Spring into 3 New Entertainment Titles

Getting a nightly fix of The Twilight Zone in a syndicated run one summer in the 1980s, I was taught a couple of things: Rod Serling was a frickin’ genius, and not all black-and-white TV is boring. According to TV critic Mark Dawidziak, many more lessons await imparting, which he has detailed in Everything I Need to Know I Learned in the Twilight Zone: A Fifth-Dimension Guide to Life, a “heartfelt tribute … wrapped in a self-help book.” Here, Dawidziak has taken 50 common-sense life lessons — such as “Never cry wolf” and “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is” — and discusses them in relation to key TZ episodes (even the one with Talking Tina). While the book is not an episode guide, each chapter could stand alone as a fine essay on one aspect of the game-changing series. Fully illustrated with stills from the shows in question and including “Guest Lessons” from the likes of Leonard Maltin and Mel Brooks, Dawidziak’s syllabus is infinitely more relatable than the likes of Zig Ziglar, but you’d better already be a hardcore TZ fan to gain any value.

By the power of Zeus, Italian Sword and Sandal Films, 1908-1990 is not the definitive book I wanted it to be, mostly because so little of it required actual writing on the part of co-authors Roy Kinnard and Tony Crnkovich. Published by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback does cover what its title promises, with films of the peplum genre arranged alphabetically from Adventurer of Tortuga to Zorro the Rebel, but said coverage is largely rendered irrelevant by the existence of the IMDb, because we get a full list of the cast and crew. Comments from Kinnard and Crnkovich, unfortunately, are limited to a sentence or two, except in the rare case of a game-changer like 1958’s Hercules. Otherwise, their contribution to each entry is scant; for example, for Charge of the Black Lancers, they write in total, “It’s the Poles vs. the Tartars in this action drama, co-produced by Italy’s Royal Film, France’s France-Cinéma Productions, and Yugoslavia’s C.F.S. Košutnjak.” Gripping, no? Although illustrations are bountiful, Italian Sword and Sandal Films is more of a list than a book. I suppose if the apocalypse wipes out the internet, it may serve more purpose.

I want to get lost in Rat Pack Confidential author Shawn Levy’s latest book. Not in the sense of perusing its pages, which I’ve already done, but actually retreating to the world it depicts. Pending the creation of the time machine, I was born too late. The next best thing is the book, Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome, and while not exclusively about movies and the men and women who made them (hence the Pucci, as in kaleidoscopic fashion maven Emilio), the cinema arguably did more than high fashion to make the Italian capital a cultural touchstone around the postwar globe; Anita Ekberg’s fountain-cavorting sure saw to that. Part history, part travelogue, all intoxicating, Levy’s multinarrative work vividly recalls a jet-set splendor that, while never can be replicated, at least can be revisited through the film classics that have visually bottled that feeling forever. Or we could always throw an orgy. —Rod Lott

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3 New Movie Books from McFarland & Company

Does the world need more than one book on the movies of Mamie Van Doren? Hell, no. But I sure do! With Joseph Fusco’s 2010 book already sitting on my shelf, now there’s Atomic Blonde: The Films of Mamie Van Doren to keep it company. First published in 2008, Barry Lowe’s book now is back in print and available in a more affordable paperback edition from McFarland. Today a prolific author of gay erotica, Lowe spends the first 50-ish pages to deliver a condensed biography of the former Joan Olander, the virginal farm girl who became one of the three iconic sex bombs of the squeaky-clean 1950s and boundary-pushing ’60s, behind Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield. And the rest of the text? Why, a flick-by-flick examination of her career, of course, with special attention given to her campier efforts — including High School Confidential!, Sex Kittens Go to College, Las Vegas Hillbillys, The Navy vs. the Night Monsters, Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women — and no punches pulled. Lowe wrote this breezy book with the hopes that readers might see her as skilled beyond testing the thread strength of sweaters, and yet it is populated with photos that play up those God-given talents. In my eyes, that’s not really a complaint. Recommended!

Maybe having been born in 1971 has something to do it, but I think some of the most memorable vampire movies came from that decade. (I mean, seriously, The Vampire Happening? The Vampires Night Orgy? The Dracula Saga? C’mon, folks!) Gary A. Smith agrees; as he writes in the introduction of Vampire Films of the 1970s: Dracula to Blacula and Every Fang Between, “filmmakers everywhere jumped on the bloody bandwagon,” giving us bloodsuckers that also were black, gay, adept at kung fu, peace-preaching and puppies — just not all at once. The fun of this McFarland & Company paperback is in Smith covering their respective flicks not chronologically, but broken up into distinct groups, such as “Carmilla” adaptations, Jean Rollin works, Mexican entries, outright comedies and, yep, “Vampire Porn.” Any book that gives the likes of Al Adamson, Andy Milligan and Jess Franco chapters of their own is one worth sinking your teeth into.

