Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Film: Drums of Terror - Voodoo In The Cinema

Drums of Terror - Voodoo In The Cinema (Bryan Senn, Midnight Marquee Press, 1998)
Another top notch, entertaining and interesting publication from Midnight Marquee Press, who, after untold years of producing one of the all time best film publications, has — luckily for people like you and me — gone into the production of decidedly interesting film books as well. In terms of research and writing style, Midnight Marquee Press publications usually tend to be miles above and beyond the typical Citadel Press publication, using a vocabulary and sentence structure that reveals that the authors might actually read books themselves. Regrettably, with cover prices are just as prohibitive as those of Citadel.
Bryan Senn’s Drums of Terror is no exception, complete with a cover price that takes at least 3 hours of minimum wages to earn and a literary quality that indicates a possible college education on part of the author. Senn's starting point in his study of voodoo films is that although voodoo gets a lot of bad press, it is actually a serious monotheist religion similar in structure to Christianity, "a legitimate religion born of genuine spirituality," which, because it is foreign and strange to the "civilised" western world, has an undeservedly bad rap and is seen by most (uninformed) people to be almost a form of demonic worship. Thus, most movies in which Voodoo is featured "take the form of a funhouse mirror," distorting the facts into something completely unrealistic, bizarre, horrific.
Senn then proceeds to present and dissect 39 films in depth, ranging from the Bela Lugosi vehicle White Zombie (1932) to Val Newton’s I Walked With A Zombie (1943) to Hammer’s The Plague of the Zombies (1966) to the Blackpliotation classic Sugar Hill (1974) to Mickey Rourke’s (for a long time) last good mainstream Hollywood film, Angel Heart (1987), discussing both the seriousness and truthfulness of the perspective films presentation and use of the religion and how the film is or isn’t successful in filmic terms. In addition to these essays, the book also includes two appendixes, one entitled Pseudo-Voodoo and the other Boob Toob Hoodoo, full of (not too short) short dissections of numerous other films not deemed as rating the Big Chapter Treatment.
Needless to say, few films cut the mustard when it comes to the seriousness of their presentation of the religion. Odd, how many of the films relocate the religion to various nether regions of the world, or seem to mix in indiscriminate aspects of other unrelated religions and myths with voodoo into one bubbling pot, or have the religion being headed (secretly and not) by some white person. Little can be said to refute Senn’s well researched and persuasive stance that "realism" in voodoo films is pure doodoo. When it comes to how the films succeed on a simply cinematic level, Senn comes across like everyone’s most feared high-school English teacher: a hard grader who tends to tread softly with his darlings.
Still, his respect for the classics doesn’t prevent him from pointing out the flaws of such classics as I Walked With A Zombie, nor does it prevent him from admitting that there are some forgotten treasures out there also worthy of respect, renown or at least a revised appreciation, such as The Vampire’s Ghost (1945) or Naked Evil (1966). But if Senn were only a tad less pedantic and had more of an understanding and recognition of the concept of "the guilty pleasure," he would probably be able to appreciate more of the films he denigrates — Zombies On Broadway (1945), for example, is far more enjoyable than he ever lets on, as is the laughable Voodoo Island (1957), even if they get a Double F Minus when it comes to how they represent the religion. (Going by some of the reproduced scene photos, there might be a lot of other unacknowledged guilty pleasures amongst those films Senn so seriously pans.)
Senn’s essays in Drums of Terror are always readable and informative, as entertaining as they are interesting and insightful. That the reader won’t always agree with him is a give fact known in advance, but at least Senn presents his well informed arguments logically and understandably. He stands strongest when he concentrates on the voodoo aspect, ably seeing and showing where and when the film goes far off into fantasy instead of any semblance of reality in regards to voodoo as a religion. His other arguments sometimes seem to rely a bit too much on simple personal opinion—but then, that is what all critics do.

Images (top to bottom): The cover of the copy I have; Sugar Hill & Her Zombie Hitmen poster; the cover of the reissue (?); Zombies on Broadway poster; White Zombie newspaper advert; and the author himself, in a photo stolen from his mypsace page.

