Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon – The Collected Reviews (2017)

Like a good genre flick, Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon – The Collected Reviews plunges the reader in medias res. Its very size and heft tell us that it means business, and it gets down to that without self-justifying foreword or indeed fuss. Of course the Newman name comes as its own prologue – for as well as writing novels, comics, television and plays, he is one of the world’s foremost film critics, whose work on genre cinema can be conveniently found in Nightmare Movies: A critical history of the horror film, 1968-1988 (1988), Wild West Movies: Or How the West Was Found, Won, Lost, Lied About, Filmed and Forgotten (1990) and Millennium Movies: End of the World Cinema (1999). Newman has also contributed his monthly ‘Video Dungeon’ column to Empire Magazine since the turn of the millennium, as well as penning criticism for many other film publications.

This new book is a dizzyingly scaled expansion of the principles underlying the Video Dungeon column. Devoted to the marginalised, the psychotronic, the direct-to-video and the determinedly ‘B’, the reviews here are organised in useful divisions – not just established subgenres like ‘Found footage’ and ‘Hard case crime’, but also more eccentric groupings like ‘Weird hippie shit’, or extremely precise sub-subcategories like ‘Wildlife: fish and reptiles’, suggestive of additional instalments down the line that will explore further sub-subcategories and other cinematic fauna and flora. Indeed this is the first of a potentially inexhaustible number of volumes from the man who has borne witness to every shark mutation, every (bargain) basement torture porn, every Universal monster variant and every gonzo sequel to have been dreamt up by those filmmakers whose deviant ambitions are limited only by their imagination and their budget.

With its alphabetical ordering of over 500 reviews (ranging from the 1910s to the present day), Kim Newman’s Video Dungeon is the kind of tome into which readers might at first prefer to dip rather than dive, looking up their favourites in the index, or glancing at some of the more obscure, outré selections – but once you start reading, and no matter at which place in the book, you will quickly find yourself hooked, leaping free-associatively from one entry to another, or following the strange and intricate threads that bind these films, all charted by Newman with remarkably little repetition. The constant here is Newman’s distinctive voice, informed not only by his encyclopaedic knowledge of the scuzzy, the depraved and the utterly batshit, but also by his own refusal to dismiss these most dismissed of film types. For he always takes them seriously, and very much on their own terms, while any disapproval that he expresses is grounded in carefully contextualised aesthetic, political and moral considerations (for example, he is sensitive to misogyny or torture for its own sake) rather than in some generalised snooty abhorrence for the material. On the contrary, Newman loves genre, and speaks – defines, even – its language fluently. There is also the arbitrary pleasure (and historical resonance) of seeing Femina Ridens (1969) – ‘between colour supplement art and sadosexploitation’ – reviewed alongside ‘cheap but stylish’ Final Girl (2013), ‘not actively good’ The Snow Creature (1954) alongside ‘familiar CGI-monster-rampages-through-a-small-town nonsense’ Swamp Devil (2008), ‘sincere, surprisingly straight transition of Dracula to contemporary Istanbul’  Drakula Istanbul’da (1953) alongside ‘softcore snoozer’ Emmanuelle Vs Dracula (2003), and ‘weird mystery’ The Riddle (2007) next to The Riverside Murder (1935) – with its ‘disenchanted critic’ heroine.

Newman approaches all these films with an open mind and an eye for detail, and as he trawls through a host of titles that are easily overlooked, invites his readers to join him in a game of ‘just connect’. The result is an impressive reference book (and viewing wishlist) for lovers of the random, the rule-breaking  and the rambunctious. 

© Anton Bitel