Monsters and Matinees Talks with
Horror Author David J. Skal about ‘Fright Favorites’
Open the new book Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond to find this dedication from author David J. Skal:
“To monster kids of all ages everywhere. (You know who you are.)”
If you recognize yourself in that dedication (and you probably do if you are reading Monsters and Matinees), that would make Skal happy.
Monster kids is the affectionate name given to those who grew up during the monster movie craze of the 1950s, a time when they also discovered movies from their parents’ generation on TV.
“I’m part of the original generation of monster kids, a phrase we’ve all coined to describe when these films were first released to TV and seen by a new generation.” Skal said in a recent telephone interview to talk about the book, a collaboration with Turner Classic Movies, and the ever-growing horror genre.
“Our parents had seen them in movie theaters in the 1930s and ‘40s; in the ‘50s and ‘60s we were rediscovering them. Unlike today there was no home video, no streaming. You would see these films when a TV station would show them to you.”
The fact that they were not easy to see created a mystique around the movies – the same films we now get to watch with regularity on Turner Classic Movies.
“I dreamed of the day home video machines would be available,” Skal recalled, adding since they couldn’t see the movies often, they experienced the films in other ways. “You experienced these films virtually – there were fan clubs and magazines like Famous Monsters that were filled with pictures. You could read the stories and re-experience the films – it reinforced the appreciation and love of these films in a very unique way.”
That deep passion, Skal said, results in “an instant camaraderie around people who came of age in those days and ever since.”
Fright Favorites is the latest in the nicely done TCM book series, a collection of compact and informative hardcovers that focus on a genre or topic such as Christmas in the Movies by Jeremy Arnold, A Star is Born: Judy Garland and the Film That Got Away, by her daughter Lorna Luft, and Hollywood Black: The Stars, the Films and the Filmmakers by Donald Bogle.
Skal, a historian, critic and the noted author of such extensive horror books as Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, said there was a lot of back and forth with TCM and Running Press on the book’s content. (An enjoyable experience, he added, because there were so many film fans involved.)
“Years ago, it would have been easy to do a comprehensive horror book, but not now,” Skal said. “Horror has become a major, major field with all of these subgenres – everything from realistic psychological horror to total fantasy to supernatural and everything in between.”
Originally, he was going to focus on movies with a Halloween theme – an early title for the book was Halloween Favorites – then decided to go broader with horror films to watch all year.
The book title speaks of 31 movies, but readers get twice that number as Skal pairs each film with a shorter entry on another in a double feature format. For Them! (1954), he recommends Earth vs. The Spider. He pairs Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) with the earlier Invaders from Mars (1953). A double feature of Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Shape of Water (2017) is a natural.
Skal suggests we watch the highly regarded Cat People (1952) with a film you may not know: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). Seen in the Women Make Film documentary series on TCM, the Persian-language film’s “noirish visuals bring to mind the camerawork of Val Lewton, …” Skal writes.
The articles on the 31 main movies each have credits, plot and an overview with nuggets of the type of anecdotal information film buffs love.
“One of the reasons I was interested in doing the book, is that I’ve been writing books about horror movies for 30 years now. I’ve done a lot of research I haven’t been able to use. There are anecdotes and insights I haven’t put into a book before and I’m happy to have them here,” Skal said.
Anecdotal information includes the fact that Nosferatu was based on vampire legends that Albin Grau, the film’s producer and production designer, heard during World War I (creepy); the ongoing copyright battles over Dracula between Mrs. Bram Stoker and filmmakers; and the series of cost-cutting measures that trimmed the 3-D and color from Them!.
With film being such a visual medium, Skal also spent a great deal of time compiling photos and it shows. There are gorgeous, glossy pics on nearly every page. Many are photos we haven’t seen before and if we have, the quality isn’t anywhere near what it is in Fright Favorites.
“I love digging for photos. I spent almost as much time finding the right photos for the book as I spent writing it and I love it,” Skal said.
Classic movie fans will appreciate the fact that Skal believes the basic building blocks of horror were set in stone many years ago. That’s one reason why Bela Lugosi, Skal said, is “A Dracula for all time.”
We easily recognize the four themes Skal names as the building blocks of horror:
- The supernatural monster/the returning dead (think Nosferatu, Dracula, Black Sunday).
- The monster of science (Frankenstein, The Curse of Frankenstein).
- The shape-shifting monster (The Wolf Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Thing-1982).
- The freak or misshapen thing that challenges our boundaries of horror (Freaks).
Now take those themes and add, subtract and mix elements together for endless possibilities that keep the genre evolving.
“It’s been said in literature and drama there are only six basic plots. There aren’t many more plots to scare us, but there are infinite ways to put them together and take them apart. It seems to be one of our favorite pastimes,” Skal laughed.
A vampire, for example, can be the rat-like Count Orlok in Nosferatu, the suave European count in Dracula, Barbara Steele’s vengeful vampire-witch in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday, the cowboy vampires in Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark and the rowdy teen gang in the dark comedy The Lost Boys.
(Go ahead and try this with your favorite horror theme or creature – it’s fun.)
Fright Favorites also has its share of family films and comedies which have their place in horror.
“Laughing and screaming are very similar responses – they are ways to release tension,” Skal said, mentioning the horror-comedy gems Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and Young Frankenstein.
Writing Fright Favorites was special for Skal because it allowed him to reach people who “are not academics but dearly love these films, maybe for reasons they don’t even understand,” he said.
He especially appreciates hearing from fans who thank him for validating their interest in horror movies.
“That is heartwarming. It’s funny that monsters can be creatures of such affection given what they are – objectively they are hideous things,” Skal said. “We dismiss monsters as kitsch at our peril – they are more substantial and far more interesting than many people expect.”
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Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond, by David J. Skal. 224 pages from Running Press; $25.
Horror on Turner Classic Movies
While the book is written with the idea that horror movies can – and should – be watched all year long, October is a favorite time for expanded Halloween and horror film viewing. Again this year, TCM has packed October with horror movies (nearly 100). Friday night programming is exclusively horror and Monday nights are devoted to Star of the Month Peter Cushing. Other horror films are sprinkled throughout the month. Here’s a look at the schedule.
– Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Toni’s Monsters and Matinees articles here.Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.