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While the title is far more ambitious than its guts, David Konow’s Reel Terror takes horror fans on a rickety ride through the mad highlights of horror movie history. I started this one in the fall but only recently finished it. My boyfriend commandeered it for a while.

reel terror

Konow opens with the curious fact that horror is the one genre judged by its worst examples. Thankfully, he proceeds to focus on the greats (mostly), who influenced who, trends and all sorts of awesome trivia and recommendations. Did you know the French film, Les Diaboliques, that helped inspire Hitchcock’s Psycho is on YouTube?

If you’ve seen the 2012 Hitchcock movie, much of Psycho’s background is already familiar. But the director’s influence is undeniable and his clever techniques are brilliant. Most notably, he’d  drop a bomb in the first beat, knowing the audience would stay with him for the next 40 minutes without any major plot twist because anticipation is more powerful than zappers. This trick pops up frequently in all sorts of horrors, now that I look for it.

While I came away with a lengthy list of must-see-soon movies, my favorite parts of this book dug into old favorites:

George Romero! The word “zombie” isn’t used once in Night of the Living Dead and yet the man invented the slow-moving cannibalistic zombies we know and love today. If it weren’t for him, maybe we’d be stuck with the weirdo zombies who for some reason gain speed-walking super powers when they reanimate. So learning about his scrappy production company in Pittsburgh and how they managed to create a classic in their free time is pure pleasure reading.

Okay, I’ve only recently come around to Rosemary’s Baby. This chapter shows why it made such an impact. Anyone can make the dark terrifying, (No. Not really. Not if you’ve seen the bad horror I’ve seen.) but it takes talent to make a bright, fancy Manhattan apartment scary. Apparently Polanski wanted to make a classy horror. He did it with lots of warm light and harmless pastels and an ordinary mood that scratches at you because you know something’s not right. He went for something bigger than boo. When I recently re-watched it, the eerie controlled pacing worked, but I also just liked looking at it. It’s pretty.

Wes Craven showed up a few times here, as he should. I know his work from Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, but only recently saw Last House on the Left (1972). Oh, my. This disturbingly violent film was directed by Craven and produced by Sean Cunningham (of the Friday the 13th franchise). Because of the names involved, I assumed it’d be a good time. Nope. It’s not a good time at all. Really hard to watch and that’s by design. The violence is so brutal even the people involved looked back on it as an exploitation film. I wouldn’t watch it again, but the intention behind it was genuine. In short, the film was Craven’s response to the raw footage he saw coming back from Vietnam. He wanted audiences to see the ugly reality of violence – painful, bloody and dehumanizing – the knife going in rather than the usual quick, graceful thrust and the victim falls lalala. I don’t watch horrors for a reality check, but it’s a product of its time and that’s something. Also, I had no idea organized crime had its greedy hands in the horror pot for so long.

Bit of trivia here: Last House marked the first time a chainsaw was used as a weapon in a horror film.

Speaking of, reading about Texas Chainsaw (1974) is much more entertaining than watching it. Every victim basically runs into the arms of the psycho. It’s weird. But I’d never guess it was a million degrees out when they made it or that Leatherface was played by a Norwegian poetry editor. Knowing which scenes the actor’s played under the influence of pot brownies makes it slightly more amusing, but I still say it’s lousy.

If you love horror, the anecdotes are gems, particularly the story about the makeup artist on The Exorcist driving in traffic on NYC’s West Side highway with the life-size dummy in his passenger seat, inching forward juuust as the head spins. Yeah. Driving with a lifelike dummy of a demonically possessed child with a spinning head might make driving in NYC traffic tolerable.

There’s so much history to this genre. Konow covers the studios’ buzz-building gimmicks and how the drive-in circuit influenced filmmakers like Sam Rami. The Evil Dead guys noted how audiences flashed their high beams at the boring parts and decided to make a fast movie with only the good parts. No high beams. You’ve heard of the Ramo-Cam, but did you know they filmed it in a supposedly haunted abandoned cabin in the Tennessee woods that later burned to the ground?

Top of the list for me will always be Halloween – I couldn’t read this chapter without re-watching. First there’s that perfect long establishing shot that positions us as Michael Myers before we know anything. Then it follows Hitchcock’s rule of shocking us in the first beat. Those wide shots that slowly creep in (cleverly concealing palm trees) and Carpenter’s crazy score. Everything about watching this film is a physical experience. I love love love it.

What I didn’t know before: Carpenter and his co-writer Debra Hill never set out to create the now trope of if you have sex you die. To them, Laurie survived because she was perceptive enough to see him coming. She was perceptive because she was lonely. It’s not the same thing. Funny how quickly the genre spat this out as a morality butcher knife.

Be it a genuine desire to make something worth the ticket price, the thrill of being afraid or the greater joy of watching your boyfriend jump because he’s so scared and you’re so tough (not because it’s your 25th time seeing it) – cheers to whatever makes a person love horror and want more of it and want to make one themselves regardless of money or experience.

Though the writing is on the sloppy side and the whole thing could use an angry editor, I really enjoyed this book. Granted, I’m the target audience. You know if you are.

But my question is where are the women? The horror genre lacks big time in the directed or written by a female department. We’ve had a few recently like The Babadook (bleh) and Honeymoon (watchable if you stop it about an hour in) but I can’t think of any good time scary movies that just happen to be made by a woman. Can you?