Arrow Video’s Cult Cinema and a (Subjective) History of Home Video Companions

April 8, 2016 | By

ARROW_BOOK_COVER_sIf you must jump ahead and read my review of Cult Cinema: An Arrow Video Companion, the first collection of essays from Britain’s esteemed cult movie label in book form, leap forward, but if you’re curious for a highly subjective chronicle of the video guides that once permeated book shelves in the pre-Amazon era, read on, because Arrow’s publication is part of a genre – the home video reference book – which reached its peak in the 1990s before the IMDB gradually rendered physical books (to some extent) obsolete.

Now before you throw your old editions of movie guides at the screen, read on.

 

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Well-worn, isn’t it?

 

When the IMDB initially debuted in 1990, it was known for flawed data and missing C.V. and genre entries, but within a few years it became the de facto resource for film, rendering annual movie guides with capsule synopses and reviews almost obsolete. The major names continued to survive, but little by little the plethora of guidebooks that permeated the 80s and 90s started to fade from book shelves.

Admittedly not all of them were good – there were cheap cash-in books written by hacks lacking the years of movie devouring (some tied to brands like Blockbuster), and  substantive budgets to publish a resource that was allowed to expand rather than be culled to retain a hard page-count and stay within the publisher’s limits. Those guides I avoided, but in the following paragraphs I’ll pay brief tribute to the authors and series that formed my resources long before the IMDB existed.

LeonardMaltin_TVMovies19811982_sOne day I wandered into a local chain – maybe W.H. Smith’s, Coles (‘The Book People!’), or Classic Bookshops in Canada – and found Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies, the 1981-1982 Revised Edition, which became a Bible for having a film’s name, production date, and running time, of which the latter was especially vital in verifying whether a local station had cut out footage to make room for more ads.

The gold standard for broadcasting uncut classic movies (non-pay TV) was TVOntario’s Saturday Night at the Movies, as well as Buffalo’s PBS station WNED, as they were free from commercials.

Maltin’s book had ratings spanning **** to BOMB, but they were of secondary importance to the synopses and running times. I still remember the ‘spy spoof’ version of Ian Fleming’s Casino Royal (1967) being listed at 137 mins., and using that number to verify what station cared enough to show the bloated mess wholly uncut. It took months before I got a roughly 133 mins. version, after having videotaped broadcast edits running less than 100 mins., and in one case around 85 mins!

Maltin’s book, of which he edited the work of several contributors, also indicated if a film was in B&W or colour, and while he didn’t include short films or cartoons (the latter were catalogued in a great tome from 1987 called Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, which even included the long-forgotten Van Bueren cartoons released by RKO), it had TV movies – a feature-length form of dramatic programming that was the mainstay of networks for a good 20 years before cable TV offered programs with nudity and violence. The networks could still compete with their mini-series based on best-sellers, but little by little the format became obsolete.

LeonardMaltin_TVMovies1988_sMovies on TV was eventually rebranded Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies and Video Guide and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, as the inclusion home video formats were no longer the exclusive venue through which film fans could access movies.

The books also added icons for tape and disc, but often missing were listings for British productions; Maltin had a decent crop, sometimes indicating if the U.S. release was cut down or had reshot footage, but a lot of Brit material was missing.

HalliwellsFilmgoersCompanion_sEnter Leslie Halliwell, a crotchety old fart who published Halliwell’s Film Guide (dismissing many fine films because they weren’t perfect or British). His guidebook was an important resource – again, citing Brit running times that differed from American versions – but his real gift to film fans was Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion (1980), a hefty encyclopedia that not only listed actors and directors, but filmographies, adding more movies to track down in the weekly TV guides that came with the ad-larded, Saturday paper.

Maltin remains the brand name of veteran movie guides, but the pioneers in this niche industry were Steven H, Scheuer in the U.S., and to some extent Britain’s Roger Manvell, an author few on this side of the pond have ever read (which is a pity).

StevenScheurer_MoviesOnTVScheuer’s tome began in 1958 – nine years ahead of Maltin’s first edition – and his reviews were no less important than Maltin’s or Halliwell’s, especially in providing a second or third opinion which the other two had nixed with their own BOMB or equivalent ratings.

The good with Scheurer was the inclusion of sometimes different titles – his tome included TV mini-series – but the bad was Bantam’s decision to keep the page count tight: after they switched to a thinner paper stock, some entries were deleted – a BIG no-no – and that pretty much stopped my desire to update the Scheuer guide.

RogerManvell_PenguinFilmReviewManvell is noted as the first director of the British Film Academy, and editor of an excellent annual series called the Penguin Film Review, which began somewhere in the 1940s and lasted for a few years, publishing articles and overviews of film formats (3D), trends (something called television), and emerging directors (like a former editor named David Lean).

These delightful time capsules are worth hunting down, and while Manvell didn’t produce annual guidebooks, I cite him as a pioneer because of the themed introductions to genres (German Cinema), overviews of British film, and technical innovations in film and later TV.

