"Horror Film Directors 1931-1990" Book Review
Written by Robert Gold
Published by McFarland
Written by Dennis Fischer
1991, 877 pages, Reference
Released on May 10th, 2011
Author Dennis Fischer’s Horror Film Directors 1931-1990 is an in-depth study of the genre and its most prominent filmmakers spanning a six-decade period. In his introduction, he begins by setting up a few guidelines, first defining what a horror movie is, the different forms it takes and why being scared appeals to audiences. He explains what a director does on set and offers the stipulation that said filmmaker must have at least three genre credits to his name to be included in this book. From there he offers a detailed breakdown of the evolution of this style of cinema starting with the silent era, advancing to the Universal classic monsters of the ‘30s and ‘40s and on to Hammer Films’ output a decade later. Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe pictures highlight the 1960s while religious horror rules the ‘70s before making way for the slasher craze a few years later.
Fischer begins his work in earnest, promising detailed analysis of fifty prolific artists worldwide. All of the usual suspects are on hand, from John Carpenter (Prince of Darkness), Wes Craven (The People Under the Stairs), George A. Romero (Creepshow) and Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), to European legends Dario Argento (Suspiria), Mario Bava (Black Sunday) and Lucio Fulci (House by the Cemetery). In addition to these contemporary artists, the list makes room for classic directors like William Castle (The Tingler), Robert Wise (Curse of the Cat People) and James Whale (Frankenstein). So far, horror fans will likely be familiar with almost all of these names and it is here where the collection takes a deep dive as it extends coverage to artists who are less well known: John Brahm (The Lodger), George Waggner (Man Made Monster), Earl C. Kenton (House of Dracula) and William Girdler Jr. (The Manitou), among many others.
The subjects appear in alphabetical order and each profile opens with a complete filmography, including television projects. From there we take a more detailed look at the movies. In doing so, things get a bit shaky as the author sets about relaying spoiler-heavy plot synopses for each title –complete with revealing the killer’s identity and how the picture ends. While it is tempting to skip ahead, readers should be aware that useful and relevant behind-the-scenes production information and critical assessment is sprinkled throughout.
The title Horror Film Directors 1931-1990 is a bit vague – it suggests a series of interviews or dissertations rather than a collection of rehashed story points. A reasonable plot synopsis is appropriate for reference, but these lengthy summations bloat the book’s size to a whopping 877 pages, divided into two volumes.
This pattern starts in the very first chapter, which focuses on Dario Argento. There is a slight bit of biographical information before jumping into a thorough breakdown of his debut picture The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. This is followed by a minimal amount of commentary on Argento’s visual style, recurring themes and technical prowess before moving on to the plots of his next six pictures, each with little critical analysis.
Fischer is more successful when limiting the plot recap and focusing instead on the creative insights of the artists. A few standout chapters include Stuart Gordon (From Beyond), which offers lengthy excerpts of interviews the author conducted with the director during production on Re-Animator. We learn quite a bit about the man and his approach to storytelling.
The chapter devoted to John Carpenter offers a balance of synopsis and analysis when discussing Halloween, including brief interview quotes and observations. There is modest coverage of Carpenter’s other films and a study of his growth as a filmmaker. Additional profile highlights include the sections dedicated to William Castle, George Romero, Roger Corman (A Bucket of Blood) and Terence Fisher (Dracula: Prince of Darkness).
Coverage at times is inconsistent and somewhat inadequate, as in the case of Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, which is all but dismissed in two short paragraphs. The author gives plenty of attention to Mario Bava’s Black Sunday and Black Sabbath, but has little interest in Blood and Black Lace or Bay of Blood. Roy Ward Baker (The Vampire Lovers) receives praise for his strengths working with actors and limited budgets on a number of Hammer Films productions. Much of Baker’s chapter is dedicated to his work on Quatermass and the Pit, which gets the long-winded plot synopsis followed by a lengthy critique of the film before moving on to the next series of titles.
Fischer looks to the future of the genre with a catch-all section titled “The Hopeless and the Hopeful: Promising Directors, Obscurities and Horror Hacks.” These pages take a look at the work of both up-and-coming talent and a selection of B-movie auteurs from the past. The problem with this segment is that this book was first published in 1991, and would greatly benefit from an update for this re-release, as many of these “fresh new faces” are well-established names in the industry today. Clive Barker (Nightbreed), Sam Raimi (Darkman), Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps), Richard Franklin (Psycho II) and Tom Holland (Fright Night) each receive about a page of coverage, while lesser names like David Schmoeller (Crawlspace), Philippe Mora (Howling III), Fred Walton (April Fool’s Day), Jim Wynorski (Chopping Mall) and Kevin S. Tenney (Night of the Demons) are also given brief mention. It is unclear why, but some directors receive a lengthier study, including Dan O’Bannon (Return of the Living Dead) and Don Coscarelli (Phantasm II).
Closing out the book is the appendix “Classic Horror Films by Non-Horror Directors,” which takes a look at the one-off efforts of established filmmakers who primarily work outside the genre, from Andre De Toth (House of Wax) and Douglas Hickox (Theatre of Blood) to more prominent names, including Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now), Stanley Kubrick (The Shining), Alfred Hitchcock (Psycho) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist). This section reads like an afterthought, as there is little analysis provided. This is followed by an annotated bibliography and index.
Horror Film Directors: 1931-1990 is a real mixed bag. Fischer is incredibly thorough in his research and presentation, but relies too heavily on overextended plot synopses. Readers looking for something new will definitely find it within these many pages, but will have to wade through a surplus of irrelevant information. Most frustrating of all is that not all of the titles covered are readily available for viewing. As the book hits its 30th anniversary, it would be more than fitting for the author to revisit the material either by expanding this timeline or more appealingly, penning a sequel.
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