Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Review from the Vault: Tales from the Cult Film Trenches

TALES FROM THE CULT FILM TRENCHES: Interviews with 36 Actors from Horror, Science Fiction and Exploitation Cinema, by Louis Paul, Foreword by Tom Weaver (2008: McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640). Softcover, $35.00.

Review by John Rozum

Before I begin, there's something I need to disclose. When I read a magazine I tend to skip interviews with actors, no matter how much I may enjoy their work, or how interested I am in the movie the interview promotes. This is not because I look down on them or think they don't have anything intelligent to say. The reason is that more often than not, they aren't given the opportunity to say anything interesting.

Most actor interviews I've read seem to be more about making the reader believe that the journalist who conducted the interview is now best buddies with the actor in question, and any quotes used tend to be fluff pieces about some hilariously embarrassing mishap on the set, or how dedicated their co-star is to his or her craft.

Reading Tales from the Cult Film Trenches was a refreshing contrast to my expectations regarding actor interviews. Author and interviewer Louis Paul works in the vein of Tom Weaver, who wrote the Foreword to this volume, in that Paul's admiration for his subjects shows through and allows him to ask well-considered questions that usually get well-considered responses. Where Weaver tends to focus on actors whose body of work was concentrated in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, Paul picked subjects who worked in the subsequent three decades, making this book a wonderful companion volume to Weaver's.

Tales from the Cult Film Trenches contains interviews that Paul conducted with 36 actors best known for their work in genre movies, be they horror, science fiction, sword and sandal, biker, action, adult, or movies lumped under the problematic heading of blaxploitation. (As actor Fred Williamson points out, "I do not understand how they could use that terminology, because I don't know who was being exploited.")

While the actors in this book are best known for work they did in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, most of them are still working now. The first entry begins, "Tom Atkins is an actor whose name you may not readily recognize, but you’ll recognize his face if you were or are a fan of genre films of the eighties." That description easily applies to just about everyone in this book. These are character actors, and while many of them have had their moments playing lead characters, the meat and potatoes of their work is in supporting roles. Quite a few of these actors have made a career out of playing heavies.

The actors Paul chose for this collection are a diverse lot: Atkins, Adrienne Barbeau, Michael Berryman, Samson Burke, David Carradine, Robert Davi, Brad Dourif, Keir Dullea, Sid Haig, Tippi Hedren, Gloria Hendry, Richard Herd, David Hess, Brion James, Brigitte Lahaie, Ed Lauter, Christopher Lee, Marrie Lee, Valerie Leon, Richard Lynch, Charles Napier, Linnea Quigley, Steve Railsback, Tura Satana, John Saxon, Madeline Smith, William Smith, Austin Stoker, Don Stroud, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Dee Wallace Stone, Mel Welles, Fred Williamson, William Windom, Lana Wood, and Celeste Yarnall.
As can be expected in any book of this sort, the depth of the interviews varies from subject to subject. Some, such as Adrienne Barbeau, don't really say much, with each query being answered with, essentially, "That person was really nice and interesting to work with," or "I had a lot of fun working on that project." Fortunately, the bulk of the interview subjects have quite a bit to say, offering insights into their backgrounds, their craft, the films they've worked on, co-stars, directors, and the general economics of low-budget filmmaking and surviving as a rank-and-file character actor.

Aside from the interviews themselves, Paul also provides excellent biographical material as well as extremely thorough filmographies. The latter illuminate just how hardworking these mostly uncelebrated actors are, as many contain page after page of densely typed movie and television series names and dates. Paul also helpfully provided each episode name when discussing television series that featured the actors in nonrecurring roles.

These elaborate filmographies also highlight the only drawback to this book. It's sometimes disappointing, as in the case of William Windom, to find that despite a nearly five-page list of credits, Windom's interview is only about a page and a half long, focusing on just a couple of roles. Granted, I know each actor is different in how much time he or she allows for interviews and how cooperative he or she wants to be with the process, so I'm sure Paul did his best with whatever time or personality he was working with.

There is a lot of gold in this book. I learned a lot and was impressed by how much thought went into the responses to Paul’s questions; it was obvious the subjects enjoyed being interviewed by Paul. The actors who divulged how they approached their craft and viewed the types of movies they appeared in are the most fascinating interviews to read, and they make up the bulk of this book.

I'm very glad to have read this volume, and I recommend it to anyone whose love of cult and exploitation films extends beyond horror and science fiction to encompass the other genres mentioned above. I also recommend it to anyone interested in the history of motion pictures from the 1960s to 1980s or in the craft of acting. I'm looking forward to Paul’s next collection of interviews.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review from the Vault: Wild Beyond Belief!

WILD BEYOND BELIEF! Interviews with Exploitation Filmmakers of the 1960s and 1970s, by Brian Albright (2008: McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640). Softcover, $39.95.

Review by Anthony Ambrogio

Wild Beyond Belief! brings together, in alphabetical order, sixteen Brian Albright interviews with greater and lesser lights of low-budget horror and action cinema—from director Al Adamson to writer James Gordon White.

