Many rabid Eurocult film fans would have seen the name Robert Monell at least once when reading up on the subject, as he is a veteran film writer of four decades, and undoubtedly one of the most talented and prolific journalists specialising in the European horror, cult and arthouse genres. Throughout his career, his articles and essays been published internationally in books, newspapers, magazines and online. A few books Robert has contributed to are Francesco Cesari’s Il Caso de Jesus Franco, Tim Lucas’ All the Colors of the Dark and Jay Slater’s Eaten Alive: Italian Cannibal and Zombie Movies. Robert’s enthusiasm for cinema has led him to become involved with all aspects of filmmaking – he’s also directed and written short films and plays since 1971. Also respected as one of the world’s leading authorities on legendary Spanish director Jess Franco – his knowledge of the man and his movies has probably never been rivalled. He is the creator and webmaster of I’m in a Jess Franco State of Mind, which has been the number one English-language web resource on the cinema of Jess Franco for over ten years. Robert was kind enough to take a break from his busy writing schedule to have a chat...
Hard questions. I am interested in all kinds of films from experimental, to genre, to classic Hollywood, to Eurohorror, to Japanese science fiction, to German expressionist classics like Nosferatu to B cult films of the Corman factory and even the Warhol factory era. The stuff that interests me the least is contemporary mainstream fare. Every year to two there might be one interested film. Haven't seen that many in the 21st Century so far, but I found Jim Jarmusch's Limits of Control, Lynch's Inland Empire and Refn's Only God Forgives very interesting. But they are hardly mainstream. I have long been fascinated by the surrealist school of filmmaking, especially Luis Bunuel's films of the late 1920s. Un Chien Andalou which he made with Dali, was a huge influence on my very first film, made in 1971. His grim Los Olvidados, shot in the slums of Mexico City is one of the greatest film's I've ever seen. Also Jean Cocteau's Blood of a Port and Orpheus, an idol of Andy Milligan also, who wrote a play about him. They were early Independent surrealists, funded by wealthy people they lobbied for funds. I like Pasolini a lot, especially Teorema, which was the first Art film I ever saw, and his period films like The Arabian Nights and Salo. I like people like Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures) who founded gay cinema and performance art, but he didn't give a shit about promoting himself, an attitude I appreciate. I also like extreme genre stylists, like Sam Peckinpah's explosive westerns and crime dramas and the Japanese crime dramas and blood spattered historical action films of Teruo Ishii. He was a real outlaw who also worked within strict studio guidelines. I don't differentiate between Art films, experimental, Hollywood, Japanese or Euro genre films, they're all cinema to me. Some people who like Art films from Europe look down on genre films like 2000 Maniacs or a Doris Wishman film. I don't. Doris Wishman's outtake masterpiece A Night to Dismember, is one of my favorite films because she breaks every rule of polite filmmaking to get it done her way. It's kind of a Z noir gore film featuring a hardcore actress who has no sex scenes. And it's only a bit over 60 minutes. I love short films. When I interviewed Ray Dennis Steckler, another series Z idol, he told me that no film should go over 50 minutes. I tend to agree with that. Recently I've gotten into the situational school of experimental films from people like Guy Debord, who had no commercial ambitions whatsoever. I also like Italian horror, specifically The Horrible Dr. Hitchcock, which might be my all time favorite from that school.
You are well-known to be one of the world’s leading authorities on the works of the late, legendary Spanish director Jess Franco. What are your own personal favourite films of his, and which titles would you recommend to a ‘first time’ JF viewer as an introduction?
I used to hate Jess Franco based on some US television broadcasts of some of his films. The two I remember most vividly were Count Dracula and The Castle of Fu Manchu, they both just seemed incredibly shoddy and lazy in terms of direction. I swore I'd never watch one of his films again, I was a big fan of Hammer horror at the time, but that all changed. The Franco films I really like are not the ones he made with Harry Alan Towers and Christopher Lee but his very low budget crime films and horror y sexo like Eugenie de Sade with Soledad Miranda and Lorna the Exorcist with Pamela Stanford and some of his 1980s films which are not well known. Also his earlier Necronomicon (titled Succubus here in the US) and Female Vampire, a very poetic film with almost no dialogue. His best films are purely visual and filled with classic jazz music and his own very bizarre compositions. I would recommend The Diabolical Dr. Z to anyone wanting to get into the world of Jess Franco. A good place to start, a fun, stylist and unique medical horror film.
How and when did you discover and really get into horror/trash/cult cinema?
At the Drive-in movies I used to go to in the mid 1960s into the mid 1970s. Watching things like Blood Bath, The Conqueror Worm, Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb, Destroy all Monsters, then the famous double bill of Twitch of the Death Nerve and Slaughter Hotel, Mario Bava's Kill, Baby Kill! also impressed me at another Drive-in visit. I saw Andy Milligans' Torture Dungeon and Bloodthirsty Butchers as a double bill and wondered how anyone could make such poorly acted and photographed films. Films like Private Parts, The Devil’s Wedding Night and Death Race 2000 were all mid 1970s cult films I remember seeing and enjoying at those showings.
