I’m ashamed to say I’d never read any of Gregory Mank’s books until The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema. This is a major oversight since he’s regarded as one of our top horror historians, but also because I’ve always really enjoyed Mank’s charming presence in David Skal’s documentaries on The Mummy, Frankenstein, and Bride of Frankenstein. Apparently, Mank’s previous books were quite focused, tackling Frankenstein, women’s roles in thirties horror movies, Karloff and Lugosi’s collaborations, and Dwight Frye, so The Very Witching Time may be an odd starting point. Aside from the general horror theme (which is even tenuous in a chapter or two), the book is unfocused by definition, each chapter taking on a different dark corner of horror history that didn’t quite fit into any of his previous books. There’s a chapter devoted to Helen Chandler, Mina of Browning’s Dracula whose personal life was more miserable than anything she suffered in her most famous role; one on Paramount’s infamously lurid Murders in the Zoo, and an interview with the son of that film’s star, Lionel Atwill; exhaustive production diaries on the very unlike Cat People and Curse of the Cat People; histories of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man and the far-more horrific Hitler’s Madman, a historical horror show about Nazi monster Reinhard Heydrich starring genre-staple John Carradine; and so on.
What unites this variety of nightmares is Mank’s attention to detail, his often-lyrical writing, and the common issues many of these disparate films faced. Censorship was a plague. Scandal dogged a number of the stars (both Atwill and Cat People’s Simone Simon suffered career damage when reports they’d hosted orgies surfaced), making The Very Witching Time occasionally read like a less-overheated Hollywood Babylon. In two of its wilder recollections, the set of Murders in the Zoo turns into a devastating and depressing real-life wildlife battle royal and John Barrymore’s drunk son personally exhumes his father’s fluid-leaking corpse 38 years after it was put in the ground.
There is a lot of dishing in The Very Witching Time of Night, but it is always relevant to the histories and hardly the book’s sole fascination. Some of the chapters are short on revelations (the interview with Atwill’s son and the piece on Boris Karloff's time at Warner Bros., for example), but Horror fans will find the parallels between the lovely and intimate Curse of the Cat People and producer Val Lewton’s life and the inclusion of the Monster’s deleted dialogue from Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man riveting stuff. They may also pray he expands his delightful chapter on "Shock! Theatre" with its huge transcript chunks into an entire book. If nothing else The Very Witching Time of Night has finally lit a spark under me to read more Mank.
Get The Very Witching Time of Night: Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema on Amazon.com here: