Interview: Dave Sindelar of Fantastic Film Musings and Ramblings

There are numerous film review sites on the Internet specializing in science fiction and fantasy cinema, but few are as ambitious or as comprehensive as that of Dave Sindelar. For more than a decade now, he has been watching one movie a day in the science fiction, horror or fantasy genre, accumulating more than four thousand reviews in the process, from the very first years of the cinema (date of release of the oldest film: 1895) to the early 1980s, from all around the world. The sheer breadth of films covered and the comprehensiveness in the coverage of the full range of fantastic cinema make his site, Fantastic Films Musings and Ramblings, a must for any film buff or science fiction fan. Dave kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his project for The Freehold.

1. Thanks for granting us this interview Dave! You explain to us how this project got started on the Musings and Ramblings website but explain to us a little about your own interest in film and how it led to the Movie of the Day project.

Two things led to my interest in film – monsters and lists. As a kid, I was always fascinated by monsters and I loved looking at pictures of them. This is what led me to start watching my local creature feature (called CREATURE FEATURE) which had the advantage of airing late enough of Saturday nights that no one else wanted the TV at those times. I’d have to say that as a kid, the only movies that really caught my attention were monster movies and comedies.

Yet, as I grew, my tastes started to widen somewhat. Here’s where my fascination of lists came into play. I loved books that consisted of long lists of movies, and ended up amassing several of them as I grew. One of my favorite things to do was make sub-lists of those lists, and try to see the movies; I remember attempts at trying to see all of the four-star movies in the Maltin guide, as well as to watch every movie in Danny Peary’s GUIDE FOR THE FILM FANATIC. As might be expected, these early attempts eventually ran out of steam.

It was twelve years ago that I began toying with the idea of the project in question. The big factor that had come into play was the Internet. Up to that time, there were big limitations as to undertaking the project, as I had a much more limited income and was at the mercy of what they were willing to show on TV or stock at my local video store. It was only after spending some time on the internet that it occurred to me that a whole new world had opened up, and that a project of this magnitude didn’t seem quite as impossible.

Still, this project might have fallen through if it hadn’t been for one other thing; about five months into it, I began posting my Movie of the Day listings on the board at Sinister Cinema. All of the sudden, it was no longer a private project, but a public one, and it was my awareness of that difference that made me commit to it on a level that I hadn’t done previously.

2. When you began the Movie of the Day project, DVD was in the process of overtaking VHS as the main means of watching movies at home, and there has since been another major revolution in the rise of streaming movies on the Internet. Tell us some more about how these have affected your project.

The impact of DVD over VHS was pretty important in a couple of major points. The first is storage. When I began the project, I already had a massive VHS collection, partially from purchase and partially from having recorded movies off of TV. Trying to maintain and update this collection was proving to be more and more difficult, mainly because of the bulk and the difficulty of storage. With DVD, I was able to reduce the bulk of the collection tremendously.

Another impact of DVD was the rise of bulk purchasing. Just for example, I have quite a few DVD megapacks from Mill Creek. These sets contain 50 movies that can fit in a space just a little bit larger than a single VHS cassette, and cost low enough that you’re only paying about fifty cents a movie. Since my project involves trying to watch as much as possible from certain genres, they prove a quick way to amass a good collection with minimum outlay and fitting into a smaller area.

The rise of streaming video is just beginning to make a real impact on the project; I can watch movies for a fraction of the price without concerns of personal storage at all. I still haven’t fully incorporated streaming into my project, but I’m very sure that as my project moves forward into the future, I’m going to end up watching more and more movies this way than any other. I also think it’s making a greater volume of movies available to the average viewer, and this makes it more likely that I’ll be able to find some otherwise inaccessible films.

3. How do you approach each movie as you review them, and what is your writing process like?

First of all, I called the site “Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings” for a reason; though much of what I write could be classified as reviews, I don’t see them being tied exclusively to that approach. If I see my write-ups as serving a purpose, it is as a snapshot of the viewing experience I had, and as opportunities to bounce my wit (such as it is) off of that experience.

What I basically try to do is give a certain minimum of information about the movie, and I try to give only the bare bones of a plot description. I don’t know about anyone else, but when I’m reading a write-up of a movie, the plot description is the part I’m most likely to skip. If I haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to know. And if I have, I don’t need to know.

Then I do quick scan of my mind to see what feelings I have about the viewing, and I try to encapsulate that, with certain thoughts as to the reasons I feel the way I do (which, to be fair, may not be the fault of the movie itself). I don’t back away from the quirks of the experience; sometimes my reaction has a lot to do with factors that wouldn’t come into play if I watched it another time, and I’d rather acknowledge those factors if I can.

