Tuesday, 11 November 2014

WENG’S CHOP, MONSTER!, and the Rebirth of the Fanzine.

A retrospective is often a sign that its subject is en route to the dusty top shelf of history. With the recent publication of John Spuznar’s essential Xerox Ferox: the wild wild world of the horror fanzine, it might reasonably have been assumed that the epitaph of the print based film ’zine was being recorded. And quite right too; surely its present day heir is the blogosphere and the Tumblr page. But no, against all the odds, we seem to be entering a second golden age of print-delivered, film based goodies.

It’s sometimes hard to believe, but there once was a time “before the internet”. Back then, if you wanted to check a fact or research an arcane area of cinematic activity, you had to either know somebody who knew something or search out a rare written record. And very often, with obscure movies, the fanzine was the place to look. Then along came the worldwideweb and Wikipedia. With such an easy-to-access resource, people seemed to stop researching and begin repeating. The internet made it too easy. Received wisdom became the order of the day. It’s as though there was a quality about having to put your thoughts in print that had made the whole enterprise more serious, more rigorous back in the days of ‘zines. Maybe a bit like the difference between films shot on “film” and those originated on video.

There were fanzines in the 50s and 60s, but the boom years were from the late 1970’s and into the 1990s. This was the time of Gore Gazette, Deep Red, Sleazoid Express, Ungawa!, Slime Time, Psychotronic and many, many more. The video explosion of the early 1980s had made numerous exploitation goodies available for the first time outside their original theatrical exposure and this was doubtless one of the factors that influenced the rise of the ‘zine. Here were a host of artefacts ignored by the mainstream, by-passed by academic critics, forgotten and unloved by the many, and therefore ripe for rediscovery by a new generation of zealous crate diggers. No film and no film-maker was deemed too lowly or too marginal to be the subject of a fact packed 10 page article or a career length interview.

Gradually, as happens with all living things, the energy leaked away. The pressure of other activities, earning a crust, having a family, or just plain old burnout, took their toll on the ‘zine world. And then came the worldwideweb… and we all found a new place to dwell.

The web’s a wonderful thing, no mistake, but one of the problems of the digital domain is that it’s a great leveller. Everything tends to assume the same degree of importance (or lack of). Easy availability makes things somehow less interesting. And before you know it, you’ve ended up watching a marathon of Big Bang Theory catch ups rather than staying awake all night to review the entire Shaw Brothers Black Magic series. 

Many things (vinyl records, VHS cassettes, folk music), once they seem on the verge of vanishing, tend to acquire almost mystically a second lease on life. So it has been with the humble film ‘zine. Perhaps it was the very intangibility of the digital world that made people nostalgic for a product you could actually hold in your hands (and read in the crapper). Gradually, over the last few years, the print ‘zine has started to make a comeback.

Tim Paxton was one of the pioneers when it came to promoting weird world cinema. His zines Video Voice, Highball, Naked! Screaming! Terror!, Monster (and then later Monster! International) had a broader scope than many, delving into the arcane and the overlooked no matter where it originated from. And now he’s back (if he ever went away…) with Weng's Chop. In collaboration with Brian Harris and Tony Strauss he’s created one of the truly great contemporary zines. Which isn’t really a zine at all: it’s a book. The current issue (number 6 – although the series began with Number 0) which comes with three different cover designs, is a massive, heavily illustrated, 240 numbered pages in an outsized format.

Weng’s Chop raises the bar. This is film writing as it ought to be. The editors have assembled a fine gang of both novices and seasoned old hands from the ‘zine and publishing world, including Steve Fenton, Jared Auner, Kris Gilpin, Jeff Goodhartz, Greg Goodsell, Louis Paul, Doug Waltz, Dave Zuzelo, Krys Caroleo, Vicki Love. A recent issue (#5) includes the first of a three part series about Jungle films; articles about the Horrorthon, Pollygrind and Knoxville film festivals; the Mr Vampire series; the restoration of the much reviled Manos the Hands of Fate; Filipino vigilante films; articles about regional horror; an overview of the Johnny Wadd series; a valuable interview with Leon Isaac Kennedy; book and film reviews and much, much more. 