Interview books are always a mixed bag: some of the interviews hold no interest for a particular reader, and some of the interviewees don't give particularly good interviews. On the other hand, sometimes a film personality one might have dismissed displays unexpected depths. Sid Haig, for example, comes off as intelligent and articulate.

Tom Weaver is the Master of the Genre Interview, having done hundreds (collected in thirteen books). Albright is not Weaver—yet. But one can see him becoming more assured and incisive as the interviews accumulate, and, from the first, he shows himself to be a professional who certainly knows his subjects and has done his homework. Thus, he is able to ask about various titles and supply us with missing information (picture release dates, full names of people referred to, etc.). One wishes he had dated the interviews so a reader could more easily place them in the context of the subjects' careers.

Albright's introductions summarize his subjects' professional life from their beginnings to the present day, but a filmography of some sort for each individual would have provided a handy reference. And more description of the titles under discussion would have helped too. If you are unfamiliar with a movie that Albright and his interviewee are talking about, you usually do not learn a lot about it from their conversation. Their remarks about some titles tantalize—but that’s all. For example, interviewee Gary Kent told the producer of the proposed nudie-cutie Secret Places, Secret Things (1971), which Kent eventually directed, "Let's make an art film. It will be a nudie, but it will be art" (p. 127). Those of us who don’t know the movie are curious about the finished product.

Another problem with reading celebrity interviews is that sometimes the celebrities' memories are so faulty, or sometimes what they consider important seems so trivial or meaningless, that their recollections are worthless.

You learn that what's funny to an interviewee may not be funny to a reader, either because the interviewee can't tell a good anecdote or the incident is not particularly amusing to the reader—or both. Case in point: actress Jenifer Bishop's story about herself on location during the shooting of The Female Bunch (1969), involving a horse, a ravine, and the reaction of Lon Chaney, Jr. (see p. 22). I had to read it several times before (I think) I got it.

You also learn that a subject may know his business well but be unable to explain it clearly. Case in point: Sam Sherman's "explanation" of sub-distributor "settlements" (p. 191). I read it several times and still didn't get it.

Part of the reason for this apparent incoherence stems from the author's admirable attempt to reproduce verbatim his subjects'  comments (most of which were no doubt captured by a recording device). While there is merit in an in-his-own-words recital, most people are not exceptional extempore speakers and could benefit from judicious editing and rewording. Such paraphrasing is not dishonest; in fact, it's the kind of polish anyone would do if he or she had the chance. It's been my limited experience (interviewing food-service workers for a restaurant magazine) that as long as interviewees don't appear to be saying "red" when they meant "blue," they are generally happy with the emendations the writer makes to their quotations—and frequently assume that what comes out, rendered through this filter, is exactly what they said.

I guess it comes down to differing philosophies: Should the author leave the interviewees' words exactly as they were spoken, or should he or she craft them into clear renditions of what the subjects really wanted to say (as interpreted, obviously, by the writer)? I would opt for the latter. Albright apparently prefers the former, wishing to be true to the experience, no matter the result.

Despite this use of "raw data," a number of Albright's interviews prove very illuminating, even (or maybe especially) when his subjects put forth dubious propositions.

For example, Albright engages director Monte Hellman in a discussion about the "quiet spaces" now lacking in films. Former philosophy student Hellman maintains, "An audience can't really absorb oral stimuli and visual stimuli simultaneously. If you want them to see something, you can't have anything distracting on the soundtrack. If you want them to hear something, you can't have something distracting on the screen" (p. 97). This idea may be theoretically sound, but it's a great leap from this to suggest that dialogue or sound in itself is a distraction, as Hellman seems to. One could argue that—considering the elaborate musical scores written for many silent films or even the organ or tinkling piano accompaniment found in neighborhood theaters—film was never purely visual; or one could maintain, as Pauline Kael has, that the interrupting intertitles of silent films prevented them from being the "purely visual" works some critics labeled them; or—conversely—one could contend that silent film, lacking the dimension of accompanying sound, is an entirely different art form from talkies. It's an avenue of discussion that this reader wishes Albright and Hellman had explored further—although, since they agree about it, there was probably no place for them to go.

Albright comes into his own as an interviewer with his Jack Hill piece—possibly because he's asking intelligent questions of an intelligent filmmaker who's thoughtful about his work and provides useful insights. (Monte Hellman is an intelligent person, but Albright can't get much out of him except the refrain that Hellman rewrote practically every script he ever filmed. If true, this is not particularly impressive if one finds the majority of Hellman's films to be less than impressive.)

Overall, Wild Beyond Belief! makes for interesting reading—and for exceptional reading for fans of Sherman and Adamson's International Independent Pictures, since so many of his interviewees were connected with those films in one capacity or another.

Monday, October 3, 2011

We're Back!

After Blogger's new spam detector software mistakenly identified Blog from the Vault as a spam blog two weeks ago my blog was locked. After going through the appeal/review process it was determined that Blog from the Vault is not a spam blog and the blog was unlocked today. Look for some updates this week. Also, all subscriber, single issue orders, contributor, and whole copies of Monsters from the Vault #29 have shipped. Finally, the new issue will be hitting comic book shops this week. I hope everyone enjoys the issue!