The mainstream is variously defined as ‘the ideas, attitudes, or activities that are shared by most people and regarded as normal or conventional‘; the bourgeois middle-ground, where banality often reigns and quirks are summarily ignored or dismissed.
Culturally, particularly in the arts, there have always been those who exist, by necessity or design, on the cusp of what is considered the mainstream, and it is upon the products of these factions that Michael Vaughn’s latest book casts a critical eye.
The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema delves deep into genre cinema, positing that no work of cinematic art, especially those that exist in the darkest corners of the medium, should remain unexplored. It’s a book that’s as much a love letter to the anomalous as a straightforward series of reviews (there are well over 300 pages, including a number of interviews, and enough trivia to keep fact fans poring over the pages for hours) that treats each curio with a dignity that, in a few instances, is perhaps less than deserved.
For those better versed in these ‘more-refined’ genres, filmmakers including Harmony Korine, Takashi Miike, Pete Walker, and Paul Naschy will be somewhere approaching household names, but if the likes of Jess Franco illicit a shrug then Vaughn covers such rarified gems as The Erotic Rights of Frankenstein, which he describes as a ‘deliriously depraved and totally whacked-out vision of Mary Shelley’s immortal classic,’ and the 1979 Nick Zedd anomaly, They Eat Scum.
Interestingly, the lion’s share of reviews focus on films made post-1960, though there is room for, among others, Conrad Veidt’s incredible turn in The Man Who Laughs, and Peter Lorre’s American film debut in Mad Love. It’s probably fair to suggest that the unstable social and political climate of the ’60s gave voice to a number of filmmakers, who may not have otherwise taken that particular vocational path. In fact, upon returning to the book (which you will undoubtedly do) one begins to to notice a plethora of important cinematic voices whose earlier, less conventional, works are covered.
From a personal perspective, it’s always welcome to see Vaughn has highlighted number of under-appreciated gems. The John Hughes antidote, River’s Edge; Don’t Torture a Duckling, arguable Lucio Fulci’s finest; and Harry Kümel’s Ostend-set vampiric masterpiece Daughters of Darkness all feature. Conversely, the absurdly-titled Black Devil Doll from Hell, a preposterous, misogynistic piece of ugly ‘filmmaking’ also turns up, as do a couple of the films of Tim Ritter, ‘the Ed Wood of shot-on-video gore’. As previously mentioned, The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema does not discriminate, and it is all the better for it.
It’s true that a number of the films within the pages of …Strange Cinema are on the south side of what might be regarded as good taste, but this isn’t a book about the vacuity of a date movie (though This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse might ramp up the romance!). So, if you like your gore face-twistingly graphic or your comedy so pitch black it’s barely ever seen daylight, you’re in for quite a ride/read.
“When you watch these movies, it’s good to keep in mind that these balls-to-the-walls mavericks didn’t have the luxury of millions of dollars and CGI; hell, she of them didn’t eve have the money for real stunt men.”
And, of course, no book on strange cinema would be complete without a review of Crazy Fat Ethel. Probably.
You can follow Mike Vaughn on Twitter – @StrangeCinema65