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AUTHOR: Edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson
PUBLISHER: Da Capo Press
Anthologies are a tricky sort, no matter what medium you’re working in. Be it television, film, or book form you’re always guaranteed to have a clunker or two (or ten) throughout the project that only serves to dilute the quality of those entries that exceed expectations. The good chapters or episodes or short films always seem to end too soon whereas the lesser efforts never seem to end soon enough. And while I appreciate the effort put forth into a collection such as The B List, it can’t help but fall prey to the inherent dangers of being an anthology of reviews from a wildly different group of film critics.
It might be that a place like CHUD is such a safe-haven for B movies that a list like this feels so resolutely mainstream that it offends my sensibilities. I’d like for a book with a title like The B List to have some interesting and more importantly skuzzy picks to pique my interest. While a competent definition of what a B picture exactly entails is included in the introduction, a lot of the selections are safe and/or ridiculous; Kevin Thomas’ Rocky Horror Picture Show review feels completely perfunctory, like it’s in here moreso because they feel it has to be instead of because someone had something interesting to say about it, while reviews of Platoon and The Conversation seem to spend more time trying to defend themselves as deserving of inclusion in a book such as this rather than being truly interesting film criticism. But a lot of the selection do garner interest, in particular the film noir opening chapter is a great collection of picks with some truly insightful and enthusiastic film criticism and while I don’t necessarily agree with the inclusion of The Rage: Carrie 2 and The Core in this collection, at least the critics (Stuart Klawans and Charles Taylor respectively) are making some distinctive choices and defending them with panache. It make the insufferable entries like Stephanie Zacharek’s boring surface-level examination of Grindhouse (surely there’s something more interesting happening in these exploitation homages than just the basic plot mechanics) and the aforementioned Rocky Horror selection pale in comparison.
And as to be expected, there is rock solid film criticism contained within here; for example Roger Ebert’s Pink Flamingos review seems to really get the transgressive nature of the film without being able to fully get on board with it and that conflict is a genuinely interesting one that plays out in his review. And despite the preponderance of safe picks from films that are safely ensconced within the canon (particularly infuriating because if you’re not going to insert some dicey choices in a book like this, then when on Earth are you ever going to do so?), I appreciated having my eyes opened to handful of films I wasn’t previously aware of or wasn’t inclined to seek out, such as The Big Bus (Kevin Thomas atoning for the RHPS review), Forty Guns (fantastically reviewed by Peter Travers (!)) or Targets (David Steritt, killin’ it). Most of the reviews are too short to accomplish anything more than to get your film gland salivating ever so slightly before they’re finished*, and a majority of these pieces could probably be scrounged up online with only a little effort put into it, so while I can’t wholeheartedly say this is a book for film lovers to own (a true collection of the classic and the gnarly, Danny Peary’s Cult Movies series would be a much safer bet in terms of capturing the B aesthetic) there is a wide enough swath cut through film history that makes this book at least an interesting one to check out if you get the chance. It will at least tide you over until that glorious day when a CHUD-sanctioned list of B movies or the like were to be released.
*It would’ve been nice to have a more comprehensive set of writing on these films, perhaps asking some of the critics to expand more greatly on what was clearly a newspaper or magazine-mandated word limit that prevented them from going into each film in depth.