I try to be compact. Since I’m not keen on writing a novella about every movie I see (I don’t have the time or the inclination), I try to get to the heart of the matter quickly. If the movie is bad and I’m feeling playful, I may resort to one of my “ten thoughts on…” write-ups. If I feel like probing deeper, I will; for example, my viewing of THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT inspired a fairly lengthy (for me) analysis of the movie; it’s what the movie left me feeling I wanted to do.

One point I always try to cover is what it’s genre qualifications are. Sometimes, it’s obvious, and in that case, I may skip it. If not, I try to cover it, if for no other reason than to find out why someone classified it as genre, and as an exploration of just which elements play into genre classification.

Of course, some movies don’t inspire me much at all in the writing department, for some reason. This is especially true if I’m watching a two or three-minute silent short with no real story. So I trot off what I can and move on to the next one.

4. You regularly update your Movies of the Day on the Classic Horror Film Board and one of the highlights of that page is your Essentials List of recommended movies. How does your list differ from other similar “must-see” lists and what do you think it provides for the curious viewer?

As far as the Essentials list goes, it was an attempt to emulate what Danny Peary was doing in “Guide for the Film Fanatic”. That guide never pretended to list the best movies ever made; it was more interested in providing a wide of some of the most interesting movies ever made, and some bad movies are more interesting than some good ones. I wanted to give a strong sampling of the best, but I also wanted to represent sub-genres that are often neglected (like the Italian Sword and Sandal movies), highlight some bad films that make for interesting viewing, provide examples of the work of some of the famously bad directors (how can you really comment on the work of Jerry Warren or Larry Buchanan if you haven’t seen any of them?), add some movies that are historically significant, have strong cult followings, or are personal favorites that I feel are unjustly obscure.

I wanted to feel that if someone watched all of the movies on the list, they’d emerge with a solid grounding in the fairly wide world of fantastic cinema. There are movies on the list I don’t like (and some I loathe), but none I think make for worthless viewing experiences. It all depends on how you approach them. At the very least, I hope the list isn’t boring.

5. Out of all the movies you’ve seen, what have been the most pleasant surprises and alternately, what have been the most crushing disappointments?

Pleasant surprises abound. Anytime I encounter a movie that I’ve not heard anything about and discover that it’s excellent goes on this list. Before I saw them, I knew nothing about AN INSPECTOR CALLS, THE QUEEN OF SPADES (1948) or THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER, just to name three that pop into mind immediately.

As for crushing disappointments, these are more difficult. My most memorable crushing disappointments occurred before the project started; for example, ARNOLD was one of those movies I’d been excited about, since it sounded like something I’d love, but I was extremely disappointed on my first viewing of it.

However, some movies did indeed disappoint me. I was hoping I would like ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW more than I did. I was expecting a lot more from THE WORLD, THE FLESH AND THE DEVIL. SILENT RUNNING was one I harbored some hope for and was fairly appalled at the final result.

Yet, I do think I can point to one disappointment that sticks in my mind strongly, even though it was a movie I was already familiar with. When I viewed the 1956 INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (a movie that I do recognize as one of the classics of the genre), I sadly realized that the movie no longer held any appeal for me. Sitting through it proved a chore, and I’ve come to realize that the movie simply doesn’t resonate with me anymore. This was perhaps the saddest revelation I’ve encountered on the whole project.

6. Finally, although you’ve reviewed over four thousand movies in more than twelve years time, there’s still several classics or historically important films you have yet to watch for your project. Which ones are you most looking forward to finally catching?

I think I can say that I’ve covered almost all of the really important genre films up to the early seventies at this point, Probably the earliest significant film that I haven’t covered so far would be THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and I know there are several others from the seventies (CARRIE, to pick one off of the top of my head) that I have yet to deal with. Of course, many of these I’ve already seen; I just haven’t done so for this project, so I already know in advance what I’m dealing with. If you’d asked me that question a year ago, I would have probably opted for DAWN OF THE DEAD as the one I was most curious about seeing, but that finally popped up last year. From the seventies, I’m probably most curious about PHANTASM at this point; it sounds intriguingly weird and rather original.

From the eighties, I’m probably most looking forward to checking out THE EVIL DEAD and RE-ANIMATOR, both of which I’ve heard quite a lot about. On another level, the movie I’m most looking forward to reviewing is FRANKENSTEIN ISLAND, which I’ve seen several times but haven’t covered yet. I can practically guarantee I’m going to have at least ten thoughts about that one. [Addendum: The Evil Dead and Frankenstein Island have both since been reviewed]

Thanks again Dave! Be sure to check out the Musings and Ramblings website, and if you’re ever in Omaha, be sure to check the schedule at the Brigit Saint Brigit Theatre; Dave may very well be performing in their next play!

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