Unkind Cuts


Daniel Riccuito, main author of The Beauty of Terror, with Jennifer Matsui and myself, is incandescent with rage about changes Fangoria magazine made to the piece without consulting us. I’m slightly more philosophical, having been really horribly rewritten several times during my film and TV career. A shout-out here to the giftless bastards at Tern Television and to so-called director Crispin Whittier Whittell, whom I would like to shoot with a gun.

The people who butcher creative work are usually friendly, smiling people. They totally don’t get that they just mutilated something you cared about, and stole something that was rightfully yours. “Think of me as the kindly torturer,” Sid Sheinberg told Terry Gilliam while doing his best to rip the guts out of BRAZIL. These people look hurt when you tell them they destroyed something they didn’t understand. They look confused when you say you wish they’d asked. They made everything better without bothering us, so why aren’t we delighted? Of course, they only enjoy such freedom from doubt, such artistic carte blanche with other people’s labours because they are totally bereft of any creativity themselves.

Fangoria’s changes are tone-deaf, clumsy, anti-intellectual, humourless, and mostly unnecessary. But what makes them completely unacceptable is that they didn’t send a copy of the proposed alterations during the months the piece was waiting to see print. This kind of consultation ALWAYS happens. When I write for Electric Sheep, which is an online publication, the very thoughtful and precise editorial changes are always offered up to me to see if they’re acceptable. With Sight & Sound, or with Criterion liner notes, the same thing happens. Apart from being courteous, this is also efficient: if a writer has expressed themself unclearly, the editor’s attempt to fix the problem might not work — it may well take the writer’s input to clarify what the piece intended to say.

The GOOD NEWS is — you can read the original article at The Chiseler, here.

This is possibly of interest only to Daniel, Jennifer and myself, but I thought I’d run through the more egregious changes, just for the record.


A minor example: “Of course, the answer is partly grounded in Steele’s unique physical equipment” becomes “The answer is partly grounded in Steele’s unique physical attributes.” This is typical of the changes, where an interesting word choice is replaced with a mundane, hackneyed one.

A more complex one: “Steele’s beauty is no accident of nature, even if she is, but a virtuoso performance by an artist in full command of her talent summoning and banishing it in equal measure in her dual role as mortal damsel in distress and undead predator released from her crypt.” This becomes, in Fangoria’s blood-smeared hands, “Steele’s beauty is no accident of nature, even if she is, and Sunday showcases a virtuoso performance by an artist in full command of her talent, summoning and banishing it in equal measure in her dual role as mortal damsel in distress and undead predator released from her crypt.” Which is hard to understand, as it seems to say that Steele is summoning and banishing her talent, using it to play the damsel and abandoning it when she plays the revengeful revenant. This is not only not what we meant, it’s not even what Fangoria means to say.

We wrote, “Where Steele’s Italian films are concerned, we are watching silent movies of a sort.” This is following a reference to Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon, making the argument that Steele’s appearance has something in common with his hand-tinted special effects. Clearly the reference was deemed too obscure for the magazine’s public (though encouraging people to go look something up never struck me as a disservice to the reader). Chopping the Chomon line, Fangoria makes do with, “Where the actress’ Italian films are concerned, the experience is like watching silent movies of a sort.” The “of a sort” becomes bizarre and ungainly since it’s the first mention of silent cinema, and it’s not even really clear what is meant by “the experience” — the experience of watching them, presumably, but if so, why not say so?


The phrase “molded by Italian cameramen into disquieting and sudden plasticity,” which referred to Steele’s entire Italian career, is folded into a sentence about BLACK SUNDAY and forced to serve as a description of that film, which had only one cinematographer, Mario Bava.

Here’s one of my own sentences: “While Italian movies robbed Steele of her voice, they liberated her from what it had meant in Britain.” This becomes “they liberated her from the constraints of Britain,” which is a different point, one less related to the beginning of the sentence, and the overall point explored in the next two paragraphs, which is about class.

My line “Omninational, omnisexual, but definitely carnivorous” just gets chopped altogether, leaving the section to widdle out lamely. That was my best sentence!

Even a quote from the star herself is not safe from the editors’ “creativity” — “There was a tremendous feeling of respect, whereas in my earliest roles at Rank I always felt shoved around, practically negated by the pressure of production.” “Negated” is replaced with “ignored.” As Matt Damon complains in THE INFORMANT! “How is that OK? That’s NOT OK.”