Most were published in the 1950s, making these equally delightful time capsules. Derivations in the U.S. tended to appear in the seventies, many of which found their way to used book shops.

JohnStanley_CreatureFeatures_sAlso published in the nascent years of home video were Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia (a book too big & pricey for my pocketbook, hence its foolish omission from my library); John Stanley’s still fun Creature Features, a modest guidebook in size, but valuable for packing in lots of B-movies and odd cult films the mainstream guides completely ignored, yet sadly losing some content for a revised edition; and that inimitable glossy book that enjoy heavy consultation, the stills-packed Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film by the great Michael Weldon.

MichaelWeldon_PsychotronicEncyFilm_sNo author celebrated the weird, wacky, bizarre, depraved, insane, and grade double-Z junk like Weldon in book form, and his wit and knowledge made this the Maltin equivalent for cult movies, with mentions of cut editions, rare colour versions, etc. This book was Holy, and only a fool would think of pawning off such a Bible.

VideoMovieGuide1988_sCapitalizing on the massive wealth of movies already on video and coming out in monthly chunks was Mick Martin and Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide, which also included some titles made for tape and omitted by everyone else.

Their 5-star ratings system was overkill (why were 4 stars insufficient?), yet their capsules were accessible and useful for an alternative mainstream viewer. The capsules lacked the snootiness of more seasoned film critics, and I bought 2 or 3 editions before the book also splintered content into a kids-only edition, as I like my resources fat and exhaustive.

MoviesMadeForTV_sThe best guide for TV productions remains Movies Made for Television Alvin H. Marill (1981) because it featured full cast, crew, broadcast data, synopses, and most important, every damn pre-cable TV movie and mini-series up to roughly 1980.

The fat trade paperback introduced me to Da Capo Press’s reprints of superb resource books, biographies, and autobiographies that on occasion still reappear. Marill’s book was also packed with stills, making it more user friendly than the straight bibliographic volumes by Scarecrow Press – works no less valuable, but a bit too dry and high-priced for libraries and scholars than a teenager working student wages at the local library.

ComplTVShowsDirectory_sFor TV series, the best remains Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh’s The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows 1946-Present, which include shows from the first years of live TV which either no longer survive, or are locked up in a reference library.

Brooks & Marsh’s huge paperback is an A-Z index of shows that aired on ABC,CBS, NBC, and the old Dumont network. Key cast are cited, episode counts and season runs, as well as a reproduction of the original broadcast schedules going back to the forties. These guys were determined to put information into the hands of a layman and make him / her feel like a king / queen for having such a beautifully researched reference book.

DannyPeary_CultMovies_sThis of course brings me to select film critics who published their own collections of reviews. I never cared for Roger Ebert or Pauline Kael – too highbrow for my classic and emerging schlock cinema tastes while in my teens – but a personal favourite in Danny Peary, author of 3 Cult Movies guides and a separate review volume, Guide for the Film Fanatic.

Each covered movies odd and mainstream (reviews of then unavailable Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El Topo, and widely available Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie). Peary’s writing was in depth but never arrogant, and provided a reassessment of berated films that may not be perfect, but had odd little qualities that ensured some of the movies had genuine merit (and deserved being tracked down).

JohnBrosnan_FutureTense_sJohn Brosnan’s Future Tense offered an excellent chronology of sci-fi films, and George MacDonald Fraser (yes, Mr. Flashman, and screenwritrer of the best Three Musketeers film ever) penned a lively account of Hollywood’s distortions of history in the infectious The Hollywood History of the World.

Two other authors were responsible for shaping my tastes for bad movies, and their type of wit and smarminess matched exactly what a teen mind needed, validating tastes for crap, and providing rare reviews to utterly ignored, trashed, embarrassing schlock no film fan should wholly deny.

Harry and Michael Medved authored a great series of bad movie guidebooks which tested the mettle of connoisseurs who thought they were invincible to rubbish, to amateurish and painfully embarrassing or plain dull works that begged the question ‘Why did they make this?’

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Their important contributions to warning / luring film fans encompassed 4 key books: The Fifty Worst Films of All Time (1978); The Golden Turkey Awards (1980), which spawned a TV special (the 80s were big on jokey, clip-based hour-long specials); The Hollywood Hall of Shame: The Most Expensive Movie Flops in Movie History (1984), which is my Bible for overproduced films which, in all fairness were not as bad as the boys said (given my predilection for bloated historical epic); and Son of the Golden Turkey Awards (1986).

Harry moved on, and Michael kind of lost the love of many mainstream readers when he authored Hollywood vs. America: Popular Culture and the War on Traditional Values (1992), a polarizing work in which he attempted to explain the need to revise the MPAA ratings system in order to warn nuclear families of the immoral, sleazy, violent films that ran contrary to conservative tastes.

I vaguely recall an argument in favour of a ratings classification term like ‘evil,’ and I never went back to Medved, disillusioned by his peculiar swing from cheeky pundit to humorless preacher.

