Interview with Film Historian & 2018 Rondo Nominee LEE GAMBIN!

29 March 2018

Australian-based film historian Lee Gambin has to be the busiest and most passionate person working behind-the-screen at present. With creative output ranging from regular written contributions on film sites to producing home entertainment special features to curating annual film society programs (at which he often lectures might we add) to authoring a number of books seemingly simultaneously and that’s just touching the surface. As busy as Lee may be, he took some time out to have a chat with us about his work to date and some projects he currently has in the works.
You’ve written extensively on film analysis, with a key focus on horror films – including whole books on CUJO and THE HOWLING. What motivates you to delve into such an extensive analysis of genre films and certain films in particular?

To be perfectly honest, I think all of us film writers/historians/essayists/critics/journalists and so forth, do what we do because we simply love movies. I think it’s that simple. And if you’re a creative, then that dedication and devotion to film would influence your choices and lead you into doing something with film. For me, it was writing on film from two perspectives: critical analysis and production history. In saying that, I’ve always been a massive champion of a personal “voice” in film writing – that movies are there to be discussed, dissected, analysed, critiqued and so forth – but on top of that, it is vitally important to also champion the people who worked on films and to provide a platform for them to discuss their artistry. In regards to CUJO and THE HOWLING, these are two major favourite movies of mine, and I wanted to ensure that they were given in depth coverage from all aspects of film writing. I feel that extensive coverage and analysis is super important in monographs, so therefore I have completely given these two films the “definitive” treatment that I hope readers enjoy.
Are there particular works of film criticism that inspired you in your own career?

I read a lot of film criticism in my teen years. I was obsessed with it. I also started writing young as well, mostly for myself. I then started up zines, but there was no real room for “serious film criticism” in those. As far as major works that were influential, there were quite a few, as well as certain writers and academics that I loved and still do. People like Molly Haskell, Robin Wood, Vito Russo, Pauline Kael and a bunch of others were always great to read.

While your work is very diverse, a major focus is placed on ‘eco-horror’, particularly in your exhaustive overview of the sub-genre with MASSACRED BY MOTHER NATURE. What specifically appeals to you about this sub-genre of horror?

It was a sub-genre that I grew up loving as a kid, and to pin point the core reason is just too tricky. However, I am a massive animal lover and think animals are a lot better than us humans, so perhaps that’s an underlying reason as to why I love those movies so much – where animals wreak havoc on people, especially if the people deserve such carnage. I also love the interesting inner-fads and trends that went with the progression of eco-horror, for example, if you see the “birth” of it with something like Hitchcock’s  THE BIRDS, we have a very character-driven horror film that is about people, then when the sub-genre flourishes in the seventies, it becomes a social response to what was happening in the environment with films such as FROGS, DAY OF THE ANIMALS, THE PACK and so forth entertaining audiences (with their messages firmly in place) and then come the early eighties, it goes back to interpersonal melodrama mixed with animal-centric horror as seen in PROPHECY, CUJO and so forth. That is one factor, but there are many others. It was also extremely fun and so important for me to discuss tropes, character archetypes, storytelling devices and narrative principals that occur within the eco-horror sub-genre that I have now established in horror film criticism – which I am proud of. For example in regards to character types, I’ve discussed the “outsider who disturbs the natural order” (think Tippi Hedren from THE BIRDS), the “haunted rogue loner” usually stunted by booze (think William Shatner in KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS or Bradford Dillman in PIRANHA), the “sympathetic specialist” (Katherine Ross in THEY ONLY KILL THEIR MASTERS, Charlotte Rampling in ORCA) and so forth. So to have these things as a point of discussion is super important – much like how Donald Bogle wrote on the black archetypes in classic American cinema such as the “coon”, the “Uncle Tom”, the “mammy” et al in his brilliant book, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks.
Through your painstaking research and conversations with cast and crew members from specific films, do you have a favourite fact or anecdote that you uncovered through your writing process?

God, there have been many! I’ve been interviewing people for over twelve years now – one of my very first interviewees was the late great Herschell Gordon Lewis and that will always be a major player in my memory bank. But there have been so many, some include: Shirley Knight telling me how Martin Hewitt got “picked” to be in Franco Zeferelli’s ENDLESS LOVE, Lesley Anne Down telling me about the scary incident with John McTiernan, Sondra Locke’s candid insight into her relationship with Clint Eastwood, Teresa Ann Miller discussing methods of dog training in film, Norman Jewison giving me mammoth insight into his two very different musicals FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, John Carpenter being so down to earth and wonderfully warm and so many others. It’s an amazing thing to be able to talk to all these people and stay in touch. In many ways, a lot of them have been supportive and helpful post-interview, for example, Joyce Van Patten who I interviewed regarding both MAME and MONKEY SHINES got me Dennis Dugan for my book on THE HOWLING (a film he never discussed, but did for my tome). So this is all part and parcel of how wonderful it is to be a film historian.