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Or, there’s this: “amid the groundswells of fog, lifeless trees and gloomy dungeons, Steele is an absence impossibly concretized in penumbras and voids.” Fangoria couldn’t cope with such richness, apparently, so we get “amid the groundswells of fog, lifeless trees and gloomy dungeons, Steele is a walking shadow.” Pity the poor hack who, throwing out a complex phrase, must try to invent something of their own to replace it. I know, Shakespeare! That always works!

“Dark Barbara comes back as a very corporeal revenant, hair occluding one profile, like Phil Oakey of the Human League.” References to British new wave bands of the eighties are another thing Fangoria’s readership are not expected to be able to cope with, so the sentence is lopped. “Obscuring” is subbed in for the too high-brow “occluding,”

This, I thought, was one of my more useful paragraphs. “Almost indescribable in terms of plot, character or dialogue, the film looks stunning, as chiaroscuro as Steele’s coal-black hair and snow-white skin. Apparently the product of monkey-typewriter improvisation, the story serves as a kind of post-modern dream-jumble of every Gothic narrative ever. You might get a story like this if you showed all of Steele’s horrors to a pissed-up grade-schooler and then asked them to describe the film they just saw. As a result, the movie really takes what Dario Argento likes to call the “non-Cartesian” qualities of Italian horror to the next dank, stone-buttressed level.”

“The story may be a kind of postmodern dream-jumble of countless Gothic narratives, but its visuals are stunning, as chiaroscuro as Steele’s coal-black hair and snow-white skin.” Shorter, yes. But better? Any good at all? “Visuals” are always “stunning,” aren’t they?

Another line from Barbara gets rejigged: “…and faces that are like spells they look so informed,” becomes “and faces like spells.” Minor, but completely unethical unless you add the dreaded […] to make it clear you’re monkeying with a direct quote.

A mild speculation on why the Italians embraced Steele and she them: “a shared gloomy zest for life, fatalism and pasta” hits the cutting room’s sticky floor.


“And yet we’ll never know quite how seriously the filmmakers approached these farragoes. They fuse the kind of outrageous plot twists pioneered by Psycho and Les Diaboliques with all the gothic trappings familiar from The Monk or The Castle of Otranto, and Poe’s morbid, overheated imagination with the new sexual liberality of sixties cinema, already curdled into something icky and sadistic and necrophile, as if decades closeted by the censor had fermented some kind of fetid corruption infecting every glance. The dialogue is always unspeakable in any language (hence, perhaps, all that dubbing, as a kind of disinfectant/alibi), while the plots collapse with the impact of a single breath of air, and characterization is strictly puerile. But the potent sex-death brew is nevertheless intoxicating, the visuals sleek and seductive, and the eyes follow you about the room.”

This gets rendered down into:

Freda and his contemporaries fused the kind of outrageous plot twists pioneered by Psycho and Les Diaboliques with all the gothic trappings familiar from The Monk or The Castle of Otranto, and Poe’s morbid, overheated imagination with the new sexual liberality of sixties cinema, already curdled into something icky and sadistic and necrophilic, as if decades closeted by the censor had fermented some kind of fetid corruption infecting every glance. […] The potent sex-death brew is nevertheless intoxicating, the visuals sleek and seductive […].”

““Oh, Riccardo Freda! We had our own private opera going,” Steele recalls.” This becomes “Riccardo Freda and I had our own private opera going,” which is, on the one hand, less exciting and expressive, and on the other, not what Barbara Steele actually said, ever.

“A desperate thing to do – like fighting a war – so everyone became emotionally invested on-set, and the atmosphere translated quite powerfully; yes, I’d say the results of all that apparent chaos wound up registering in the movie.” This gets chopped down to a couple of phrases, which is permissible in principal, but why would you want to lose all that good stuff, coming straight from the star’s mouth?


“The villain’s demise is superbly absurd, as he’s sealed within a cartoonish effigy, which makes him look like the lost, Goth member of the Banana Splits (original line-up: Drooper, Fleagle, Snorky, Bingo and Scabies).” By now I’m sure you can guess what got cut here.

