife hooks up with the neighbor. All the while, the acting is beyond cheesy.
Blast-Off Girls is an epic about a teen garage band, The Big Blast. Boogie Baker (Dan Conway) manages the group, making them do all sorts of stuff while he pockets their money. Lewis regular Ray Sager plays Boogie’s henchman and acts as the band’s handler. Look for the original Colonel Sanders in a cameo as a chicken shack proprietor that hires The Big Blast for a grand opening event!
I cannot do Blast-Off Girls justice, suffice to say Lewis fans that dig garage music will be psyched! Meanwhile, the film should be required viewing for anyone even considering being in a band as many of the situations are still applicable.
A Taste of Blood is stuffed with tons of beautifully reproduced B&W images, stills, and posters. The summaries of all of the features with production credits are way cool. Curry strips away the slew of fake names used in the films’ credits, showing how much work each player contributed. By the way, my favorite Lewis pseudonym has to be Sheldon Seymour, which he used on the music credits for Just for the Hell of It.
Christopher Wayne Curry is a serious Herschell Gordon Lewis fan. His love of Lewis’s legacy of great trash cinema is obvious. I cannot recommend this book more highly. If you have even a passing interest in the story of a true independent American, read A Taste of Blood. The book is available from Creation Books. Almost all of Lewis’s films are available on from Something Weird Video. Purchase this book from Amazon.com - RB
Samurai from Outer Space by Antonia Levy
I’ve never liked Japanese animation. I missed out on “Astro Boy” and “Speed Racer” when I was a kid. To me, “Kimba the White Lion” represented Japanese animation. Something about the oddness in the characters voices (they always threw in extra syllables at the end of their sentences, “We have to go save him, huh?”) and the gender ambiguity of the lead character (these things are important to uptight pre-pubescent kids) really bothered me.
By the time Japanese animation took hold in the US cartoon market with shows such as “Voltron,” or “Robotech,” I was done with cartoons. By the time Japanese animation started showing up on the shelves at Blockbuster Video, I learned that one should refer to Japanese animation as “Anime.” In the years between, I found that the same kind of geeky know-it-all kids who dominated the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons scene and who lingered too long at comic book stores discussing the outcome of a battle between the “Teen Titans” and “Alpha Flight,” were the same folks who loved Anime.
Have you ever disliked a band because of its fans? This was the same kind of thing. I have yet to listen to anything by The Misfits merely because of all the losers in leather jackets who would come to concerts and stand in my way or push people around in the pit. Nine times out of ten they’d have on some sort of Misfits paraphernalia. No one’s written a book explaining the music of the Misfits from an outsider’s point of view.
Thankfully, Antonia Levy’s book Samurai from Outer Space is the perfect guide for jerks like me who’ve dismissed an entire animation style out of dislike for its diehard fans. Subtitled “Understanding Japanese Animation,” Levy takes the reader through the history of Anime and Manga (Japanese comic books). She explains common themes explored in these media, helping to put them into cultural and historical perspective.
Levy’s book isn’t a lofty dissertation on the integration of Shinto myths into modern Anime. While she covers those subjects and more, Levy quickly gets to brass tacks. In her first chapter, she addresses one of my burning questions about Anime and Manga, “Why do these Japanese characters have exaggerated Anglo features?” According to Levy, the characters are not thought of as belonging to any one particular race. Instead, those big round eyes are more of a stylistic flourish of Mangajust as big eyes are trademark in the U.S. to those annoying Precious Moments statuettes.
In Samurai from Outer Space, Levy addresses the appeal of Anime and Manga to Easterners and Westerners. More than cheaply made adventure stories, Anime and Manga are often steeped in the rich culture of their homeland, just as U.S. storytellers sweeten their narratives with references or by playing off of common cultural themes. Just as a viewer not entirely familiar with Greek mythology might not get as many laughs watching “Xena: Warrior Princess” as someone who really knows their Homer, without a substantial understanding of Shinto myth one might scratch their head at “Ranma ½.” A thorough and well-written tome, Samurai from Outer Space convinced me to give Anime another chance. (ISBN: 0812693329)- MW
Girl Reel by Bonnie J. Morris
This book took me by surprise. This memoir of Bonnie J. Morris reads like a wonderfully personal recollection of a film fan. Morris recalls the movie palaces of her youth, even discussing which theaters would hassle her about seeing GP movies without her folks present. Her enthusiasm about riding across town to spend an afternoon in the dark comfort of film is something to which I could immediately relate.
