MONSTERS IN THE MOVIES: 100 Years of Cinematic Nightmares by John Landis (DK Publishing)
If you’re wondering, “Who needs another survey of horror movies?” I urge you to reconsider and check out this terrific book. No one is as knowledgeable or passionate about horror films and their offshoots than Landis, who’s made some pretty fair genre pieces himself (An American Werewolf in London, Innocent Blood, the Thriller video). His enthusiasm permeates every page of this oversized book, which is bursting with great photos and poster reproductions. His essays on various facets of the genre (Vampires, Werewolves, Monstrous Apes, Atomic Mutations, The Devil’s Work, Wicked Witches, Scary Children, Human Monsters, etc.) are lively and provocative. His book cites everything from Frankenstein to the sight of Humphrey Bogart covered with—
—leeches in The African Queen. An illustrated appendix is devoted to the “monster makers,” including directors, visual effects specialists and makeup artists.
The book is punctuated by engaging conversations between Landis and such colleagues as Christopher Lee, Joe Dante, David Cronenberg, Sam Raimi, Guillermo Del Toro, Ray Harryhausen, Rick Baker, and John Carpenter, most of whom are aficionados as well as filmmakers. Some of them are extremely eloquent, particularly when it comes to the subject of why people are attracted to horror films and monsters. (Del Toro remarks, “People say going to a horror movie is like a rollercoaster ride and I partially agree. But the rollercoaster analogy is limited. On a ride, you’re only scared of being physically damaged. Horror films are a rollercoaster of the soul.”)
Best of all, Landis isn’t afraid to express his opinions, many of which are incorporated into photo captions. He joyfully describes Evil Dead II as “the Three Stooges do Grand Guignol.” On the other hand, he labels the Marlon Brando version of The Island of Dr. Moreau “profoundly terrible.” Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is “worth missing.” And he calls the Neil LaBute/Nicolas Cage version of The Wicker Man “the worst remake of all time.” Deadly, but accurate.
Perhaps Landis’ mindset is best expressed in his caption for a half-sheet of Teenage Zombies (1959): “The poster’s tagline—‘A fiendish experiment with sadistic horror!’—could apply to any movie directed by Jerry Warren. Teenagers! Zombies! And a gorilla! What’s not to like?” If you feel the same way, you’re bound to enjoy this delightful book as much as I did.
As I am slowly but surely making my way through James Curtis’ new 1,000-page biography Spencer Tracy (and loving it) I haven’t had time to read some of the other interesting books that have crossed my desk, but I’d like to acknowledge them:
DENNIS HOPPER: THE WILD RIDE OF A HOLLYWOOD REBEL by Peter L. Winkler (Barricade Books)
Here is a timely biography of one of the most colorful figures in all of movie history, a man who straddled Old Hollywood (marrying into a famous show-business family and working for such heavyweights as George Stevens) and New Hollywood, which he helped to invent with the groundbreaking success of Easy Rider. A symbol of counterculture, and an important figure on the art scene in Los Angeles, Hopper seemed to live many lives, and Winkler attempts to cover the entire spectrum of his life and career. I’m encouraged by an endorsement quote on the back cover by Patrick McGilligan, whose many books include candid biographies of Clint Eastwood and Jack Nicholson.
THE GARNER FILES: A MEMOIR by James Garner and Jon Winokur; introduction by Julie Andrews (Simon & Schuster)
One of the most likable—and best-liked—actors of our time recalls his life and career in a breezy autobiography, written in collaboration with the man responsible for The Portable Curmudgeon. Garner’s longtime friends and colleagues weigh in, in their own words, in a final chapter. Film buffs and Garner fans will especially enjoy a filmography in which the actor rates and comments on every one of his films. (His all-time favorite remains The Americanization of Emily. Of The Distinguished Gentleman he notes, “I can’t remember a thing about this picture. I can live with that.”)
SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE FABULOUS FACES: The Universal Pictures Repertory Company by Michael A. Hoey (BearManor Media)
How fitting that the son of Dennis Hoey, who portrayed Inspector Lestrade in the twelve Universal Sherlock Holmes films of the 1940s, should write a book paying tribute to the character actors and supporting players who comprised the series (and studio’s) informal repertory company. Here, then, are background stories on the Holmes movies and their casts, including such beloved figures—at least, to diehard film buffs—as Lionel Atwill, Douglass Dumbrille, Henry Daniell, Edgar Barrier, Billy Bevan, Paul Cavanagh, Mary Gordon, Reginald Denny, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, Olaf Hytten, Montagu Love, Ian Wolfe, George Zucco and Miles Mander, to name just a few, as well as leading ladies Evelyn Ankers, Hillary Brooke, and Gale Sondergaard. This is a most welcome volume.
THE FOX FILM CORPORATION 1915-1935: A History and Filmography by Aubrey Solomon (McFarland)
Having written extensively about 20th Century Fox, Solomon opens this new volume by candidly apologizing for giving short shrift to its corporate predecessor in his 1989 book about the studio. He definitely makes amends with this thorough account of Fox’s rise and fall. The first half of the volume is a well-illustrated history of the company founded by one of the most ambitious men in all of Hollywood history, William Fox. The studio was responsible for such milestones as The Iron Horse, 7th Heaven and Sunrise, but many of Fox’s less celebrated silent films no longer exist, making the descriptions (and year-by-year context) all the more valuable. The second half of the book is taken up by a comprehensive filmography of 1,100 titles with relevant details about each release over that eventful twenty-year span from 1915 to 1935, when Fox merged with the fledgling 20th Century Pictures.
PAULINE KAEL: A LIFE IN THE DARK by Brian Kellow (Viking)
No film critic in recent memory has inspired the kind of passionate following that attended Pauline Kael’s film reviews in The New Yorker. Ten years after her death, Kellow has done extensive homework in order to paint a full-bodied portrait of the feisty, often dogmatic woman who influenced so many budding writers, film buffs, and filmmakers. Few, if any, critics would warrant such a book, but Kael was an uncommon figure in her time, and remains a subject of great admiration today. The fact that most of us know little about her upbringing or her private life makes this an especially intriguing biography.
THE ULTIMATE BOOK OF GANGSTER MOVIES: Featuring the 100 Greatest Gangster Films of All Time by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow (Running Press)
Here’s a novelty: a movie book by two non-movie guys, real-life crime specialist Anastasia and seasoned freelance writer Macnow. The result is a lively, colorful survey of the field that not only covers the obvious titles (from Little Caesar to The Godfather) but comes right up to date with such worthy entries as In Bruges, Mesrine and The Animal Kingdom. There are sidebars on French gangster films, Yakuza movies, and Fritz Lang, a feature on “six degrees of Sopranos separation,” and interviews with such veterans of the genre as Joe Mantegna, Viggo Moretensen, Chazz Palminteri, Michael Madsen, and Tim Roth. For each film surveyed there are notations of “violence level,” “body count,” “best line,” “Don’t Fail to Notice…” and more. A fun browse.
LUCK AND CIRCUMSTANCE: A COMING OF AGE IN HOLLYWOOD, NEW YORK, AND POINTS BEYOND by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (Knopf)
Director Lindsay-Hogg recounts his colorful life as the son of actress Geraldine Fitzgerald, who moved in heady company and introduced her son to such imposing figures as Laurence Olivier, Charlie Chaplin, Marion Davies, Humphrey Bogart, and Orson Welles, who was rumored to be his father. This possibility has always haunted Lindsay-Hogg and forms the undercurrent of his memoir. He also identifies the moment he became enchanted with the theater, while watching his mother rehearse a play for the first time, with Roddy McDowall for director Sidney Lumet. He was 14 years old and says, “I felt like I sometimes did in a library or church, where the walls have been indented by feelings, feelings of intent, concentration, wishes, and maybe, sometimes, fear. But the sense in this place was of something good happening. I felt warm and protected and, although sitting alone, somehow included and privileged.” Obviously, Lindsay-Hogg is a gifted writer; I look forward to taking in this book in its entirety.
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