In summing up A Quaint & Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore Frank J. Dello Stritto notes, “… a great deal has been published on the old horror films … The writers have always been a mixed bag: ranging from die-hard fans still 12 years old at heart to scholars applying weighty analyses to what are largely movies intended for 12-year-olds.”
He might have gone further. It seems sometimes that most film books appearing these days are devoted to fantastical cinema. It has been only a year since Stritto’s own Vampire Over London and David J. Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday. In that year Gary Don Rhodes’ intriguing study of White Zombie, Chris Fujiwara’s estimable book on Jacques Tourneur, Paul Leggett’s hit-and-miss appraisal of Terence Fisher’s Gothic horror films, John T. Soister’s invaluable volumes on Claude Rains and Conrad Veidt and Arthur Lennig’s updated biography of Bela Lugosi have all appeared. James Curtis’ flawed biography of James Whale is about to be reprinted yet again and the writing team of Alain Silver and James Ursini offers a new volume of essays.
The writers above — in addition to Ken Hanke, who has been restricting his energy to magazine and newspaper pages since his study of Tim Burton, and excepting Leggett and Curtis — are among the best. They treat their subjects seriously but not reverentially and are intelligent without being intellectual (though Rhodes sometimes falls into that trap). They insightfully unveil new interpretations of these old films (some, admittedly, not consciously intended by their makers). This separates them from the “12-year-olds” who steadfastly refuse to find anything beyond what they saw in those films when they were that age (adamantly denying any subtext is possible), and from the academicians who find fantasy films ripe for indigestible and opaquely worded theories without ever having simply enjoyed the films. One suspects the former incapable of thinking and the latter of enjoyment though Stritto is possibly too diplomatic to make such accusations. Still it is these writers who fall between the two extremes — taking the films seriously, not themselves – who do the most interesting writing.
Stritto is among that company. When he makes a comparison in his prologue between Lon Chaney, the “Man of a Thousand Faces” and Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces you know his book is not going to cover the same ground that has been examined endlessly since the glory days of “Famous Monsters of Filmland.” That he doesn’t work in a reference to House of a 1000 Corpses is also an indication that the focus will be solidly on the 1930s and 1940s with a smattering of titles from the silent era; Fisher’s 1962 The Phantom of the Opera is the most recent film mentioned.
Stritto loves new theories and new readings of these favorites and would probably agree with those who feel that what keeps these old favorites alive — as opposed to dusty museum pieces – – is that they are capable of reinterpretation. One of his best essays, on King Kong, cites the astonishing number of interpretations various critics have found over the years for a film likely seen as no more than a variation of “Beauty and the Beast” by its makers. Kong has been interpreted as depicting: an adolescent faced with puberty; a childlike pre- adolescent fluctuating between naivete and violence; a parable of racial paranoia and miscegenation, and a political allegory (intriguingly Hitler banned the film while Stalin praised it; they obviously sensed something). At its furry heart, Kong may be no more than a simple adventure but it must also possess additional resonance if it remains a popular film – – and one much written about — 70 years following its first appearance before an audience.
The author seems to have spent as much time wolfing down writings on films as watching them and loves sharing these works with his readers. In a few essays this becomes a detriment as Stritto’s contribution becomes little more than segues between quotes. In the Kong piece and most others, however, he does offer his own observations. He may be the first writer to note that the second half of Kong doesn’t merely parallel but is a nearly exact retelling of the first half, the major difference being that Ann Darrow is tied to an altar before an audience in the first part while in the second it is the giant ape; both are posed in similar fashion, sacrifices to Carl Denham’s ambition.
His chapter on Universal’s mummy movies details the literary predecessors of a horror icon generally considered to be a cinematic invention and reveals a number of details which reappear in the movies; apparently the screenwriters did more research than anyone imagined (only John L. Balderstone, who wrote the 1933 film, was known to have any knowledge of Egyptology, courtesy of having covered the excavation of King Tut’s tomb as a journalist). A healthy part of each essay is devoted to such literary examination and while this is not unheard of in other works on the genre — Peter Haining’s books in particular come to mind — Stritto seems more intent on tracing such pre-movie history than most.
Most of the essays included appeared originally in Cult Movies magazine and therein lies their chief weak point. The need to keep them to a manageable length as often as not results in Stritto making some particularly fascinating observation and then moving on rather than exploring it in the depth it deserves. It’s arguably a minor flaw; the observation, after all, is there but it still prevents this collection from offering as much to chew on as it might. The most satisfying essays are those on the 1931 Dracula or those which cover a limited number of films; particularly good in the latter category are several essays which find common themes in films not generally considered together. His essay on the eight Frankenstein films seems like it barely scratches below the surface by comparison. To be fair, some of this might be more an impression than a fact; observations on the Universal monsters are often spread over several essays since their adventures began intersecting in the productions of the 1940s.
While not the absolute best book ever written on the horror film (an honor that goes to Skal’s The Monster Show) Stritto’s work is an excellent one and a valuable addition to the literature available on these classics.