I’ve picked up two books recently, which I read on holiday – one newly published, one new-ish. Both are cinema-related and encompass huge bodies of work in entertaining, engaging fashion: Paul Merton’s Silent Comedy and Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies.
Paul Merton’s book, first published in 2007, looks at the silent comedy cinema boom of 1914-29 through the work of its key pioneers and exponents, as they made the transition from vaudeville and Medicine Show, to silent film and finally sound. It’s a roughly chronological look at the careers of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, and the overlapping narrative – as each comedian tries to best his competitors – creates a palpable sense of competition between the filmmakers.
Silent Comedy followed a four-part TV series Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, shown in the UK in 2006. The book allows Merton to delve in even greater detail, and his easy humour and enthusiasm make this an informative, engrossing read. It includes many detailed descriptions of shorts and features, and charts the rise and fall of the form, from slapstick pie-in-the-face two-reelers, to something approaching art. The book’s unfortunate side effect is that it will send you off in search of Keaton, Chaplin and others’ work on DVD, which will cost you a small fortune. It’s all out there somewhere, with new discoveries, fragments and restorations surfacing all the time.
As good genre film books should, Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies will also have you scribbling long lists of movies to track down. Published in April 2011 and billed as ‘Horror on Screen Since the 1960s’, the book is in two parts. Part One is Newman’s original text published in 1984, and ‘completely revised, updated and rewritten’ in 1988, which looks at all aspects of post-Night of the Living Dead horror cinema, from exorcism movies, to Italian zombie gut crunchers, plus the work of auteurs such as Larry Cohen, David Cronenberg, Brian DePalma and Dario Argento. Part One is now accompanied by footnotes, where if need be Newman reassesses or adds information to a text that is now over 20 years old. The additional notes on Italian gialli films are especially useful, as these cult murder mystery thrillers have enjoyed considerable popularity in the last decade. Some very good prints of even the most obscure films are being released, in addition to giallo master Dario Argento’s films – Deep Red, Suspiria, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage etc – getting the Blu-ray treatment.
Part Two expands on horror cinema in the intervening years, looking at ‘modern horror’ in its myriad global forms. The shear volume and breadth of films discussed is impressive in itself, with Newman providing comprehensive commentary on, for example, the derivatives of Silence of the Lambs, or the many vampire revamps, or Japanese ghost stories, or the ongoing Zombie apocalypse, plus auteurs Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro, Larry Fessenden and David Lynch. There’s also a highly entertaining chapter called ‘Scream and Scream Again’ which features a thorough, wide-ranging round-up of franchises, post-modernism and remakes that must have been a nightmare to research.
Both Nightmare Movies and Silent Comedy are five-star reads.