Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Herschell Gordon Lewis

Whilst I can’t really claim to be a die-hard fan (I haven’t actually sat down and watched one of his pictures in years), Herschell Gordon Lewis is such a cornerstone of horror cinema and ‘outsider’ culture in general, his work such an inevitable rite of passage for fans of weird movies, that it is impossible not to give him his dues, and I was sad to hear yesterday morning that he has passed away at the age of 87.

Although I find his stuff a bit too… I dunno, damaged… to want to revisit it on a regular basis, there are elements of his films that I absolutely love. Certainly, when the naïve technical clumsiness of a guy who was a businessman first, a carnival huckster second and a “filmmaker” probably about eighth or ninth meets an MO that resembles somebody’s big-mouthed, hard-drinking uncle taking every “why don’t you ever see that in a movie? I’d pay to see that!” type idea he can think of and just MAKING IT HAPPEN with zero concern for the conventions of taste, legality or logic…. well, the sparks that fly are quite something, with the results occasionally hitting a level of high weirdness that even the most unglued of self-consciously ‘provocative’ auteurs would have trouble matching.

My own introduction to HGL occurred under more or less perfect circumstances when, many years ago, as a keen season ticket holder to my local art cinema’s “Fantastic Film Fest” (an admirably programmed occasion that pretty much kick-started the process of discovery that eventually led me to set up this weblog, incidentally), I found myself sitting in an 1pm screening of ‘Blood Feast’ (an actual 35mm print, no less) with very little idea what to expect.

Noting that the five other patrons in the auditorium were all lone men seated as far away from each other as possible, I was a bit worried about what I might be in for, but, despite the film’s notorious reputation, I needn’t have worried – by the time things were underway, myself and my fellow loners were roaring with laughter more or less continuously. I mean, say what you like about ‘Blood Feast’, but it sure plays well to a crowd. Amateurish, deranged and (by 1963 standards) entirely unprecedented though it may be, you’ve also got Lewis’s ruthless business sense high in mix, ensuring that (barring a few publicity-generating offended walk-outs) nobody is ever likely to leave demanding their money back.

So simple, so garish, so purely strange are the events unfolding on screen that, for years after that screening, I felt I could recall the entire film in perfect detail - like a brightly crayoned, one-picture-per-page storybook assembled by an insane child. The audacious gore sequences – shamelessly prurient, yet mercifully unconvincing – may serve to make the film historically noteworthy, but they pale in comparison to the entertainment value that can be extracted from the stuff Lewis came up with to fill the gaps in-between.

From the exquisitely quotable dialogue and magnificently off-message acting, the garish photography and “bare living room redressed as police station” interiors, the sinister “caveman death march” vibes of HGL’s kettle drum & hornpipe jams on the soundtrack, and most of all, the extraordinary presence of Mal Arnold…. well, again, what can you say – love it or hate it, it certainly makes an impression. A classic of its kind that inadvertently succeeds in both defining and perfecting its own peculiar aesthetic, ‘Blood Feast’ is a real charmer within the ‘gore’ canon, irrespective of it’s much ballyhooed status as “the first one”.

After that, his other films popped up as and when over the next few years – ‘Two Thousand Maniacs’ (just as charming as ‘Blood Feast’) at a Halloween party, ‘The Gruesome Twosome’ (OMG, that intro thing with the puppets) on late night TV, ‘She Devils on Wheels’ (not a classic, but a keen bit of ‘60s trash culture nonetheless) on TV, and subsequently some DVDs. ‘Something Weird’ is… aptly named, if not necessarily in a good way, and similarly ‘The Wizard of Gore’ – probably his most quote-unquote “sophisticated” production – remains a pretty bamboozling bunch of hoo-hah.

I must admit though that when we get to the start of the ‘70s (what I think I recall Stephen Thrower referring to as HGL’s “decadent” phase), he loses my good will quite significantly. With ‘Wizard..’, and more particularly ‘The Gore Gore Girls’, he seems to have developed a more self-aware approach that negates the backwoods charm of his earlier work, as if he’d suddenly realised he could gain some traction by aiming his product toward an early camp/cult midnight movie audience, rather than his usual rural drive-in crowd, which negates most of the fun for me, I’m afraid.

I mean, despite its subject matter, you can’t really accuse ‘Blood Feast’ of being misogynistic – it’s just too far off the cultural map, outside of the realm in which such concepts have any relevance; it would be like criticizing Attila The Hun for religious intolerance.

By the time we get to ‘The Gore Gore Girls’ though, with its warped counter-culture influences and R. Crumb style anti-PC humour, the violence has taken on an undertone of ugly, black-hearted nastiness that I find really hard to take, with bungled attempts at irony only serving to highlight the brutish stupidity at the core of such an enterprise, even as the film’s excesses push it into ‘Thundercrack!’/John Waters style assaultive bad taste territory. So - not really my bag, man, although individual tastes may vary.

