Horror Film Directors 1931 – 1990 Review

Author: Dennis Fischer.

‘Horror Film Directors 1931 – 1990’ is a two volume reprint of books that had previously been written and published in, surprise, surprise 1990. At first glance I thought that this was due to some cut-off, like the book begins with 1931, coinciding with the release of Tod Browning’s Dracula. This got me thinking: “what happened in 1990 that changed the horror film and warranting a cut-off date?” But no, this was not the case, these books are a straight forward re-print of books originally published in 1990. Flicking through them there are a couple of directors who have been left out and others that warranted more attention, but I will come to these in due course.

Previously Aurum have published a fully comprehensive encyclopaedia of horror films that studied many foreign and little known films from such countries as Mexico, Spain and Italy; there have also been an abundance of reference books to the classic horror films from the Hollywood silver screen, Hammer and British horror as well as John Brosnan’s ‘The Horror People’ which interestingly looked at the writers including Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson as well as the genre stars Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Junior and Senior. Indeed, if you add to the mix Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi there you have the face of the classic horror films right up to the seventies but scarcely beyond. But really that is all they are – the face. The real architects are those that made them – the directors. Fischer’s reasoning in not going into the silent films and taking Tod Browning’s Dracula as the starting point is that previous to this was little in the way of the auteur of the horror film in silent cinema. There was an expressionist style coming from Germany that made many wonderful horror films and Lon Chaney Senior was certainly the first real STAR of the horror genre in the 1920s, but there was no real imprint of authorship until Dracula in 1931. In the same year James Whale also made Frankenstein (both films were made for Universal). On reading the chapter on Joe Dante authorship becomes apparent as his influences and the continuity of style shines through in his films.

On reading this book there are few directors between 1931 and 1990 who are omitted and the author’s passion for the genre is clear in his worthy introductory chapter as he goes on to explain from how his interest started as a 12-year-old boy and his reasoning as to why he loves the genre so much. I can totally relate to this as my own interest in this genre commenced from the same age. Of course some directors warrant more discussion than others. Such directors as Cyril S. Cunningham for example have really only made a handful of the Friday the Thirteenth films, but he gives a few pages over to the director whereas others such as George A. Romero, Roger Cormon, David Cronenberg, Terence Fisher, James Whale and Roman Polanski clearly warrant more. Sadly not included is the underrated and unusual French director Jean Rollin who made a series of low budget vampire and zombie films with a surreal and dreamlike quality to them. I was also disappointed to see that Alfred Hitchcock was not included as he had made such classics as Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) as well as his last British film about a Covent Garden tie strangler, Frenzy (1972). It could be argued that this was not a horror film but a thriller, but Fischer has included many films about Jack the Ripper (Hitchcock also made the eerie silent classic The Lodger in 1926, also not included). The author’s pre-requisite for inclusion was that the director should have made three horror films for inclusion and for Hitchcock this tally would make at least three films. He does mention Hitchcock in the final chapter as a part of the Appendix: ‘Classic Films by Non-Horror Directors’ and slates The Birds as “a fatty film that dragged on too long.” I for one would argue with this. However, I do like Fischer’s personal critique of individual films and admits when he has not seen a film – indicating that this book was clearly written by a film fan. Also backing my argument, the American writer includes John Brahm who only directed a couple of Victorian gothic melodramas such as his remake of Hitchcock’s The Lodger and Hangover Square (both 1944). Having said this it is a pretty thorough study. This brings this review on to my next critical point as it is unfortunate that later directors such as Romero and Cronenberg’s later films are not brought up to date which would have made these books a real authority on the genre.

The book is presented in two parts with the first part of the book following the insightful introduction being the A-Z of horror directors while part two is titled ‘The Hopeless and the Hopeful: Promising Directors, Obscurities and Horror Hacks.’ The clue as to what this chapter is about is really in the title. It really is shorter snippets on those directors who have made one-offs, minor horror films or were involved in the countless video nasties that stocked the video shelves in the 1980s. The final chapter focuses on the quality directors who made the one-offs and while Fischer goes into some detail to the films up to the 1970s he brushes through the eighties, barely mentioning The Exorcist (1973) along the way or the countless of wonderful and truly haunting Japanese films in the 1960s and would rather mention the supernatural elements in some of Clint Eastwood’s westerns. All in all though this is a good reference book for any horror aficionado. To complete this book, Fischer uses the bibliography in a way other writers should. He does a great job in giving critical comment to all those hundreds of other books published on the genre, making even the bibliography a good resource material.

What would have made this book a worthy re-print/re-write is if it had been updated to 2010; it could do with a re-editing and a re-slashing (if you’ll excuse the pun), taking out some of the sleazy directors such Italian soft porn-horror directors as Joe D’Amato in favour of more ground breaking directors of the genre from more recent years such as Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, 2002 and Hostel, 2005), James Wan (Saw, 2004 and Insidious, 2010), not to mention the Japanese directors from the 1960s to now including Hideo Nakata (Ringu), Takashi Simizu (The Grudge) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Instead we get a reprint of a book with the same cover illustrations as the previous print where more illustrations would also be welcome. Now this would be a worthy purchase.

Chris Hick

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