There's A Wide, Strange World Of Celluloid Out There.
By James DiGiovanna
JULY 27, 1998:
Mondo Macabro, by Pete Tombs (St. Martin's/Griffin). Paper, $18.95.
TOO MUCH HAS been made of Hong Kong cinema of late, with every second-rate American director claiming to be inspired by the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam. Frankly, I find almost nothing more boring than trying to sit through Woo's Hard Boiled or A Better Tomorrow. Beyond his ability to start a machine gun firing and keep it firing for 90 minutes, Woo is almost completely lacking in creative power, and the endless gunfire eventually becomes as dull as a dripping faucet.
Where, then, are we to turn when searching for the best in B-cinema, now that the Pacific Rim and the American outback have been so thoroughly mined by demon-headed hipsters searching for an outré high? Author and culture-comber Pete Tombs has the answer in his surprisingly intelligent and incredibly well-researched new book, Mondo Macabro.
While Tombs starts with three chapters on Hong Kong cinema, he manages to focus these on less-exploited areas of Asian exploitation cinema. Digging up such oddities as the bizarre, historical/blue films of the swinging '70s, and some rarely seen black magic movies, he shows that there's more to sleazy Southeast Asian cinema than kung-fu kickmeisters and kill-crazy super soldiers.
Still, this is familiar geography, if not cinematography, for most readers; and it's when Tombs leaves the Pacific Rim that he opens the door on hitherto under-analyzed areas of schlockabilly movie-making. Especially novel is the section on Turkish cinema, rarely seen in the U.S., and full of truly bizarre moments. There's Uçan Kiz, the Turkish Batwoman, whose costume appears to be painted on in one thin coat, a variety of Istanbul-based Drakulas, and more superhero flicks than the average comic-geek could dream of in a week. For some reason, the Turks seem especially enamored of high-powered humanoids in tight-fitting trunks, and there are Turkish films featuring Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, Tarzan, and a variety of barbarian heroes who fight bug-eyed monsters while protecting babes in brass bras.
Tombs also covers the Philippines, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil and India. He's especially good on India, where he not only shows that there's more to "Bollywood" than musical romances, but also ably reveals how the indigenous horror films are tied deeply to Indian mythology, giving them a special species of weirdness not found in the West.
The chapter on Brazil is almost exclusively about that country's most bizarre product, Coffin Joe, the narrator and director of a series of non-narrative films featuring endless images of demonic debauchery and sexualized horror. If you're already familiar with these movies, not much new is found here; but if not, it's a definitive intro to this singular creator.
Perhaps what's best about Tombs' fabulous tome is the way he's able to be highbrow while simultaneously cheering on these tasteless nuggets. Never condescending, he nonetheless avoids giving the impression of inflating these movies beyond their genre-boundaries. Instead, it's a respectful look at world-wide trash, free from judgments high and low, and packed with information and sources for the strangest entertainment to be found on celluloid.
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