One area of the movies I have yet to take a deep dive into? Ye olde serials. Other than chapters of Bela Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes doled out across several early episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, these superheroic, swashbuckling, space-patroling, spy-smashing tales remain a blind spot in my cinematic education. Because they are extinct, I’m guessing the same may be true for many of you. For a crash course, turn to Geoff Mayer’s Encyclopedia of American Film Serials. Designed by McFarland & Company as an oversized paperback, it seems ready-made for decades of referencing to come. It holds tremendous value in that it’s indexed not only by titles, but actors, directors, writers — heck, even composers! Entries are written with voluminous knowledge, with particular attention paid to concepts and cliffhangers, but the introduction gives a broad, baseline knowledge of the art form, its various studios and its eventual death. The reproductions of poster art are entirely welcome; I just wish they were in color, although the shorts they shilled were not. —Rod Lott

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3 New Pop Culture Books

David Thomson is one of our finest living writers, period. He just so happens to work in the field of film criticism, yet his prose sings as marvelously as any acclaimed work of fiction. Each book he releases is an event for cineastes, including his latest … although it is about the movies’ archenemy. In the Thames & Hudson hardback Television: A Biography — heavy in size, heady in subject — Thomson relates the history of TV in the same manner he did cinema in 2012’s The Big Screen: purely on his terms. That means neither chronologically nor logically by anyone’s standards, yet the book feels that way once the whirlwind tour is done. The man can pivot on a dime, going from Gunsmoke to The Rockford Files to James Garner’s Polaroid ads with Mariette Hartley to Merv Griffin — and somehow, his dot-connecting leaps work. The cover image — the iconic one from 1982’s classic Poltergeist — is as good a joke as any, representing Thomson’s sometimes contentious relationship with the boob tube. And let’s be honest: His is ours.

While not quite a runaway smash, The Legend of Tarzan performed better than expected at last summer’s box office, proving there’s lots of life left in the lord of the apes. For the life already lived, David Lemmo recounts the pulp hero’s first century of existence in Tarzan, Jungle King of Popular Culture. Published by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback has the daunting task of distilling 100-plus years of content into roughly a 200-page narrative, and for the most part, the man succeeds. With Edgar Rice Burroughs writing dozens of novels starring his creation, adapted for dozens more motion pictures, there is little space for Lemmo to dive too deeply into individual works. Plus, the preceding sentence doesn’t take into account Tarzan’s adventures into TV, radio, comics, toys and other merchandising vines, all of which get covered here — just at a monkey’s-eye view. For example, the aforementioned Legend film merits one paragraph, but that’s more than is earned by Hollywood’s heretofore most recent live-action Tarzan film, 1998’s flop Tarzan and the Lost City (a vehicle for a loinclothed Casper Van Dien). Lemmo’s writing leans heavily on names and dates, so passages tend to grow arid. For those seeking a reference work on just the movies, reach for Scott Tracy Griffin’s recent Tarzan on Film; for a broad overview on the character’s wide-ranging market penetration and influence, Lemmo’s book serves as that introduction.

As you may have noticed with his previous book on Jamie Lee Curtis in 2010, when David Grove gets interested in a celebrity as a subject, he goes all in. Now, he’s gone all in on the troubled star of Damnation Alley, White Line Fever and TV’s Airwolf in Jan-Michael Vincent: Edge of Greatness. One of the best things about the BearManor Media release is that it exists at all; although once a matinee idol, Vincent is remembered more today (when he’s remembered at all) for substance abuse struggles and other tabloid fodder. I’ll be the first to admit I thought the actor already had died. Perhaps Grove’s book can help — not to rewrite Vincent’s history or legacy, but just to make certain that someone acknowledged his talent and, furthermore, mourned its loss. If you’re not already a fan, Edge of Greatness won’t change your mind; I suspect it won’t even be read by JM-V virgins. Working without input from or access to his subject, Grove guides us through each step of Vincent’s career at a quick clip, from its sharp ascent to an extended train wreck of a fall. Any fear on your part that Grove will indulge in hagiography is unwarranted, as the rather odd and sobering (pun not intended) final chapter makes clear. —Rod Lott

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Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page

Blair Davis’ Movie Comics: Page to Screen/Screen to Page was not quite the book to which I had been looking forward for the better part of 2016. Turns out, that’s a good thing — even a great one.

While the rest of the film world debates the merits of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s catch-up attempts, Chicago-based cinema professor Davis dives deep into the comic-book (and -strip) movies and TV shows few care to acknowledge, from the Dick Tracy flicks of the 1940s and all those Blondie comedies to the early serial adventures of Superman, Batman, Captain America and pulp-borne heroes of whom you haven’t heard.