And…. I don’t really know where this off-the-top-of-my-head diatribe is going really, but let’s just conclude by saying that, despite my reservations outlined above, HGL was a true original, and will be missed. Like many of the best horror/exploitation directors, he managed to establish his own strange world right from the get-go and proceeded to spend the rest of his career rampaging around it in a thoroughly edifying fashion. Despite operating on a level of cynical chicanery that rivalled any of his more unsavoury peers in the “sizzle not the steak” regional exploitation market, his imagination and respect for his audience allowed him to effortlessly rise above them, creating a cohesive body of work that still provokes discussion, fascination, bafflement, and, most importantly, happiness to this day.

I should really get around to watching his films again.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Faro Pulp Haul, Part #2:

Following on from our previous post, here are some German language crime pulps I picked up whilst in Faro last year.

(KriminalRoman / Ullstein Bucher, 1969)

Originally published in English, 1966.

No translation needed here, as “Cade” is the name of the protagonist. Quoth Wikipedia: “Cade was lucky. He was famous, wealthy, sought after, and his creative talent for photography set him in a class of his own. Success hadn't spoiled him. He remained generous and unselfish, a simple man with a brilliant talent, and a champion of the unfortunate and the persecuted.”

I love this iconic yellow and red “K” series design here. (I couldn’t help noticing a spinning rack of them in the background during a recent viewing of the Berlin-set ‘The Quiller Memorandum’ (1966).) Exceptionally cool design / illustration combo all round on this one, actually.

(Kelter, 1978)

Nice, nasty late ‘70s vibe on this German original, part of an ongoing “Mr Brooklyn” series that we might assume fall more into the ‘Executioner’-style action-pulp category than traditional detective/crime stuff. (More covers from the series – most of them exceptionally cool - can be seen here.)

Title translates as “The Snooper of New York”, and cover blurb possibly reads “A JOB FOR LIFE and Mike Callagan is tired of it”, or something along those lines.

(Bastei Lübbe, 1973)

Originally published in English as ‘The Flower Covered Corpse’ in 1969.

Another one of those wonderfully awkward paperback cover photo shoot moments to enjoy here (I should make a tag for them really). [UPDATE: done!]

The German title literally translates as “Flower-Child Not Murder”, so make what you will of that.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Faro Pulp Haul, Part #1:

The great thing about collecting pulp crime paperbacks is that, wherever you go in the world, you can find previously unknown local variants, usually unwanted and selling for peanuts.

Just over a year ago for instance, I found myself in the town of Faro in South-West Portugal, a locale whose long-established community of European ex-pat retirees, second-homers and holidaymakers sees the local book-dealer proffering multiple generations of abandoned beach-side reading in English, German and Portuguese (although Spanish was conspicuously absent).

As I zeroed in on the best of the remaining ‘60/’70s stock, the guy behind the counter must have thought I had some sort of fetish for women being menaced with guns, but no matter - scanned for your enjoyment below are my Portuguese finds, with German to follow later this week.

All covers unaccredited, and unique to these editions insofar as I’m aware.

(Livraria Bertrand/Circulo Negro, year unknown)

Originally published in English 1953 as “Silent Witness”.

Portuguese tag-line translates as “who had seen those innocent eyes?”

Some swell collage business going on here.

(Acção & Crime/Editorial Ibis, year unknown)

Although there is no copyright info in this one to pinpoint either the year or language of original publication, Wikipedia via Google Translate gives us:

“Keith Luger was the pseudonym of Miguel Oliveros Tovar (March 17 1924 – July 7 1985, Valencia), a Spanish writer. He wrote more than 500 short stories and screenplays. Among his writings Western novels, science fiction, detective stories and horror dominated.”

The title translates as “Challenge to the City”.

(Clube Do Crime, 1967)

The publishers of this one (‘Distribuidora de Publicacoes, L. da’) were actually based in San Paulo, Brazil.

Although the inside cover states it was originally published as “The Strangler” and asserts “Johnny Lassy” as the author, I can find no reference to any such work existing online, so… draw your own conclusions.

Note the cover artist’s signature (R. Cortes?), just about legible in bottom right hand corner.

I had guessed the title had something to do with boats, but turns out it actually translates as “The Strangler Slammed the Door”.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Random Paperbacks:
by Philip Jose Farmer

(Beacon, 1960)

We’ve showcased the way-out artwork that often graced the covers of Philip Jose Farmer’s novels on a number of occasions in the past, but…. this one takes the cake.

I’m not sure Gerald McConnell’s illustration quite makes the grade as “psychedelic” sci-fi, but it must have proved fairly mind-expanding for some shelf-browsers in 1960, that’s for sure.

No further comment necessary from me on this occasion, I suspect.