Author David Konow slices deep into the twisted history of nightmare movies with his tome “Reel Terror.”
“There are a lot of books about indie filmmaking and the history of Hollywood, but they very rarely discuss horror movies, which is strange given their place in the business,” says author David Konow, whose book “Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films” deftly explains how today’s Paranormal Activity is directly (if distantly) linked to yesteryear’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Geek recently caught up with Konow, who has written for the genre bibles Fangoria and Rue Morgue and whose previous book, “Bang Your Head,” documented the metal music scene. His expertise on the subject of shock cinema was impressive as we touched on zombies, Joss Whedon and bad 1970s hairstyles.
Geek: The book is really interesting in that it weaves together different threads to demonstrate how the horror genre is this interconnected tapestry, and that to get the most out of today’s films you have to know the subtext and background of contemporary filmmakers and understand what inspired them.
Konow: I’m not sure about how today’s generation looks at older stuff. For example, the TV movie Salem’s Lot, which is pretty good, but I’ve heard people even complain about the hairstyles and clothes, saying things like, “Well, it was probably good for the time.” Well, 1979 wasn’t that long ago. Now we’re in this remake cycle, in part because people are too lazy to find the original versions of these films.
I disagree. I think there’s just no more blood left in those stones. Any fan, for example, has already bought John Carpenter’s original Halloween at least half a dozen times. On VHS, DVD, restored special-edition DVD, 25th anniversary DVD, then Blu-ray — so they’re done. They aren’t going to buy it again. So what does the owner of the copyright do to continue to make money? Remake it.
Yeah, but what about the new generation that has never seen Halloween on any format? I’m not that old, but sometimes I feel like the old grandpa because I’ll watch a movie from the 1960s, ’50s or even the 1920s.
Well, that goes right back to what you were saying about people who mock movies from the 1970s because the clothes and haircuts are out of style. But I think the book does a great job in the first chapters of explaining why those films are relevant, like the Universal horror films of the 1930s or the Hammer films of the 1950s, in part by having contemporary filmmakers, like the Guillermo del Toros of the world, explaining why they love them. Because those were the films they grew up on.
Well, I also try to make this kind of stuff entertaining, which is not difficult but you do have to do it. Reading about the history of horror movies should not feel like homework. I’ve read so many of the big Hollywood books — like “Hit and Run” or “Easy Riders and Raging Bulls” — which are incredibly entertaining, so I thought I could use that same approach on the history of horror movies. To do that, I also had to understand how all these people became interested in horror, and I really found that TV was the gateway for so many of them, because all these old horror movies played all the time. And then you also have things like Famous Monsters magazine and the Twilight Zone, which made those first impressions on a lot of kids who would grow up wanting to become filmmakers, and specifically make horror films, like Joe Dante and John Landis and, later, Peter Jackson and Guillermo del Toro.
And, of course, not all these “horror directors” conveniently remained only in horror.
No, they didn’t. Peter Jackson, for example, got his start making horror films, but that kind of hit an apex with Dead Alive, which kind of left him nowhere else to go. And before that, there was Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg and others who built their careers in horror but then moved into different areas. Cronenberg was offered movies like Flashdance and Top Gun, in part because producers could sense his style and thought he could bring something to their projects. Meanwhile, other directors, like Lucio Fulci were trapped. He did a lot of other kinds of movies, but it was horror movies that paid the bills, so he kept making them.
Another one that comes to mind is George Romero, who tried several times to break out of the horror mold.
Yes, and he made some good movies — Knightriders, for example — but none of them were as successful as his horror films, and even then his non-zombie horror films were not as successful as his Living Dead movies, so there was another level to it. And now “Romero” is a specific brand when it comes to zombie movies. And this dynamic is just the kind of thing I really wanted to explore in the book, this constant changing of themes and filmmakers and inspirations and how they have been in constant flux for decades, with new ideas and people entering the arena. And I also thought I could make it entertaining enough for people who are not necessarily big horror fans to enjoy it from a Hollywood perspective. There are certainly already a lot of books about horror movies, but I think they’re almost all for people who are already fans. What also makes the book different is that this is a “good guy” story, as a lot of the people involved in horror films are also just really nice people.
The book is a great bit of history, so where is the genre going? What’s the future of horror?
I really thought Cabin in the Woods was an interesting movie and a lot of fun. And just when it seemed like the zombie genre was played out, here’s The Walking Dead, making it as popular as it has ever been. We’ll see what happens with World War Z and what new directions that takes it. The bottom line is that horror is incredibly adaptable, and just when you think something’s totally dead, it comes right back to life.