When did you first discover a like-minded ‘community’ of fans/collectors of these films whom you could correspond and collaborate with?
In the late 1980s when I started going to video stores after getting a VCR and renting all kinds of things. I heard about "zines" and started to look for them and read them. Then I stated publishing my own reviews in zines like Blood Times, European Trash Cinema, Spaghetti Cinema, Euro Bis, Westerns All Italiana, etc. I've also had articles published in the Italian publication Nocturno and in books such as Eaten Alive, published in the UK and Il Caso de Jess Franco, published in Italy, for which I wrote the foreward. I also contributed material to the Tim Lucas Mario Bava biography, All the Colors of the Dark. My longest publication was when I wrote an entire issue of European Trash Cinema, Special #2, on the film career of Italian genre specialist Riccardo Freda. Before all this, in the 1970s and 80s, I wrote a lot of short film scripts, some of which I made into films. I also wrote a number of plays in the 1980s, some of which got staged readings. I recently resumed writing film scripts.
What are your fondest memories of your time as a contributing writer for Craig Ledbetter’s European Trash Cinema, one of the most respected fanzines of the 1990s?
Well, I had my own column, which I named Trashman on the Prowl, in which I could cover whatever I wanted. I had a lot fun writing about obscure genre stuff which wasn't available on video or DVD back then, and some of which still isn't. Also doing the special Freda edition was an achievement since it took a lot of time and research. I also am proud of an interview I did with the late Spaghetti Western actor Charles Southwood (Roy Colt and Winchester Jack) who told me a lot of interesting stories about working with Mario Bava and many other European directors.
Who are your current favourite film writers?
I try not to read other contemporary writers. There aren't many film publications I read anymore. I used to like Film Comment back in the 1970s a lot and some foreign magazines like Giallo Pages and Continental Film Review. My all time favorite critical writer was Susan Sontag, who wrote about everything from Japanese science fiction to Bresson to the New York Underground. Her piece on Jack Smith and the New York Underground of the 1960s is essential. I don't relate to the present day mode of conventional film criticism. It all reads the same to me. They all use the same words, phrases and have the same look-at-me attitudes. I do admire writers Alain Petit and Francesco Cesari as writers on Jess Franco and Roberto Curti on Italian Cinema. And Nzoog Wahrlfhehen whose knowledge of Spanish cinema is outstanding.
What general advice would you offer to writers of cinema discussion and criticism wishing to establish themselves?
I would advise them not to get into film criticism if they think they are going to make a living at it and to write about what they are passionate about in a unique way and not read other contemporary film critics.
You’ve been involved with various forms of media for over four decades to date – writing for books, newspapers, magazines and online, filmmaking, directing plays. What are some of your thoughts on the vast technological changes you’ve observed and adapted to in your involvement in these fields during this time?
I started writing film articles for a local paper in 1971. I was reviewing mainstream US movies then. But mainstream cinema was much more interesting back then. I got paid pretty well. A few hundred dollars a week of articles, reviews and interviews. Then I got into magazine publications in the late 1980s, but that's changed a lot. Many have folded. The Internet has changed everything. I still make films, but with a cellphone! I still write scripts and have collaborated with the Russian filmmaker Alex Bakshaev on some projects. He's a real visionary. One of the world's best contemporary directors. A true original. It's more difficult to make films now. You have to make video, unless you're Quentin Tarantino. And there's a world of competition out there with the Internet. Hard to get attention. Even big budget films get lost in the shuffle today.
I know you’ve met a fair few individuals in the public eye – actors, directors, musicians. What are some of your most memorable ‘celebrity’ encounters, good or bad?
Meeting and having a few drinks with Nicholas Ray in 1972 was memorable. He was working on his experimental film in nearby Binghamtom N.Y. I met him at the Everson Museum and then had several meetings with him. He didn't seem to be in good health but he was very engaging and direct. He hated mainstream films as much as I did and I remember him praising Bunuel and some European directors. I also met Sam Fuller in 1981 and watched his German made crime film Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street with him sitting nearby. He was a great raconteur and he very encouraging to me when I told him I was a writer and independent filmmaker. He even gave me the address of his agent. He was very generous and had an anti-Hollywood attitude which I respected. He was a unique genre stylist. I also got a chance to have a number of long distance phone conversations with Jean Rollin when I conducted an interview with him in 1990. It was a bad time for him, he was ill and trying to find film work but he was very generous with his time and sent me a large package of behind the scene photography from his film career. He was a very gentle, humble and film obsessed person. A real cult movie fan.
What works or projects are you most proud of, and what are some of your current and future projects you’d like to mention?
Probably the European Trash Cinema issue on Riccardo Freda which I wrote and the web series which I wrote and was filmed in Voronez by Alex. It's actually on Blu-ray in Spain. Also some of the plays I wrote had some very good readings which provoked some memorable audience feedback. My main projects now are to complete a feature style film script and work on some fiction rather than journalism. I also got my name on the credits of a Jess Franco film, his final one. I never expected that and thank the producer, Ferran Herranz.