The Videohound’s Horror Show
by Mike Mayo
Visible Ink Press
I’ve told this story a few times before, but so what? It’s a Halloween tradition. Here goes: I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. What am I doing? I’m sitting here on Labor Day writing reviews for Ink Nineteen. Tomorrow, it’s back to work in the exciting world of civil engineering. Don’t get me wrong, I do, in fact, love what I do for a living. But where I should be and where I should be now and should have been ten, fifteen years ago is… Hollywood.
Seriously. Growing up, I immersed myself in the culture of horror movies, ghost stories, and the like. I discovered a particular talent for theatrical make-up and miniature set building. Though I have but a few of the deteriorating first-prize-winning Halloween costumes, some of the haunted house sets I built for scaring trick-or-treaters, and none of the hand-built models, there are a few photos lying around that testify to a talent that should have “written my own ticket” into the realms of Hollywood horror films. I can’t really blame myself for not following up because it doesn’t seem fair to expect someone who blossoms at eleven years old in 1974 to possess the spirit, drive and wherewithal required to exploit that talent to the fullest. Especially when, around every single corner, be it parents, siblings, peers, grandparents, teachers, coaches, etc., I encountered roadblocks of disapproval, disparaging remarks, ridicule; you-name-it. My creative spark, my imagination, my fascination with horror movies and haunted houses was to be exterminated. I was a sensitive kid and had no one around, I mean no one, zero, for encouragement — except when Halloween came around and everyone was amazed. Blown away! What else could I do but fail? Hey, don’t you think this skeleton flying out the upstairs window took some planning? How about that fully-operational guillotine? I discovered pretty fast that things were stupid until Halloween came around… In the end, my last hurrahs came in the early 1980’s when I’d win prizes at Halloween parties, but by then I’d been shamed out of the horror business, in favor of “school,” ten years earlier.
To this day, I cannot watch horror movies, I cannot watch documentaries on motion picture special effects, I cannot look at movie books without having all my anger come to an intense boil. I don’t even go in for Halloween much since there are very few “good sports” around.
I seriously believe that had I been encouraged to pursue a career (that is, I needed a mentor), not in “theater arts” (all those people want to do is boring drama), but in horror, Hollywood would not be putting out all the shit they’ve been throughout the `80’s and ’90s. I would have been in charge and I’d definitely not gone the “slasher” route. My films would concentrate on the supernatural and would have been genuinely scary. OK, maybe I’m giving myself too much credit, but, see, the horror movies I grew up with were all the Universal horror classics, especially Lon Chaney Jr. in The Wolfman.
Now, to the review of this excellent book of horror film criticism. Mike Mayo assembled 999 reviews of horror films from the beginning (the Edison Frankenstein) through right about now (Starship Troopers and Scream 2). My experience with encyclopedic film books as that every other sentence is a film title, with allows them to mention every horror film made, but with no serious criticism. Or they’re filled with genuinely bad criticism of a few representative films of one genre or another. While I realize there are a few exceptions to this rule (I own most of them, I’m sure), time and time again, I’m proven right. Time and time again, I pick up a horror film book off a coffee table and there’s no mention of the contributions of Ray Bradbury. Edgar Allen Poe is given a gratuitous nod, but it’s Stephen King and Clive Barker who are the real “masters.” Too often Jack Pierce and Dick Smith are given brief mention while Tom Savini and Rick Baker are lauded as the greatest in horror make-up. (They’re great, mind you, but Pierce and Smith deserve Academy Awards named after them.)
Without question, I am a snob. But take a look at the horror movies of the last twenty years. Most concentrate on intense gore and quickie, hit-and-run terrors, tossing a good story, exploration of the supernatural, etc. to the wind in favor of a “formula” designed to squeeze the most out of a retarded and numbed movie-going public. Would a fine film like Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter make it past any twentysomething “producer” who’d grown up with Freddy Krueger?
While Mike Mayo doesn’t give films like Captain Kronos and Vampire Circus (two great Hammer films) as much credit as I do (rent them and see `em back to back, Vampire Circus first), he gives them fair treatment, enough that the reader will seek them out at the video store. What I found impressive was Mayo’s coverage of international films, especially far-East horror and his acknowledgment of the poor treatment H.P. Lovecraft’s work has received in film. Though the filmed version of The Lurking Fear is the worst of the lot to-date (and possibly one of the worst films ever made), Mayo’s found an even worse one in Cthulu Mansion, which I will not see, as I take his word for it. He does mention what I think as the best Lovecraft-to-film work, The Resurrected as being worth seeing. And I now have to seek out the 1987 film The Curse as it’s another filmed version of “The Colour Out of Space.”
Mayo also gives good mention of the filmed stories of Dennis Weatley (To the Devil A Daughter) and Richard Matheson (The Omega Man), he rightly classifies films like Angel Heart as horror, gives just treatment to the works of H.G. Lewis, and is rock solid in his discussions of Vincent Price, John Carpenter, Brian DePalma, et al. The only problem I have concerns reviewers labeling films as “dated” (though he liked it, White Zombie, with Bela Lugosi, is “dated”). Personally, I consider all horror films “timeless.” Seen in a dark room, with your best girl trembling by your side, no horror film is “dated” (except maybe those stoopid slasher films).
I consider this work as useful as Halliwell’s Film Guide and the Psychotronic books, the best all-around film encyclopedias (better than Roger Ebert’s or Leonard Maltin’s — which both are very good, mind you), in that Mike Mayo’s love of the horror film made this book a work of passion for the genre, rather than an the typical critic’s exercise in ego-gratification. As a horror purist, where mood and story are of paramount importance, it’s nice to find a book written by a like mind. I highly recommend it as a guide for this Halloween’s video choices.