Horror Through the Pages: Five New Books That Go Bump in the Night (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Robert Cashill

Christopher as Dracula in Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness

Christopher as Dracula in Hammer's Dracula: Prince of Darkness

Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror
by Michael Mallory. New York, NY: Universe Publishing, 2009. 252 pp., illus. Hardcover: $40.00.

A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer
by Denis Meikle. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2008. 312 pp., illus. Hardcover: $75.00.

Zombie Holocaust:How the Living Dead Devoured Pop Culture
by David Flint. London: Plexus Publishing Ltd., 2009. 224 pp., illus. Paperback: $19.95.

Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture
Edited by John Edgar Browning and Caroline Joan (Kay) Picard. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009. 368 pp., illus. Hardcover: $49.95.

101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die
Edited by Steven Jay Schneider. Hauppauge, NY: Quintessence, 2009. 415 pp., illus. Paperback: $14.99.

Authors writing about horror films are caught in a vise. Like the sons of Dracula and the daughters of Dr. Jekyll, they stand in the shadow of their predecessors in the field, the ones who laid the foundation and broke new ground, like Carlos Clarens (An Illustrated History of the Horror Film), William K. Everson (Classics of the Horror Film), and Carol Clover (Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film). The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, last updated in 1995, was the go-to guide. The Internet offers dozens of resources that proliferate like Triffids, further complicating the writer’s task.

This is true of anyone writing on film in the digital age, when the movies themselves are often easier to access and any buff can publish an essay for an audience of fellow cultists. But it’s especially acute for horror, whose fans flock to the web and crave new sources of information, but pull back from failures as quickly as the infected blood molecules leap out of the petri dish in The Thing (1982). With this in mind Cineaste checked out five volumes of potential interest from an accumulating pile of horror movie titles and stretched them on the rack for review.

Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror

Textwise, this one gets off to an awful start, with a foreword by director Stephen Sommers—who gave the Mummy the Indiana Jones treatment and Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, and the Wolf Man the shaft in the calamitous Van Helsing. Try reading this with a straight face: “Despite their monstrosity, they still possess humanity, which only adds to their ability to frighten us. Fortunately for me, this is also why these films were so ripe for remaking: the success of any movie invariably comes down to the richness of character and story.” Not to mention the hard drive of one’s CG-churning workstation.

Chances are, though, you’ll overlook such effrontery to enjoy the mouthwatering collection of stills assembled in this 9” x 12” volume, some 325 in all. While some may be familiar, you’re unlikely to have seen any of them in such ravishing condition. Any random turn of the page offers delights. There’s Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a charming publicity still that belies their alleged competition; a dashing photograph of director James Whale; shots of makeup artist Jack Pierce in action, painstakingly transforming the actors; a full-page reproduction of a color poster of The Mummy’s Hand. If your coffee table runs to books about movie monsters, this is one you’ll want to display prominently.

The book was clearly designed to capitalize on Universal’s latest return to its roots, the Benicio Del Toro remake of The Wolf Man, but that film’s delayed release severed the tie-in. Mallory had a job to do, and Universal Studios Monsters is both promotional in tone and discreet—if he can’t find something nice to say about second-raters likeThe Strange Door and The Black Castle, he gives the basic rundown (plot, actors, trivia) and moves on quickly. Of greater interest are the photo galleries, which gather in one place a “rogue’s gallery” of supporting henchmen and torch-bearing townspeople, like Michael Mark, Lawrence Grant, and Lionel Belmore, and “scream sirens” including ninety-nine-year-old Old Dark House costar Gloria Stuart, Ilona Massey, and Acquanetta, the Native-American star of the going-ape thrillers Captive Wild Womanand Jungle Woman. Other “Spotlight” sections highlight contributors like Pierce and composer Hans Salter, whose “best known, and most frequently used, motif was the driving three-note, half-tone ascension that accompanied just about every shot of a monster reaching for the camera or lurching toward the camera.”

The bulk of the book is devoted to the “gory” years of 1931-1948, commencing with Dracula and concluding with Lugosi’s reprise of the bloodsucker in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The silent terrors of Lon Chaney, and the “big bug” cycle of Fifties sci-fi films like Tarantula, get more of a once-over, and the chapters read as if they were included more for completion’s sake than for scholarship. But the photos alone give Universal Studios Monsters a primal appeal for readers, and there are sufficient did-you-know factoids, such as the genesis of The Creature of the Black Lagoon from an anecdote producer William Alland heard from cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa when both were working on Citizen Kane.