“Despite a Scooby Doo/psychological ending eschewing the supernatural, this is one of the most extreme, delirious Italian Gothics, and despite a plot that doesn’t ultimately make a lick of sense, it comes closer to being a proper film than any of them – Francesco de Masi’s beautiful score lifts it out of pulp territory altogether at times.” I think that’s fair comment, though admittedly I should have fixed those two “despites,” bundling the provisos together. That’s just the sort of mistake a good editor can help with. But the final version is weirdly weak: “…this is one of the most extreme, delirious Italian Gothics and Francesco de Masi’s beautiful score lifts it out of pulp territory at times.” Without the “altogether” at the end, that’s a very watery statement to end a paragraph on.

“As soon as we meet the gardener, a hulking near-mute, we anticipate greenhouse shenanigans, given Babs’ history in these things,” — Fangoria drops the “Babs” but replaces it with a blurry “her” despite the fact that Steele’s name hasn’t appeared since the start of the previous sentence. This is exactly the kind of thing — noun/pronoun alternation — that an editor should be able to carry off invisibly.

“Laughter disrupts the dream-flow the picture aims at, but without completely staunching it, so the time passes in hypnagogic free-fall, that too-tired-to-sleep delirium when little jolts keep sparking you into reality, only to slump back to somnolence as the movie drains life and reason from you.” This is cut completely.

“Plywood characters totter through Bava’s puppet theater, crossing from day to night in a single cut, wielding candelabras that cast impossible shadows (how can a light source cast its own shadow?), spouting wooden dialogue from their wooden lips, with only the invading force of Satanism offering any recognizable human vivacity. Steele’s witch is not only fully justified in her revenge, as established in scene one, she’s the only figure with meat on her bones (and we see how it gets there, in a gruesome “re-incarnation” which renders the word literally): getting back into the skin. Exacting her pound of flesh.” Gone: anything that addresses the “flaws” in Bava’s filmmaking is unacceptable, I suspect.


But enough nit-picking, here’s the response of co-author Jennifer Matsui ~

“Fangoria’s grease pencil doodles on the margins, which somehow made its way into the final draft, failed to deliver either clarity or brevity to the final product. Instead, we get a somewhat clunking, rhythmless hot mess mimeograph of the original. This version has visible Cheetoh stains over the once legible prose, as if some suburban dungeon master was tasked with the editing job after replying to a “Make money at home” banner ad on Craig’s List. Stare at them long enough, and you’ll start to sprout visible shoulder blade and knuckle hairs.”

21 Responses to “Unkind Cuts”

  1. A long time since I looked at Fangoria, but this article doesn’t strike me as their house-style AT ALL – I would have pinned it as being aimed at a much artier, more literary, Sight & Sound-like publication. So I’m not surprised they tampered with it.

    Having said which, their tampering is astonishingly cack-handed (oh boy do I recognise that let’s-change-THIS-word-for-ANOTHER-word, no reason, just because), and altering the direct quotes, in particular, is unforgiveable.

  2. A great many years ago I wrote a piece on her entitled “Black Sundae” for a now-defunct but truly great Chicago-based literary and film magazine called “December” which was edited by the late great Robert Wilson who among other things is responsible for editing the collected film reviews of Otis Ferguison.

    What has always fascinated me about Barbara was not the horror films in and of themselves but the iconic interplay of her appearances in items like The Long Hair of Death et. al and her work for Scholondorf (Young Torless), Louis Malle (Pretty Baby</I), Mario Monicelli (L’Amarta Barcaleone) and above all FellinI.

  3. You do not want to deal with the kind of editor who changes stuff just to put their “stamp” on it. And when there’s no payment involved, the only reward is going to be seeing your words in print, so this becomes a deal-breaker.

    Steele does indeed link opposite arms of cinema in a strange, subversive way.

  4. The man you want to shoot is called Crispin Whittell.

  5. Thanks for that, yes. Wouldn’t want to plug the wrong bloke.

  6. Killing the wrong person is okay. Not killing the right person would be a shame.

  7. It appears that the damage is done, and you have already terrified the unfortunate Crispin Whittier into an ominous silence. I hope you’re satisfied.

  8. To David E’s point, I’ve always felt that (for instance) Donald Pleasence and Patrick Magee were most comfortable with Pinter or Beckett at the one extreme, and with meat cleavers and severed heads at the other. They always seem slightly wrong when I encounter them in ‘normal’ movies.

  9. James S Says:

    Was that for that scary BBC3 anthology thing 10 years ago? I always meant to check it out when it turned up on torrent sites. You and Fiona wrote an episode, and so did Mitchell & Webb,, and the creator of 2 Pints of Larger. I thought at the very least that combo would be interesting… I’ll steer clear of it now.

  10. Did Patrick Magee MAKE any normal movies? I guess something like The Criminal qualifies. He IS kind of wrong in that.

    I adore Pleasence in everything he ever did. “He’s a handkerchief actor,” complained Coral Browne. I would say he was the best handkerchief actor who ever lived. He even moved with the times and went from hankies to nasal decongestant tubes.

    Our Twisted Tales turned out really bad, rewritten and incompetently directed. The show was worse than the read-through, which we attended. One of the other episodes was REALLY good — I don’t think it got rewritten as much as ours — and what the director did to that was tragic.

    I’m sorry, Mr Whittier!

    I’m coming for you, Mr Whittell!

    (For legal reasons I would like to make it clear I am not actually coming for Mr Whittell.)

  11. Oh my.

    This is sad all around.

    True, we edited the piece for space and style and I’m very sorry it wasn’t to your liking.

    I do understand your points about work-shopping edits with writers.

    In a perfect world, this would be ideal.

    But as a freelancer myself for many years and with many periodicals and newspapers of varying profile, I assure you…it isn’t always the case. And with FANGORIA…at the speed in which we operate and have operated at for over 35 years…it just cannot be done unless requested or unless we have to do a MASSIVE re-write and/or unless it is discussed with the freelancer individually. I’m sorry about that. I’ll make sure that is more clearly laid out in advance with all contributors. Lesson learned.

    Now, that said, when I myself am edited (and I have written thousands of published works), I take it professionally. I try to look at the edits and understand why they were made. I may even privately argue with the editor. I DO NOT try to publicly shame those who I disagree with.

    THAT is unprofessional, in my opinion, anyway…

    But really, at the end of all of this, I am deeply upset that you would try to take this moment away from Barbara Steele.

    This issue is about BARBARA STEELE. About her history and her legacy. About reminding people that she is here and that she can work and that she is our last living genre film icon. I worked very hard to create a tribute to her. Unfortunate to see ego getting in the way of that.

    This should not be about you. This should not be whether or not I’m a good editor or whether or not FANGORIA is a lowly rag run by philistines.

    It should be about Barbara. It should be about honoring Barbara, something that we presumably both set out to do.

    Why don’t we start again and do just that?

  12. Well, that’s certainly a more polite response than editor Ken Hanley’s on Twitter. I like it when a “conversation” DOESN’T begin with the word “garbagedick.”

    There is no intention to take any moments away from Barbara Steele. I would venture to suggest that her life contains and will continue to contain many moments more important than our article in any form.

    If she is unhapy with this blog post, that is something else that I would think about. But may I point out that you had the article for months before it saw print, that you communicated with Daniel many times about it and were full of praise (easy to have mentioned edits) and that Barbara apparently liked it just fine as submitted.

    If this causes you to let writers know your editorial policy in advance, that would be a very good thing. Discussing edits with writers would be even better.

  13. I think this has less to do with “ego” than with “artistic integrity.” Editing is fine, as long as the artist is consulted with first and foremost. Writing is an art and art is not a product. You wouldn’t trim a couple of sunflowers out of van Gogh’s frame to avoid boring the gallery crowd, would you?

  14. Thanks! Fiona suggested I was a little grumpy because of other bad editing experiences, but I argued that it’s more the case that I’m spoiled: Criterion, for instance, engage in a detailed back-and-forth discussion with their writers. Their notes are very intelligent, but it’s even more important that you get to discuss them. I never argue to change something back to its original form, but always look to find a fresh way of doing it that works better for all of us.

  15. David: I never showed you the (very minor and sensitive) edits that Cineaste sent me when we wrote for them — a hard-copy in red pen. I went back and forth negotiating the nuances of three possible sub-titles. It was instructive and 100% transparent.

  16. Always good to get input. And essential to have the back-and-forth. Often when something needs an edit, it’s because it’s unclear. And you don’t want to go with the editor’s best guess as to the intended meaning, you want to get the writer to try a clearer expression of the idea.

  17. By the way you might want to check out Ryan Gosling’s much maligned directorial debut to see another mesmerising, albeit wordless, appearance of Barbara Steele in a perfect role for an older horror icon.

  18. Yes, I’m curious about that. She was apparently taken with him and his strange methods.

  19. She’s kind of in a Miss Havisham role in Lost River. Or the equivalent filmic muse to the one Ann Savage plays in Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg.

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