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4.0 out of 5 stars The Madness of Movie Monsters, February 10, 2008
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This review is from: The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror; Revised Edition with a New Afterword (Paperback)
It sometimes seems that the history of horror films began with Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula, with an occasional nod to some silent film. It doesn't make much research to find out that there is much more to this history, as David Skal illustrates in The Monster Show. In fact, it is till almost the one-third point in the book that these landmark films are really discussed.

What happened earlier were such crucial films as Nosteratu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Phantom of the Opera. Skal also relates stories of early figures, including Lon Chaney and Tod Browning and some of the literary and dramatic predecessors to the horror film. Only after laying this foundation does Skal really get into the iconic movies of Dracula and Frankenstein. There were other horror landmark films in this era, including The Mummy, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Island of Lost Souls, and between the early 1930s and 1940s, others would appear as well, most prominently the Wolf Man.

These films are quite tame by today's standards, but to many overly sensitive and self-righteous souls of the era, these movies practically heralded the end of civilization, leading to de facto censorship. The genie, however, was out of the bottle, and like any good movie monster, it could never be truly killed.

Skal zips from this era to the age of early television, when a new audience got to see these movies (often introduced by figures like Vampira) and the fan base expanded to a new, ardent generation. Then it's on to the era of more modern horror, ushered in by Psycho: not only is horror more gruesome (the result of better special effects and more relaxed ratings standards). As earlier films could be allegories for war or the Depression, newer films could provide symbols for AIDS and birth control. And new or old, sex and religion were always entangled in the themes.

This book is subtitled A Cultural History of Horror, but as fascinating as it often is, perhaps it should be a Cultural History of American Horror made by Major Studios. There is a lot that is omitted here that should be found in any reasonable history of cinematic horror. Val Lewton, the influential horror producer of the 1940s, has only one of his movies really described (Cat People) and only gets a couple pages of text. Roger Corman and his Poe movies are hardly mentioned at all. Most glaringly, Hammer Films, which reinvented horror in the 1950s (when American horror was at its nadir), is discussed in little more than a couple of scattered sentences (let alone any non-English films after the initial German movies).

Despite these omissions, this is still a pretty decent book, but the flaws keep it from earning more than four stars. If you're a horror movie fan, this is worth reading. Skal is pretty knowledgeable on the subject and can add an extra level of appreciation for this film genre.
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