Friday, December 1, 2023

Notes on Film: A Guide to Film Guides

 by Anthony King

A guide guide, if you will.

I got a new book in the mail. It's a book about movies. It's my favorite type of book about movies: a film guide. So let's talk film guides. First, though, what I've been watching.

Bobbie and I finished the BBC miniseries of War and Peace (2018), and while it's not technically a movie and I never log non-movies on my Letterboxd, this one was different. There are limited series and miniseries available to log on Letterboxd, and I think it's wrong. Pretend It's a City (2021), while maybe my favorite thing I watched in 2021, is a television series. It's not a movie. So why is it available to log on Letterboxd? Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) was a television show. Available to log on Letterboxd. For god's sake, it's 1,014 minutes long! That ain't a movie! I'm not actually mad about it, but let's say you had 400 diary entries in 2023, and 10 of those entries were actually limited series or shows. Letterboxd says you watched 400 movies. I say you watched 390 movies. Again, who cares. Not me. Nope. This is me not caring. Aaaaaanyways, War and Peace feels so much like one cohesive movie I had to make the exception and log it. From the performances and direction to the music and locations, it's the best thing I've watched all year.
I rewatched Billy O'Brien's I Am Not a Serial Killer (2016) with trepidation because I loved it so much when it first came out. I hoped that it would live up to my memory of it, and I'm happy to report that it still holds the label of “registered banger.” I love a winter horror because, when done right, you can feel the chill in your bones. O'Brien is able to accomplish that here, and along with a dynamite cast, I was almost immediately transported inside this chiller (pun definitely intended). Max Records stars as John Wayne Cleaver, a teenager living in a small Minnesota town that has a serial killer running loose. John is a diagnosed sociopath so he becomes one of our suspects from the very start. His neighbor, Mr. Crowley (Christopher Lloyd), is an old man who leads a suspicious life after the sun goes down: a second suspect. As the bodies pile up, things are revealed that knocked my socks off the first time I saw this. Again, I'm happy to report this holds up for a second viewing, and I encourage everyone to head to Shudder to watch it.
Right before Halloween Arrow released another Sammo Hung feature called The Iron-Firsted Monk (1977), Sammo's directorial debut. He stars as Hawker, a Shaolin monk who decides to leave the temple and live in the world. Meanwhile, the Manchus are a gang who are attempting to control the area by fear and violence. After a particularly brutal rape of a young woman, followed by her suicide, her brother vows revenge. Along with Sammo and his original teacher, the three men declare war against the Manchus. While this feels like Sammo's most exploitative film, the fight sequences are expertly choreographed and beautifully photographed. The ending, notably, is the best fight sequence I've ever seen in a period kung fu movie.
Now to the topic at hand. The book I received is Mine's Bigger Than Yours: The 100 Wackiest Action Movies written by Christopher Lombardo and Jeff Kirschner, co-hosts of the “Really Awful Movies” podcast. It's 240 pages of hilarious commentary, covering 100 movies ranging from bonafide cult classics to completely forgotten trash. Lombardo and Kirshner are extremely funny, and while they don't love (or even like) every movie written about in these pages, their genuine love for this genre and these movies is evident. Beginning with a forward written by filmmaker and author Brian Trenchard-Smith, the book is broken into nine chapters. Chapter one covers martial arts movies like Miami Connection (1987) and Psycho Kickboxer (1997), whereas chapter nine covers movies about undercover agents like the Seagal prison Half Past Dead (2002) and the Weng Weng cheapie For Y'ur Height Only (1981). From Future Force (1989) and Raw Force (1982) to Death Warrior (1984) and Death Machines (1976), there's nothing but fun between these covers.

With a new film guide added to my library, I thought I'd share a few of my favorites. Here are five film guides every fan needs on their shelves.

Cult Movies 1, 2, and 3 (Peary, 1981, 1983, 1988)

A gimme and a cheat. I realize this. Danny is my favorite film writer, and because of him and his books I got to meet so many incredible people I now call friends. Even though there are three of these, I consider them to be one volume covering 200 movies. Spanning decades, from Robert Wiene's silent masterpiece of German expressionism The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to David Lynch's small town odyssey Blue Velvet (1986), Danny covers a wide expanse of cult cinema ground. Some films have lost their cult status and are widely considered cinematic masterpieces like Vertigo (1958), Casablanca (1942), and Citizen Kane (1941). Others hold the ultimate cult status of being nearly forgotten, like The First Nudie Musical (1976), Blood Money (1933), or Outrageous (1977). Not every movie Danny covers is good; some are outright bad. Take for example Reefer Madness (1936) or Bedtime for Bonzo (1951). And Danny doesn't like every movie he covers in these books. But what he doesn't do is shit all over a movie he doesn't like. The point of his essays is exploring why these films hold/held a cult status. There is no pretense in his writing, and he chooses his words carefully as not to inflate his essays with hyperbole. If there is a god, someday he'll convince the powers that be to reprint these beauties and get them back in circulation. Until then, you'll have to scour the recesses of the world wide web.

