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“A History of Horror” Named an “Outstanding Academic Title” for 2011 by Choice, The Library Journal

Saturday, January 14th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief video on horror films.

My book A History of Horror (Rutgers UP) has just been selected by the prestigious journal Choice as one of the Outstanding Academic Titles of the Year for 2011.

As Choice notes, the list of Outstanding Academic Books “comprise[s] less than 9 percent of the titles reviewed during 2011 and 2.5 percent of those submitted during that same time span, [ensuring that] these exceptional titles are truly the ‘best of the best.’” In addition, A History of Horror will be released as an audiobook by Redwood Audiobooks in 2012, and has just gone into a second printing from Rutgers.

Ever since horror leapt from popular fiction to the silver screen in the late 1890s, viewers have experienced fear and pleasure in exquisite combination. Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror is the only book to offer a comprehensive survey of this ever-popular film genre.

Arranged by decades, with outliers and franchise films overlapping some years, this one-stop sourcebook unearths the historical origins of characters such as Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolfman and their various incarnations in film from the silent era to comedic sequels. A History of Horror explores how the horror film fits into the Hollywood studio system and how its enormous success in American and European culture expanded globally over time.

Dixon examines key periods in the horror film—in which the basic precepts of the genre were established, then burnished into conveniently reliable and malleable forms, and then, after collapsing into parody, rose again and again to create new levels of intensity and menace. A History of Horror, supported by rare stills from classic films, brings fifty timeless horror films into frightfully clear focus, zooms in on today’s top horror web sites, and champions the stars, directors, and subgenres that make the horror film so exciting and popular with contemporary audiences. More than 50 rare stills from classic examples of the genre illustrate the text.

“This is an excellent survey of horror movies. The author, a veteran film historian, takes the reader back to the beginning, when, in the first three decades of the twentieth century, such directors as Georges Melies, F. W. Murnau, and Paul Wegener were defining not only the look of a genre but also cinema itself. The period between 1930 and the late 1940s saw the rise of the classic Universal Studios characters —Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy—and the actors who played them: Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney Jr. By the end of the 1940s, horror was dying, “killed by a plethora of poorly made sequels.” But never fear: the period between the late ‘40s and 1970 saw a massive resurgence, due in part to gimmicks (such as 3-D); low-budget quickies from the likes of Roger Corman, the wizard of the B movie; and the stylish resurrection of the classic Universal monsters by Britain’s Hammer Film Productions. This survey, which takes the reader right up to the present, is full of fascinating information and is delivered in an accessible manner. Required reading for horror fans.” — David Pitt, Booklist, August 4, 2010

“Dixon surveys the development of the horror genre from the earliest Frankenstein and Dracula films through the decades of classics by Hammer studios, William Castle, Roger Corman, and Val Lewton. Dixon covers movies seldom found in other histories and more modern, international titles such as Wolf Creek, Black Water, and The Grudge. The endurance of horror, trends like remakes and sequels, and such popular franchises as Child’s Play and Halloween are also discussed. In the final chapter, Dixon analyzes the decline of modern horror owing to desensitized audiences, graphic gore, violence, and lack of solid plot lines or character development. Lists of the best horror websites as well as the 50 movies covered round out this volume [. . .] This concise overview is an informative and entertaining read [. . .] Recommended for all libraries.” —Rosalind Dayen, Library Journal, September 16, 2010.

“In less than 250 pages, author Wheeler Winston Dixon manages to cover the trends and sub-genres of film horror from 1896 to 2009. Bonuses include a list of top horror sites, a list of fifty classic films, and a pretty wonderful bibliography. Dixon offers analysis without lapsing into academic language. He also provides the occasional behind-the-scenes anecdote. The main purpose of A History of Horror, however, seems to be delineating themes and trends as they work their way through each generation of horror filmmaking. At this the author excels, and the result is much more useful to fans than the clumsy attempts at thematic links provided by Amazon and Netflix. I found several titles that were completely unfamiliar to me and added them to my ‘watch instantly’ list [. . . ] Well written and well researched [. . . ] and offering an enjoyable overview of more than one hundred years of cinema, A History of Horror is a quick, delightful read. If you appreciate lucid, informed, but not stuffy analysis, here’s your guide.” — S. P. Miskowski, The Seattle Post Intelligencer, November 5, 2010

“[Dixon's] book is a page-turner!  It is a fabulous piece of work.  A breathtaking panorama, written with wit and candor, showing how the horror film has shaped cinema from its the origins of the genre until now.  I am really thrilled by the way A History of Horror refuses to fetishize the horror film at the same time it brings into view the complexities of history informing the genre.  The very critical assessment of recent films in the final pages is a reminder to readers and filmmakers that, as the author has done himself, they would do well to take keen note of its rich and variegated past in view of its reinvention.” –Tom Conley, Harvard University