RazzieGuide_sWhile the Medveds’ books have been eclipsed by the Razzie Awards, an annual celebration of poor Hollywood studio product, created by John Wilson in 1981 (and briskly catalogued in The Official Razzie Movie Guide in 2005), their golden period (1978-1986) remains a milestone in the appreciation of bad movies, done with a dry and absurd sense of humour.

I still wish I had the time to find and review every piece of ordure within the fist Golden Turkey Awards, but as astute film fans know, a wealth of classic, mediocre, and crap are being ignored by major media distributors, leaving old tape copies as the only proof of life while multinationals deliver highly selective catalogues of curated titles, some rather robotically assembled for new film fans who think everything that’s now digital is all there really is.

Not so.

As these books demonstrate, NOT SO!

Maltin_Cinemania1996_sMaltin eventually partnered with Microsoft and produced the forerunner to the IMDB, a CD-ROM called Microsoft Cinemania (1992-1997), which contained reviews, data, bios, and video clips.

Besides Maltin’s own book, the disc included entries from Ebert’s own Video Companion, Katz’s Film Encyclopedia, Kael’s 5001 Nights at the Movies, Baseline’s The Motion Picture Guide and The Encyclopedia of Film (which I’d never heard of), and How to Read Film by James Monaco – quite a packed little CD.

Registered users could get updates, and the disc seemed to go through 2 or 3 editions before it became clear media-based information was moving to internet-archived resources. By the time Cinemania was defunct, the IMDB was emerging as the de facto resource for all things entertainment, with massive searchable databases with data added by / updated by more scrutinized contributors.

More importantly, the IMDB was bought by Amazon in 1998, becoming a savvy promotional link between what exists, and what you can buy just a click away.

Videohound2016_sMaltin’s guidebook survived roughly 45 years before it was put out to pasture in 2015, whereas Videohound’s Golden Movie Retriever, the most exhaustive book of movies released on any physical media (boasting multiple indexes for actors, directors, Oscar winners, and more), still seems to survive with its 2016 edition.

The IMDB offers is a robust database of everything film, TV, cartoon, short-form, smut, and sundry, with pre-, in-production and completed status updates. It expanded with a Pro edition where paid users could list their projects and be privy to industry contact info, but in 2016 it’s also jam-packed with adverts, teaser trailers, sponsored graphics and desktop overlays that compete for your attention – the chief sacrifice for being able to use such a resourceful monster without a subscription fee.

What online sites have also accomplished – without deliberate malice – is our reliance on information at the fingertips rather than the pile of factoids we used to retain in our brains. My knowledge is somewhat encyclopedic, but what’s easier – remembering dates and names and titles and associations, or typing in keywords + IMDB, and letting Google call up the info with additional links?

Sure, we used to reach for books, search and cross-reference with other books, and note down info, but the ability to flex the memory muscles has been hindered by ease… and when the internet is down, there’s a struggle to recall all those details that arguably came so naturally not that long ago.

One argument is that there’s simply too much info to retain, and unless you’re swimming in it daily, validating it and keeping it part of your memory circle, online has to be the primary resource; but like the illusion presented by Netflix and its brethren, there is additional info out there in book form.

TheBoxOralHiistOfTV_sYears ago I read a superb chronology of TV by Jeff Kisseloff called The Box: An Oral History of Television 1920-1961. The revelation wasn’t its near-perfect balance and cross-cutting between testimonies by actors, producers, directors, writers, and technicians of the so-called Idiot Box, but the bibliography, listing countless memoirs, autobios, and assorted publications that at one time were available and are now rare / unique time capsules of an era we now glean in digested / truncated form via IMDB and blog entries and reader postings.

Old editions of the annual books are little more than mementos, and keeping one definitive edition is impossible because none really exist, due to dropped entries in favour of new additions – even Maltin experimented with a selective personnel index in later editions – but they are time capsules, and while we tend to rely on second-hand descriptions of what a long unseen film’s probably about, many guides included assessments of films actually seen by its team of contributors, or from singular reviewers after being in the business for decades.

The best tend to be a blend of encyclopedic tomes that balance bibliographical dry data with a capsule summation of what the damn thing / person was, and subjective overviews of a director, a genre, or themed collection that are more that perfunctory ‘Boy, this one was a stinker!’ entries printed in big fonts on thick paper. You know substance when you see it, and appreciate good writing when it doesn’t echo the obvious and instead plants a seed of curiosity in related works.

Maltin’s TV Movies was a movie was a reference book, but I remember taking my then-new resource on a trip to Windsor and reading it page-to-page, first awed that someone actually included many of the eclectic movies I’d seen on TV, and secondly, fascinated by titles I’d never heard of. It’s identical to getting lost on the IMDB, clicking from one entry to another and mentally noting the threads that connect genres and personnel, but when I really want to get lost in an essay or profile that’s written to provoke, I tend to grab a book in physical or digital form.

It beats dry data hands down.

 

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My disintegrating Creature Features. Much loved.

 

Cheers,

 

 

Mark R. Hasan, Editor
KQEK.com

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