'Reel Terror' Is Quite the Hatchet Job

I picked up this book with tears of joy streaming down my face, thanking the cosmos that someone finally wrote an exhaustive book for horror fans. But my tears of joy turned to tears of anguish, my fists clenched strands of hair wrenched from my head.

In 1931, successful silent film director Tod Browning helmed the first major vampire talkie, Dracula, and began the first cycle of Universal horror films. Loosely adapted from Bram Stoker’s novel, the film eschewed the contemporaneous trope of saturating every scene with non-stop jibber-jabber (producers of early talkies thought constant spewing, blathering dialogue was what audiences wanted) and allowed the ethereality of silence to chill the atmosphere. Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, reprising his breakout role from the 1927 Broadway run, sets teeth on edge as the titular Count. His singular dialect and irregular pausing (“I bid you… vel-come”) envelopes the character in this strange, surreal, spectral otherness, like an undead Othello. Lugosi is the film’s soul and its driving force, and without him, it falters. The scenes in which he’s absent sputter and stumble forward slowly and clumsily, like a broken-down shag van.

Dracula was the first and last hit for its director and star. Lugosi was typecast immediately after Dracula’s immense success, and by the ’40s he succumbed to the thralls of drug addiction. He reprised his signature role just once more: Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the film that would drive the final nail into Universal horror’s coffin. Lugosi was reduced to appearing on Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theater, where he became lost during Berle’s dexterous ad libbing and muffed his lines.

He died during production of the infamously bad Plan 9 From Outer Space, the would-be magnum opus of Lugosi’s biggest fan (maybe the only fan he had left by the ’50s), Ed Wood. Lugosi was spread on his couch in a shady apartment in the sordid part of town, alone and forgotten, having never found the serendipitous come-back that Hollywood screen writers would have given him had he been a character in their film.

Browning’s career flat-lined in 1932, when his nightmare-as-reality, pre-Code Freaks churned stomachs and reaped the wrath of the culturally conservative. Delving even deeper into voyeuristic naturalism, Browning set his ascetic, un-gaudy gaze upon a different kind of monster: freak show performers. Using real “freaks” instead of make-up or prosthetics, Browning tore away audiences’ comfort blanket; they couldn’t tell themselves it was only a movie anymore, or that the terror unfurling on screen was Hollywood magic. No, these were real freaks: siamese twins, people with missing appendages, a skeleton man, a barbigerous woman.

They’re not insidious— they’re colorful characters shot in grainy, candid black and white, and their presence is all the more disturbing because Browning films them without any style or panache. He depicts the freaks as real people; they have self-esteem issues, dissolving marriages, petty grievances. The deformed and the mutilated are the majority in Freaks—call it freak-normative.

Freaks is Browning’s masterpiece. It portrays the struggles of a strange milieu and its strange inhabitants, and of course it was decried and crucified. The Suits cut 30 minutes, leaving the film at a laughable hour-long running time, and purged much of the scarier, tenser moments. The film found a home with the midnight madness cult in the counter culture swell of the late-’60s, but Browning was gone by then, having died, like Lugosi, alone and forgotten.

All of this is immensely important in understanding American horror’s haggard history, and it’s all pretty much ignored in David Konow’s Reel Terror, a fan-fueled jaunt into the history of cinema’s goriest genre. Konow says the book is a defense of a genre that gets little respect from critics, scholars, and award presenters, but he does a pretty good job of undermining horror himself.

Lugosi is, understandably, mentioned five separate times within the first ten pages, but not in any meaningful way. And not much attention is paid to Browning, with but a single mention of Freaks before both Browning and his film disappear from the book. Konow never elaborates on Browning’s derailment, Lugosi’s descent into drug addiction and oblivion, or the tragedy of Lon Chaney, Jr.’s career (Chaney was forever lost in his father’s shadow, having his named changed from Creighton to Lon just to add value to his poster appeal and never landing a non-horror role after his iconic, if stiff turn in The Wolf Man—his is a sad, sorrowful story that is too rarely told).

Konow seems so enamored with this romanticized notion of horror films that he doesn’t discuss the seedier bits of its history, and their absence reflects the great affliction of Konow’s book: his refusal to dig deeper. There's no criticism, no probing, no utterance of “Why?” How can you defend a genre as being legitimate when you don’t bother to analyze anything? Reel Terror is essentially a collated collection of Wikipedia articles with better grammar, never probing past surface-level immediacy. It lacks bite.

Konow doesn’t discuss how Freaks was a long-in-the-making development of Browning’s, written during the silent era and rooted in the director’s own experiences with funfair; nor does Konow dissect the societal and cultural implications of Freaks’ demonization. Why did America loathe Freaks so much? Why did it experience a surge of popularity during the counter culture revolution? This is the sole sentence dedicated to the film:

"Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and The Island of Lost Souls (which was twice remade as The Island of Dr. Moreau) were both set up at Paramount; White Zombie, which was independently made and picked up by United Artists; Warners had Mystery of the Wax Museums, which they remade in the fifties as House of Wax, and Doctor X. AT MGM, Irving Thalberg told Tod Browning he wanted the director to 'out-horrify Frankenstein' with his next film, which was Freaks (he should have been careful what he wished for)."

