Horror cinephiles and bibliophiles will have extra cause to rejoice this Halloween: The Cutting Room, a literary anthology, is an October treat. The theme of this compilation by editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow, is laid out in its subtitle: Dark Reflections of the Silver Screen. Legendary performers have roles in some of the tales. Many of the stories (and both poems) embrace the sometimes sinister and often magical relationship between viewer and film; “Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark!” The quote from Sunset Boulevard is apt when reviewing a book that addresses the allure of movies. And, in the case of our favorite genre, the attraction is deliciously dangerous and potentially deadly.
The first yarn featured in The Cutting Room is Edward Bryant’s “The Cutter.” A former film editor’s perception of perfection leads to drastic measures. He re-edits motion pictures distributed to his small town theater, cutting and re-arranging footage to conform to his sensibilities. Life is less pliable than filmstrips and infinitely more frustrating. The woman he fancies doesn’t reciprocate his feelings in the least.; and that is the unkindest cut of all. Bryant does a fine job navigating into the inevitable sanguinary climax. It’s the narrative’s haunting denouement, however, that provides the most shudders.
“Final Girl Theory” by A.C. Wise is exceedingly creepy. The 40-year-old film Kaleidoscope has a cult fan base that religiously hypothesizes about it. A sense of realism permeates its arty over-the-top sequences of sex and violence. Rumors swirl about actual mutilations, intercourse that isn’t simulated, and snuff film murder. The controversial innuendo includes: “Crew members died or went missing during the shoot (or there was no crew); a movie house burned to the ground during the first screening (the doors were locked from the inside); fans have been arrested trying to recreate the movie’s most famous scenes (the very best never get caught); and, of course, the most persistent rumor of all: everything in the movie—the sex, the drugs, the violence, and yes, even the flickering shadows—is one hundred percent real.”
A real film actor who died too soon is cleverly resurrected in “Dead Image” by David Morrell. Morrell’s fictional creation James Deacon (read James Dean) was an actor who attained mythic status for his blazing talent and death before his time. A bit player named Wes Crane gets noticed, through dailies, for his striking resemblance to Deacon, and “In person, Wes looked even more like Deacon. Lean, intense, hypnotic. Around twenty-one, the same age Deacon had been when he made his first movie. Sensitive, brooding, as if he suffered secret tortures. But tough-looking too, projecting the image of someone who’d been emotionally savaged once and wouldn’t allow it to happen again.” Crane’s birthday happens to fall on the anniversary of Deacon’s untimely demise. Combined with the dead-ringer factor, an eerie unease is established. In addition, two important subtexts are brought into focus: screen actors do achieve a kind of immortality and, the flip side of the coin, show business can be incredibly cruel.
Moving from “Dead Image” to iconic images, Lucy Snyder’s poem “Recreation” makes references to cinema legends Hitchcock, Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly, and Cary Grant. The ode is a sly and menacing analysis of lovers in a state of flux. Certainly, “The shower scene is tomorrow, you smile” is a line that packs a wallop in the context of the poem.
“Bright Lights, Big Zombie” by Douglas E. Winter is another love story gone rogue. As the result of a zombie plague in New York City, gory movies have been removed from circulation, and offices of horror magazine publications get closed down. This variation on prohibition only makes the commodities more sought after, and black market/ bootleg editions sell for a premium. The narrative’s protagonist, a horror film junkie, is suffering from extreme withdrawal. He is also lamenting the loss of his beloved to the carnage: “You try to remember the way she was before Black Wednesday, before the night she died, before the dead came back and the apartment walls went red with blood. And before everything was whitewashed back into this thing they call reality.” An opportunity presents itself for satiating both gore fix and girl fixation, but to reveal more would lead to spoilers.
“Tenderizer” by Stephen Graham Jones is the only entry in the volume which is not a reprint, but it holds its own among the previously published works. A massacre of 24 students at a high school renders dramatic potential for filmmakers. The marketing style of The Blair Witch Project is evoked as opportunistic cineastes seize upon the opportunity to establish themselves. To cover one’s point-of-view-derriere, there’s this possible rationale: “Art’s how we process tragedy, isn’t it? And art can’t be right or wrong, it can just be good or bad. To allow it any kind of truth-valance would be admitting its importance, which in turn would make it hard to justify relegating it to the fringes of society.”
The final tale in the anthology is outrageously humorous, and guaranteed to tickle the fancy of horror aficionados. “Illimitable Dominion” by Kim Newman is a riff on the AIP/Roger Corman movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s writings. Newman’s irreverent parody is a hoot. Vincent Price isn’t spared the barbs: “Piqued that Milland is daring to usurp his schtick, Vinnie hares all over the library, doing Master of the World, Confessions of an Opium Eater, Twice-Told Tales, Diary of a Madman, and Tower of London. In Vinnie’s mouth, Verne, de Quincey, Hawthorne, de Maupassant, and Shakespeare somehow turn into Poe. Brooding Youths. Velvet jackets. Buried-alive girls. Vinnie a-flutter. Crypt in the basement. House burns down. Swirly credits.”
Roughly one-third of the book’s offerings are covered in this review. They provide a mere taste of the delectable horrors that await the reader within The Cutting Room.
The Cutting Room is available today via Tachyon Publications