Celebrity: George Raft

George Raft (Lewis Yablonsky, Signet, 1975 — The cover shown here is from the 2000 reprint, company unknown)
Written while Raft was still alive and with the man's complete cooperation, the book tends to be a bit fawning at time, with many too many people telling how great Raft is and far too few telling any dirt. Still, Yablonsky keeps his white washing brush dipped but lightly in the paint and tries to tell the complete story, just telling it in a way that always makes Raft seem misunderstood or misconstrued or simply wrongly accused.
As anyone knows who has seen a Raft film, as an actor he was essentially a one trick pony, but his trick was done well. True, he could hoof it better than many of them, but though it was his twinkle toes that brought him to Hollywood, it was his aura of gangster danger that made his career on the screen. Insecure and probably overly conscious of his own shortcomings, Raft turned down tons of films that went on to become classic Bogart projects — had Raft had more balls (instead an eternally stiff dick), he might easily have become legend instead of simply a familiar face in movies of the past. His biggest mistake was probably letting himself get tricked into marrying his wife Grace, a catholic who forever refused to let him divorce her but had no qualms about leaching money from him her entire long life. A good argument that Raft really did have no "real" mob connections is the fact that she never suffered an "accident."
A sex addict that makes even Michael Douglas seem like an alter boy, Raft is more than willing to admit that he probably was the main source of income for half the whores in Hollywood during the heyday of his career, forever cursed to lose the women he actually loved by his inability to offer them what the all wanted most: marriage. One thing that comes across in the book is that Raft had no easy life. His roots based in the tenements of Hell's Kitchen, he was a troubled youth who left home at thirteen and lived by wits, dancing and otherwise entertaining women, not to mention occasionally breaking the law. That he eventually went as far as he did is less a miracle than proof that the man was as driven as he was a "type" that was well suited for the years that he was most popular. His decline in later years is less surprising or sad than to be expected. Had he only had more common sense in regards to money and friends his last years might have been much more successful and comfortable.
But then, common sense is one of the great joy-killers of life...

Film: Shock Masters of the Cinema

Shock Masters of the Cinema (Loris Curci, Fantasma Book, 1996)
An out-of-date & out-of-print book once meant for die-hard fans of horror film who find happiness in knowing everything about everyone in the modern horror film scene. About the only question not asked is whether the given director wears it left or right. Due to the numerous typos in the text, some of which result in the reader having to decipher what is said as if it were some secret code, could make one think that this publication is foreign. But no, it comes from Florida (USA, not Uruguay), even if the writer/interviewer is indeed from Italy.... thus, the possible excuses that exist are: bad English as a second language or crappy translators.
Shock Masters is a collection of interviews made by Curci (and a variety of his friends) of 26 names, cult names, not generally known names and downright unknown names. Those featured range from the overly interviewed Dario Argento & John Carpenter (yawn) to the cult director Antonio Margheriti and some dude named Steve Johnson (who?), onwards to the fondly remembered like Freddie Francis & Jean Rollins to mainstream "names" like Kenneth Branagh. Fun reading for the indiscriminate or the fanatics, but others will find many an interview uninteresting, if not pointless, due both to the unimportance of the interviewed and the superficial, meandering questions of the interviewee.
Does one really need another interview of Carpenter, Wes Craven, Robert England or George Romero? If so, then must the questions always be so innocuous, uninspired and fawning? Not to say that numerous of those features don’t warrant attention, but the few pages given to the possibly stimulating Jorg Buttgereit, Jeffrey Combs, Frank Henenlotter, Angus Scrimm and Don Coscarelli convey little of interest, nor are they very informative, contemplative or piquant. Why interview people if you don’t give them the space to speak? Or, for that matter, ask good questions?
In the end, regardless who the feature subject is, the core flaw of this book is succinctly said in the maxim "a good interview depends not on who is being interviewed but on who is interviewing." Considering Curci’s journalistic resume, however, his lack of ability in posing questions is highly surprising. Perhaps one should blame the editor? In any event, the price of the book is better spent on the DVD of any of the given directors, and not on this poor excuse for cutting down trees.