Morris writes about which films affected her deepest, delving into self-examination at times to see what made her react to the images on the silver screen. This effectively sets the stage for Morris’ pubescent awakening. Playing out her teenage awkwardness while attending double features of Harold and Maude and The King of Hearts, Morris describes going to see these films over and over with her “girl gang.” She describes the films as a “brilliantly paired tribute to forbidden love between eccentric nonconformists.”
It’s through the movies and through their often distorted reflection of reality that Morris begins to realize and cope with the realization of her sexual orientation. Morris is a lesbian. Luckily, the book doesn’t suddenly change gears upon this revelation. Instead, it’s another lens through which Morris filters her experiences to the reader. If anything, Morris begins to increase her movie going and provides terrific insight with her reactions to the portrayal of lesbians in mainstream and Art House film.
The writing of Girl Reel is captivating. I devoured this 167-page book with vigor. By combining three of my favorite subjects; personal experience, film going, and women’s studies, Girl Reel was a pleasant surprise, indeed! (ISBN: 1566890942) - MW
...Or Not to Be: A Collection of Suicide Notes by Marc Etkind
Yes, I’m a sick bastard. My morbid curiosity got the best of me when I purchased this book. As the title states, this tiny book reprints a few dozen suicide notes for all the world to see. Relying too heavily on footnotes and other people’s research about suicide more than forming his own opinion, Etkind’s book is sadly lacking in ambition and substance.
Briefly covering the history of suicide notes, the book doesn’t get interesting until the fourth chapter when Etkind covers what he calls notes of “disgrace.” Herein are a bevy of notes written by guilty parties who end their lives by their own hand without ever admitting their guilt! This is also the chapter in which readers get a chance to read notes by (in)famous folks like Hermann Göering. This chapter also includes a note penned by O. J. Simpson. Obviously, O. J. hasn’t killed himself (yet), but his note fits perfectly in the context of these other disgraced public figures.
Apart from the aforementioned, the only other points of morbid interest are transcriptions of the suicide tape made at Jonestown, R. Bud Dwyer’s farewell speech, Christine Chubbuck’s blithe announcement before killing herself on television (a story I’d never heard), and Vince Foster’s alleged suicide note (found at the bottom of his briefcase). ...Or Not to Be is a good idea but improperly executed by Marc Etkind. Hopefully a more comprehensive and interesting book covering this same subject matter will come at a later date. (ISBN: 1573225800) - MW
Treks Not Taken by Steven R. Boyett
Utterly geeky and clever, Treks Not Taken is a collection of fictional “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episodes as if they had been written by notable literary figures such as Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut, Tom Robbins, etc. Boyett and his co-writer Lauren Horwitch do a tremendous job of parodying these authors’ works. They capture the tone of these authors’ most popular works-quite a task in itself-while showing a true love and knowledge for the “Star Trek” mythos.
A story titled, “The Crusher in the Rye,” subjects the reader to the first-person peckerhead ramblings of Wesley Crusher cum Holden Caufield. Crusher bitches about being kicked out of Star Fleet Academy and about his chrome-domed mentor. Meanwhile, in “Even Captains Get The Blues,” I was immediately taken back to the dippy hippie prose of Tom Robbins. It’s in stories like “Trek of Darkness” where Joseph Conrad’s writing style takes a back seat to the punchline of searching for Kurtz only to find Kirk instead. His power-mad, ego trip soliloquy is the book’s pièce de résistance.
A light, fun read, Treks Not Taken only falters when encountering a reader without intimate knowledge of the authors parodied. For me, I skipped chapters written in the style of Cormac McCarthy, Jackie Collins, and Bret Easton Ellis. Otherwise, I had enough familiarity to find humor in the seventeen chapters. For avid readers and Trekkers only! (ISBN: 0060952768) - MW
Other People’s Dirt by Louise Rafkin
If you like true-life tales about what it takes to work in a profession, then you’ll dig Other People’s Dirt, an entertaining trip through the life of a housecleaner. Written in a lighthearted personal tone, Rafkin chronicles her life, her relationship to disorder, and need for cleanliness. Like a compendium of “Dishwasher,” Rafkin recounts her own sordid experiences dealing with dirty dwellings while examining the practice of housecleaning. Taking readers from New York’s Earth Room-a Manhattan installation with rooms lined with soil-to Japan’s Ittoen commune of humble cleaners, Rafkin examines cleaning in myriad situations, keeping her revelations firmly rooted in the first person. Light-hearted, even when dealing with some highly serious situations, Other People’s Dirt in an engaging book. (ISBN: 0452280818) - MW
“I Was For Sale” by Lisa B. Falour
Help! This book is in desperate need of an editor! There’s a story here that should be told but “I Was For Sale” is bogged down by the writing style of author Lisa B. Falour.