As noted earlier, one of the strong features of WC is its coverage of non English language films. In this issue, Part 7 of Tim Paxton’s continuing investigation of Indian cinema’s outer edges focuses on Kanti Shah, producer/director of more than two decades worth of horror and exploitation films from the real underbelly of the Bollywood industry. Paxton’s energy and enthusiasm here is heroic. He doesn’t just talk in general terms, screen a few films and then bang out his opinion piece. No, he actually watches them all. Or as many as time and brain cells will allow, which in the case of the prolific Kanti Shah is a hell of a lot of films. That’s the essential nature of the true ‘zine creator: going multiple extra miles in search of that last ounce of buried treasure long after earlier investigators have wearied of the task.

Fanzines and their creators and contributors seem to march to the beat of a different drum. Fuelled by their enthusiasm and their indefatigable curiosity, with no grants from public bodies or rich patrons, they feel themselves compelled in some mysterious way to scout the back roads and byways of popular culture and to preserve their discoveries for future generations to wonder at. They are the archivists of the arcane and long may they thrive and prosper.

 Anyone who has even the vaguest interest in the kind of things that Mondo Macabro are doing is going to find much to relish in Weng's Chop and its spin off Monster! Get them all now, while you still can. They’re going to become collectors’ items soon enough and then you’ll kick yourself for having missed out.

- Pete Tombs

You can buy issues of both Weng's Chop and Monster! on Amazon and Creatspace.com.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014


A brief and slightly belated thanks to the Lausanne Underground Film and Music Festival (LUFF – pronounced “loof”) who invited me to be on the feature film jury this past October. Now in its thirteenth year, the festival presents a selection of edgy, independent cinema alongside a programme of music and performance spread over five intense days. The constant interplay between different disciplines creates some fascination fusions, a lot of lively debate and some serious alcohol abuse. The festival is not one for lightweights. With the first shows kicking off around 2pm and the last performances finishing around 4am, there’s not much time for sleep. Fortunately I did manage to squeeze in a visit to the nearby museum housing the Collection of Art Brut, an essential experience for anyone passing through the city.

Lausanne, like Switzerland itself, is a very prosperous, very “first world” and very comfortable place and the LUFF represents a violent eruption of the avant garde and the anarchic into the very heart of this most polite of locations. Standing on the terrace of the festival venue (a former casino) and gazing across the misty surface of Lake Geneva to the distant mountains of the Rhone-Alps in France while bass heavy drone and percussive beats erupt from the performance hall below is an alarming but inspiring experience. The festival poster, seen plastered on walls all over town, sums it up: a graphic representation of two spools of celluloid film threaded round a bobbin. It looks, kind of, like a smiley face. But… wait a minute – it also looks like a giant penis.

Impossible to list all the highlights, but here are some of mine: a performance by one of my musical heroes – Morton Subotnick; an unforgettable and moving presentation from Bryan Lewis Saunders and John Duncan (Under the Influence of Torture); Robert Curgenven’s electro acoustic soundscapes. Film wise – the world premier of a feature banned in France in 1968 – Jean-Denis Bonan’s La Femme Bourreau (The Female Executioner); getting to see Trent Harris’s Rubin and Ed on the big screen in 35mm; the French cinematheque programme of archive treasures, including Franco’s Les Demons; introducing Andrew Leavold's The Search for Weng Weng to an audience of 800 screaming fans in Switzerland’s largest theatre; and the winning feature film – Joel Potrykus’s Buzzard, featuring the brilliant Joshua Burge.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Pete Tombs on the firing of Jaqueline Laurent-Auger

Jacqueline Laurent, an actress who appeared in a couple of Jess Franco directed films that we released on DVD has apparently been fired by her employers , Montréal’s Le Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf where she has taught theatre for fifteen years. The reason they give is that she appeared in films “aimed at adults”. A strange justification for the sacking of a 73 years old, very experienced actress for parts she played some 40 plus years ago. There has not been any suggestion of any form of improper conduct by Jacqueline Laurent in her present role within the school. It seems that the mere fact she made these films and that information about them is available (if you look very hard) on the net is enough to make her an unsuitable teacher of secondary school age pupils.

 The college was apparently founded by the Jesuits, not known for their liberal attitudes. However the present administration could perhaps do well to reflect on the words of Jesus himself, who said: “Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

 We feel that the decision makers of Le Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf have a lot to learn from the brave and talented Jacqueline Laurent and that the main thing their pupils will derive from her removal is that they are witnessing a major lesson in hypocrisy

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

THE SLAVE is out now and getting rave reviews!

