Saturday, September 27, 2014


In his book Interviews Too Shocking to Print!, Justin Humphreys approaches his subjects with the intellectual devotion of a historian and the infectious enthusiasm of a fanatic.  He muses, “At the risk of sounding maudlin, I recommend being a collector who shares – who shares, who teaches, who feeds others’ enthusiasm for things that are worth being enthused about.”  That’s exactly what he does here, and his serious attention to a motley crew of oft-neglected filmmakers (writers, directors, actors and below-the-line artists who rarely get their due) is thrilling. 

Three out of four of the directors profiled in this book are relatively unsung followers of the Val Lewton tradition.  For those who don’t know, Lewton was a b-unit producer at RKO in the 1940s who turned out some of the subtlest and smartest horror films ever made (CAT PEOPLE, I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE, THE BODY SNATCHER, ISLE OF THE DEAD etc.).  I am a huge Lewton fan, so I already knew a fair amount about interviewee Robert Wise, who made his directorial debut on CURSE OF THE CAT PEOPLE and later went on to make THE HAUNTING (1963).   But I knew relatively little about Gene Fowler Jr. and Herbert L. Strock.

Fowler’s claim to fame, for better or worse, is the late 50s exploitation flick I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF.  I confess I’ve only seen that picture once (out of a sense of duty as a young horror fan) but Humphreys’ enthusiasm makes me want to see it again.  Ditto I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, which the author compares favorably with the Roger Corman’s IT CONQUERED THE WORLD.   When I saw the two films years ago, I preferred the latter—but I wouldn’t want to argue my case against Humphreys, who has studied both films closely and offers expert analysis to prove the superiority of Fowler’s sense of pacing and atmosphere.  Humphreys concludes: “The pity of Fowler’s career was that he had far more talent than he was ever given to show.”  Considering his work for Fritz Lang and Sam Fuller (RUN OF THE ARROW!), I'm inclined to agree.
Herbert Strock is likewise remembered for a pair of exploitation titles, namely I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN and BLOOD OF DRACULA—although the author and the filmmaker both seem to prefer THE MAGNETIC MONSTER and HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER.  I confess I have not seen either of these “monster” movies, so I’m indebted to Humphreys for pointing me toward a couple of overlooked films that will be perfect for seasonal Halloween viewing.

In his chapter on Robert Wise, Humphreys writes longingly about a lost generation of smart, reliable storytellers who “could make films in almost any genre and do it soundly, entertainingly, and unpretentiously.”  Indeed, this is a rare breed of filmmaker today.  I made my own case recently for Tom McLoughlin, a director who (like Wise) seems destined to be remembered only for one or maybe two horror movies, but who has made a broad range of interesting films in practically every genre.  Such filmmakers seem to disappear under the weight of the auteur theory, which demands that storytellers confine themselves to a narrow range of themes and styles.  

Humphreys is dedicated to shining a light on such forgotten heroes of imagination.  One of the highlights of his book is an intimate, heartfelt study of Charles B. Griffith, the sardonic writer behind Roger Corman’s best early work (including A BUCKET OF BLOOD, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, THE WILD ANGELS and DEATH RACE 2000)—and, according to one of his friends, inventor of the catchphrase “That’s what she said.”  For horror historians, this chapter alone is worth the price of the book.  Equally heartfelt is the chapter on William Finley, the actor best known for his portrayal of Winslow in the cult classic PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE.  In both cases, Humpreys draws on personal relationships with the men and their collaborators—which makes the profiles unique and precious.

Some of the other interviews are more anecdotal, but none are ever dull.  Humphreys spent part of his early life in Charlottesville, Virginia (my hometown), which led him to UVA professor George Garrett, who gamely remembers his brief brush with “Hollywood”—as co-screenwriter of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER.  I have never even heard of this film, but I enjoyed reading about it.  I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that one of the other writers on the film was R.H.W. Dillard, husband of Annie Dillard and author of an excellent essay on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD that influenced the way I view that classic film.

Another welcome surprise is the author’s extended interview with production designer Jack Fisk, another Charlottesville resident who is well-known for his work with Brian DePalma, David Lynch and Terrence Malick.  Fisk is down to earth, thoroughly professional, and inspirational in his determination to work hard and still have fun.   Like all of these guys, he gives great practical advice for anyone interested in filmmaking. 

These days there are a lot of writers who do lip service to science-fiction and horror classics (including the more popular "forgotten" cult classics), but there are very few who write about their subjects as intelligently and passionately as Justin Humphreys.  If you care about genre films, and you care about film history, do yourself a favor and buy this book.

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