Surrey, UK: Telos Publishing, 2008.
A couple of years ago at a horror convention, a slim little book of horror criticism caught my attention. The title was Minds of Fear: A Dialogue with 30 Modern Masters of Horror! (Midnight Marquee, 2005). Scanning the table of contents, I was thrilled to discover that the 30 dialogues revolved around the sort of cult films that horror fans rightly cherish.Not just standard fare like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween, but a full roster of marginalized or forgotten gems: An American Werewolf in London, Black Christmas, Death Line (a.k.a. Raw Meat), The Hills Have Eyes, Rabid, Alligator, The Blob, Cujo, Eaten Alive, The Hidden, Alone in the Dark, Intruder, Silent Night Deadly Night, The Slayer, A Stranger is Watching, Brain Damage, Motel Hell, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, The Toxic Avenger, Two Thousand Maniacs, A Boy and His Dog, Cronos, Dead and Buried, Evilspeak, Strange Behavior, Ginger Snaps, Jeepers Creepers, King of the Ants, R.S.V.P., Wrong Turn. I have provided the entire list here simply to illustrate the genius of the author’s selections—each of these films deserve to be championed, and relatively little has been written about them. Chapter after chapter, I was grateful to Calum Waddell for devoting so much time and thought to such an underappreciated lot.It was clear, from his writing, that he had a personal affection for all of these films. His dialogues with the various filmmakers were genuinely engaging, and prompted me to put quite a few films at the top of my Netflix queue.
Ever since, I’ve been waiting eagerly for Waddell’s follow-up book, Taboo Breakers: 18 Independent Films That Courted Controversy and Created a Legend (Telos, 2008).The table of contents showed a truly eclectic gathering of films, but this time the author divides his time between cult films and more mainstream efforts.I was somewhat skeptical that anything new could be said about Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween or The Evil Dead that hasn’t been repeated in recent books, articles, DVD extras and convention panels. Even the lesser known Blood Feast has received more than its fair share of critical attention in the past few years, despite its many shortcomings. The author himself admits that it is a “tedious, badly made, repetitive little offering with horrible acting, dreadful effects, static camerawork and a flimsy storyline.”In interviews, director Herschell Gordon Lewis apologizes for the film, saying “it’s not any good but it’s the first of its kind,” and producer David Friedman seems much more eager to talk about his comparably forgotten “roughie” pictures: The Defilers, Scum of the Earth and Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS.Those sadly neglected films are much worthier of the attention.So why kick things off with Blood Feast?
The title of the book suggests that Waddell is going to focus on the way that it and 17 other films ransacked the social consciousness, breaking cinematic barriers with apparent glee.Blood Feast certainly shocked audiences of the day but there isn’t much detail about the scandals it caused.(You can find more in David Friedman’s thoroughly entertaining biography, A Youth in Babylon).Given the fact that gore is no longer much of a taboo for American audiences, it might have been more interesting to dwell on the gritty mix of sex and violence in The Defilers or Scum of the Earth—films that retain the power to shock mainstream American audiences.To his credit, Waddell does devote a chapter to Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, which shocked me plenty when I first saw it as a teenager… and upon second viewing, last year.
Although I found that Waddell’s chapters on the classic horror films rang a bit hollow, I was very excited about his coverage of the remaining thirteen films—representatives of porn chic (Behind the Green Door), torture porn (Ilsa and Hostel), blaxploitation (Coffy and Candy Tangerine Man), adult animation (Fritz the Cat and The Plague Dogs), and a smattering of esoteric horror (The Tenderness of Wolves, Cannibal Holocaust, Maniac, Nightmares in a Damaged Brain, House of 1,000 Corpses, and Oldboy). Whereas the casts and crews of the mainstream horror films can be chatted up at conventions and the like, Waddell deserves praise for tracking down the reclusive Ralph Bakshi at home in New Mexico, and securing substantive interviews with neglected filmmakers like Ulli Lommel, Martin Rosen and the iconic Dyanne Thorne (Isla herself).The highlight of the book, for me, was reading about two films that have not made their way to DVD: Candy Tangerine Man (allegedly Samuel L. Jackson’s favorite film) and Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. The fact that these films have eluded the popular consciousness makes them seem like worthy subjects indeed for a book called Taboo Breakers… It gives a jaded video geek like me something to look for.
The appeal of taboo-breaking films is, naturally, the appeal of the forbidden. In an age when everything seems to be readily available on DVDs loaded with special features, one can’t help but yearn for an entire book on films that exist mostly as legend (…and maybe via websites that fans can use as rallying points for DVD release campaigns?). Taboo Breakers is a mixed bag, but it’s a great read because the author is emotionally connected to his subjects.Waddell’s true gift is bringing some of the more obscure films to light for a new generation, and with a fan’s genuine enthusiasm. Since his love for the grindhouse and blaxploitation films is undeniable and contagious (reminding me of another excellent book that deserves mention: Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s Sleazoid Express), I’m really looking forward to the author’s biography on filmmaker Jack Hill as well as a forthcoming feature-length documentary that he has co-written called American Grindhouse.Some people just can’t get enough blood, beasts and breasts.