Collins’ Crypt: Book Review - REEL TERROR

BC takes a look at the new book covering horror's 100-year history.

I bought my first issue of Fangoria in the spring of 1992, but not for any horror movie information - it was because it had an article about Memoirs Of An Invisible Man, which I had to read due to my love of all things Chevy Chase (it's also the reason I bought my first and only issue of Starlog). It was actually an interview with John Carpenter, and barely mentioned Chevy (in hindsight this is funny to me; writing on the wall...), so once I finished with that I found myself reading the rest, learning about such films as Hellraiser III, Split Second and Sleepwalkers.

That was basically my introduction to the behind the scenes of horror movies, something that would continue to interest, fascinate and at times consume me as I got older and continued buying the mag (I now own all 319 issues!), plus Rue Morgue, various books on the genre as a whole and specific films/franchises (any Friday the 13th fan who hasn't read Crystal Lake Memories is a fool), not to mention DVD behind the scenes material and commentaries. Even if I hate a film, I'm curious to check out a director's commentary to see what they were going for or to get an inkling of what went wrong. I don't care much about this stuff for other movies; beyond all time favorites I rarely bother with the DVD bonus features anymore, but when it comes to horror flicks, I find it all of equal interest as the films themselves.

Thus, I wish I had a copy of Reel Terror in say, 1997, before all of the movies covered were on special edition DVD and/or had dedicated books about them. Except for some rather lousy editing, there's nothing wrong with the book, but just about everything in it has been covered elsewhere (and in more depth), and writer David Konow doesn't inject much of his own taste into the account, so it's hard to gauge his own enthusiasm for the genre. So to me, it's a bit like buying a "Greatest Hits" CD from a band whose entire discography you already own - it's a taste of what you know, with one or two new things mixed in to add value.

But I'm a weirdo, and I am aware that most folks do NOT already know the ins and outs of say, Halloween's theatrical release pattern or that New Line was so broke that they had to beg the film lab to give them the Nightmare On Elm Street prints and promise they'd get their money when the film started raking in box office dollars. For those folks, Reel Terror is a fine option, and I find little fault with Konow's selection of films to cover as he takes us through the past 100 years (!) of horror films.

At first he's a bit more general, but I assume that's because there isn't as much behind the scenes material on 1920s and 1930s films as there is on the more modern classics. As I myself am hardly an expert on this period, I found this to be the most informative section, as he walks us through the development of Universal's now legendary horror stable, as well as Hammer films in the '50s and even EC Comics and Famous Monsters Of Filmland. He curiously skips over Roger Corman almost entirely; the legendary filmmaker is only mentioned in passing throughout the book, which is a bit odd when you consider Eli Roth gets a few pages. Obviously even at 550 pages (30 of which are just listing the works cited) they can't talk about everyone, but all but completely ignoring Corman (as well as Vincent Price) seems a bit odd. On that note, Lloyd Kaufman isn't mentioned at all, another glaring oversight since independent horror is such a huge aspect of the genre and he is one of the foremost names within that world.

Once he gets to the '60s the book changes gears; instead of discussing the state of horror in general and using examples to back him up, Konow just sort of goes into the production of the usual heavy hitters: Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween, Jaws, etc. He offers up their box office and critical reception, and in that we get some context for that period (i.e. Jaws being sort of the black sheep of Universal's slate, as they were putting their efforts into another film that eventually flopped), but otherwise for the next few hundred pages, Reel Terror is just a collection of short histories of some classic horror films' respective productions.

Again, I barely learned anything in these sections, but they're still enjoyable reads, and there are dozens of priceless anecdotes, such as the lab on Jaws having to color correct footage because Roy Scheider kept working on his tan and screwing up continuity. And there's a good mix of sub-genres: werewolf (Howling, American Werewolf), slasher (Halloween, Friday the 13th, Scream), zombie (NOTLD, Dawn of the Dead, Re-Animator)... so it covers a lot of ground and doesn't stick to just critical successes - there's even a few pages on Lucio Fulci's Zombie. It's possible your favorite movie from the era won't get discussed at length, however - Poltergeist and Child's Play are some of the bigger oversights, but to make up for it he often covers a bit of a filmmaker's career before and after the detailed film, so it evens out.

Less forgivable is the editing; I certainly hope a second edition comes along with all the numerous errors fixed, from head-slapping spelling errors (Lance "Hendrickson" and Donald "Pleasance" being the most annoying, though "Shawn" of the Dead is pretty close) to baffling and inaccurate statistics, like a claim that Dead Alive made 7 or 8 million dollars domestic (actual take: 200k), or that one of the initial reviews for Texas Chainsaw Massacre said it was the "Jaws of the midnight movies" (Chainsaw came out over a year before Jaws). There are also out of nowhere tidbits with no context, like the hilarious line about Sam Raimi yelling "That's the worst reverse action acting I've ever seen!" to Bruce Campbell, shoehorned into a paragraph about him using 18fps to speed up certain shots (to explain what the book does not, Raimi would have Campbell walk/move backwards in some scenes and then play the film itself in reverse, giving it a strange, unnatural quality).

It also doesn't always flow well; one section ends with a bit about how Wes Craven was about to change horror with a different kind of slasher, seemingly setting up Nightmare On Elm Street, but the next page is about Halloween II, and Nightmare doesn't get discussed for another 70+ pages. For a book that is mostly useful to new fans of the genre, you seemingly also have to know what he's talking about at all times in order to follow his trains of thought, as he often uses future examples to provide context (the Jaws section says "Like Alien..." concerning its "B movie made by A talent" status, but it's the first mention of the film in the book). The chapter titles are also confusing; each chapter gets three or four movies but the title always refers to one in particular, so Dawn of the Dead is in the chapter called "The Night He Came Home" and you have to flip to "A Different Kind Of Animal" for the scoop on (the animal-free) Creepshow.

Toward the end it seems Konow grew a bit impatient; while the '70s films got 20+ pages a piece, modern classics like Sixth Sense and Blair Witch Project only get about half that, and the entire 2000s is wrapped up in a few pages, with major accomplishments such as Saw and The Ring only given a few lines. It's a bit weird that something like Salem's Lot gets half a chapter when Paranormal Activity, which has rejuvenated both supernatural horror AND the "found footage" gimmick, is only given a few lines, especially in a book that's covering the history of the genre - which of those two films do you think is more significant to horror as a whole? Perhaps he figured that those films were covered enough elsewhere, but it doesn't help the fact that the book feels a bit rushed, like the book was written a decade or so ago and recently updated with 10 extra pages. Similarly, while the horror comics and magazines were given their due, he skips over horror websites and conventions, two things that are of far more significance to the genre as a whole than When A Stranger Calls. And forget about TV's significance - apart from the apparent classic that is Salem's Lot, nothing gets more than a passing reference; Tales From The Crypt's sole mention is that it wasn't on yet (in 1985, when Re-Animator was developed as a potential serial for cable), suggesting that it was important enough to change how horror properties were presented, but apparently not important enough to even explain what it was.

But that's the thing about trying to cover such as a huge topic as "horror" in general: oversights and omissions are bound to happen, which is why the better reference books tend to be the ones that focus on one sub-genre or decade, rather than try to cover everything. And that is why I say that Reel Terror is a great choice for newcomer fans to the genre - spelling mistakes aside, they won't notice the tome's missteps as much as a die-hard fan will, and will find plenty to learn. And even if you are a fellow lifetime subscriber to Fangoria and know the bulk of these stories, it's still an entertaining trip down memory lane. Also, most important of all - if a 550 page book on classic horror movies' biggest crime is skipping over some classic horror movies, it's definitive proof that our genre has more to offer than it's often given credit for.

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