Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: 'Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s'

Horror movie guides pop up like grass on a grave, yet they never tend to get it right. Too often they are glib, and they never encompass everything world cinema has contributed to the genre since its inception. There have been good ones. Jonathan Rigby’s American Gothic and the collaborative, two-volume American Silent Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy Films, 1913-1929, come to mind, but as their titles suggest, their scopes are still limited. A series is necessary to serve a genre with as much breadth and longevity as horror, which Christopher Workman and Troy Howarth realize.

Based on the first volume of their series, a chunky collection of reviews devoted exclusively to the thirties, these guys aren’t cutting any corners (the second volume will actually backtrack to the silent era and pick up with the forties in volume three). Tome of Terror: Horror Films of the 1930s swells with shorts and features from all recesses of the world, which is significant considering that studies of the genre’s key decade are often limited to its most prolific location of production, Hollywood, and often even more limited to a specific studio, Universal.

Each entry features a few technical specs, cast list, synopsis, history, critique, and even some details about the major players’ personal lives and careers beyond the given films. Pieces on lost films may only be a few paragraphs, but major movies may receive an entire page or more. Workman’s entry on King Kong is truly superb, going deep enough to assess the biological accuracy of its dinosaurs! (On the flip side, his more critical assessment of the comparatively fantastical creatures in Son of Kong goes a little too far considering that it is, after all, a movie about a giant gorilla.)

The writers’ tone keeps the discussions enjoyable rather than dry, though I believe they are too hard on certain aspects of the classics, like the oft-denounced “staginess” of Dracula and the performances of Valerie Hobson and Una O’Connor in Bride of Frankenstein, which I believe are integral to the movie’s delicious deliriousness. Of course, no opinionated reader is ever going to completely agree with all the opinions of a movie guide writer, so I’m impressed by how often I agreed with Workman and Howarth. I would have preferred the book to be arranged strictly chronologically instead of alphabetical by year, since how one film develops on the innovations of others is particularly significant in horror. That’s a nitpick since guides of this sort are meant to be dipped into rather than read from cover-to-cover, even though this is one of the few that welcomes that kind of reading. Some might also complain that a lot of the murder mysteries and Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan movies in here only loosely qualify as horror, but I think their presence is further evidence of the writers determination to be all-inclusive. You certainly cant complain that any significant film is missing, which would be the far greater crime. Tome of Terror also scores points for the terrific photos that appear on nearly every one of its pages, but its greatest achievement is fattening up my list of movies to see, which is the ultimate job of any movie guide worth reading. I can’t wait to build that list even bigger when they publish volume two.

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