I really wanted to like this book. I had hopes that it’d perhaps pick up where Shawna Keeney’s I Was A Teenage Dominatrix (see CdC #11) left off. A former zinester and bondage model, Falour’s life is rife with tawdry (and poignant) tales, yet Falour’s writing often left me scratching my head, wondering to where she was going and from where she had come. Falour skips willy-nilly from decade to decade from paragraph to paragraph. I finally had to put the book down when I got to the first page of chapter four and found myself completely lost in the maze of Falour’s life-a labyrinth that one would hope she’d navigate rather than compound. I valiantly struggled to pick up the thread that weaves Falour’s tales together. I’ve known people who talk like Falour writes and I try to avoid getting into conversations with them.
Four chapters may sound like a half-hearted effort, but reading Falour’s work after proofreading CdC was driving me a bit bonkers. I itched for a pen to rewrite lines like, “I saw him in person recently and he looked great and seemed extremely fit. He didn’t seem to be 82 years old at all-he seemed quite a bit younger.” Perhaps a synonym (or two) for “seem” is in order. How about “appear”? A good thesaurus, a few infinitives, and a gerund or two might pep up Falour’s writing. A muddled disappointment, I hope that Falour’s publisher might consider a seriously rewritten second printing of “I Was For Sale”. And, for a book subtitled “Confessions of a Bondage Model,” might I suggest that such an edition might sport a few pictures-racy or otherwise! (ISBN: 1840680539) - MW
The Evil Dead Companion by Bill Warren
A nice-sized and well-researched tome, author Bill Warren takes readers through the production history of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy (and the films in-between) in The Evil Dead Companion. While some folks might tire of the obsessive detailing the book provides about these classic flicks, I can never get my fill of the hometown heroes behind the Evil Dead films. Chronologically ordered, a three chapter blow-by-blow summation of the films (annotated by lead actor/co-producer Bruce Campbell) rounds out the book. While The Evil Dead Companion may not be the final word in Evil Dead study, it’s a damn good start and well worth the investment for folks who think the Evil Dead films are altogether “groovy.” (ISBN: 0312275013) - MW
Art in Detroit Public Places by Dennis Alan Nawrocki
I really wanted to like this book. Alas, it’s a good idea poorly executed. Beginning with its misleading title (quite a bit of the artwork is found outside the confines of Detroit City Limits), Art in Detroit Public Places is a narrow paperback stuffed with photographs and descriptions of public works of art in the Metro area.
Each mosaic, statue, or sculpture is given a lone, poorly reproduced black and white picture apparently taken from the same angle by David Clements. How can a picture snapped from across the street capture the impact of something like The Heidelberg Project? A solitary monochromatic image eschews the splendor of the enormous collection of junk with its telephone poles decorated with doll heads and artist Tyree Guyton’s ever-present motif of playful polka dots. I’ve seen inept tourists take better pictures.
Alongside these pictures, Dennis Alan Nawrocki pens sketchy descriptions of the works, their creators, and their current status. It’s rather ironic that this is the second edition of the work as the writing is aggravatingly set in the present. One would hope that the language would be given a more indefinite time frame. Instead of saying “recently” or “currently,” it’d be smarter to have dates cited.
Even the maps that precede each of the five sections of the book are problematic. These graphics are slightly better than if a dot-matrix printer had produced them. In addition, very little effort would need to be expended to list the location of the artwork in succeeding pages on these maps. While this might seem a trifling issue, it exemplifies how Art in Detroit Public Places is an overly ambitious, under-produced mess. (ISBN: 0814327028) - MW
Detours and Lost Highways by Foster Hirsch
With roots reaching deep into film history, the stylistic conventions of film noir have been present throughout the history of cinema. Moreover, the hardboiled tales that lent themselves to noir’s stylistics that reached their heyday in the 1940s have never fully disappeared from the silver screen. In Detours and Lost Highways, Foster Hirsch examines classic noir films and their influence on later films. Primarily focusing on original works and their later remakes, Hirsch places the films into cultural and historical perspective, noting the necessity for change in the films according to their era and how they work (or, more often, don’t).
Hirsch’s book is right up my alley. I’m a big fan of noir and am always curious about how films change going from their original concepts to the screen and to their subsequent remakes and/or influences. Detours and Lost Highways is an exhaustive work whose only fault may lie in its curious omission of key noirs and neo-noirs such as White Sands, Palmetto, and Detour (and its remake). Likewise, while Hirsch provides a terrific history of noir in pre- and post-war France, he unfortunately misses out on discussing the great noirs of Japan. These points notwithstanding, Detours and Lost Highways is necessary reading for noir fans and students of film history. (ISBN: 0879102888) - MW
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