SHOCK’s Chris Alexander looks back at the essential reference book that changed his life.
I was 20 years old when I discovered Cathal Tohill and Pete Tombs’ essential examination of erotic European horror films and the fascinating men who made them, IMMORAL TALES, and it was indeed love at first sight.
By the time it wound up in my hands, Tim Lucas had already done a number on me in the pages of Gorezone and his Video Watchdog, educating me about the existence of both Jess Franco and Jean Rollin and the strange cinematic journeys that their professional lives took them on. I had an appreciation of that work and a curiosity about learning more about them, specifically I wanted to learn HOW to appreciate them better. I already knew I was attracted to their dreamy aesthetics, from the images and the few films I had seen, but I wanted to explore more about WHY I was so drawn to them. And I wanted to refine my language so I could communicate this interest to others.
IMMORAL TALES certainly did that and so much more.
The book was released in 1995 by St.Martin’s Griffin, an oversized trade paperback coffee table book with over 260 pages of remarkable information and insight into its subject; that lush, fertile, offensively beautiful and edgy wave of sex and horror movies, spanning the period between 1956-1984. The duo had done their research, true, but they show an infectious passion (Tombs would go on to co-found cult DVD imprint Mondo Macabro) for their lurid subject matter.
The book begins by feeling around at the dawn of the European horror film, looking at the dangerous movies of of Ricardo Freda (THE HORRIBLE DR. HICHCOCK) and Mario Bava (THE WHIP AND THE BODY) and the Spanish horror of Paul Naschy and Amando de Ossorio before moving on to specific, through chapters on Franco (“The Labyrinth of Sex”) and Rollin (“Back to the Beach”) and then moving on to filmmakers who, in 1995, were certainly less discussed in the “mainstream” cult movie circles due to many of their signature pictures being more difficult to locate. Indeed, now beloved directors Jose Larraz (VAMPYRES) and Walerian Borowczyk are profiled in loving, analytical depth, with the latter’s IMMORAL TALES providing the book’s title and his deranged porn horror-comedy THE BEAST revealed in money-shot spoiling photos.
That was the initial draw of the book for me and for many who picked it up, the fantastic and insanely erotic pictures. Tons of black and white rendered images of nudity, perversity and violence are present, as well as lurid film posters that, before the internet ruled, were damn near impossible for the average fan to see. There’s even an amazing center section filled with full color images that, for the 20 year old incarnation of this writer, were jaw and pants dropping.
But what IMMORAL TALES really did and still does and what it put into sharp focus for me was that it exemplified the difference between the ways North Americans both make and watch more fantastical entertainment and the ways Europeans do. For example, I was on a subway once, reading this terrific tome. A girl and her boyfriend, punked out and working overtime to physically announce how hardcore they were, crept up to me and started a conversation.
“We saw you reading that book,” she said.
“My boyfriend loves sick movies.”
“Yeah,” he piped in.
“That’s all I fucking watch. I love seeing guts and gore and tits and stuff.”
I smiled politely and tried to explain.
“Yeah, I love horror films too,” I replied.
“But the films in this book are not like that. The sex and the gore is more dream-like. These are movies made by real artists who were kind of trapped making these kinds of films so they ended up accidentally creating a new sub-genre of cinema…”
They started at me, pie-eyed.
“I’m trying to find a real snuff movie. Do you know where we can get one?”
Thankfully, I got off at the next stop. For me, elegant perversion is so much better than the McDonald’s abattoir cinema these goons were seeking.
And I have IMMORAL TALES to thank for that.
The book is out of print but see if you can snag a copy HERE.