True Crime: Salt of the Earth

Salt of the Earth (Jack Olsen, St. Martin’s Paperbacks, 1996)
For all those who have given up hope of ever finding a true crime book that is a literate read, this book exists solely for the purpose of restoring one’s faith in both the English language and in the genre of true crime nonfiction as a whole. Salt of the Earth is an engrossing, intriguing read, owing more to John Steinbeck than to the normal supermarket quickie, but then the crime — more sad than exceptional — is less the point of this book than how it affects the lives of those involved. Jack Olsen’s ability to make the mundane sound exceptional converts what is basically the simple story of the lives of white trash on the rise into a representation of all that is the American Dream, a dream that eventually gets senselessly ripped apart by a brutal murder committed by Michael Kay Green, a wife-beating, steroid-abusing, body-building loser.
Jack Olsen (1925-2002) begins the story in 1940’s Fontana, California, birthplace of the Hell’s Angels, a good generation before the deadly event itself. Starting with a detailed, colorful narration of the family histories of both the Mayzsak and Gere clans, he goes on to recount the lives of their offspring, Elaine and Joe who married in 1967 and whose lives fall apart when their first child Brenda is murdered at 12 in 1985.
Joe, who was probably out getting laid instead of doing an extra shift selling cars at work as he had told his wife he had to (his coworkers deferring that "Gentlemen don’t talk about such things" when asked by the author), spiraled downwards from the day of her disappearance, first drowning his guilt and sorrow in alcohol before finally blowing his brains out in front of his wife and two surviving sons.
As for the murderer, due to a lack of evidence and no body, Green was initially sent to jail for a variety of rapes he was tied to. Long after Joe joined his beloved daughter and just before the weightlifter was set to be released, Green was finally tried and found guilty for the crime after Brenda’s body was accidentally discovered near an area he used to go jogging.

Images: Book cover (top) & the author (below).

True Crime: Prisoners of Fear

Prisoners of Fear (Gera-Lind Kolarik, Avon True Crime, 1995)
Is anyone surprised that the story ends the way it did? Not that Connie Krauser Chaney deserved what happened to her – she didn't – but it really does seem like she walked into her own personal hell with open eyes and arms wide, deciding much too late that she made a mistake. Of course, the fact is that most people caught in an abusive relationship are unable to separate themselves from it, being, on a different level, as equally unbalanced as the abuser. Still, if you have already left a man with an uncontrollable temper who beat you more than once and then both let yourself get knocked up by him and then marry him, you are more or less digging your own grave. Of course, not all wife beaters go quiet that batty and develop such an Arnold Schwarzenegger complex that they go out and pull a Terminator job. Kolarik tries to present the story as even handedly as possible, attempting to show the events through the eyes of the two main protagonists, Connie and her husband and eventual killer Wayne Chaney. Nonetheless, Wayne seems less to be a man who suddenly lost it than a nutcase asshole from the very beginning, a psycho waiting to explode. That the Chaney family continually denies Wayne's faults and places all the blame on Connie is possibly a slight clue to his mental make-up and his inability to take responsibility for his own actions. As for Connie, once her eyes finally opened and she tried to change her situation, it was too late. Trapped in a web of Wayne's anger and hate and perverse love, her new life was a living hell of numbered days leading to a violent end that she saw coming. The law was of little help, and by the time it might have begun to be a bit helpful, she had become so disillusioned with it that she no longer bothered to give it proper attention, failing even to inform her last lawyer of everything Wayne had done in the past and the numerous legal maneuvers she had tried against him, the very information the lawyer needed to keep the unhinged ball of rage in jail where he belonged. Boom! Boom! Boom! A gun round of hollow tipped bullets later and she's dead, Wayne a wanted man. He eventually dies in a hail of bullets, but then, it seems that is what he wanted, possibly having some sort of secret martyr complex. One feels sorry for Connie, but Wayne seems is an obvious mistake from the beginning.

Non-Fiction: Men Behind Bars

Men Behind Bars (Phil Hirsch, Ed., Pyramid Books, 1962) Don’t know if Phil Hirsch is still around today, but all the way up to the late 1980’s he was still editing books with intellectually demanding themes ranging from hamburger jokes to true crime. Generally it is true of books as a whole that the older the publication, the more demanding it is in both vocabulary and sentence structure, but in the case of Hirsch, no matter when the book was published the text is never all that demanding.
The “shocking” true stories collected in Men Behind Bars were collected from those two classic publications of North American literature Man’s Magazine and Challenge For Men, as were many of the stories for most of Hirsch’s publications for Pyramid books. But unlike many of Hirsch’s cheesier collections, such as Supernatural, Men Behind Bars still manages to grab one’s attention most of the time.
True, there is one too many stories about attempted break outs and riots, but the other tales tend to be interesting despite their age. The best story is probably “Get A Rope, Somebody” by Walter R: Hecox, which tells of the last public lynching in California, that of Thomas Howard Thurmond and John Maurice Holmes in November of 1933 in San Jose’s St James Park (see photo). Hecox names no names, but he more than adequately describes what the situation was probably like, often making the reader squirm with discomfort. “They Arrested Me As A Sex Sadist” is also a gripping story, and it hardly presents the police in a favorable light. (Luckily for them, victims of police brutality didn’t sue back then. But then, nowadays, people accused of sex crimes seldom get proven innocent, inadvertently or not.)
Good reading for before one goes to bed.....
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