Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Book Review: Dreaming of Nightmares – A Crash Course in Horror Movie History; by Nige Burton and Jamie Jones

Text © Richard Gary / Indie Horror Films, 2016
Images from the Internet

Dreaming of Nightmares: A Crash Course in Horror Movie History
By Nige Burton and Jamie Jones
Stripley Media Ltd.
28 pages, 2016

I’m old enough to have grown up with Olde Tyme monster movies, mostly in black and white, usually on WPIX, shown on New York’s “Chiller Theater,” sometimes hosted by Zacherle(y). Whether the Universal films, or even schlock like The Monster That Conquered the World (1957), Plan Nine from Outer Space (1959), The Monster of Piedras Blancas (1959), and even Attack of the Giant Crab Monsters (1957; where you could see the sneakers of the guy holding up the crab suit), it didn’t matter, you were glued to the screen. In fact, the first horror film I remember on TV (not counting The Wizard of Oz) was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

I’d often also go to the theater to see the latest AIP Poe adaptation with Vincent Price, enjoy bad gimmick films like Two on a Guillotine (1965) where a skeleton flew down on a wire in the theater…just once before it was knocked down by kids throwing candy and popcorn boxes), and the film that scared the shit out of me, Straight-Jacket (1964), where I couldn’t sleep for a couple of weeks (I was 9 years old). The last film I saw that really had a profound effect on my fear level was The Haunting (1963), which I saw when I was a teen in the early ‘70s (since then, I’ve probably read Shirley Jackson’s original novel, The Haunting of Hill House from 1959, about five times).I’ve been watching these kinds of films since as long as I can remember.

Magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland [FMF] and Castle of Frankenstein were great primers and history lessons, telling stories and showing behind the scene photos of people like Karloff, Lugosi, Harryhausen, Lorre, Cushing, Lee, and the countless Hammer actresses (especially Castle…). Then came Classic Monsters mag at some point.

When I had the offer to see this book for free as a .pdf (you can do if you visit the website and sign up for the monthly newsletter), I figured, why not. I find that most younger fans’ knowledge of horror starts around the period of Night of the Living Dead (1968; yes, I know it’s a gross generalization, but that’s okay).

Other than being quite a slim volume, the first inside image I noticed was a full-page picture on page 2 of a close-up of William Henry Pratt (aka Boris Karloff), and I thought, “Oh, that’s from The Old Dark House (1932). That’s when I knew I was in the right place.

It’s pretty quick to see by the grammar and tone of the book that it is British. Well, first there’s the use of “s” instead of “z,” such as in “generalisation.” Then there are some quaint wordings like “whilst” and “behindhanded” (the last word not even recognized by Spellchecker). Who knows, perhaps “unbeknownst” will show up?

But what about the content? Okay, okay, stop badgering me. The book is broken up into six chapters, each covering a period of time or era. The first chapter, “Silent Shudders,” focuses on the advent of film in the late 1800s to the introduction of sound in 1929. The biggies are here, such as Murneau’s Nosferatu (1922), Edison’s Frankenstein (1910), and especially Lon Chaney (Sr.). I would argue they left out Metropolis (1927), but I suppose technically that’s science fiction (it can be both; I mean the Maria robot was creepy as hell). I understand why they put in George Méiliès since his films did have a sort of devil character, but there was no real narrative story. I propose that the first really frightening film was Edison’s Great Train Robbery in 1903: at the end of the western, one of the villain characters (who was killed in the story) is shown in a portrait level shot. Facing directly to the camera (i.e., the audience), pulls out a pistol, points it at the viewer, and fires. That may seem kind of benign now, but then, because of the lack of context, people in the theater screamed, ducked and some even fainted. 

The second chapter deals with “The Golden Age,” or for those of us fans of the period genre, the Universal monsters. Of course, the first up, and rightfully so, is Dracula (1931). While each chapter is short, there are some interesting tidbits, such as resting the myth of Lon Chaney being up for the Lugosi role, and that Lugosi turned down the Frankenstein (1931) monster due to its lack of dialog. Burton wrote books that were definitive histories of these two films, so I believe his credentials. It’s amusing to see the authors’ grammar rear up again when describing director James Whale as a Brummie (I looked it up; it’s someone from Birmingham, UK). However, their amusing bias comes through when they make sure to describe Karloff as British (where he lived until his early 20s, when he moved to Toronto).

Of course other films than Universal are discussed, such as RKO’s King Kong (1933). Again, they are correct that the Golden Age ended with the censorship boards, but they discuss it under the British Board of Film Censors, rather than the effect of the Motion Picture Production Code (MPPA, aka the Hay’s Code) in America, where the films actually originated, which had a more drastic and direct artistic negative effect (FYI, I did my Master’s Thesis, in part, on the Code).

In the third chapter, “Second Wind,” they delve into how the monster machine was turned off because of the gatekeeping Code, but thanks to a bill of Frankenstein and Dracula shown towards the end of the ‘30s, there was such a profit margin that the factory started again, with the first big star being Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman (1941), and his revitalizing a new Egyptian myth with The Mummy’s Tomb (1942). The profitability of these monsters was the first time that the sequel train seriously pulled out of the station, with the likes of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and House of Dracula (1945). They had mentioned the artistic success of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), in the previous chapter, and acknowledge that many of the other sequels were more quickie B-films than A-line quality. Other studios, such as RKO, went in another direction and tended to focus on more human monsters, such as with The Body Snatchers and Isle of the Dead (both 1945 and both with Karloff, who was loaned to the studio).

