Doug's Reviews > Crimson Orgy

Crimson Orgy by Austin Williams
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's review
Aug 27, 2011

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Read in August, 2011

Let's start off with a couple of things. Well one thing. A really vastly important thing that I personally feel you need to know: this is not a horror novel.

See that blurb that says something about "maybe the first true 'snuff film' ever made" near the bit about opening "up a ultra-violent slice of American pop culture"? Ignore it. Mostly. Because this is not a horror novel. This is a novel about the making of a [fictional] horror movie, one that became infamous due to an on-site accident, the erratic actions of its director afterward, and dark rumors surrounding it. You, like me, maybe assumed these dark rumors were foreshadowing of a moment where a movie crew goes mad with gore and bloodlust and slaughters buxom starlets while a depraved director cackles and screams "CUT!" [pun intended]. You, like me, would have the wrong end of the stick. You find this out kind of early one when a prologue starts describing the scope of the horror-to-come and it seems at odds with phrases like "ultra-violent". Cover scrawls be damned, what you have is a book made up of equal parts of fandom towards the exploitation films of mid-60s South Florida, a study of misunderstandings*, and a sort of dark comedy about all that can go wrong when you are making a low-budget hack film.

At the novel's core is Sheldon Meyer, a director of nudie-cuties who, driven by the success of BLOOD FEAST, wants to make his own gore picture. He is backed up by Gene Hoffman, a gregarious and charismatic man larger than life who sees the potential to make money off the budding scene. This is the 1960s and horror drive-ins are about to be huge and all they have to do is get butts in the seats and do so by promising bigger and badder thrills than have been seen before. Meyer, though, sees this as something more. He is done with cheap smut. This movie will be his redemption. It will sum up a lot of his personal tragedy in a way designed to conquer it while thrilling people at the same time. Sure, Meyer is a hack (actual clips of dialogue help to confirm this fact) and Hoffman is just after box office returns, but at least they have a mutually obtainable goal.

Then things start to go wrong, and go wrong again. You have a drunk pretty boy for a leading man (Vance). The leading lady (Barbara) has a hot body but has been kept in the dark about the film as a whole and can barely act. The guy playing the villain considers himself a method actor (and yes, you can guess what this entails). One of the crew starts falling for Barbara. They are staying in a dump and only have one week to shoot the whole thing. A week involving a hurricane. The local deputy has some deep insecurities that begin to interfere. People brought on to obey the director regularly balk at his orders and force him to rewrite scenes or to become mildly violent and very petulant to get their attention. Hoffman can ease many wounds but as money runs out, film cans go missing, and sets are destroyed (due to natural causes and extended shoots) tensions rise.

All culminating in...well, let's not spoil that but I feel the need to point out something. CRIMSON ORGY is not a horror novel and many of the 1-star reviews bashing it for not being one are ludicrous insomuch as they are attacking the novel for something missing rather than looking at what is there. However, marketing surrounding this book definitely leads one to that assumption. What's worse, Williams himself drives up so many red [or is that crimson?] herrings about "HORRIBLE THINGS TO COME LIKE OHMYGOD THAT ACTOR IS RIPPING HEADS OFF OF BARBIES!" and hinting at dark pasts and violent tendencies. Much of what he is describing is a combination of building up an [ultimately largely false] tension as well as keeping the reader guessing while exploring much pop-psychology behind the genre** but by the end it leads to something of a extended teasing and stimulation with little proper payoff***. Any reader who fails to pick up on the red herring nature of some of these (and some are pretty obvious caricatures of popular caricatures of people involved with horror films) is bound to hit the end of the book with a deeply frustrated and maybe even angry mood. Which might be the point. We are talking about a book that is all about misunderstandings and dedicated to a genre that regularly promises "deep explorations of the blackest humor of man with buckets of red gore and horrible thrills" but gives us men in rubber suits mildly accosting a sea-side resort. In a somewhat ironic mode, I grew to appreciate some of the "so sly you might blink and miss them" jabs, but would not be surprised if someone reading it tossed it into a wall.

Now that I have said this, let me go ahead and assure you there is some gore and more violence and some weird and odd moments [and again, you should read this more for the many fandom shoutouts than any of those things]. Maybe in an alternate universe, Williams wrote a slightly more reigned in novella that took a few of its suggestions more head on and eschewed a few of the others, but in this universe we get this novel: a bit overlong and fairly misrepresented. I enjoyed it, but some of its tricks need to go. Or maybe, go even further. Primarily recommended to people who know horror movie history and like seeing behind the scenes style discussions and maybe to those who don't get horror and are wondering why someone would make a movie about busty women getting chopped up. I'm not saying either group will be fully satisfied, but they at least will find things to appreciate.

Before I return you to your regularly scheduled show, already in progress, four quick things that I think will make you like this novel more:

(1) Do not take Barbara's questioning of Shel's motivations as mere ramblings of someone who just doesn't get it. While some of the crew are obvious parodies of horror-haters, some of her observations (like getting pleasure out of pain and the way the crew kills off several pretty women but then skips over the killing of a man as unnecessary) are a lot more reasonable.

(2) Treat the time/place of this novel as important. While Williams mostly fails to make you feel the Time as well as he does the Place, the time is essential to keep in mind. This is *before* we became so nonchalant about gore pictures, back when people were truly disturbed by crap effects and poorer execution. It is wrong to assume that people did not get it back then, but what would have been ignored now would have at least had a bigger impact then.

(3) Watch a couple of Herschell Gordon Lewis's movies. See the blood and how the effects, while sufficient, were not quite so realistic that you could not see them as effects? That they required a bit of disbelief suspension to really get them? Picture those as people talk about having panic attacks about seeing the effects up close (without even the grainy film quality to lessen their clarity). I think some of that was meant for something like comic relief. I may be wrong.

(4) I think the most interesting irony in the whole thing occurs in the last couple of paragraphs. I am serious. There is a single line there that is treated as slightly throw-away but really brought my appreciation of the novel up.

* Also a somewhat brief study of the way past mistakes, hopes, desires, and preconceptions shape us at the present.
** For every person we have that complains about the way that sex gets censored while violence does not, you have five who complain about gore/horror movies and the perceived sick minds behind them.
*** Note: I bailed out of a masturbation/cock-tease reference there through sheer force of will.
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