That’s it. The vague, assuming brevity of this title-littered paragraph is at once strangely unbecoming and keenly representative of Konow, who goes to great (sometimes annoying) lengths to be as accessible as possible, never condescending or insulting his readers, but who overtly dismisses all notions of scholarly analysis and academic study. He inadvertently insults more demanding readers with his shallow summarization taking precedent over intelligent discourse.

This patchwork passion project is nice, light, intricately-researched reading for the casual horror fan. Want to know what year It’s Murder! came out or what its budget was? You’ll find it in Reel Terror. But anyone looking for anything deeper than journalistic reporting—and Konow’s sources are pretty much all catalogued interviews and commentaries that are widely accessible, i.e. the director’s commentary on the Halloween DVD—is going to want to stab this book.

Konow’s work does deserve some recognition for its attempted perfervid aura. He’s obviously not writing this for money or fame. The guy just loves horror movies, much like Jason Zinoman, whose own exploration of horror’s history, Shock Value, came out last year. But like Zinoman’s book, Reel Terror is satisfied with telling and not explaining, reiterating and not revealing. At least Zinoman’s book, popularist as it is, has sharper writing and sharper focus to its credit. Zinoman makes some almost-arguments in his mapping the evolution of ’60s schlock horror to gaudy Regan-era gore (he calls this the New Horror, a term giddily derived from the New Flesh in Cronenberg’s Videodrome) and he asks questions—he asks “what does this mean?” following Brian De Palma quote; but Zinoman never answers the questions he raises, and he leaves readers desperately pulling their hair by the roots.

Konow doesn’t bother to ask questions, period. He writes sloppily, often repeating what he’s said within the same paragraph—he mentions how film was a “new medium” three times in a two-page span when it was an unnecessary assertion the first time he said it— and he often uses cliché idioms that sound less conversational and more derivative of high school English essays. Konow renders the simplest phrases clunky as drift wood: “Freudian psychology was starting to become popular at the time, and Psycho was a perfect story to include the Oedipus theory of the mother fixation, except here his mother would live on in his mind, and he would become her when he killed. Bloch [the author of the novel] came up with murder in the shower because there’s nowhere you’re more defenseless.”

Written for the fans by a fan, Reel Terror is undeniably a labor of love; unfortunately, it’s also sometimes a labor to read. Prose this bland enthralls as much as a horror film that isn’t scary.

Reel Terror is broken into longish chapters, each roughly covering one phase of horror with one or two seminal films as measuring sticks. There are chapters dedicated to the obvious films— The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Jaws, The Last House on the Left and The Exorcist, The Evil Dead and A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, etc.— but Konow gets points for giving as much recognition to some of the films only appreciated by the initiated: An American Werewolf in London, as brilliant and audacious as any American horror film since The Exorcist, spurred the advent of self-aware horror, directly influencing the scary-funny Evil Dead films and the meta-lite New Nightmare, Scream, and The Cabin in the Woods; Mario Bava and Dario Argento, persistently ignored by scholars, ushered the flamboyant Italian horror giallo to America, and made menacing use of Technicolor in their blood-saturated shockers (Argento’s Suspiria in particular); and Re-Animator, the first film to feature undead oral sex (carcass cunnilingus?).

Konow also dedicates a nice amount of space to Brian De Palma’s Carrie, whose excursion into the cruel world of teenage girls, at once unflinchingly perverse and dreamy, beautiful even, rings truer than any coming-of-age film predating it, with or without telekinesis. It would be nice if he discussed the aesthetics of these films—De Palma’s technical innovations, Argento’s pre-Shining tracking shots, the unbelievable amount of references to other horror films in An American Werewolf, The Evil Dead’s insane shoe-string budget special effects— but, alas, no such luck. I get it: Konow doesn’t want to analyze or dissect. That’s cool and all, not everyone wants to go into academia, but his refusal to think starts to feel really lazy really quickly. Anyone with a lot of spare time can regurgitate facts and transcript interviews. I wanted something more demanding, something inflammatory and challenging, like a horror-themed version of David Thomson’s New Biographical Dictionary of Film. I wanted the zeal of Pauline Kael to set the pages on fire—Konow is too damn nice, too damn passive.

Psycho, of course, deserves all the attention it gets, but Konow’s chapter doesn’t add anything new to the marketplace of ideas (though by this point there just may not be much left to say). The film “invented modern horror,” as Konow puts it, and that’s difficult to argue with. But, as was the case with Zinoman, Konow completely and unforgivably ignores Michael Powell’s contemporary companion Peeping Tom. I can’t imagine it eluded him—Powell fan Martin Scorsese, who’s quoted here several times, has championed the film as being one of the two best-directed films of all time, and Marty’s a pretty loud guy. Released just three months before Hithcock’s film, Peeping Tom draws on voyeurism and parent-child relationships, like Psycho (and Freaks, and Vampyr, and Halloween, and Bride of Frankenstein…) and portrays the “bad guy” as an empathetic, disturbed young man rather than an evil entity.

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