By Keri O’Shea
I feel like I should start this review of Stu Willis’ first book, The New Flesh, by doing two things.
Firstly, in case I get accused of cronyism, I’ll say this much: I know Stuart, as we both cut our teeth on the same website, Sex Gore Mutants – a site Stu still writes for, and one I still dip into on occasion (and if the editor is reading this, ahem, I’m really sorry I haven’t done those screeners you sent yet). Secondly, I’m not going to make a secret of this, but I feel I owe a lot to Stu’s writing. Stu’s reviews were amongst the first online reviews I ever really got my teeth into; sure, I’d seen horror magazines, I’d picked up copies of The Dark Side along with everyone else, but reading what print media had to say about horror in the mid-nineties just felt like it mattered very little, all told. It seemed highly bloody unlikely that I’d never get to see any of the films I was reading about. I could get my teenaged hands on some video cassettes here or there, but they weren’t so easy to come by – you were either limited to what the local video store had taken a chance on, or else you were taping your pocket money to a bit of card and sending it off to someone who’d hopefully copy you some shadowy fourth-generation horror, something which would possibly come back being something completely different to what you had asked for – and more than likely hugely different to what you expected.
Halcyon days via the glory of hindsight, maybe, but the rise and rise of the DVD market unquestionably reinvigorated fandom and gave birth to a whole host of new, enthused and knowledgeable fan writers, all of whom could comment on films old (and many new) in their own style, without falling foul of an irate career editor who would prefer the advertising revenue and ask you to tone your opinions down, or else rewrite bits themselves, if it came to it. Many career writers may bemoan the growing rabble of happy amateurs (by which I mean only ‘unpaid’, rather than the more pejorative implication) but, sift through their number, find the best, and there you find a kind of honesty you’d struggle to locate elsewhere. After reading around a lot of sites over the years, I started reading Stu Willis’ work probably around eight years ago: at the time it was a kind of mini-revelation to me, as his style balances the aforementioned enthusiasm with an agreeable and often sharp edge. In effect, Stu can tell you exactly why a film is superb and just as clearly, tell you why something is bloody dreadful. He knows when to be generous and he knows when to be scathing. It’s okay to call a spade a spade, but it’s not just a case of being disparaging for dramatic effect either. This is something many of us try to embody as amateur writers, and in my case, I picked up a lot of pointers from reading Stu’s work. So there. Onto the book itself…
The New Flesh starts with not one but two forewords: one by Dublin-based director Jason Figgis, discussing the growth of his love of horror from childhood reads through to early experiences of TV and film, and one by SGM site editor Alan Simpson (or ‘Al Sex Gore’ to his bank manager), who describes the changes wrought to horror by the rise of the DVD market, including the birth of his own long-standing site in ’99. Stuart then pitches in with a detailed introduction of his own to contextualise the state of horror at the turn of the 21st Century before we’re underway with a selection of reviews, organised alphabetically, with several entries per letter. I have to say, I think Stu’s missed a trick here: it would have meant some additional graft, but as the intro does such a good job of discussing various trends and forces influencing the genre at the turn of the new century, organising the book according to these trends would have lent more clout to Stu’s observations and assertions perhaps. Just a thought. Still, what we get is more straightforward, and the plus point to this is that it’s all very accessible. We get a cross-section of all genres and budgets, from the nineties through to as recently as the close of 2014, and from lesser-known offerings (Porn of the Dead?!) to relatively big-budget affairs (such as American Psycho and Saw) via indie movie game-changers, if we accept that this often means big fish in a small pond (i.e. American Mary).
The reviews here are not particularly lengthy: most are around the 300-400 word mark, making them considerably shorter than reviews offered up in books with a similar format, such as the DVD Delirium series published by FAB Press. This may be because ordinarily, SGM reviews comment at length on specific DVD releases and their specifications, and as such these reviews have been shorn of such references, making them read shorter. So, short and snappy rather than massively detailed, The New Flesh sticks to the old ‘no spoilers’ directive, only providing the barest details on the plot (less than a lot of DVD blurb gives away, actually) and concentrating far more on pithy, well-considered commentary on the success of the films. I found out a lot of things I didn’t know previously, which is always interesting, and it’s also fair to say Stu hasn’t selected a bunch of films because he really liked them all: he’s as happy to refer to a film’s “message-free rubbish” (Mordum, in case you were wondering) as he is to its merits.
So – considering all I said about the proliferation of decent critique online – why buy a hard copy in the form of a book like this? I think, broadly speaking, there seems to be the taste for physical product, however much we depend on the internet for…everything these days, and Stu Willis evidently agrees. Whilst this book hasn’t necessarily gone in for being a plush tome, and I’d personally like to see a little more care and attention given to the layout and especially the resolution of the images used, it does work well as a handy, reliable movie reviews book, refracted through one set of opinions – which makes it differ to something like IMDb, as dead useful as that site is, of course. The writing in The New Flesh is of a good standard throughout, and if you fancied a go-to guide for a solid range of outsider cinema, then this would serve you well. Intended as the first of an ongoing series, you can pick up a copy of The New Flesh here.