“Out of this World,” the fourth chapter, delves into the 1950s paranoia of science fiction like This Planet Earth (1955) and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). While science was in some form in films like Frankenstein, it was dark and mysterious arts that paralleled alchemy. By the ‘50s, however, with the ending of World War II and huge leaps and bounds made by technology and science that affected everyday life, such as television and Jonas Salk’s serum, it became more of a daily reality rather than an electric and test tube filled hocus pocus. Radiation fear was a big factor that entered into mainstream culture in the ‘50s, with giant insects and bugs, as well as monsters (e.g., Godzilla in 1956), which were seen as nearly a possibility (much like fear of a viral Zombie Apocalypse seems now).

Burton and Jones are correct, moreover, that the Comics Code had some effect on the death of that type of sci-fi (though, of course, it didn’t end completely). What really brought the end of this period in the States was a series of lawsuits by foreign films (e.g., The Bicycle Thief) about unfair distribution; according to the Hays Code, the companies that played the films also owned the theaters, shutting out foreign and independent releases. The end result of a Supreme Court decision was the studios were no longer allowed to do both (anti-trust laws), which wore down the MMPA enough so that independent studios could open and get their films distributed (e.g., those by the likes of Hershell Gordon Lewis, David Friedman, and of course, Roger Corman).

Another positive function of this period was the sexing up of the cinema, where monsters met women in tight clothing or even (gasp) bathing suits, such as the Black Lagoon chap kidnaping Julie Adams, or astronauts finding a zaftig Zsa Zsa Gabor in The Queen of Outer Space (1958).

Rightfully so, this leads to the next and fifth chapter of British monsters in “New Blood.” Of course, a large portion this focuses on the most important and influential British (I would say European) film studio, Hammer Pictures, which was arguable the Universal Studios of the late 1950s into the mid-1970s, even reviving the Frankenstein and Dracula mythos. This led to the rise of new horror icons such as Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. It also led to the further lowering of the cleavage line.

There is a whole section of American cinema that is not addressed in the book, namely the indies of the ‘60s that dealt heavily in gore and sex, such as Blood Feast (1964), Two Thousand Maniacs (1965), and Mantis in Black Lace (1968), in addition to the myriad of Corman releases.

The final and sixth chapter is titled “Slasher Suburbia.” The authors posit that the slasher films started in the vacuum of the end of Hammer as a force in 1972, but I would disagree. Night of the Living Dead (1968; it was not a slasher film per se, but the level of gore equaled one), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and its predecessor Last House on the Left (1972) were all filmed while Hammer still existed and was a driving concern, and I do believe most would cite these films as a reference point more than Hammer (as wonderful as those films were, no argument with the authors). In fact, in modern extreme horror cinema, many do not even bother to go past these touchstone films, considering many of the Hammers were benign in comparison (I believe this is an error; it’s good to learn the history). To be fair, Burton and Jones do declare Psycho (1960) as the first slasher.

Nicely, they also give credit to the giallo for helping launch it, and of course it was the advent of video that made giallo have any real lasting impact. And it’s smart that they call it Suburban Horror, as many of the films take place at home (or someone’s house); another way they put it, I would postulate, is the events happen in “the ordinary.”

What follows the introduction of slashers is actually away from the ordinary, though in somewhat serene settings, leading to new icons to replace the Frankenstein monsters, Draculas, werewolves, etc. These came with the names Michael, Jason and Freddy. A neighborhood, a children’s camp in the woods, and in dreams are examples of what I’m going to call the “extraordinary ordinary.” That is part of where the story here ends, with the authors asking, “What’s next.”

Well, in part to answer that question by me is twofold. First, there is the introduction of digital production, with cheap cameras that look good and editing programs on the computer, creating a world in which anyone can be a filmmaker, even more so than with 8mm or 16mm thanks to means of distribution through the Internet and conventions. Films now are often more visceral and yet sometimes sillier, due to this. This gives rise to the likes of omnipresent zombies, torture porn, and handheld found-footage miasma, as well as some masterful works such as those by the likes of indie filmmakers like Richard Griffin and Dustin Wayde Mills (among many others).

This book is chock full of really fine stills, which thanks to it being a .pdf can be enlarged. That being said, perhaps I’m being a bit hard on what they didn’t put in, considering the thin volume, but I also believe it is also somewhat cultural, as they are looking from a British standard, and as I stated, some of these films didn’t play there, or the laws were different as far as content. Many of the more graphic films were banned in England in the 1980s as “Video Nasties.”

Most of this book could have been lifted right off the pages of FMF, but that is not meant as anywhere near an insult. It’s actually a really fun read, and the authors make some really fine points and history details, some I had never really thought of or known (remembered?) before.

To get the book you do have to join, but it’s still worth looking for, as it is associated with Classic Monsters of the Movies magazine. It is a fun read, as well. 

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