Book Review: SHEER FILTH

PrintE-mail Written by Jon Towlson

Review: Sheer Filth / Author: David Flint / Publisher: Fab Press/ Release Date: April 9th

Every now and then a book comes along that provides a perfect snapshot of an era. Published between 1987 and 1989, the fanzine Sheer Filth offered a potent mix of bizarre and transgressive film and book reviews, strange and outré music coverage, extreme art, passionate (often rabid) feature articles and fascinating interviews with icons of cult film and entertainment.

Under the guiding hand of editor David Flint, Sheer Filth managed 9 issues before being put to bed in 1990; the editor went on to (in his words) “bigger, glossier projects” (which include the seminal Fab Press book Ten Years of Terror written with Harvey Fenton). But in those 9 issues Sheer Filth was the breeding ground for a number of prominent writers, who, like Flint, went on to bigger things; these writers included David Kerekes, John Hill and David Slater, amongst others; and the fanzine itself led to Headpress, Divinity and Sexadelic, also edited by Flint.

Fenton and Flint have collected together those 9 issues of Sheer Filth into one sleaze-tastic volume; it’s a glorious read, bringing with it an authentic whiff of late-1980s anti-censorship sexual politics.

Flint introduces the volume with a fascinating account of the rise of the fanzine in the wake of the Video Nasty furore and the tightening of censorship under Thatcher. Mags like Sheer Filth, Whiplash Smile, Bleeder’s Digest and Rats in the Cellar in the UK provided sleaze fans with a glimpse of the forbidden and the obscure, stuff that the mainstream publications would never touch (Sheer Filth brought the world the first coverage of Jorg Buttgereit’s Nekromantik and of the now cult classic Deathbed). As Flint says in his introduction, “The fanzines were part of what felt like a movement… of transgressive culture”. Mags like Sheer Filth were a backlash against the moral conservatism of the 1980s: an attempt to blast open doors to a more open culture by celebrating taboo subject matter – revelling in a world of “Sixties garage punk, fetish clubs, horror film festivals, illicit porn, industrial music, underground cinema, true crime, performance art, occult dabbling, extreme literature and general weirdness.”

Sheer Filth furnishes a good dose of all of these things in its 240 pages: Cathal Tohill provides a comprehensive career retrospective of the Sultan of Sleaze, film producer David F. Friedman, complemented by an in-depth interview of the same by Flint; Dave Slater reviews the extreme circus of Archaos; David Kerekes visits an exhibition of transgressive films depicting the body in extremis at Manchester’s Cornerhouse; Ian Kerkhoff provides a scholarly account of Italian porn star/ first lady of the Italian Parliament, La Cicciolina, in action; Tohill catalogues the 1940s-60s cheesecake bondage movies of Irving Klaw; and there is much, much more besides.

In its celebration of graphic sleaze Sheer Filth has a certain nostalgic value in these access-all-areas internet times; but back in in the 1980s, Flint would have faced falling foul of the Obscene Publications Act with articles like ‘Some Reflections on the Disappearance of the Cumshot’. And lest we forget just how pernicious the moral reformers of the time really were, Flint reminds us of a House of Commons motion tabled in the early 1990s to widen the obscenity laws so as to prohibit the publication of De Sade’s Juliette – this was a novel written in 1797!

But Sheer Filth is an important book not just because it provides a record of the battles against censorship by the ‘unpopular’ culture of the 1980s-90s; it also preserves some rare and fascinating interviews that would otherwise be destined to sink without a trace. Within its pages, Flint talks to cult figures like Hershell G. Lewis (giving a rare interview on his nudie films); Buttgereit; Samuel Z. Arkoff, Brit horror maestro Norman J. Warren; old time ‘nudie cutie’ Pamela Green; and post porn modernist, Annie Sprinkle. And what mainstream magazine would feature French auteur Robert Bresson alongside Pee Wee Herman in its pages?

Flint and Fenton are to be congratulated for this wonderful compilation of Sheer Filth. More than just a catalogue of depravity: it’s an important cultural document. Let us hope similar fanzine collections (Headcheese and Chainsaws, anyone?) are forthcoming.

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