“The Monster Show!” Book Review

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Terror from Beyond the Daves is pleased to welcome guest writer, and winner of our “Hidden Horror Contest,” Mark Spangler!

Book Review: “The Monster Show”

By Mark Spangler

“All monsters are expressions or symbols of some kind of birth process, however distorted or bizarre.”  So says David J. Skal in the opening sentence of chapter ten in his  book “The Monster Show” (W.W. Norton & Company).  Don’t let the name fool you.   Like many a horror film (“I Married A Monster From Outer Space” comes to mind), there’s much more substance lurking behind the exploitative title than the name – or any name – could possibly indicate. The subtitle, “A cultural history of horror” is a much more accurate depiction of what the reader will find in these well-researched and analyzed 432 pages.  From a fun-filled exploration of teen-oriented films on the 50’s drive-in circuit  to an examination of the role that horror film escapism played in helping to digest the real-life calamities of 20th century war, this book runs the gambit from the terrific terrors of the silver screen to a common-sense analysis of why these motion pictures are not only fun, but of vital importance to the culture. No stop is ignored in this horrific journey and we joyfully ride along with Mr. Skal as he explores the brilliance and tragedy of director Tod Browning’s early film work, the European influence on early-American horror cinema, freakshow biographies, , monster-comedy, and two monster kid classics; “Famous Monsters of Filmland” and Aurora model monster kits (I had the Mummy).  We also visit the artistry of make-up professionals throughout the history of the film industry, reflect upon the horror-inspired artwork of Diane Arbus, visit the late and beloved Forrest J. Ackerman in his “Ackermansion”, examine technical tidbits of films old and new  and finally end up with the real-life terrors of HIV, the Gulf War and Oprah.

Skal proves, beyond any argument, that the bloodletting on screen has had, and continues to have, far-reaching implications on society as a whole, regardless of who is, or isn’t going into the theatres to see them. Take his revelation that The National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures opted to bestow Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968) with a condemned rating. The decision  wasn’t simply an act of disapproval of the movie and its  adult themes.  By raising the warning flag for the nation’s catholics, Skal reveals that merely going to the movie would qualify as a venial sin, requiring a visit to a priest for absolution in the privacy of the confessional.  The implication is clear… it wasn’t just going to the movie that was the problem.  It was the desire to go to  that was at issue.  Horror films certainly have a knack for getting into people’s heads, no?

There are a great many photographs in the book including movie artwork, film stills, behind-the-scenes shots and many other types of visuals that serve to enhance the text rather than detract from it.  These range from the merely exciting to the deeply moving.  For many readers, these images are sure to evoke a certain measure of nostalgia for the era that speaks to them most profoundly, regardless of age. The picture of the “It’s Alive” baby from 1974 is almost as disturbing as the film itself.   We see the first edition of “Famous Monsters of Filmland”  which includes publisher James Warren’s now-famous portrayal of a playboyish Frankenstein monster on the front cover from February, 1958, and a much-more graphic “Fangoria” cover from the summer of 1990.  Schwarzenegger is depicted in his hideous glory, emeshed in chains from “Terminator 2”.  Images, such as advertising  art for 1943’s “Franksenstein Meets the Wolfman”, can’t help but be met with a smile, while stills of scarred real-life World War One victims from French film director Able Gance’s 1937 anti-war epic “J’Accuse” can’t help but haunt anyone that sees them.   Perhaps the most clear-cut, photographic example of the popularity and power of classic-age American horror is revealed by the street scene of the revival of “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” at the Victory Theatre in Brooklyn Heights, New York.  The 1938 snapshot shows the sidewalk in front of the movie house  jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with mostly adult film goers while to the left, near the curb, a massive pile of intertwined children’s bicycles lay like a chaotic pile of gnarled humanity under  the marquee. Would this grouping of people of all ages have occurred at a James Cagney or Clark Gable film, and in such an orgy of urgency? Not likely.  The proof is in the reality of the mountain of bikes surrounded by a no-less enthusiastic crowd of sophisticated adults, all of whom are anxiously waiting their turn to see monsters in the dark.

Skal’s choice of visuals perfectly compliment the words he has placed on the page. All are wonderfully reproduced  in glorious black-and-white and not a square inch of paper is wasted with overly familiar photos that horror fans have seen ad nauseam.  Even Lugosi’s “Dracula” appears fresh and new with snapshots of him as a startling younger vampire, taken from the 1927 Broadway stage production. Skal’s choice to display the earlier photo rather than  shopworn stills from Universal’s 1931 film version shows a deft touch and a greater depth of understanding for the genre than many other authors have displayed.

While Skal enthralls the established horror fanatic with his meticulous research and sociological analysis, ,one would feel justified in assuming that he might lose the cavalier fan with this extreme attention to  detail regarding the origins and meaning of horror cinema. Not true… Skal wins this game hands-down.   Even a causal fan cannot – if they are in the least bit serious in their approach to the subject –  deny that nearly everything presented here is pure gold. This occurs not only  because of the onslaught of excellent photography but due to the printed word that perfectly accompanies the text. This book weaves together the written word, the imagination of the reader and the imagination made real via images,  without a seam.  Mr. Skal accomplishes this trifecta without insulting the reader, regardless of their level of fandom.  His book pleases all, yet still demands the reader to ask for more, to think and to question.  Skal makes even the mundane interesting, regardless of the level of the reader’s interest.  He simply writes that well.

One of the few areas  where the author misses the mark occurs when the subject bounces from one topic to another in rapid succession to set up the direction of thought.  In one example, late in the book, Skal compares Michael Jackson to Peter Pan, likens Peter Pan to Dracula, “proves” it by referencing the youth angle of Joel Schumaker’s “The Lost Boys”, and then makes the leap from the theme of rejuvenation to the likes of liposuction, collagen injections and transsexualism. His real goal was an indictment of the cosmetic surgery industry, albeit with some interesting horror film parallels along the way.  The problem lies not in his logic (which makes sense), but the speed in which he makes the connections to get where he’s headed.  This is all accomplished in the first third of one paragraph.   We don’t always need to know the entire manufacturing process behind why a chocolate ice cream cone is a nice thing.  Sometimes it’s enough to know that it just tastes good.

A casual reader will reap more benefits  than a more enlightened horror fan by reading this book because a whole new world will be introduced to them.  The established enthusiast will be enriched, not so much by the writing style, but by the analysis the author brings to the subject, the amazing photography that peppers the book’s 400+ pages and David Skal’s insightful vision and revelatory  commentary – such as the details regarding  the parallel-filming of the 1931’s “Dracula” in both English and Spanish versions.  Skal would agree with critics who feel the Spanish version was far superior to Lugosi’s effort.

This book is as important to the horror film fan as any this reviewer can recall.  It’s as relevant in 1992, when it was originally published,  as is it is today.  (An updated version of the book with a new afterword was published in 2001.) Horror is timeless and crucial in allowing us to gain insight into who we are and why we feel the way we do about all things ghoulish. It’s fun, but it isn’t child’s play and it’s important to our culture. “The Monster Show” has stood the test of time.  It was joy reading it all over again.

Mark Spangler~

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