Apart from your written work, you also run the Melbourne-based film society CINEMANIACS, who run seasonal programs of cult films. Besides your obvious personal enjoyment of these films, what is your motivation in bringing these oft-neglected films back into the public eye?

Film programming comes incredibly natural to me. I begin with a theme and then fill it with a varied assortment of movies for the season. I have a problem with the term “cult” however. I mean, what does that mean? I’ve screened films varying from ANNIE to DEATH WISH to Peter Bogdanovich’s MASK to BLOOD SUCKING FREAKS, and as far as I’m concerned they are all masterpieces that deserve love for all eternity. I want audiences to love all kinds of movies. That is ultimately what I try and do with Cinemaniacs. To ensure that people understand that all films – from westerns to noir to musicals to horror to animation and beyond, matters. And that they understand that not all of one genre is the same. I mean look at FAME (another film we have screened) compared to GODSPELL (another we’ve shown) – very, very different musicals. Look at DEATH WISH compared to 10 TO MIDNIGHT (which we have coming up), super different Bronson films!
Are there any obscure horror films, deserving of more attention, that you could recommend to our horror-hungry cultists?

Something that really frustrates me in this town (and it’s also worldwide, I think) is the fact that a lot of “self-proclaimed horror fans” seem to only like a certain kind of horror film. Also, I get really tired of people calling themselves cinephiles or movie fans but they only seem to watch the same ten or eleven movies. Now look, as much as I love the ELM STREET films and the FRIDAY THE 13TH movies (two incredibly comforting and much loved franchises that I adore), there is a lot more out there! Horror is the most varied of all genres. So, what I recommend is that fans of slasher movies, branch out and watch some psych-horror from the 60s, and fans of Giallo branch out and watch some “kept man syndrome” horror such as THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK, THE STRANGE VENGEANCE OF ROSALIE, THE BEGUILED etc. You know what I mean? Open your minds. Another thing is that it is super depressing that a lot of horror fans (who are most certainly the most savvy and intelligent of film fans, usually) seem to keep themselves locked into really being into horror and that is all. They need to understand that a lot of movies exist that are far, far more bleak and dark than their go-to favorites. I mean look at movies like DAY OF THE LOCUST, LOOKING FOR MR GOODBAR, THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?, STORM WARNING and so forth – thee are stunners that hardened horror fans should see. Also, if you love movies, stop only watching stuff in your comfort zone and please get into older films!! It actually angers me that “80s nerd culture” has somehow taken over film criticism, ummm, no, that kind of thing has its place, but it needs to simmer. It is so refreshing to meeting people who can keep up with me when I talk about 40s Westerns or the Doris Day films or 50s melodramas etc.

You’ve spent a long time writing and lecturing about horror movies: ever considered creating one yourself?

I’ve written scripts and if someone wants to fund something, sure. I used to run indie theatre and it knocked me out a bit. It’s just exhausting having to do everything yourself and at thirty eight years old, I don’t think I have that energy. I really love talking on film. I am doing a lot of audio commentaries now, and love it so much. I want to do more lectures – I love that Cinemaniacs allows for it, but I want to get out there and do more.

As a prolific figure in the Australian horror scene, do you feel like our nation has a unique perspective on the horror genre?

Aussie horror flourished in the seventies and eighties (of course, there was stuff before that) and therefore its very nature was to shock and excite during a period of cinematic excesses and visceral provocation, which is all very fun and engaging. Coming from a place of exploitation cinema, this is a flavour of Aussie artistry that I really cherish and love – however, you must also remember that there are super moody, “pond-like” horror films from the same period. I mean for every TURKEY SHOOT there is a LONG WEEKEND and for every BODY MELT there is THE PLUMBER. So within Oz genre works, there is also beautiful diversity, which should be celebrated. I feel that everyone who gets excited about RAZORBACK should also watch something like CELIA, and everyone who has fond memories of HOUSEBOAT HORROR should take in NEXT OF KIN. There is so much goodness.
Finally: can you give us an update on any of your upcoming projects?   

I am currently working on two new books. One on the making of CHRISTINE and one on Very Special Episodes from TV sitcoms. I’m also doing a lot of audio commentaries as I mentioned, and working on a film journal that is going under the Cinemaniacs umbrella – these are thematic journals, the first one being all about scarecrows in movies, ranging from representations in horror such as DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW to musicals like THE WIZ, lost movies such as PURITAN PASSION and more. Also I am an editor at Diabolique and doing a lot of work there. I pretty much don’t stop. Coming up are a couple of talks too – on WEST SIDE STORY and the Michael Biehn/Lauren Bacall pseudo-slasher THE FAN, where I plan on talking about things like THE DARK AT THE TOP OF THE STAIRS to confuse “horror nerds” haha. Thanks for the awesome interview! And remember – watch EVERYTHING!!!!

Lee’s NOPE, NOTHING WRONG HERE: THE MAKING OF CUJO has been nominated for ‘Book of the Year’ at the 2018 Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Film Award  and you can cast your vote right here!