‘Reel Terror’ Is Quite the Hatchet Job

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.

Why is the bar for horror set so abysmally low?

Peeping Tom, like Freaks, was met with such disdain that the once-revered Powell, whose The Red Shoes and The Black Narcissus are considered among the finest Technicolor achievements in cinematic history, never made another popular film. In the ’90s, Powell spoke about Peeping Tom’s critical reevaluation, saying his film was universally loathed when it premiered and “now everyone’s seen it.” Powell says he’s at a loss as to why; Konow doesn’t even try. He doesn’t mention the film, let alone Powell. That Psycho was a hit and changed horror in America (though Hitch was British) while Peeping Tom, a film no less brilliant than Hitchcock’s, felt the ire of uptight Britain’s censors is a cultural insinuation that—surprise!—Konow ignores. Here’s the closest he comes to any sociological acknowledgement:

“As for Psycho, the impact it made on cinema, and the modern horror film, still reverberates loud and clear. “Psycho, in my humble opinion, is the first modern horror film because it so strikingly took horror out of gothic romanticism,” says John Carpenter. ‘It wasn’t a vampire or a werewolf. It wasn’t an old castle with cobwebs and costumes. It was a motel. You had the motel in the front, and you had this gothic house in the back. It was like passing the torch from old gothic romanticism into modern horror. The whole thrust of the story was going in one direction, then it took a right turn.'”

Notice how Konow lets Carpenter do the evaluating. Konow is either a) scared to say anything of his own creation, or b) lazy. When horror fans get together, they have conversations, talk about what they like and dislike in horror and why. Konow must be the most boring person in the world to talk to because he has nothing to say. You kind of want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him violently—“David! What do you think? Tell me! Tell me! Have you no spine?” His refusal to insert any kind of personality or voice makes Reel Terror feel distant and feckless, a book on life support. He loves horror, but his writing suggests apathy.

Konow’s chapter on Carpenter’s Halloween is the highlight of the book… for about 20 pages. Though all of the quotes from Carpenter can be found with the bare minimum of effort (just click Extra Features on the DVD and boom, there ya go—hell, you can just go on Wikipedia or imdb, both of which are used as sources here), Konow uses them to craft a pretty compelling story. Hearing the producers and writers’ conflicting stories of Carpenter’s aesthetic choices (the lack of gore, the strange 5/4 sinister synth score, the William Shatner mask, the ambiguous ending) is fun, if not entirely intellectually stimulating. Konow’s choice of quotes portrays Carpenter as slightly egotistical, very self-reliant, and crafty as a thief. “Carpenter wanted his name about the title like his favorite old-school directors such as Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, and Wallace also says, ‘Branding is all the rage now, and I just think John was working very hard to set himself apart and create a brand for himself.”

Poor syntax aside, we learn a lot about Carpenter from this one sentence. And Carpenter’s rebuttal to the oft-made Final Girl theory is never anything but entertaining: Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is the survivor and heroine of Halloween because she’s a virgin, doesn’t smoke pot, and does her homework, according to ’90s feminist scholarship. Carpenter calls bullshit on this on the DVD commentary, saying it’s her sexual frustration that propels her. When she stabs Michael Myers repeatedly with a quilting needle, a knife, and clothes hanger, plunging the long, hard thing into Michael’s flesh? Yup, sexual frustration.

And then the chapter falls apart because Konow once again berates criticism and analysis: “As with Romero’s zombies, the critics often read too much into great horror films, and perhaps they feel they have to give them more depth in order to like them, just as many different readings were brought to Hitchcock’s work, many of which were probably the farthest thing from his mind when making the movies in the first place.”

