Thursday, November 28, 2019

Books of Horror

I thought that I'd take a look at some of the books which played significant roles in developing my interest in horror films, (and the wider cinema of the fantastic and exploitation movies).  Where better place to start than at the beginning?  The book on the left, Horror Films (1977) by Alan Frank, was the one that started it all off.  I must have been in my early teens when I discovered a copy in my local library and borrowed it.  The book opened up a whole new world to me - the only horror films I had previously encountered were some of the old Universal movies and a smattering of early Hammers that turned up on TV, (oh, and an encounter with cult British B movie Witchcraft (1964), which I'd found quite disturbing).  The book offered a whistle stop tour of horror films from the very earliest days of cinema to the then present day, (it ends with the 1976 King Kong).  But not just US and UK genre films - it also offered a commentary on various Italian, Spanish, Mexican and Japanese films.  It was here that I first heard of Paul Naschy and his series of Spanish werewolf movies, for instance.  All accompanied by some fascinating stills which just made me desperate to see these films, which back in the pre-internet, pre-home video era, wasn't easy.

In truth, the book offered little in the way of critical analysis, (although that mattered little to my younger self), instead providing a simple commentary on the films releases decade by decade.  Frank's definition of 'horror' was also pretty liberal, including both fantasy and science fiction films.  But it got me hooked.  So hooked that I ended up borrowing the library copy multiple times.  Eventually, it was re-issued in the edition shown above, which I eventually bought for a knock down price from a remaindered book shop.  In the meantime, I'd discovered another book by Frank in my public library: The Horror Film Handbook (1982).  This volume is organised quite differently, presenting an A-Z  by title series of capsule reviews of films, accompanied by production and cast details.  It also includes appendices covering some of the major horror stars, directors, writers and producers.  The reviews are often brief and quite superficial and its coverage is nowhere near as broad as in the earlier book, focusing on English language films.  What is clear is that Frank - who was a film buyer for ITV as well as a critic - was critically quite conservative.  Despite embracing the world of continental horror in the earlier book (quite unusual among English-language critics of the time), the Handbook makes clear that he had a problem with more 'modern' horror films like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which increasingly fell outside of the template set by 'classic' (pre 1970) films. (Interestingly, in the five years between the two books, Frank had clearly revised his opinion of several films, with some that he had previously enthused over now getting short shrift).

Nonetheless, the book extended my knowledge of the genre further.  It also helped me start developing my own critical faculties, as I caught up with more of the films and found myself disagreeing with Frank's assessments.  I learned to analyse why I disagreed and to marshal arguments in favour of those I liked but he hated.  As with Horror Films, I borrowed the library's copy multiple times, before eventually buying the second hand copy seen above.  (There was a companion volume, The Science Fiction Film Handbook, also by Frank, which I've never managed to obtain a second hand copy of).  As I've indicated, neither book provided any real in-depth analysis of the films or genre, but they did provide a fantastic introduction to the horror film genre.  I still read my copies of both books - even in this age of the information super highway, they still offer a good resource for technical data and photographs.  They also chronicle some films which are virtually impossible to find anything about on the internet - obscure British seventies supporting feature Face of Darkness, for instance.  All-in-all, despite his critical shortcomings, I feel that I owe Alan Frank a real debt for getting me into the genre with these books.

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