[Review] "The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema" does all the work for horror fans looking for gems
Ever since I was three years old, I’ve been a horror fan. It all began by watching John Carpenter’s Christine over and over again on VHS until the cover was as worn and beat up as the first time Arnie Cunningham sees the titular killer car. In that time, I’ve seen my fair share of horror films. At a certain point, it becomes difficult to uncover never before seen gems from the piles of crap on Netflix (the modern day version of the dollar bin box). This is why books like Strange Cinema are such a pleasure to flip through…
…Coming from Schiffer Publishing, Ltd. and Written by Michael Vaughn, Strange Cinema is essentially a reference guide to the weird and obscure in film, with a split between titles recognizable to seasoned genre fans and films that have been buried deep in the ground, many of which this genre film connoisseur had never even heard of. This is not a book dedicated to the horror genre, though fans of a bloody good time will find many titles in Strange Cinema tickling their craving for the bizarre. Vaughn presents us gems from all over the world, separated into common categories such as Action, Comedy, Sci-fi, and of course, Horror. Each is presented with a brief summary/review and the occasional photo to demonstrate just how odd the film is.
Its clear to me upon reading the introduction that Vaughn is a horror fan through and through. He describes a sort of obsession when he was a kid with films on VHS (ah, the good ole days), and the film that sparked his love of horror, Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, eventually moving on to popular franchises like Friday the 13th and Halloween. During the introduction, Vaughn admits an issue which I feel so many of us hardcore horror fans run into: eventually, you’ve seen everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street to Zombie Strippers, and the magic of finding something new dissipates. Vaughn makes it his mission to change that. By delving into the weird and obscure from not just American cinema, but around the world, Vaughn has put together a book full of titles I guarantee you’ve probably never heard of, or at least haven’t seen. Films like Wrong (which I worked on), about a guy trying to find his dog in a world where nothing makes sense, or Revenge of the Radioactive Reporter, about a mutated reporter seeking vengeance on a group of thugs after they throw him into a vat of radioactive sludge to keep him quiet and leave him for dead. There’s also mentions of plenty of known, albeit weird as all hell, genre films, such as David Cronenberg’s Shivers or Takashi Miike’s Audition. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t worth picking up The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema if even just to flip through and discover A TON of films to add to your list of must watch genre flicks, especially if you’re a horror fan (which I assume you are), as Vaughn puts the most care into the horror section of the book. That being said, there are some issues.
For one, the sci-fi section is WAY too short for a book on weird cinema. It seems as if Vaughn puts all of his blood, sweat and tears into the horror section, and then by the time he gets to sci-fi (which is last), just simply loses some of his drive. That’s an exaggeration of course, Vaughn clearly worked hard on this, but its pretty damn unsatisfying that Sci-fi is by far the shortest section at fourteen pages, even less than a section of car movies, which comes in at 16. Sci-fi has some of the strangest films out there, so part of me does have to question if Vaughn got burnt out a bit here.
Those looking for detailed analysis/discussion of the films listed within The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema, you’ll also likely come away pretty disappointed. Vaughn does offer a VERY brief review of each film, generally consisting of a short paragraph following a short synopsis. Therefore, this IS NOT a book for those that really want to dig into some of the more heralded films throughout cult cinema. Not that I really blame Vaughn. Its evident that the focus is more on getting the word out on numerous unheard of films to sink your teeth into, but I hate to say, that doesn’t make for an enjoyable read, and turns The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema into exactly that, more of a reference guide than anything else. Which might be more acceptable if the presentation wasn’t so lacking. The designer, Justin Watkinson, does an excellent job with the cover (I dare you to not have the urge to want to read this book just by looking at it), but the interior, while appealing overall, almost feels like sort of a rough draft. This mostly comes down to the fact that most of the films have a single photo to give us a peek at the flick (more would be nice), whereas there are also MANY that are not accompanied by any images, which would really help in getting the reader to want to check out these movies, since so many are unheard of.
It’s not all bad though as Vaughn also features the occasional interview or quotes from popular horror directors, such as Larry Cohen on his film Q: The Winged Serpent, or a fascinating quote with Brian Yuzna on the possibility of doing a sequel for his film, Society. This helps to alleviate some of the lack of discussion on certain films, and gives the reader a chance to not only discover some unique flicks, but also possibly something they didn’t know about a film they’re a fan of, which was my reaction to Yuzna discussing a sequel to Society (which, if you haven’t seen it, DO IT NOW. I’ll wait). There is also plenty of fun trivia scattered throughout for you to whip out at you’re next party and make everyone think you’re cool (because knowing trivia is cool, right?RIGHT?)
Ultimately a simple reference guide to a large library of schlock film, I can’t recommend The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema to everyone. No, this is for those desperate to discover something, ANYTHING, new in the realm of weird cinema. The book is lacking despite a strong effort to introduce readers to so much. However, I have to give Vaughn my kudos. There is no denying the amount of work and love put into this book, and I have ZERO doubt that Vaughn wanted to give readers a book meant for the most hardcore fans of these types of movies who will repeatedly want to come back to flip through its pages, bored one night and looking for something new to watch. In that, Vaughn succeeds spectacularly. So, while The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema may be lacking here and there and may not be the most insightful read, it does what it set out to do. At over 300 pages, fans will have their work cut out for them in attempting to see every film listed in these pages. I better get started.
By Matt Konopka
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