A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer

Universal Studio Monsters ends with an acknowledgment of England’s Hammer films, which in the late Fifties literally pumped new blood into the sagging horror genre with controversial reinterpretations of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Mummy, and the rest of the menagerie. The tale of Hammer, which made explicit the violence and sexuality tucked away in the subtexts of the prior versions, is oft-told; I have on my shelf Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio’s Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography. Meikle’s take is the tough-love one, berating, scolding, forever finding fault among the virtues. Terence Fisher’s direction of the breakthrough Curse of Frankenstein is “photographed theater”; The Hound of the Baskervilles suffers from “conceptual deficiencies”; The Mummy “seems even longer than its already stretched eighty-eight minutes.” And so on. “Like the ‘Sin Eater’ of old, I have just had to digest thirty-two years of my life, as laid out by Denis Meikle,” exclaims Michael Carreras, the son of company founder James Carreras, and a driving force in its development, in an afterword.

Carreras and frequent Hammer star Peter Cushing, who contributed the foreword, died in 1994, two years before the book was first published. For this revised edition, Meikle has mixed in some new gleanings and notes that a resuscitated Hammer plans to remake the acclaimed Let the Right One In. As the company gears up again his heretical history makes for lively, if abrasive, reading.

It would be easier to meet Meikle halfway on insignificant films he adores, like The Mummy’s Shroud, if he relented on a seeming crusade to expose all its failings. Taking the long view, Hammer was more evolutionary than revolutionary, a transition from the Universal tradition of horror to the monsters of the middle- class George A. Romero and other innovators set free in the late Sixties and early Seventies. As Meikle charts, constant recycling was a problem for the company—in 1979 it finally collapsed under the weight of too many Draculas and Frankensteins that were out of step with the times, no matter that Hammer had spiced its output with lesbian couplings and brought Christopher Lee’s vampire into modern London. Its desperate ideas for relevance included the unfilmed Nessie, a Loch Ness monster movie pitched to that noted scream siren Joni Mitchell.

But in its prime, Hammer did bring horror cinema to a new and more potent phase in its maturity, which critics and censors vociferously rejected. Its history of horrors had enough detractors not to need a historian to take it down another notch.

Zombie Holocaust: How the Living Dead Devoured Pop Culture

Night of the Living Dead and its spawn ultimately sent Hammer to its grave. Flint piles on the corpses in an enthusiastic if cluttered account that begins with Haitian voodoo rituals, briefly considers early films like 1932’s White Zombie (a rush to get to the “good stuff” and away from the archaic is a common failing in these books), then chews on Romero and company for a while. When that’s digested, there are chapters on zombies in literature, like Max Brooks’s popular Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z, zombies in video games, zombies on TV, and zombies as marketing fad. Anyone care for some Zombie Chews candy?

That’s more zombies than you can shake a high-powered rifle at, and Flint has trouble sorting them all out. Logically the chapters on zombie movies would be grouped together, with the slow-moving, old-school Romero zombie giving way to the virus-wracked “infected” that are all the rage now. But the narrative is broken up with digressions, and context is lost. Worse, there’s no index, which means no way to access specific films from the better sections (on, for example, the European zombie films inspired by Romero’s) without consulting the table of contents, then thumbing through the chapter. While I can accept that Flint did his homework in watching the films—I’ll take his word for it that the obscure Return of the Living Dead 3 is the best zombie movie of the Nineties—I can’t believe he did so in a vacuum, and the lack of a bibliography is irksome.

The book is fueled by Flint’s obsessive desire to cram everything in. But he short-changes the most interesting films in an impatient quest to get to the next one. In Joe Dante’s pointed, and poignant, Homecoming, which was part of Showtime’s “Masters of Horror” series, soldiers killed in the Iraq War rise from the dead to express their outrage over a Republican administration that callously exploits their heroism on the battlefield. Flint lays out the plot, mentions its break from Dante’s typically apolitical approach to fantastic cinema, then moves on to the next thing in the chronology: Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead. Not to take anything away from the undead chickens, but Homecoming offers more to cluck about.

What the best film books offer is an immersion, a concentration of material. Flint’s observations are too scattered, and too poorly organized, to be of much use. It’s also so last year—Zombieland has emerged as the most commercially successful film of its type, and is nowhere to be found in a chronicle that ends in 2008. To borrow a title from a zombie TV movie, the dead don’t die—but they do get dated.

Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture

Except for some of its ghoulish, ghostly subjects there’s nothing insubstantial about this collection. The skeleton-dry description—“By focusing sharply on Dracula and Dracula-type characters in film, anime, and literature from predominantly non-Anglo markets, this anthology delivers unorthodox, unique perspectives that seek to ground depictions and experiences of Dracula within a larger political, historical and cultural framework”—threatens to put a stake in reader interest before you’ve even concluded the sentence. But there is compelling flesh on its academic bones.

