horror films

A Wonderful Cultural History Lesson

Several years ago–long before this blog was born–I stumbled upon a series of books that i absolutely love and that I dip into every once in a while, although I know them basically by heart.

These books were published in the early 2000s by Collector’s Press (which I can’t seem to find today, so perhaps they no longer exist): Fantasy of the Twentieth Century and Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century.  The fantasy volume in particular is spectacularly well-thought out, but both are good.

But I needed to complete the genre set.

Horror of the 20th Century.jpg

Horror of the Twentieth Century, written by Robert Weinberg, didn’t let me down.  Although it wasn’t quite up to the Fantasy volume (I am in awe of that one, it’s a wonderful history), it does an excellent job of tracking the literary and cinematic fortunes of the horror genre through the 1900s (and with a bit of history to set the stage).

Of the three genres, Horror is probably the one that, particularly in the first half of the 20th century survived because of the movies, and that is reflected particularly well in this book.  Also, the horror boom and crash are looked at long and hard, which is key to understanding the genre today.

Since I’m not a collector, the text is as important as the images here, but as a writer, it’s always fun to fantasize about what would have happened if I’d been active in any of the eras described within.  Would this or that Weird Tales cover have had my name on it, or, better still would I have rated a Hannes Bok cover painting?  Reading these books creates a tangible feeling of connection with the men and women writing in bygone eras, sometimes even more than reading the stories did.

For readers who aren’t writers, these books are just as good (probably even better, as there’s no pressure to compare yourself to the heroes of the past…) and it’s the kind of book you’ll find yourself pulling off the shelves whenever you have a few minutes of free time and the novel you’re reading just isn’t as engrossing as you wanted.

In short, this is a great primer for those just getting in to any of these genres, but it’s also the stuff experts’ dreams are made of.

Hugely recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is a collection of dark fiction which would fit beautifully within the volume we’re discussing.  It’s called Pale Reflection and you can buy it here.

Plot Versus Divine Retribution – Two Very Different Horror Classics

I’ve mentioned before, most recently here, that I had subscribed to the Easton Press Horror Classics.  This series allowed me to read a good number of works that I’d not read before (but that every horror aficionado should read).  But it also allowed me the opportunity to replace some dog-eared paperbacks with better looking books and, much more importantly, to reread some classics that I’d last perused in high school.

Easton Press Frankenstein

Our first subject today is Frankenstein.  Talk about a seminal work.  Mary Shelley‘s little ghost story written for a challenge in which she was very much the junior writer among the participating trio not only established her as the most famous of the three (I challenge even the readers of this august blog to name a work by Bryce Shelley or even by Lord Byron without Googling it–and they were much more famous than 18-year-old Mary before the publication of Frankenstein).

A blow-by-blow is unnecessary, of course, as everyone knows the story (mostly from watching the numerous film adaptations), but suffice to say that, if you haven’t reread this recently (or have–shame, shame!–only seen the films) I highly recommend it.  This isn’t a book about a guy who builds a monster; it’s a tale of suffering and penance and retribution, and ultimately about justice.  It’s more of a sad tale than a frightening one, and the structure, another thing that falls into the cracks of memory, is interesting, couched as it is in epistolary format.

Of course, this one isn’t really a horror book; it’s the very first real science fiction novel.  It explains its creature via science that still makes a certain amount of sense today, as opposed to the handwavery that was so common back then and still is today.  Even more than the pathos of the creature, that is what I like most about this book.

There’s a reason the book is a classic, and it has little to do with what makes the film a classic – they are very different experiences.

Easton Press Phantom

The second novel I reread was Gaston Leroux‘s The Phantom of the Opera, a book that became much more interesting to me once I realized that Leroux, far from being a horror writer, was actually a writer of detective fiction.

Read back-to-back with Frankenstein, the overarching impression is that the plot is much more important in the Leroux than in the Shelley.  There is little insight into the mind of the Phantom (or the other protagonists, really) other than through his actions.  The upshot, of course, is that watching any of the film adaptations, or even (shudder) the Lloyd Weber musical* gives one a reasonable approximation of what the book feels like.

This one is basically a crime novel with a horror element, and it reads that way.  And that may also be what made it so popular in the first place.

Perhaps the main takeaway from these readings is that the eternal discussion about whether a focus on plot or character make a book “better” are pretty much moot and a waste of everyone’s time.  Only the passing of the years can establish a book as a classic, and these two are basically opposite in their approach to that equation (Frankenstein drags a bit while deep thoughts are expressed, The Phantom races along) and yet both have become parts of the popular consciousness by way of literary acceptance.

Just about the only thing they have in common is a memorable and menacing, yet somewhat pathetic monster as the antagonist…  perhaps that’s the trick.

 

*Honesty compels me to admit that, while musicals in general (except for the comedies from the London stage of the twenties and thirties) should be punishable by death, The Phantom is actually bearable.  One of the few that can say that.

Victims, Then and Now

The Seventh Victim

 

As long-time readers of this site already know, we’ve been watching and reviewing films from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in approximately chronological order, and we’re currently involved in the 1940s.  Most films on this list have been reviewed to death by critics, so we try to give it a bit of a more global view, using the clearness of hindsight to aid us in the process.

Today’s film isn’t all that well known, and is RKO’s The Seventh Victim, which was billed, back in it’s day (1943), as a horror movie.  This probably isn’t surprising, as the plot centers around a Satanist cult, which, one imagines, was seriously frightening to audiences seventy years ago.  

Seventh Victim - Subway Scene

If it happened to be filmed today, it would probably be classified as a suspense flick rather than a horror movie.  And that brings up an interesting dichotomy in the way the world has evolved.

No one will be surprised to hear that moviegoing audiences are inured to issues that were taboo in the 1940s.  Violence, gore, sex and, yes, Satanism, all need to be VERY extreme to get more than a passing glance in a film.  Even images of sex have gotten so easy to find online that the days of teenagers staying up late in the hope of catching a glimpse of a breast or (wonder of wonders) some pubic hair on late-night cable are long gone – which is likely to kill the air time of Madonna’s Body of Evidence!

 

The strange thing is that, while this was all going on, the tolerance of society for violence and gore have gone way down.  Today, one can go to jail for the slightest physical confrontation in any part of the civilized world, even if no one is seriously hurt.  And gore?  Let me ask you something: when was the last time you slaughtered your own dinner?

Of course, some will say that violence is still happening, and it’s terrible and the world is such a violent place, and it’s getting worse, and…  breathless pause to see if anyone is listening.

And yes, there are still some wars out there, but they are extremely localized and actual fighting affects a much smaller proportion of the world’s population than ever anything in the 11th century would have (to take a random example).  In fact, things that today would make front-page news in most places, such as a brigand’s attack and murder / rape of the occupants of a caravan, were commonplace occurrences barely of note unless one of the murdered parties was a friend.

The world, despite what alarmists like to state, is not getting more violent.  Quite the contrary.

So why have movies moved so far that The Seventh Victim is more quaint than shocking (still good, just not scary)?  

Gore AND sex...

One theory says that popular media sublimated the fears of the Cold War…  but that’s a bit too much of a sociological leap for us here at CE to make (we tend towards individual interpretations of phenomena – herd patterns are best left to people who study livestock).  So we suggest that either violence has become acceptable as it touches individuals much less than it used to and is therefore fair game for a movie or that the individual need for violence is coming through our mass entertainment.

And Satanism?  Hell, reading their commandments makes them look sane compared to some.  OK, maybe not quite sane…

 

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