The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968 (Sarris, 1968)
After reading Godard on Godard (Godard, 1972) and becoming obsessed with Jonas Mekas' Movie Journal, I thought I better give Andrew Sarris a try. Mekas despised the modern film critic covering movies made for the general populace, yet he hired Sarris on at The Village Voice because Mekas felt Sarris was approaching popular film with a different eye compared to his contemporaries. That was what finally sold me on Sarris, so I picked up The American Cinema. Like Danny Peary, while I love the writing, I don't agree with everything Sarris writes. Yet, like Peary and Mekas, Sarris uses language that doesn't turn the reader off. You can understand what he's writing about. His opinions on what constitutes a great director – what he calls “Pantheon Directors” like John Ford, D.W. Griffith, and Max Ophuls – are interesting. His opinions on what constitutes a not great director – in a chapter he calls “Strained Seriousness” covers directors like Jules Dassin, John Frankenheimer, and Sidney Lumet – are baffling. He's more harsh than Peary in his critiques but doesn't spew the acidic vitriol of Pauline Kael (who I also like). Nevertheless, The American Cinema contains writings on hundreds of films, and for us weirdos, two gigantic lists in the back of the book with THOUSANDS of movies.

TCM Underground: 50 Must-See Films From the World of Classic Cult and Late-Night Cinema (De Chirico & Murry, 2022)
One of the highlights of my podcasting career was when Kristin, Vinny, and I got to do an episode of Cult Movies with Millie De Chirico. At the time she was still at TCM and her book with Quatoyiah Murry had just been announced. I was very fortunate to receive an advanced copy and demolished it in one night. Like the title says, this volume covers 50 movies that have shown on TCM Underground (R.I.P.). While the writing is top-notch and the movies covered are all gems, the most notable thing about this book is that it's 230 pages with full color images. Many people talk about the stills included in Cult Movies as their first foray into cult cinema, but those are all black and white, and sometimes not the greatest quality. In the TCM Underground book we're treated to HD-quality, gorgeous color stills and posters. Stunning is an understatement. The other impressive thing about the book is that Millie and Q share the writing duties; Millie wrote about half the films and Q the other half. As you read through the book, the writing is absolutely seamless. The entire book seems to have been written by one voice. It's a remarkable feat. The book is broken into five sections: “It's Crime Time” about crime movies like Shack Out on 101 (1955); “Domestic Disturbances” covering twisted stories about the ones we love like Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981); “Fright Club” is the horror chapter with movies like Haxan (1922); “Rebellion & Youth Movements” speaks for itself covering things like Five on the Black Hand Side (1972); and “Visual Delights and Other Strange Mind Melters” about trippy movies like Mac and Me (1988). If there was one book on this list I would call a must-own, it's this one.

Teen Movie Hell: A Crucible of Coming-of-Age Comedies from Animal House to Zapped! (McPadden, 2019)

Mike and his words were one of the reasons I got sober. So while Teen Movie Hell covers a lot of terrible movies, Mike's words jump right off the page and wrap around me like a giant hug. Mike was one of the most sincere and funniest voices in the film writing world, and the people he got involved in Teen Movie Hell speaks volumes to how loved he was. Contributing writers in the book include Kat Ellinger, Wendy McClure, Katie Rife, Kier-La Janisse, and Samm Deighan. The books opens with a great introduction from Mike, followed by an essay called “The Ellinger Code: Teen Sex Comedies in the Age of #MeToo and for All Eternity” by Kat that talks about how we can approach movies that haven't necessarily aged well yet still find enjoyment in them. As far as the guide portion goes, Mike goes alphabetically through the ages giving write-ups long and short to 364 films. From The Freshman (1925) to Duff (2015) we read through 90 years of films. There's modern classics like 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) and Easy A (2010) and movies only 20 people have logged on Letterboxd like Getting Wasted (1980) and Smart Alec (1986). Teen Movie Hell is another cave to mine of forgotten films and trash lying in waiting for Junesploitation.

Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video (Murray, 1994)
This is the only book on the list I haven't read cover-to-cover. The reason is that it's a literal encyclopedia of queer films and the people that made them. Out of every film guide I've ever read or flipped through, Images in the Dark is the only one that feels like a true reference book. And I write that with the highest praise. Because it was written in the early '90s, I'm sure Murray didn't have the type of access to films as we do now in 2023. Thus, there are a few films missing that could have been included. But this puppy is extensive and thoroughly researched with my favorite part of reference books that most film guides don't include: cross-referencing! The author breaks 573 pages into nine chapters (plus an index, bibliography, and a time capsule of a VHS order guide; you could order Addams Family Values for $94.95!). The chapters include Favorite Directors, Favorite Stars, The Arts (writers, artists, dancers, composers), Queer Interest, Lesbian Interest, Gay Male Interest, Transgender Interest, Camp, and Honorable/Dishonorable Mentions. Out of every film guide I own, this is the one with the most titles I've never heard of. It's a treasure trove of film discovery! Again, this is way out of print, but there are used copies floating around Amazon and eBay for pretty cheap.


  1. Thanks Anthony! im always interested in the books that movie lovers are digging. Got some great suggestions from a JB post a while back. Love your list..lots to dig into. Also glad to see Teen Movie Hell on the list...for those of a certain age it absolutely captures a comprehensive body of work from the video store era and a genre that is of its time.

    Peace .n. Movie Love


  2. I really miss TCM Underground. The channel is going through some tough times now.

    I had never heard of Danny Peary until podcasts that I listened to started to mention his name.

    Sitting in a bookcase is a signed copy of Teen Movie Hell. Mike McPadden came to the Mahoning Drive-In for a teen comedy weekend soon after the book came out. He seemed like an interesting guy.