Tuesday, 22 September 2009

SPLATTER MOVIES: Breaking The Last Taboo Of The Screen

By John McCarty
Published by Columbus Books
197 pages, B&W
Dimensions: H=27.6cm, W=21.2cm, D=1.3cm
SRP: ?

Who can resist a book with a title as unabashed and unapologetic as this? Not me, hence the review!

As some of you may have already guessed, the subject of the book is cinematic splatter in all its visceral and gory glory. But just what is it that constitutes 'splatter', and from whence did this blood-soaked subgenre suddenly spring? These are the questions McCarty sets out to answer.

Per McCarty's reckoning, splatter flicks are the cinematic continuance and indeed erstwhile progeny of the notorious 'Grand Guignol' theatre shows.

The net is thrown wide, roping such movies as 'The Wild Bunch' and 'Bonnie & Clyde' into the splatter camp, even though it might not occur to ardent contemporary gorehounds to classify them as such.

One 'problem' the book does have, should you choose to view it as such, is the fact that it is quite dated (Published in 1984, which means portions of it may have been conceived and written in 1983 or earlier). However, this is something of a double-edged sword when one considers that McCarty's opinions of the films featured within are untainted by the same influences that prey on contemporary critics. A notable example is that this book is post-Alien (which he absolutely trashes!) but pre-Aliens, so his opinion of Alien is in no way coloured by the subsequent sequels and burgeoning franchise.

The same is again true with the author's approach to George A. Romero, from a post-'Dawn'/pre-'Day' (and thus obviously pre-'Land' and 'Diary' and whatever else 'Of The Dead' that Romero might yet furnish us with) perspective. Thus more time and attention is lavished upon some of the more little known and little seen aspects of the Romero back catalogue, such as 'The Crazies' and 'Martin'. You'd be surprised how many kids these days think Romero not only invented the zombie film, but also never deviated from the genre either. Whilst Romero's name will always (justly) be a byword for zombie cinema, it shouldn't be at the expense of some of his equally enjoyable non-zombie flicks.

It's a somewhat bewildering paradox when one takes the time to consider it, but in order to see these filmmakers and their films through new eyes, we are in fact best served to view them through 'old eyes'. That which should in theory be dated and stale is actually fresh and different. I don't think McCarty is making a point to be purposefully contrary, rather he is simply voicing his opinion without a view towards the adulteration thereof to appease the audience at large.

Likewise, he also gives Dario Argento short shrift (a capital crime in my household!), and makes brutally short work of both Lucio Fulci and Luigi 'Lewis Coates' Cozzi. If McCarty's corpse should one day turn up floating in the Tiber, I wouldn't be too surprised. Hell, I might even be partly responsible...

The book is ordered in a loosely chronological fashion, but the path from splatter's past to present has some interesting diversions along the way, namely chapter length interviews with such leading lights of the genre as David Cronenberg, Tom Savini, Herschell Gordon Lewis and an illuminating behind-the-scenes insight (both artistically and commercially) of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre courtesy of Ed Neal.

It's a nice read because it's different. I don't agree with everything he says, but I admire and respect a man who's prepared to come out and say what he thinks rather than what he thinks he's supposed to say. McCarty is most definitely the former of the two.

I also like the fact that it is dated. Every book detailing an ongoing phenomenon (such as film production) is immediately 'dated' from the moment it leaves the printing press, and will only get more and more dated with each passing day as successive slates of new films are released year after year. It's inevitable, but a book as significantly dated as this offers an absolutely enthralling slice of cinematic history, even for those of us reading on with the benefit of 20/20 foresight.

In lieu of the smaller field of choices available in terms of what could constitute splatter back then as opposed to now, it allows some lesser-discussed films to get a little bit of attention. It's a brave man who dedicates an entire chapter of such a book entirely to Sam Peckinpah and The Wild Bunch rather than some outlandish zombie gorefest, but McCarty more than justifies the inclusion of it, and in doing so widens the range of exactly what may or may not be considered 'splatter' far beyond the more explicitly codified and homogenised understanding of the term we seem to have succumbed to nowadays.

The other drawback this book has (and again, one it can hardly be blamed for) is that it is not particularly easy to come by, and usually carries a hefty price premium with it. I got my lightly battered copy off of Ebay dirt cheap, as per usual, but I didn't realise just how cheap I got it for until I starting seeing a few subsequent auctions and prices from resellers on Amazon. It represents superb value for money at the price I paid, but I've seen some folk asking in excess of $50 for it. I'd probably recommend picking up one of McCarty's newer and slightly more readily available books first and seeing if you like the cut of his literary jib before you make your mind up to spend big money on a B&W softback. I'm very happy with mine, but whether I would have been less happy having paid a lot more is up for discussion. One thing I do know is that I'm in no hurry to part with it, so it's going on the keepshelf!


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