(First, David, “furthest” is used when dealing with abstract meanings, and “farthest” with tangible, measurable distances, but I get your point. And that point, by the way, is wrong: Hitchcock very much intended various shots and moments of Vertigo to represent different philosophical and psychological afflictions—the so-called Vertigo shot? The hazy, dreamy stroll through the garden? The green daze permeating Judy’s bedroom? The many, many shots of tall buildings and the slow driving scenes up and down hills? Bernard Herrmann’s score, at once sensual and devastating, a consort of Jimmy Stewart’s character, reflecting upon and responding to his lustful obsession; the spiraling strings and ascending scales and pulsating rhythm section compulsively returning to the root note again and again in Sisyphean desperation? And Psycho’s numerous shots of stuffed animals? Taxidermy kind of being a “hobby” of Norman’s? His mother being, ya know, one of his projects? )

To support his aversion to thinking, Konow quotes Exorcist author William Peter Blatty: “I think all such speculation—and there is much of this kind—is academic foolishness primarily designed to either denigrate the work or to come up with something new that you can get into print” (well, Peter, it seems that writers can simply repeat what’s been said hundreds of times and still get it in print—ask Mr. Konow). He then quotes Night of the Living Dead auteur George Romero: “To me, the zombies have always just been zombies…people start overanalyzing it” (George, you’ve said in many, many interviews that your undead assault on the mall in Dawn of the Dead is a criticism of commercialism, so which is it: critique, or pure escapism? Please clarify). Konow claims his book is a defense of horror, an attempt to help it gain legitimacy, and then he goes and belittles the critics who use theory and scholarship to champion the films… Are you kidding me? Do you hate yourself that much that you’d shoot your own foot with such dimwitted diligence? My hair is coming out in clumps…

It boggles the mind that Konow can so sternly refuse to even think about the deeper meanings of horror films when the first page of the book says horror “has not gotten much respect from mainstream Hollywood,” and then immediately quotes Wes Craven being upset that “people don’t see any value in them.” Craven, who was a professor of English before he made movies about rape and dismemberment, tells us that films can be read in deeper ways. Why the hell would you quote him saying that and then spend 500 pages contradicting him?

Konow’s mud-minded anti-intellectualist banality first rears its empty head within the first 20 pages, when he ignores all of the subtly seditious themes in James Whale’s Frankenstein films. In his ten-page discussion of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, Konow never once brings up Whale’s subversive, homosexual and Catholic imagery, or Whale’s purposeful casting of gay actors in specific roles, or the monster’s tragic self-realization that western culture doesn’t want him. (“We belong dead!”) Whale shows considerable flare behind the camera, particularly with Bride of Frankenstein, but it’s the one-two gut-punch of his dissidence lurking just below the celluloid surface and Karloff the Uncanny’s now-iconic performance that make the Frankenstein films masterpieces. Karloff was asked to stomp around in ten-pound boots and look scary, but he somehow found empathy and humanity in the mumbling mélange of confiscated corpse bits. Whale and Karloff took a gimmicky genre and made it into art. Oh, I mean entertainment, sorry.

It seems impossible to discuss Bride of Frankenstein without discussing the gay themes, the presentation of same-sex parents and forbidden love, of Catholic guilt and redemption and self-loathing, but Konow manages in staggering fashion. He actually accomplishes a lot in Reel Terror: He manages to write a 500-page book intended to defend a genre very few people are attacking, while simultaneously refuting the insight of critics and scholars—with passive antagonism— who defend horror as art; he manages to write sloppily and lazily, even using quotation marks that face the wrong way more than once (I’m dead serious); he manages to keep his own views hidden while claiming to be an ardent fan. Konow should be congratulated: he manages to undermine his own book, over and over. Bravo.

Horror fans seeking more demanding writing are a sad bunch. In the last two years, we’ve gotten not one but two books dedicated to defending horror, but both of which settle for mundane regurgitation. If you’re curious as to why horror doesn’t get much love from serious critics or academics, the answer is vividly articulated in Reel Terror: horror fans like Konow don’t want academics to like horror. They want surface-level appreciation and pure escapist escapades. 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. By the time I got to the sources at the end, the tears were of sorrow and my fists were clenched. Konow’s anti-critic book is un-meditated reversion for serious horror.

The next time you sit through another found-footage film, or another exorcism film, or another 3D remake no one asked for, and you wonder to yourself, “Why is the bar for horror set so abysmally low?” pick up Reel Terror. “Ah. That’s why.”

RATING 4 / 10