From Hercules to Superman: New titles from McFarland and University Presses

Aficionado of cult genre movies are being well provided for in terms of books at present with some lively and provocative titles appearing from a variety of sources. The publisher McFarland has long catered to the more adventurous genre film enthusiast with books that analyse and celebrate (in forensic fashion) a variety of areas – often of the less-than-respectable variety. Take two new books from the company, for instance: Italian Gothic Horror Films 1970 – 1979 by Roberto Curti and Italian Sword and Sandal Films 1908 – 1990 by Roy Kinnard. Both titles acknowledge the energetic and imaginative approach to their individual fields by a variety of talented directors, but of the two, Roberto Curti’s volume is more penetrating and analytical. The author, of course, has written extensively in the past on Italian horror movies and the glossy murder thrillers characterised as ‘Gialli’, and this latest book is a supplement to his earlier work in the field. Apart from his enthusiasm for Gothic horror films from Italy, the level of his scholarship is mightily impressive – making his latest book an essential purchase for admirers of Italian entries in the genre. Roy Kinnard’s Italian Sword and Sandal Films is extremely comprehensive as a reference book (sharing some of Curti’s thoroughness in tabulating info), but one could have done with a lot more critical commentary about the Hercules-inspired films which were inaugurated with the Steve Reeves films based on the Demigod hero (on which the stylish Italian director Mario Bava worked – the latter’s presence throughout both Curti’s and Kinnard’s books is notable).

The late English writer on film Robin Wood was noted for his groundbreaking books on Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, but later in his career he became a penetrating analyst of the horror movie, and Robin Wood on the Horror Film (Wayne State University Press) collects in one place virtually everything he wrote on the genre – and it’s a truly remarkable collection. Earlier top-flight critics such as Raymond Durgnat had brought the force of their intellects approvingly to bear on this once-despised genre, but Wood was more thorough in his approach, and was a particular admirer of the American horror films of the 1970s, seeing them through a variety of prisms. The family – as seen refracted through such films as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – was his subject. Wood was, of course, controversial in one aspect — his later work was channelled through a combination of Marxism and feminism, preoccupations he defends vigorously here. His radical views engendered mixed feelings in his admirers (among whom I count myself): principally, that this critical perspective became something of a straitjacket and narrowed his field of appreciation; repeated attacks on the evils of patriarchy elbowing out other insights. Nevertheless, this is an essential volume for any lover of the horror film. And not just the modern product: Wood is equally enthusiastic about the earlier work of such great directors as Jacques Tourneur.

Regarding archetypes of popular culture, few would argue that the most durable icon, capable of endless reinvention is the original (and greatest) superhero, The Man of Steel, and Daniel Perretti’s Superman in Myth and Folklore (University Press of Mississippi) is a fascinating examination of the cultural and societal ramifications of the character, as seen through the eyes of a variety of admirers. This is not really a book about Superman’s creators from originators Siegel and Schuster to such highly influential editors as Mort Weisinger – Perretti approaches his subject from a variety of other perspectives, making for a fascinating (if specialist) study.

 

 

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