“OFFBEAT: British Cinema’s Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems” (Book Review)
Cult publisher Headpress continues its mind-bending run of ephemeral pop culture books with this essential guide for any Anglophile thrill-seeker.
With an introduction by British documentary vet John Krish – whose own rule-breaking career often veered in and out of the genre (see our candid interview with John Krish HERE) – OFFBEAT establishes its tagline’s credibility right out of the gate; Krish himself is a bit of a national treasure whose films were recently ‘unearthed’ by the BFI’s Sam Dunn, a body of work that reveals decades of subversion from within the otherwise staid constructs of industrial, military and public information films.
Editor Julian Upton calls on contributors from the Headpress stable, including HP founders David Kerekes (author of Jorg Buttgereit bio SEX, MURDER, ART) and David Slater (co-author, with Kerekes, of KILLING FOR CULTURE), Martin Jones and Mark Goodall (whose own book GATHERING OF THE TRIBE will be reviewed in these virtual pages shortly) as well as heavy hitters like author/critic Kim Newman and even the aforementioned Sam Dunn who heads up the drool-inducing BFI Flipside video line focused specifically on British cult obscurities (past releases include things like PSYCHOMANIA and Andy Milligan’s NIGHTBIRDS). Together they form a formidable troupe of cult connoisseurs; you’re always in good hands with Headpress, and OFFBEAT is no exception.
The book frames its subject matter within the confines of the post-war boom (characterized by various subsidies and tax incentives that stimulated production) to the ‘bust’ of the 70s (when “London stopped swinging” and American co-productions dried up as the studios lurched into crisis mode) and manages in the midst of its carefully-curated reviews to impart some indispensable history on the state of film and television in the UK, as seen through the lower echelons of that period’s B-picture counterculture.
While some titles discussed here will certainly be familiar and likely grace the shelves of ardent film fans – Robert Hartford-Davis’ CORRUPTION (1968), TWISTED NERVE (1968), AND SOON THE DARKNESS (1970) – there are countless others that don’t get much ink in genre circles, some for their admittedly lacklustre execution, but many because their genre connections have never been fully exploited (UNMAN, WITTERING AND ZIGO, 1970/ Val Guest’s JIGSAW, 1962), and others because they’re just really damn obscure (Peter Maxwell’s DILEMMA, 1962 / HEROSTRATUS, 1967 – the latter starring THE DEVILS’ delectable exorcist Michael Gothard).
Like many Headpress books of late, there is a strange methodology to its structure, but it does make sense: segments of reviews are demarcated by thematic essays that look at larger trends, movements and film companies, and whose placement is dictated by a jumping off point from within the reviews. The hundred-odd reviews themselves are organized chronologically rather than thematically, starting with ANIMAL FARM (1954) and ending with LIFEFORCE (1985). The jury’s still out on LIFEFORCE, says OFFBEAT’s editor Upton, a debate that will certainly be stoked by the film’s recent Blu-ray release stateside…
Originally I was drawn to the book by its chapter on juvenile delinquency in cinema, covering everything from THE BELLES OF ST. TRINIAN’S to the Lolita-esque stylings of BABY LOVE (1968) and TWINKY (1970) – which paired none other than Charles Bronson and Susan George (?! Love one, hate the other, guess which) – to the mod-era JD antics of BRONCO BULLFROG and BLOODY KIDS. An additional 7-page spotlight on The Children’s Film Foundation (1951-1987) was great, although it couldn’t really outshine the somewhat mental cataloging efforts of the TV Cream website.
FANGO fans take note – the book is certainly not limited to horror, exploring everything from psychodramas (DEEP END) to swashbuckling sagas (CAPTAIN CLEGG) to excessive rock musicals (STARDUST), children’s films (THE GLITTERBALL), sex films (COME PLAY WITH ME), SF (THE UNEARTHLY STRANGER) and beyond. But as with all genres, how they fuel and feed each other is where things start to get messy and fun. And to that end, OFFBEAT is a delicious romp through the British exploitation backwaters.
OFFBEAT: BRITISH CINEMA’S CURIOSITIES, OBSCURITIES AND FORGOTTEN GEMS is available in a 440-page softcover edition from Headpress for £14.39 HERE.