"Mondo Macabro's release of Pasquale Festa Campanile's The Slave is easily the best Blu-ray debut from an independent distributor that I have seen in years. Not only is the technical presentation very good, but the film itself is a delicious period gem I am convinced many viewers will fall in love with. Buy with confidence, folks. VERY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED."
                                          -  Blu-ray.com

Other reviews:
Mondo Digital

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

One Year Ago Today ...

On the one year anniversary of the great director's death, our friend Simon Birrell shares memories of his friend José Ramón Larraz.

One year ago today, my old friend José Ramón Larraz died. I won’t say “passed away”, because he would never have said it. If there’s one thing he didn't do, it was mince words – he told it like it is, come what may. Abrasive, hilarious - he was the living definition of irascible, and a tremendously talented and cultured man. His loss was too raw last year, but now I’d like to share a few memories.

I met him in Madrid, where he was hanging around a film school I was attending. He had a habit of attracting young, wide-eyed admirers who would throw themselves into his projects, typing scripts, visiting producers and sending emails for him (he refused to use computers). I was neither the first nor last of these admirers, but what began as a series of “work” meetings, became a ten year friendship.

Originally, we were going to write scripts together. That didn't last beyond the first act of a script about a satanic cult – I made the mistake of criticizing one scene he’d written for having too much dialogue. He called me up late at night and proceeded to read out an entire scene from “The Spiral Staircase”. “Count the lines!” he roared. “Is that too much dialogue?” After that I settled more into the role of a translator-secretary, rendering his Spanish scripts as I best I could, surreptitiously snipping out the odd line.

As a film-maker he had an incredible eye for detail, a command of the practical side of his craft and the eye of an artist. His framing and economy came from his work as a comic book artist, which has recently resurfaced and is quite gorgeous. He told me that the pressure of producing a daily newspaper strip forced him to work out ways to economize the drawing needed in each frame. So in a jungle strip he might draw the front half of a lion and hide the rest out of the panel, perhaps saving himself an hour’s drawing.

In film, he used similar tricks. Watch the beginning of “Black Candles” – a scene apparently shot in Heathrow Airport was made as follows: a few shots of the customs area quietly (and illegally) filmed by him with a 16mm camera are intercut with a single shot of the two protagonists ostensibly waiting for their luggage. The way that latter shot is framed, with a few extras, conveys the impression that they’re in the airport, when in fact they could be anywhere. The overall effect is seamless. It’s not an “artistic” shot, but it’s a highly effective, economical and workmanlike one. José Ramón was a master of putting together a film like this with minimal resources, and without having the obviously low budget look of contemporaries like Franco or Naschy.

Apart from his artistic ability, a big part of this came from meticulously studying the masters, breaking down the way classic films had been put together and adding the techniques to his palette. He could describe from memory complete scenes from “Cat People” (one of his favourites) and explain shot by shot where the camera was placed, the actors positioned and precisely how they all moved. He would explain how the exotic setting of Port-au-Prince at the start of “I Walked With a Zombie” had been created with a single gangplank and a barrel.

As noted in “Immoral Tales”, he could generate a mysterious atmosphere from the simplest of situations. In the “Coming Of Sin”, there’s a scene where the threesome at the centre of the story are sitting by the fire, drunk. It’s years since I’ve seen the film, but there’s a shot of the lead actress playing with her hair that is quite unique. It’s just a gesture, but it sums up what’s going on beyond any of the dialogue. “I showed her how to play with her hair”, Larraz told me with satisfaction.

This love of detail contrasted oddly with the casualness with which he dismissed much of his work, and with some of the later, poorer films. The raunchy Spanish comedies are an acquired taste and “Edge of the Axe” or “Deadly Manor” are quite simply deadly. But he would try anything, from the award-winning TV epic on Goya, to some romantic comedies that were never made, probably to his benefit. The best stuff though, is the work rooted in his personal obsessions.

Despite professing that he had no interest in his career in cinema, he had a tremendous drive to try and launch new projects, right up to the end. I was one of many who labored to get “Vampyres II” off the ground. The script, co-authored with Tim Greaves in some incarnations, is a genre bending mélange of witchcraft and vampirism and has little to do with the original film. I took one version of the script to an aging film distributor in New York, who told me, “I love it! It gave me an erection,” and asked for a new version with more sex in it. José snorted on hearing this, “What do I care about Alex’s erection?”, but duly turned out a new version stuffed with depravity. There are numerous other unmade stories, including “Voodoo” and “The Onlookers”.

