Alison Peirse's new book from I.B. Taurus, After Dracula: The 1930s Horror Film, certainly does what it sets out to. The author begins with "the idea that Dracula has been canonised to the detriment of other innovative and original 1930s films produced across Europe and America." It's a logical approach: given that Dracula is, in essence, a stage play brought to the screen, it wins primarily due to financial success and -- one could argue just as importantly -- the fact that it was first. Followed closely by Frankenstein, one could even further and make the point that Universal Pictures' role in defining the canon is primarily by virtue of getting out of the gate before anyone else. And while she doesn't explicitly make that connection, Peirse does effectively argue that Universal's The Wolf Man is almost unequivocably cited as being the start of werewolf movies, ignoring or relegating 1935's Werewolf of London to a footnote, being "damned to obscurity [...] its narrative debt to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde undermin[ing] it critically." It seems that Universal's first two successes (three, really, if you want to count The Mummy) really set the tone for every picture that would follow in their wake. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff feature prominently, even in the movies that Peirse is attempting to rescue. Lugosi's part in White Zombie is part of that film's role in defining the zombie picture. [embed]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5N5-UzUxBss[/embed] While secondary to the role architecture and set design play in The Black Cat, Lugosi and Karloff's roles are still a large part of that film's chapter. The poster of that film serves as the book's cover, and Lugosi has a distinctly vampiric stare working in that particular image, only serving to reinforce that, despite the role any of these films may play in a greater narrative, they still come after Dracula. Peirse does her best work in After Dracula by elevating European films to the same level as the American pictures of the same time. Well, film, singular, actually. Vampyr gets an excellent chapter of its own that ably makes the point that film should be applauded for its "amalgamation of of 'high' art cinema and 'low' horror culture." The chapter on '30s British horror really only serves to demonstrate that the Hays Code and its various counterparts could easily defang a movie. The Man Who Changed His Mind is more important as an example of what could have been that a film worth entertaining on its own merits. Still -- as I've said before, there's no higher compliment a book on film can receive than making me want to watch the movies about which it speaks, and I've been tracking down the films Peirse discusses since I finished After Dracula last week. You can watch White Zombie above, and I'm going to make The Island of Lost Souls my next viewing.
Lorna Jowett and Stacey Abbott's new book from I.B. Tauris, TV Horror: Investigating the Darker Side of the Small Screen, is an excellent, scholarly look at how the horror genre is portrayed on television. The authors look both to Stephen King's oft-quoted opinion that television limits the terror that can be portrayed, as well as examining the possibilities offered by the small screen. It's strange, though -- the book mentions the likes of the X-Files, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the Twilight Zone, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and even the likes of Twin Peaks. However, the greatest number of pages are devoted not to those particular shows, but to Doctor Who. While I understand Jowett and Abbott are coming to the topic from a British persepctive, it just seems strange to focus on a science-fiction show as your main example for a book on horror in television. One could assume that this the program with which the authors are most familiar, and thus, it's that which they choose to run with. And, yes, there are horrific elements involved in Doctor Who, but they're less of the creepy-crawly, blood-and-guts, or even the thrills-and-chills kind. It's more your bog-standard unpleasantness. Same goes for the likes of Dexter. Perhaps the authors are attempting to focus more on the "dark side" mentioned in the subtitle, but it seems that the focus of the book is more on the modern horror resurgence than the totality of the genre. Background and historical perspective comes in the form of Quatermass and the Twilight Zone, and even the likes of Kolchak, but it seems that much of the '70s and '80s are glossed over in favor of moving to modern day. What of the schlock that characterized much of the late '80s and early '90s? Why not demonstrate how you move from the artistic and literary influence of the '60s to the cinematically-influenced modern age via the shows that really offered little of neither, like Freddy's Nightmares or Amazing Stories? Eventually, what defines the book isn't so much what's included as what's excluded. For a brand-new book, it already seems dated, for what book on television horror could exclude the recent phenomenon of American Horror Story? It's a shame -- I would've loved to have seen how that would have changed the dynamic of TV Horror, as the show frequently walks the line between the standard jump scares and gore of so much modern horror, and really reveling and relishing the way in which true horror comes from the casual cruelty perpetrated by one person upon another. While the analysis of what Jowett and Abbott choose to cover is excellent and spot-on, the omissions make TV Horror for a frustrating read for genre fans.