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Mars in the Movies: A History

With movies, as with potential mates, everyone has a type toward which he or she instinctively gravitates. For me, it’s heists or spiders. For Thomas Kent Miller, it’s that angry red planet — a lifelong fascination that culminates in the publication of the book Mars in the Movies: A History.

Released by McFarland & Company, the trade paperback surveys nearly 100 Mars flicks, roughly from the 1910 Thomas Edison silent short A Trip to Mars to 2015’s blockbuster The Martian. With the latter making a mint and taking seven Oscar nominations, you’d think Miller would find Ridley Scott’s populist smash to be a source of unending joy. Instead, he had “zero emotional response to the film. When I should have felt elated, I felt nothing.” And that call-’em-as-I-see-’em approach is all part of the book’s hours of fun.

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3 New Film Books for This New Year

Now adults, the children of the 1980s clearly are nostalgic, judging from this past fall’s glut of books on that era’s teen movie. Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast came first, followed closely by Kevin Smokler’s travel-leaning Brat Pack America. Now, journalist Jason Diamond joins the fray with Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned from Watching ’80s Movies, but stands out as unique because it’s a memoir. Hoo-boy, is it ever. As a Chicagoan, Diamond felt a particular kinship to Hughes’ movies — Sixteen Candles; Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; Home Alone, et al. — which tended to take place there, albeit in the fictional suburbia of Shermer, so the miserable barista longing to be a professional writer embarked on a biography of the iconic filmmaker. Instead, as we witness, the project morphed into this memoir of the author’s own terrible childhood and arguably even worse teenage years, during which Hughes’ CV offered a recurring temporary escape. The end result is raw, real, gut-wrenching and, like Hughes’ work, worthy of resonating with an entire generation. Oh, if only they read more than 140 characters!

With Applause’s paperback release of Film Noir Compendium: Key Selections from the Film Noir Reader Series, newcomers to the dynamic duo of cinematic historians Alain Silver and James Ursini can get a taste of the goods without having to wonder which prior volume to purchase or whether to buy them all. (You may find yourself doing the latter if you enjoy this lovingly oversized presentation, overflowing with hundreds of stills.) Compendium culls some 30 articles from 20 years worth of contents — all with an academic bent, but not to a point of inaccessibility. Standouts include Ursini’s visual breakdown of the Mike Hammer classic Kiss Me Deadly; Todd Ericsson’s 1990 examination of noir’s then-resurrection as a genre (e.g. Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot, Michael Mann’s Thief and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A.); and Paul Schrader’s well-informed “notes on film noir,” which is the equivalent of a master class — no surprise to readers of the Taxi Driver scribe’s Film Comment pieces, past or present. The book’s layout could stand a sharper design, but the words are what really matter here — especially when you have Stephen Farber putting “the bitch goddess” under a microscope.

Which horror films feature the most of Mr. Mephistopheles? Which horror soundtracks are the scariest? Who draws horror comics best? The answers to these and many other superlative-determining questions await in The Thrill of Repulsion: Excursions into Horror Culture. For the Schiffer-pubbed hardcover, Horror News Network contributor William Burns presents nearly two dozen essays on terror-related topics primarily concerning movies, but also not ignoring TV, music and books (comics included). Nearly all of the chapters are presented in the ever-popular list format, each cleverly and consistently going to 13, rather than the standard, ho-hum 10. I was unfamiliar with Burns’ name or work, so I don’t know how much critical credibility he brings to the project, but he obviously is well-versed in cinema that goes bump in the night. I especially enjoyed his countdown of horror films “That Deserve Better,” because his selections prove him right, from The Boy Who Cried Werewolf to the top-slotted The Spider Labyrinth. —Rod Lott

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A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies

Hands down and no question about it: For me, the entertainment book of 2016 is A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies. Written by Trapped Ashes screenwriter Dennis Bartok and collector extraordinaire Jeff Joseph, the University Press of Mississippi hardcover shines a light on the rarest of film subcultures: one I didn’t know existed!

There’s a whole history of FBI arrests and/or investigations into film obsessives who sold and/or traded actual prints — typically 35mm and often stolen from studios and theaters. They range from Hollywood’s own (Roddy McDowall and Rock Hudson) to two-bit ex-cons, and nearly two dozen of them have their colorful stories told here, run-ins and close calls included.