I tried, Tim tried, Pete Tombs tried, Jonathan Sothcott tried; there was lots of interest, but no-one would actually sign a cheque. The last interest we had was to make it in 3D, which would have been something. As José Ramón got older he started lowering his expectations, but never stopped beavering away. He wrote scripts for others, even comedy sketches for TV. Finally, he started writing novels, which can be ordered in various language on Print-On-Demand sites. He approached novels in the same way as films, reverse engineering Henry Miller and trying to apply the same techniques to his own stories.

 He had a reputation as a ladies man, and his colourful autobiography bears this out. A Spanish wife, a French wife (who was raised by Eleanor Roosevelt) was followed by Diana, the love of his life, and finally Vanesa Hidalgo, star of “Black Candles”. But there were many others, including a second, parallel family in Scandinavia and a string of models from his period as a fashion photographer.

He always insisted that he had behaved professionally towards his actresses, but there were differing opinions. Alfredo Landa claimed Larraz had spent much of the film they made together chasing the female cast, which José Ramón disputed furiously in his autobiography. I don’t know the truth, and I wouldn’t put money on it. The cover of his autobiography is a classic:

By the time I knew José Ramón, the glory days were long behind him. But I saw him in action just once, and it was awesome to behold. We were scouting the location for my short film “El Último Deseo”: a large apartment in the centre of Madrid occupied by six girls in their early twenties. They were a motley assortment of nurses, makeup artists, accountants and students and we had to both plan the shots and sweet talk the girls into giving up their home for a week of chaotic filmmaking. We went from room to room meeting each one, and José Ramón methodically hit on every single one of them. He would tell one girl that she had a perfect face for photography (“Trust me, I’m a professional.”) and the next girl he would compliment on her political beliefs (“I’m a republican too!”). He was in his eighties and clearly wasn’t planning on doing anything, but I think it was just an old instinct kicking in. By the time we finished, there were six rather dazed young women who had given us permission to make their life hell, and some of them even joined the crew.

Finally, he was both a misanthrope and a born entertainer. He stayed at home, preferring his wife’s company and pottering about his projects, rejecting opportunities to go out and network with people who could have helped him. Yet once he was out of his shell, he was unstoppable.

We took him to a small film festival in Caceres where they gave him a lifetime achievement award. Celia Novos’ film crew hung around to shoot the event for the documentary “Vampyres and Other Symptoms”. That night he declared that he wanted to go partying with the youngsters and we took him round a series of dives. He didn’t sit down once in the evening, standing till 3am spouting blue jokes and a series of hilarious stream-of-consciousness monologues and invectives about the Spanish, politicians, the film business and himself. He totally dominated the festival, to the extent that the gentile Eugenio Martin, also attending, would run in terror when he saw José Ramón approach. Listen to the Vampyres DVD commentary track for a feeling of what he was like when switched on.

His last outing was at the Madrid Filmoteca, where they had somehow united a wizened Paul Naschy, Larraz, Jack Taylor, Antonio Mayans and Eugenio Martin for a round table. Once the organizers made the mistake of letting him speak, they couldn’t shut him up. The audience was in stitches as he ridiculed the genre and the universe in general. The best toe-curling moment was when he asked why anyone would want to see a film about Dracula, with some portly toupee’d idiot in a black cape and plastic fangs trying to play the gallant. This, sitting next to the mortified star of “Count Dracula’s Great Love”.

As it turned out, that was his last public hurrah, and Naschy’s too.

By the end, he was frail, walking slowly with a cane and starting to lose his memory. He was also broke, despite having lived in castles in Scotland and manor houses in Kent in better days. He finally married his devoted Vanesa Hidalgo and they lived in a one room apartment in Madrid. He constantly complained about Spain and talked of returning to live in his beloved England, but in his heart he didn’t want to leave Vanessa. The plans for filming got sketchier and sketchier, but none of us had the heart to stop helping him in his projects.

In one of history’s great understatements, Casanova starts his enormous autobiography, “Whatever I have done, for good or evil, I have done freely. I have lived.” José Ramón Larraz was a comic strip artist, a fashion photographer, a film-maker, a TV director and finally a novelist. He left a large body of creative work behind. And he lived. How many of us can say that?