A Book Review by Tony Williams.
Before the successful re-launching of We Are the Martians, editor Neil Snowdon initiated a new series by the same company PS Publishing, namely Midnight Movie Monographs, with these two examples as opening salvos. The intention of this new series is to birth a “disreputable cousin” to the British Film Institute monographs, a Northern Grindhouse alternative to those BFI monographs and other series once launched by I.B. Tauris and Hong Kong University Press that are witnessing dissolution. Snowdon’s intentions are honorable: to promote “intelligent, accessible film writing” via “passionate, incisive, and inspiring explorations” by writers who really know their subjects providing a necessary contrast to those “linguistic walls of arid language” developed by “Academic Film Studies and the cultural Elite” as well as the “sound-bites and exclamation marks” of Mainstream Media.
These first two monographs fulfill such ambitions. They are accessible, readable, and informative in several ways by two contributors to We Are the Martians, but one is more successful than the other. While John Llewellyn Probert, in discussing Theatre of Blood, supplies detailed factual information especially concerning the Shakespearean texts employed in a 1972 film that is one of Vincent Price’s best post-Roger Corman horror ventures, Jez Winship offers a much more critical and informative exploration of one of George Romero’s most distinctive non-zombie explorations in the field of horror. Winship’s is the most rewarding of these two initial monographs and one that I would highly recommend to those seeking a detailed examination of his 1977 modern “vampire” film.
When Probert interviewed Vincent Price in the Manchester Dickinson Road BBC TV Studios in 1974, the former site of those 30s, 40s, and 50s Mancunion Films featuring Northern comedians such as George Formby and Frank Randle, Price was delighted to learn of the positive reception to Theatre of Blood at a time he despaired of new directors not knowing “how to direct horror films anymore.” Co-starring with classical theatre actress Diana Rigg (who, a few months before her first appearance in The Avengers, had appeared in the 1965 ITV production of Thomas Middleton’s Jacobean Revenge Drama Women Beware Women – a production now unthinkable in today’s mainstream dumbed-down TV stations) and a gallery of veteran British character actors, Price delivered one of his best performances as denigrated thespian Edward Lionheart who takes revenge on those critics who constantly humiliated him. Theatre of Blood allowed Price to return to his classical theatrical training seen intermittently in the two versions of Tower of London (1939/1962) where he respectively played the ill-fated Duke of Clarence and Crookback himself. He also continued to have fun with his excessive melodramatic acting that he had employed in the Roger Corman Poe cycle. Probert adds an autobiographical note in Price’s performance in terms of a contemporary critical fraternity not really recognizing what Price was attempting at the time. I also remember the disdain thrown at the Corman cycle by pioneering critics of Movie in the 70s and contrast this with later articles in the same journal by their successors.
Well-versed in the Shakespearean references and alert to the role of musical composer Michael J. Lewis (whom the author also interviews), Probert supplies relevant background material. But little is said about visual style in this film and other elements that would make it distinctive and worthy of consideration in a monograph series whose other publishing contenders range from good to bad. Much more is needed in any monograph examination and little of significance remains in the mind of this reader when coming to the end of the book. Another flaw is Probert’s irrelevant, irritating, and tedious tendency to refer to his Welshness, in particular the “Boyo” syndrome involving that irritating “Land of my Fathers” Rugger, Chapel hymn-singing, and Beer protective devices as a result of cultural over-compensation against the Anglos that should now be a sign of the past, something that also mars his otherwise interesting contribution to We Are the Martians. It is far too reminiscent of Richard Burton’s repetitive ethnic statements to interviewers such as the late John Morgan about wanting to spend his last hour down a mine with a Welsh coal miner (when one would have thought Aristotle Onassis would have been the obvious choice?) or that stereotyped persona (contrary to his actual real life businessman identity) Sir Harry Secombe would adopt whenever having to don the mantle of “The Land of My Fathers.” One also grimaced at Ivor Emmanuel’s recourse to a thick Welsh accent whenever he appeared on the Welsh TV series “Land of Song” every Sunday during the 1960s. He was also best known for his role as Private Owen in Zulu (1964) countering the overwhelming tribal chants of those “uppity darkies” by stimulating his colonial invading comrades-in-arms to join him in singing “Men of Harlech.”
Far better is Jez Winship’s monograph on George A. Romero’s Martin. Written by someone fully alert to fine critical close reading as well as the cinematic importance of key aspects of music, sound, and vision, it is a delight to read. The first paragraph on p. 60 contains highly detailed observations in the best traditions of close reading. Winship not only refers to Romero’s DVD commentary in his analysis but also shows a keen awareness of the historical, social, and industrial decline aspects of Braddock, PA, where Romero shot his film as well as the role of associate and talented documentary filmmaker Tony Buba who worked on this film with his brother Pat (see p. 13, n.3) whom I met on my first East coast visit in 1979. Winship reveals himself as fully conversant with critical literature on this film though his failure to cite Hearths of Darkness: the Family in the American Horror Film that contains a chapter on Romero’s work up to the mid-80s, as well as Martin, would have enabled him to explore further its family horror elements as well as know that R.D. Laing’s association with the genre (p.59) had already been recognized. Although preferring Paul R. Gagne’s excellent 1987 The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh to another study of Romero, he dismisses the alternative study’s “high-minded allusions to the novels of Emile Zola” (10) but undermines his comment when he later notes that DVD freeze framing now allows the viewer to see the title of a book Martin’s first female victim in the film is reading, B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, “a popular summation of the deterministic philosophy of behaviorism” (p16). Since Zola’s Rougon-Maquart series of novels involves issues of determinism this is another crucial link between Romero and this influence which he has developed unconsciously from the indirect transmission of aspects from this source via the 1950s EC Comics tradition. If Winship intends to write a monograph on Dawn of the Dead, I hope he will take the time to read Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames/The Ladies Paradise to see some revealing aspects of consumerist behavior. Significantly, Winship’s following page recapitulates the central thesis of Hearths of Darkness. This is obvious to anyone who engages in a close reading of the film as he does but Winship should realize that others have explored such significant avenues and should be given due credit. This is also something that editor Neil Snowdon should consider for future monographs in making sure his authors are familiar with previous work.
Otherwise, the rest of this monograph is informative and a pleasure to read as it pays much needed tribute to the performance of John Amplas as well as the distinctive use of the soundtrack in this film. It is very much recommended. However, another problem with both monographs is that they lack indexes. If this series is to be regarded as a serious competitor to those other monographs already available, the press must correct the issue in new editions and future works for the project to be taken seriously. Andy Murray realized this with his second edition of Into the Unknown. One error in Martin needs correcting for future editions. It should be Donald Rubinstein who should receive credit for the film’s “wonderfully evocative score” (p.107) and not his producer brother Richard. This series promises much but development in future contributions is needed for it to compete successfully with others by different publishers.
Tony Williams is author of Hearths of Darkness: The Family in the American Horror Film (Updated Edition, Mississippi, 2014) and George A. Romero: Knight of the Living Dead (Second Edition, Wallflower, 2015) and editor of George A. Romero: Interviews (Mississippi, 2011). He is also Contributing Editor to Film international.