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4 New Entertainment Titles for Which to Be Thankful

sinisterurgeIn Sinister Urge: The Life and Times of Rob Zombie, metal music bio specialist Joel McIver considers the career of the Renaissance man not content to constrain his talents to just one medium. If the Backbeat Books hardcover focused solely on Rob Zombie’s music — from White Zombie to his current solo act — I wouldn’t have been interested, but luckily, his forays into filmmaking are covered almost in as much depth. While the weight given to each movie is wildly off-balance, fans can learn a lot about the battles to make 2003’s controversial House of 1000 Corpses and the even more controversial 2007 remake of Halloween, and yet may be left wanting more about comparatively glossed-over subjects, such as the film-within-a-film excised from 2012’s The Lords of Salem or the clashes with David Caruso while shooting a CSI: Miami episode — I mean, tell me you don’t wanna hear everything about that! I assume this is because McIver had to draw upon existing sources since Zombie was not interviewed specifically for the book, so to judge what is there, which includes his absolutely crazy comics, I give it a thumb up rather than a middle finger.

filmfatalesWomen? Gotta love ’em. Women in spy movies? Gotta lust over ’em! And Tom Lisanti and Louis Paul’s tag-teaming of Film Fatales: Women in Espionage Films and Television, 1962-1973 damn near covers every one of the genre’s notable and/or nubile beauties: Raquel Welch, Lana Wood, Diana Rigg, Ann-Margret, Ursula Andress, Susan Hart, Honor Blackman, Tina Louise, Stella Stevens, Anne Francis … it’s the rare book that prompts the need of a cold shower. More than 100 of these starlets — seemingly half of them from James Bond adventures — are featured in their own few-pages-apiece chapters, profiling their careers overall and specific highlights from their filmographies. Generously supplemented with a nice photograph, they’re like IMDb entries with more depth and more flesh. Because of this setup, few will want to tackle Film Fatales cover to cover, opting instead to read up on the women with whom they’re most, um, “familiar.” But trust me: You’ll want to thumb through all the pages just for the photos alone. Unfortunately, so will your teenage brother/nephew/whoever, so hide it if you can. And if you cannot, good news: Originally published in 2002, this new reissue from McFarland & Company is close to half the price in paperback.

lostsoulshgAlso from McFarland, Lost Souls of Horror and the Gothic: Fifty-Four Neglected Authors, Actors, Artists and Others does just what it says. Edited by Elizabeth McCarthy and Bernice M. Murphy, this collection of biographical sketches is all over the place, but I suppose that is its point. While genre fans are likely to already know Rosemary’s Baby novelist Ira Levin, 1936 Sweeney Todd star Tod Slaughter and Just Before Dawn director Jeff Lieberman, even the most ardent enthusiasts may not be aware of the more obscure subjects, like illustrator Sidney Sime and author Marie Corelli. Bold choices include pop singer Danielle Dax, After Hours screenwriter Joseph Minion, Ghostwatch creator Stephen Volk and the team behind the Silent Hill franchise. Although the typical essay runs four pages, not even 100 times that amount would convince me that the legendary, double Oscar-winning actress Ingrid Bergman deserves a place among these Lost Souls.

bookkithThis is a review of This Is a Book About the Kids in the Hall, John Semley’s unimaginatively titled but perfectly readable biography of the venerable Canadian comedy troupe whose HBO series found a considerable cult. Published by ECW Press, the paperback delves expectedly into the Kids’ formation, dissolution and eventual reunion, but also reveals more about the members’ personal lives than I would have thought, particularly their upbringings, in which the running thread is “shitty dads.” The most interesting chapter chronicles the highly contentious making of the Kids’ first — and to date, only — feature film, the misunderstood 1996 flop Brain Candy (a movie I will defend to my dying day). Although the author inserts himself into the book too often and takes occasionally superfluous sojourns — the weak Kids in the Hall Drinking Game being the worst offender — I recommend any self-respecting KITH fan snap it up all the same, lest he or she risk a well-deserved head-crushing. —Rod Lott

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The Amazing Toys of Marvin Glass: 1950s to 1974

amazingtoysMarvin Glass: You may not know his name, but you likely know some of his work. Born in 1914, the man dreamt up some of the most memorable playthings for the big-boy brands kids know and love — Hasbro, Mattel, Aurora, Kenner, Milton Bradley, Parker Brothers, et al. — right up until he passed away in 1974. Some still made and sold today, his greatest hits run the gamut from board games (Operation and Mouse Trap) and handheld electronic games (Simon) to toys like the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle and the almighty Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

He also created the nightmare-inducing Hugo: Man of a Thousand Faces, but my psyche would like to gloss over that one.

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Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen

monstrousnatureIt took one childhood viewing of William Shatner taking on a small town’s Kingdom of the Spiders to make me an instant, lifelong fan of the horror subgenre of animal-attack films. Widening the scope to nature overall fighting back against an unappreciative and oblivious populace, Robin L. Murray and Joseph K. Heumann explore how these movies reflect how our culture grapples with our uneasy co-existence with flora and fauna, in their new essay collection from University of Nebraska Press, Monstrous Nature: Environment and Horror on the Big Screen. While I was primed for a highbrow take on a lowbrow topic, I was ill-prepared for how much fun it can be.

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