The title is reassuringly lurid and the cover comfortingly nasty, but, on opening this book, anxious readers may worry that Joe Bob has left the drive-in. Now that would be profoundly disturbing. Author, journalist, cable-TV stalwart, and former NR columnist, Briggs overcame fictitious origins and nonexistent competition to become America’s finest drive-in-movie critic. He saw Nail Gun Massacre and he watched All Cheerleaders Die. Who else could take on that sort of responsibility?
He is the Zagat of the Z-movie, the one indispensable guide for those who like slaughter, sex, and lethal household tools with their popcorn. He wallows in the movies that other critics flee. Ebert on Shrunken Heads? Silence. Kael on Fury of the Succubus? No comment. But Joe Bob was there for them both. He’s funny, well informed, and succinct (The Evil Dead is “Spam in a cabin”), and he tells his audience what it needs to know (Bloodsucking Freaks: “pretty good fried-eyeball scene . . . 76 breasts . . . excellent midget sadism and dubbed moaning”). If Joe Bob tells you to “check it out,” that’s what you do.
And when, as a result, you are watching man-eating giant rats starting their gory feast (Gnaw), you will still be laughing at the memory of what Joe Bob had to say. Yes, he both subverts and celebrates these films, but who cares? It’s better to lighten up, grab a beer, and just see Joe Bob as someone who delights in rummaging through cinema’s trash heap and telling us what he’s found.
He does this brilliantly, in a style — Hazzard County, with a touch of Cahiers du Cinema — that is all his own; but, after all these years, is the drive-in still enough for Mr. Briggs? Joe Bob’s Jekyll, the erudite and rather more suave “John Bloom,” has been developing a journalistic career of his own, while Joe Bob himself has been spotted on stage and screen, and in the pages of Maximum Golf magazine; can the country club be far behind?
In spite of this, it’s still startling to find that Briggs chose The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as the first movie to discuss in his new book. The fact that it’s foreign isn’t the problem. Joe Bob has written about plenty of foreign films; they usually feature kickboxing, kung fu, gratuitous violence, more kickboxing, incomprehensible dialogue, over-choreographed fight scenes, and the exploitation of attractive young actresses who manage to lose their clothes and their lives in the course of the movie. They are, in short, identical in almost every respect to the domestic offerings he reviews.
Caligari is different. Yes, it’s a horror movie, but it’s a coffee-on-the-Left-Bank, furrowed-brow unfiltered cigarette of a horror movie and, like a number of the other films described in this book, it’s far from typical territory for the sage of the slasher pic. It’s a German expressionist masterpiece from 1919, an allegory of totalitarianism often thought to have anticipated the Nazi terror to come. There are no nunchucks in Caligari. Still, there’s more than an echo of the drive-in in the irreverent glee with which Joe Bob penetrates the Teutonic gloom. All too often, Caligari is shown with a melodramatic “silent movie” musical backdrop, rather than the modernist score envisaged by its makers. Perhaps worse still, it has also been relentlessly over-analyzed by film highbrows. To Joe Bob, this is like “trying to watch Schindler’s List with ‘Turkey in the Straw’ playing in the background and a professor pointing out every shaft of light as a pivotal moment in German Expressionism.”
Caligari is, Briggs argues, a film that “changed history,” but in this book that can mean less than you might think. The movies in Profoundly Disturbing may all “have been banned, censored, condemned, or despised” at one time or another, but some of them wouldn’t change the course of an afternoon, let alone history.
Perhaps this is why Joe Bob is careful to stress that, in a number of cases, the only history that has been changed is cinema history. How the films he discusses relate to the broader cultural picture is complex: Did a movie influence the culture, merely reflect it, or a bit of both? As he tries to find an answer to this question, quality can be irrelevant. Deep Throat is a terrible film even on its own terms, but somehow it managed to help shape the Ice Storm era and thus had much greater cultural impact than the far more artistically significant Caligari. Caligari may have warned Germans about the dangers of totalitarianism, but little more than ten years later Hitler was in power.
If Profoundly Disturbing doesn’t always convince us that the movies it describes “changed history,” it is, nonetheless, a hugely entertaining account of the frequently bizarre way they came to be made. Some of these films were made by people operating at the creative edge (the art director of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was, we learn, able “to indulge his lifelong fascination with animal bones”)while others were manufactured by those who had hit artistic rock-bottom (Linda Lovelace for President) and didn’t care. This is a cinema of desperate improvisation (the night before the “classic tongue-ripping scene” in Blood Feast, the victim still hadn’t been cast) and even more desperate finances.
And then there’s Mom and Dad (1947), a “sex education” movie that circulated for over 20 years through small-town America. This cautionary tale of the dangers of premarital naughtiness included footage of a live birth and hideous syphilitic sores. It grossed an estimated $100 million. Showings came complete with two women in nurse’s outfits and a 20-minute lecture by “Elliot Forbes,” an “eminent sexual hygiene commentator.” At one point there were no fewer than 26 Elliot Forbeses, “most of them retired or underemployed vaudeville comedians.”
If this all sounds like a carny stunt, it’s because it was. Profoundly Disturbing includes a good number of more “serious” films (and Briggs writes about them very well), but the movies that make up its sleazy, captivating core are the successors of the freak show, the circus, and old-time burlesque. As told with gusto by an author obviously far from ready to quit the drive-in (whew!), theirs is a story of that wild, ludicrously optimistic entrepreneurial spirit that is, somehow, very typically American. Combine those hucksters, visionaries, and madmen with the dreams of a restless, somewhat deracinated population spreading across a continent and we begin to understand how this country’s popular culture became the liveliest in the world — if not always the most elevated. Mencken was right: No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
Why so much of that taste revolves around mayhem and gore (that sex has box-office appeal is no surprise) is a mystery beyond the scope of Profoundly Disturbing. Suffice to say that it does, and the result is a book that blends fascinating pop-culture history, first-rate film criticism, and learned commentary on the stunt-vomit in The Exorcist.
Check it out.
— Mr. Stuttaford is a writer living in New York.