My excitement about the FAB Press book, “Nightmare USA,” is well documented. This upcoming “untold story of the exploitation independents” is a fifteen year look at American cinema’s last exciting age, and author Stephen Thrower is just the man to write it. (Don’t believe me? Just read his essay in “Art of Darkness: The Cinema of Dario Argento.” His thoughts on “Suspiria” are fascinating.) I recently interviewed him in order to satisfy my own curiosity and to help promote what I think will be the most important film book of the year. So, read on and find out what Thrower thinks about “Fangoria” (which I agree with), “The Devil’s Rejects (which I don’t), the current state of film and more. Without further ado …
What is your background? What books have you written and so on?
I started out in music, working in a band called Coil, and then got into writing for a magazine here in the UK called “Shock Xpress,” which was devoted to horror and exploitation movies. It had a bit of an edge, an attitude that I liked. When “Shock” folded in 1989 I decided to edit my own magazine [“Eyeball”], which concentrated on European sex and horror movies. At that time I was heavily into directors like Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato, and I set up “Eyeball” to review these Euro-horror movies, which were not being written about very much. I was into Argento, Fulci and Bava — the big Italian names — but also loved the real obscure fringes of that Euro-horror world — films like “Lucker,” a sick little necrophile story from Belgium, or the Italian “Naziploitation” films like “The Gestapo’s Last Orgy” [and] “The Beast in Heat” … movies that trampled any sense of decorum and taste. On the other hand, I was also into European art cinema, and so in “Eyeball” I enjoyed juxtaposing the likes of Godard or Antonioni with, say, Jess Franco’s “Sadist of Notre Dame.” Basically I like extreme “low” culture and extreme “high” culture, but I’m not so interested in what goes on in between!
The Euro obsession came to a head with a book I wrote called “Beyond Terror: The Films of Lucio Fulci,” published by FAB Press in 1999. Fulci was a director I’d fallen in love with in 1981-82 when his goriest horror films were released here. Films like “The Beyond” and “City of the Living Dead.” The Fulci book took me five years from inception to publication, and in a way it was the culmination of my interest in writing about European horror as well as Fulci [and] it gave me a chance to write about Italian horror cinema in general. When it was finished I started looking around for something different that could obsess me as much as the European horror cinema had done. I realized that if I stripped away “The Exorcists” and “Amityvilles” and a few of the Yber-famous independents, there was another world of obscurities and neglected treasures to explore in the United States.
What is the publication date and page count of the book? Can you give me an overview for readers who may not be familiar with it?
“Nightmare USA” is due out in May, and it’s a hardback running to 528 large-format pages. It covers the heyday of violent horror in American exploitation cinema from 1970 to 1985. I’ve started off looking at the roots of the phenomenon, specifically the films Herschell Gordon Lewis was making in the 1960s, and then charted the way exploitation movies went further and further out into extremes of sex and violence and sheer strangeness in the 1970s. The first section is an overview of the genre, then there are 25 chapters covering particular filmmakers in depth (basically combining biography with critique of their movies). Then there’s a third section at the end with roughly 120 more reviews without the biographical and interview material where I’d either been unable to reach the filmmakers in time, the people responsible had died, or whatever. So the first part’s a sort of monograph on US horror, the second part’s a biographical history of 25 filmmakers, and the third part is a reviews compendium. Why I didn’t cut it into three books and get three paydays I don’t know!
“Nightmare USA” is more a tome than a book. What prompted you to tackle such a project?
Obsession, in a word. I’m lucky to have an obsessional nature. I need to have something that sucks me in and fires me up to sit there all night researching and writing and getting drawn into that world. As for why — I remember being 18 or 19 and feeling that all of my favorite movies were neglected; I’d read reviews pouring scorn on things I thought were amazing (the early Cronenbergs, for instance). You build up anger, which can be really useful! It leads to a feeling that if no one else is going to champion these movies — “The Beyond,” “Don’t Go in the House,” or whatever — you should do it yourself! Of course, as time goes by your realize you’re not alone, you meet others who feel passionate about “Pigs,” “The Headless Eyes” or Andy Milligan, but you never really forgive the people who sneered at your favorite kinds of films, and so maybe you just write these gargantuan volumes to say, “Fuck you. Not only are you wrong, you’re wrong for 500 pages!” (I’m kidding. You can’t fuel six years of work on teenage resentment, not at my age anyway.)
There are a lot of different definitions for exploitation films. How do you define an exploitation picture?
Well, there’s a historical definition, the old carny idea of “exploiting” audience interest, and I favor that one, tied in with the notion of independence. A genuine exploitation film has to be based around a simple exploitable concept or genre, and be made outside the studio system. Corman or AIP are okay, although I’ve excluded them from “Nightmare USA” to concentrate on the real one-offs and solo flyers. But it’s that flagrant appeal to audience demand served up by independent producers and distributors that matters. “There’s an audience for horror. Well, let’s serve up some horror.” “The crowd[s] want T&A and car chases and chicks with guns rolling around in the mud? Here you go!” What’s funny is that it’s the same desire that motivates the majors, to squeeze the marks for all they’re worth, except the majors paint a few fig leaves on it all — social conscience; satire; an actor’s film; state of the nation; family entertainment, etc.. Hollywood movies now do exactly what exploitation flicks [did], and not to put too fine a point on it, [but] they stole the whole idea from the exploitation circuit. Hollywood shifted almost their entire cultural capital over to [its] massively over-budgeted take on exploitation movies in the Eighties.
Exploitation films aren’t given a lot of respect by mainstream audiences and Hollywood. Why do you think this is?
Money. It’s all about who’s splashing the most cash. A studio makes some bloated walrus of a film that flops around gasping for air and then dies after a weekend, and they still think it’s better priority than a movie made for small change in Charlotte, North Carolina. Horror films like “Poltergeist” and “Fright Night” and “The Hunger” made in the early-to-mid Eighties came along and seduced audiences with an expensive sugar coating of studio gloss. Suddenly, films like “The Hills Have Eyes,” shot in Seventy-Seven on 16mm and blown up to grainy 35mm, were deemed too cheap to be taken seriously. (It all went wrong in the 1980s. Sorry, this is a favorite theme of mine. I bore for England on it.) What’s funny is the hypocrisy — Seventies exploitation films were fairly honest in that a horror film would often be advertised in no-nonsense terms. “Here’s the nasty freaky shit you were asking for. Roll up, roll up.” Whereas Hollywood wants you to feel the “quality” while it does the wicked deed, and wants to acquit itself with some spurious dignity. You know, “Silence of the Lambs” — all the press and promo surrounding that film went on and on in a self-congratulatory way about “classiness” when it’s actually a serial killer movie about some guy who peels women and wears their skins. Just because Lecter can quote literature and knows a thing or two about wine, we’re meant to treat the movie as “a cut above.” All the mainstream critics were falling over themselves to be more sanctimonious about its “quality” than the next guy, while sneering down at “mere” horror films. Personally, I preferred “Hannibal,” but then I love killer pigs, so maybe I’m biased.