Take, for example, Dale Hudson’s essay, “Modernity as Crisis: Goeng Si and Vampires in Hong Kong Cinema.” Popularized by 1985’s HK hit Mr. Vampiregoeng si are the period-set “stiff corpse” movies grafted from martial arts, comedy, and horror films produced locally, in Hollywood, and from countries including Japan and Britain. Intrigued by the globalization of the vampire, Hudson breaks down the influences on the subgenre, some of which came about through coproduction, such as the 1974 Hammer/Shaw Brothers hybrid The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (which Meikle calls “an unmitigated mishmash on the level of Toho’s Godzilla series,” trashing another fantastic film icon). Hudson then looks at how what were marketed as the “hopping vampire” movies (for the creatures’ unusual movements) reflect the conventions of Hong Kong costume dramas, and in turn the history of the former Crown Colony in the anxious run-up to the China handover in 1997. Particular attention is paid to how the vampiric doings embody the identity crisis of Hong Kong residents caught between the colonial system and the mainland future, a recurrent theme in prehandover Hong Kong movies. The films, Hudson writes, “evoke a history, factual or fictitious, that contradicts any imagination of a monolithic Chinese cultural heritage and national identity.”

Browning and Paul R. Lehman view vampires through the prism of race in “The Dracula and the Blacula (1972) Cultural Revolution,” an insightful look at the breakthrough African-American vampire movie, which has been trivialized for its blaxploitation trappings despite a dignified performance by William Marshall and an intriguing subtext of subjugation. “Blacula” is an antislavery African prince, looking for support for his cause among nineteenth-century power brokers, who is vampirized by Count Dracula. Marshall’s formidable but sympathetic leading man “represents an attempt by filmmakers to create a perspective that challenges the cultural stereotype”—though it must be added that African-American filmmaker Bill Gunn’s vampire-themed Ganja & Hess, released the following year, is less sensational and far more engaged and complex. The serious-minded attempt to reclaim the dismissed Blacula is however appreciated.

Additional essays cover Hammer’s time-warping of the Count to the Seventies in Dracula A.D. 1972, the Romantic legacy of 1979’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, and how vampire fiction corresponds to the historical Transylvania. Picart and Cecil Greek’s essay “When Women Kill: Undead Imagery in the Cinematic Portrait of Aileen Wuornos” seemed to be straying off-topic, but comes round to a deft comparison of the female serial killer with the lonely and grotesque Frankenstein monster, traits emphasized by Charlize Theron in her Oscar-winning portrayal in 2003’s Monster.

101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die

Schneider’s bucket-list franchise began with 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, then downsized to genre-specific entries of 101 titles each, on war, gangster, and sci-fi films. As 101 Romantic Comedies You Must See Before You Die or 101 Musicals You Must See Before You Die don’t have the proper ring to them, horror was inevitable.

Like any sequel, the book sticks to a formula. Assigned to writers who specialize in the field (a handful of whom, full disclosure, I know), the agreed-upon must-sees are divided into chapters by decade. Each essay runs four pages, beginning with an opening page poster reproduction, followed by two pages of text and a closing-page still. The small text is difficult to read in this pocket-size edition, but a book like this is made for skimming, and arguing about what didn’t make the cut rather than what did.

From The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) to The Orphanage (2007), it’s not a bad list. The horror high points are hit, and trends current and past acknowledged. The number of foreign-language films in the survey is laudable and unexpected, given the Hollywood bias of books of this type. It jumps abruptly from I Walked With a Zombie (1943) to Diabolique (1955), but these were slow years for the genre, and, with two entries in the three-film Forties section, the committee must have felt that Val Lewton got his fair share. Predictably, the book explodes with entries from the Seventies on (including Blacula), which is likely when most of the authors first got their feet wet in the genre. This leads to an imbalance in content and judgment that squeezes out the older films. You can expire, really, without seeing Friday the 13th (1980) or The Hunger(1983), but I don’t think you should pass from this world without enjoying the affectionate, horror-laced Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein or Jacques Tourneur’s superior Night of the Demon (1957), my vote for the unkindest cut of all.

“Only one thing is for sure: Horror has been with us from the beginning. And it’s not going to go away when the theater lights come on,” Schneider writes in his introduction. Nor will horror movie books, especially horror movie books of lists. I can report that I’m only a few titles short of seeing the 101 movies in this one, which gives me a feeling of accomplishment. And makes me a little tense.

To buy Universal Studios Monsters: A Legacy of Horror click here.
To buy A History of Horrors: The Rise and Fall of the House of Hammer click here.
To buy Zombie Holocaust: How the Living Dead Devoured Pop Culture click here.
To buy Draculas, Vampires, and Other Undead Forms: Essays on Gender, Race, and Culture click here.
To buy 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die click here.

Cineaste Associate Robert Cashill is the Film Editor of  Popdose.com.

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.