Here at Daily Grindhouse Headquarters, we don’t only watch movies. Sure, we watch movies almost all the time. We watch movies until our eyes get sore — and when that happens, we go read some books.
In 2013 there were a bunch of great ones. Here are a few we think you’ll love:
CHAIN SAW CONFIDENTIAL
The story of one of the most important American movies of the 1970s and one of the most influential horror movies ever made, straight from the pen of the guy who hoisted all the bodies onto meathooks. We know that Gunnar Hansen, as the man behind the Leatherface mask, created one of the most iconic horror performances of all time. What we didn’t know is how beautifully he can write. Seriously, this compact tome is one of the most elegant, eloquent, indelible making-of memoirs I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. As grisly and raw as THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE feels, that’s how crystal-clear and impeccably-worded this retelling is. Hansen tells the story of the wild production of what began as a cheap and quick and extremely underestimated indie with admirable balance and the dryest humor. It’s a sly pleasure to read how much he enjoyed partaking in Leatherface’s ungentle treatment of Franklin, for example.
For my take on the film this book describes, click here.
THE FRIEDKIN CONNECTION
The impressive writing ability of one of the great film directors of that same era, the 1970s, is a little less surprising but equally welcome. William Friedkin will go down in history as the filmmaker who made THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST, and you will get the stories behind those seminal crime and horror films here, but he also made lesser-acknowledged classics such as SORCERER and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., the makings of which are recounted equally vividly here. With lucid detail and uncommon self-examination (without dipping into personal prurient details the likes of which isn’t our business anyway), Friedkin charts his beginnings in the documentary world and how he transitioned into features, and how through highest highs and relative lows he maintained a film directing career all the way up to last year’s excellent KILLER JOE. If you’re looking for gossip, go somewhere else. This book is for people who are serious about film-making and enjoy learning about the thought process that went into the influential and the overlooked alike.
PULP FICTION: THE COMPLETE STORY OF QUENTIN TARANTINO’S MASTERPIECE
Is PULP FICTION Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece? Last year I suggested there might recently have been a challenger to that title. Some would call JACKIE BROWN his most adult film and therefore his best, while judging from the words notoriously spoken by Aldo Raine, the writer-director himself might point to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS as the masterpiece in the bunch. Maybe his true masterpiece is yet to come, even. But let me not belabor the point: PULP FICTION is inarguably the one that landed Quentin Tarantino on the map, the one that — with respect to RESERVOIR DOGS — completely altered the flow of American filmmaking in the 1990s. PULP FICTION was a cinema-quake whose aftershocks continue to be felt in movies to this day. It’s an undeniable movie, and of all the books about its making that have appeared in the past two decades, Jason Bailey’s epic volume is undeniably its most thorough tribute. It’s all here, from Tarantino’s origins and influences straight through the casting and the shooting of the film all the way to its reception and lasting effects. Avid fans may already know plenty of the tidbits detailed here — but here’s everything all at once in one handy Tarantino-cyclopedia. This book is lovingly crafted and eye-catchingly designed, stuffed with all kinds of key art and painted tributes. If you like the movie you will love the book, and if you love the movie you will bow to this thing.
CRAB MONSTERS, TEENAGE CAVEMEN, AND CANDY STRIPE NURSES
Another gargantuan effort, this much-deserved celebration of filmmaker Roger Corman is both an oral history and a portable art gallery for anyone who loves movies. Interviews with actors and directors who worked with Corman are threaded with movie posters and stills both rare and widespread. James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern, Peter Fonda, Pam Grier, Jack Hill, John Landis, Richard Matheson, Dick Miller, Jack Nicholson, John Sayles, Martin Scorsese, William Shatner, and Sylvester Stallone are only a few of the bold-faced names who pay tribute with phenomenal anecdotes on the makings of all kinds of films, some beloved and some forgotten. The ultimate take-away from this massive act of love is that Roger Corman, both in the people he influenced and mentored and in the kind of B-movies he made, had a tremendous impact on film, almost to the point where he had an inalienable imprint upon the direction of mainstream American movies as we know them today.
AVA GARDNER: THE SECRET CONVERSATIONS
Ava Gardner, considered by many to be the most beautiful of all movie stars, personally selected Peter Evans to collude on her autobiography. She ultimately scuttled the project when she decided she’d revealed too much. After her death, Peter Evans re-visited the book, but it wasn’t published until 2013, after he himself passed away. So basically this is the equivalent of an undetonated land mine, left over from a long-ended war. Remember when I lauded the Friedkin book for laying off the dirty details? This book is for the people that want to see the dirty laundry. That’s not normally my thing, tell-alls, except for how prodigiously quotable this particular tell-all is. Ava Gardner emerges in these pages as profane, provocative, sexually frank, and frankly pretty amazing. There are sentences in this book that could make the Friar’s Club blush. It’s really out there.
I recently wrote at length about the unparalled Joe Lansdale: A genre writer who can write fire in any genre you can name and several he may have innovated on his own. THE THICKET finds Lansdale working in his recent period-piece mode: He generally writes stories taking place in his native Texas; this one opens at the turn of the previous century, when a farming family is ripped apart by an epidemic. A boy and his sister are orphaned which leads their grandfather to take them to stay with a relative, but on the way they’re waylaid by bandits, who murder Grandpa, steal off with the sister, and leave the boy for dead. Desperate for help, the boy recruits an unlikely pair of hired guns, the alcoholic and gigantic son of a slave and an uncommonly belligerent little person who is deadly with a pistol. Like the prolific Lansdale’s excellent previous novel, EDGE OF DARK WATER, THE THICKET could be favorably likened to Mark Twain or Charles Portis, but this one is significantly funnier, more eccentric, and action-packed. You will never, ever go wrong picking up a book with Joe Lansdale’s name on the cover so it’s often difficult to recommend one over another; still, this feels like a highlight, in a career full of them.
