The Hang Fire Books Blog

The rantings of a bookdealer in Brooklyn, New York.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Book Review: Crimson Orgy

Crimson Orgy by Austin Williams (Borderlands Press, January 2008) is a gruesome and enjoyable whodunnit set in the early days of gore film-making.

In 1963, producer David F. Friedman and director Herschell Gordon Lewis, pioneers of the “nudie-cutie” and the “roughie”, discovered a new kind of exploitation. "Blood Feast"--a film about a cannibal gourmet catering an engagement party--was amateurishly acted and surreally flat, but it was punctuated by juicy and lingering frolics in guts. Convincingly (and cheaply) portrayed with butcher scraps and stage blood, the effects provided just the right amount of distraction for drive-in, make-out crowds and created huge word of mouth advertising. Thus the gore phenomenon was born.

Williams sets his fictional producer/director duo, Gene Hoffman and Sheldon Meyer, as direct competitors to Friedman/Lewis. They fight for the same screens, scan the same bars and beaches for potential starlets, and create their art in the same Kaopectate and cranberry juice-soaked motel rooms (that have since been bull-dozed under by Disney World).

The book does a great job of evoking this period and the constant patter between Hoffman and Meyer is a sharp and funny commentary on the battle (probably a nude cat fight) between Mammon and the Muse.

“Sure I can give you eighteen tits in seventy minutes,” he would say when pitching a plot to Gene. “But why can’t I put all that tit in a story that actually says something?”

“Say whatever you want, Shelly. Just make sure you do it on 9,000 feet of raw stock, because that’s all you got.”

I’ve listened to Drew Friedman on numerous Something Weird Video commentary tracks and Williams has pretty much nailed his style here.

More complicated though are the director’s motivations. Sheldon Meyer’s new project is his most ambitious and personal yet. He’s planned elaborate gore set pieces to out-splatter Blood Feast; he has a method-actor playing his killer who skulks around the set and serially decapitates Barbie dolls, and his script is intended as a giant “fuck you” to the bigoted, small-town world that proves a constant obstacle to him, and destroyed the lives of his Jewish parents.

With all this riding on a throwaway piece of pop-culture, something was bound to crack. And--like the rivalry between the Beatles and the Beach Boys that left Brian Wilson playing in the sandbox for three decades and a legendary fragmented record—Meyer’s “Crimson Orgy”; becomes an unfinished cult work, existing only in controversial edits and spoken of in reverent whispers by horror film devotees. This film within the book is a convincing artifact that you feel should exist somewhere.

Williams is adept at capturing on-the-set tensions of low budget film-making. Exhaustion, frustration and disappointment infect the crew and turn a series of bad breaks into a cursed production.

The book operates on many of the same rules as the classic gore film. The set-up, with a band of fast-talking operators scamming the yocals, was one frequently used in splatter films. It also shares the same gruesome and tragic inevitability. The hatchet seen in the first reel will be in someone's head by the last.

Highly recommended. An exploitation history lesson, and a unique setting for a mystery/thriller.

NOTE: I just want to say that this is why I have a blog. I had no idea this book existed but through my daily blatherings about pulp fiction, zombies, and vintage pornography, it found me.

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