The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema - Michael Vaughn
Trade paperback, 352 pages with index
Reading Michael Vaughn’s book The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema is like walking through a funhouse: it offers opportunities for thrills, horror, laughter, and flat-out weirdness. You’re never sure what lurks behind each door, but you can’t wait to open them all.
Vaughn has organized his book into eight categories, each with a brief introduction: Action/Adventure; Cars, Trucks, and Choppers; Comedy; Crime/Thrillers; Drama; Fantasy; Horror; Sci-Fi. As you might suspect, the chapter on horror is by far the largest, but regardless of your tastes, you’ll find plenty of viewing choices in every chapter.
Each entry includes the film’s title (or titles), year of release, director, writers, stars, and country of origin. The book frequently includes small stills from the movies (mostly in color, except for the occasional black-and-white film). At first, I was a bit disappointed that each film’s running time wasn’t included, but most horror/weird cinema titles I’ve encountered normally clock in at around 90 minutes. Vaughn does, however, frequently let the reader know which films are going to demand a longer haul. I also wished for information on where these films can be found, but since streaming and physical media venues change so rapidly, looking the titles up online is probably your best bet.
The first thing that strikes you about the book is Vaughn’s genuine love of strange cinema. It’s literally written on every page and his enthusiasm is as contagious as plague of zombies. Yet with each entry, Vaughn has the ability to provide enough information for the reader to evaluate whether or not they’ll be comfortable with a given sub-genre or title. If you’re on the fence about a certain film, Vaughn often gives such warnings as “Not for the squeamish, but for fans that are serious about the horror genre” (New York Ripper) or “It’s certainly a bizarre film, but it’s also a powerful one” (Even Dwarfs Started Small).
Reading Vaughn’s book is like talking to someone who’s seen movies you’re not sure you’re interested in until you hear him describe them. I never really gave much thought to films made in the Philippines, but after reading the entry for The Killing of Satan (1983), I now want to check a few out: “For my money, any ultra-low-budget Philipino [sic] movie is at least worth a look, because chances are it’s going to be weird and sleazy with some blood thrown in for good measure.” Okay, I’ll get in line for that.
Vaughn also isn’t afraid to point out a film’s weaknesses, yet informs readers that even a problematic film may still have something to offer. These reviews offer not simply a list of what makes each film strange, but also often touches on deeper themes and concepts. (And yes, strange cinema can contain deep themes and concepts.) As a bonus, Vaughn has also included occasional “extras” from his previous writings, including some wonderful short pieces on the recently departed Larry Cohen.
I also must tell you the bad news. The book suffers from an abundance of typos and misspellings. I blame Vaughn’s editor and/or publisher Schiffer Publishing, who are ultimately responsible for putting the best possible product on the market. I hope the book sees a second revised printing that corrects the numerous errors that are currently keeping the book from being as good as it can be.
I must thank Vaughn for making me feel more comfortable in seeking out several titles I initially thought I should avoid. After reading the book cover-to-cover, I found that I’d already seen only about 10% of the titles, but marked well over 100 that I’m eager to see. (In fact, since I finished the book, I’ve checked out three of those titles, all of which have been great experiences.) The Ultimate Guide to Strange Cinema is a wonderful book fans of strange cinema will enjoy, whether reading it straight through, or as a reference book. And even if you don’t consider yourself a fan of strange cinema, you should pick it up. You might be surprised…