In 2013, Elmore Leonard left us, and I took that pretty hard. If there is any silver lining to that loss, it’s that his influence reverberates through the work of several younger writers. My vote for the best of them is Richard Lange, whose book of short stories DEAD BOYS and first novel THIS WICKED WORLD I can’t recommend any more highly. This new novel, ANGEL BABY, is about the beautiful wife of an abusive drug kingpin in Mexico who escapes across the border with the help of a fatalistic man who isn’t much for helping anyone. They’re pursued by a deadly assassin who is unstoppable due to the cruel hold the kingpin has over him. Now, that’s not a far cry from an Elmore Leonard plot, though I’d halt the [favorable] comparisons there and emphasize the uniqueness of Richard Lange’s writing, which has a flavor and a feeling of legitimacy and a sadness all its own. ANGEL BABY is everything you could want in a crime novel: protagonists who can frustrate and move you, villains who are scary as hell, action that feels alive and emotional resonance that lingers. I can’t wait for his next book.
In 2013, the documentary ROOM 237 dealt with the odd cultish conspiracy theories surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s filmed adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, THE SHINING. It’s ironic that Marisha Pessl’s terrific second novel arrived in the same year, since it’s invariably comparable. This is the story of a discredited journalist and his search for the missing troubled daughter of an extremely reclusive and possibly dangerous film director. It’s a dark and moody change of pace from her well-received first novel — I love when authors switch-hit like that — and conjures up a delirious atmosphere of suspense and paranoia, even horror. The supplemental material interspersed throughout, such as psychological profiles, magazine clippings and [fake] website screenshots, is a fun way to give a visual kick to this intricately-imagined backstory.
THE DEVIL IN SILVER
This novel was released in late 2012, but the paperback, with the incredible cover art you see above, hit the shelves in 2013. You’ve got to check out Victor LaValle’s stuff — in this book and his previous novel, BIG MACHINE, he mixes up profound notions of history and social awareness with influences as diverse as John Carpenter horror movies and superhero comics. His writing is witty, vivid and artful, his descriptive prose eerie and atmospheric, and his protagonists irresistibly original and occasionally anti-authoritarian. ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST is name-checked early on in this book, which is about inmates who encounter a demonic figure with the body of an elderly man and the head of a buffalo in the dark hallways of the New York mental institution where they are being held. Good luck resisting that premise!
Here’s another cheat — this book came out in 2012 and the paperback followed in 2013 — but I failed to write about it in 2012 and I would be letting you down if I didn’t recommend it up and down, sideways and backwards. Most writers dream of creating their own genre — Megan Abbott has actually done it. DARE ME is best described as cheerleader-noir, and if that doesn’t sound immediately awesome to you, then that’s my failure not the book’s and I should keep brainstorming genre names until I find one that justifies the awesomeness of this darkly humorous and unforgivingly engrossing novel. It’s about a high school cheer squad, its queen bee and her second-in-command (the book’s narrator), whose accepted hierarchy is upended by a new coach. A power struggle, death and manipulation and paranoia ensue — if you’re thinking of teen comedies from the set-up, even the good ones, please don’t — this is black as pitch, unrelenting and upsetting. If I had to choose a dream director for the inevitable movie adaptation, it’d be Jacques Tourneur but he isn’t available. Natalie Portman is apparently attached (presumably as the coach); let’s hope the movie does this unique and brilliant book justice.
Dan Fante is the son of Los Angeles underground novelist John Fante, best known for ASK THE DUST. Dan Fante has written at length about living with the legacy of a famous father and sharing many of the same demons. But while John Fante’s books were basically fictional, often following the exploits of an alter ego, Dan Fante’s books veer uncomfortably and boldly between fiction and memoir, blurring the line between the two. It’s hard to escape the notion that Dan Fante is basically writing about Dan Fante, even when he probably isn’t. Few writers anywhere are this ballsy, open, and honest, skimming the scummy floors of dive bars and bachelor apartments to ascend to an unparalled sort of grubby poetry. POINT DOOM is only a departure from Dan Fante’s usual method in that it ropes an unconventional mystery into the usual chaos of scrappy borderline-confessional he does so well. Turns out he can write terrifying villains as well as he can write well-meaning fuck-ups. This book goes to some damned dark places, but if you have a tough enough stomach you will see the victory in it.
THE STENCH OF HONOLULU
First of all, the title, okay? THE STENCH OF HONOLULU. That makes me laugh every time. How many writers can make you laugh from the title alone? That’s Jack Handey, and yes, he’s the Deep Thoughts guy from Saturday Night Live. This is his first novel. It’s as laugh-out-loud-and-read-lines-to-your-friends funny as you’d hope it to be. It’s about two unlucky adventurers who head to Hawaii in search of a valuable artifact. Have you been to Hawaii? It’s literally a paradise. The relentless dogging of Hawaii as a hell on earth by this story”s narrator is only the first of the very many impeccable jokes fit snugly inside this short, sweet book. Let’s hope there are more soon.
So there it is — a dozen great picks from the just-concluded year to get you going in 2014. Anybody out there have book suggestions to share with the group?
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