“Rich with excellent illustrations and clever anecdotes, this book will appeal to fans of horror as well as film students and scholars interested in a readable overview of the history of the genre.” — Rebecca Bell-Metereau, author of Hollywood Androgyny

“There is a wealth of research material here for anyone willing to follow Dixon’s many threads [. . .] the author offers generous and moving portraits of three American giants of horror: Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. [. . .] Dixon’s book is illustrated with a sprinkling of photos from the classic moments of the horror film genre. We see Lugosi as Count Dracula, Karloff as the Frankenstein monster, Linda Blair looking possessed, Sissy Spacek covered with blood in Carrie, an unusually maniacal Jack Nicholson from The Shining, and more gore-bedecked actors than one could shake a skull at.” — Martin A. David, New York Journal of Books

“The metric ton of movies listed in Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror could have easily overwhelmed. However, thanks to witty and clever summations, as well as his ability to group films in such a way as to provide an excellent overview, the book is a breeze for this horror fan . . . even a casual reader will find themselves needing to keep a notepad handy, so as to keep track of everything you’ll want to search out.” –Nick Spacek, Rock Star Journalist

“Where there is no imagination, there is no horror.” —Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dead of Night (1945)

Saturday, November 19th, 2011

Click on the image above for the final “nightmare” sequence from Dead of Night.

From Wikipedia: “Dead of Night (1945) is a British portmanteau horror film made by Ealing Studios, its various episodes directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Robert Hamer. The film stars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers and Michael Redgrave. The film is probably best-remembered for the ventriloquist’s dummy episode starring Redgrave. Dead of Night stands out from British film of the 1940s, when few genre films were being produced, and it had a huge influence on subsequent British horror films; most particularly, the anthology films produced by Amicus in the 1960s and early 1970s.”

From Screenonline: “Ealing Studios’ Dead of Night (1945) is one of just a handful of ‘true’ horror films of British cinema’s first half-century, and certainly the most important film in that genre until the beginning of Hammer’s horror cycle a decade later. Released in September 1945, just a month after the formal end of the War, it marks a break from the documentary-influenced realism which had dominated wartime films, particularly Ealing’s.

The film was a truly collaborative venture, including many of the figures who dominated Ealing’s output during and after the War. Directors Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer, writer T.E.B. Clarke and cinematographer Douglas Slocombe represent the popular Ealing comedies; writer Angus McPhail was active at Ealing as early as 1939; Basil Dearden would pioneer the postwar ’social problem’ film; veteran Alberto Cavalcanti had already made his mark with Went the Day Well? (1943) and was a hugely influential figure at Ealing, despite directing only one further film there. Another studio mainstay, director Charles Frend, was forced to pull out early in the production due to other commitments. The cast included Ealing regulars Mervyn Johns, Googie Withers, Ralph Michael, Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne.

Dead of Night stands up well despite the passing years. The linking narrative, directed by Dearden, holds the film together effectively, building up the sense of dread towards the suitably delirious conclusion. The five supernatural tales may be uneven, but Cavalcanti’s story – a talented ventriloquist is driven to attempted murder by his apparently conscious dummy – is eerie and gripping, and features a powerful performance by Michael Redgrave as the troubled and finally unhinged ventriloquist. Even better is the story by first-time director Hamer, in which an antique mirror with a dark history exposes the cracks in the relationship of smug middle-class couple Peter (Michael) and Joan (Withers).

The film sets up a classic horror genre opposition between science and the supernatural, and makes it clear from the outset which side it is on. Psychiatrist Dr van Straaten (Frederick Valk) is quickly isolated; his attempts to offer a rationalist interpretation of his fellow guests’ stories are dismissed and, finally, he pays for his scepticism with his life. Despite its success, Dead of Night was a dead-end for Ealing, which never really dabbled in horror again; the genre largely went back underground until the Hammer era.” – Mark Duguid

One of the greatest horror films of all time, and the first British horror film produced after the end of World War II.

Terence Fisher

Monday, October 31st, 2011

Christopher Lee as Dracula in Terence Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958)

“Do I believe in the supernatural? Oh yes, certainly. I can’t believe, I can’t accept that you die and that’s the end. Physically maybe it is a fact. But there’s something about the mind that’s more than that.”

Terence Fisher is the director who brought the modern horror film to life, with his Hammer Films classics Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958), which were simultaneously more faithful to their source material, and also, as the image above aptly demonstrates, far more brutal in their execution.

I am admire Fisher deeply, and consider him, in a way, the John Ford of England, working within the mythos of the British Gothic tradition, in the same way that Ford embraced the American Western. I wrote a book about Fisher a long time back, which remains the only full-length study of his work as a director, now unfortunately out of print: “The Charm of Evil: The Life and Films of Terence Fisher,” which makes this case in detail.

Fisher took his work as a horror director absolutely seriously; his films depict a deeply Christian struggle between good and evil, in which good inevitably wins, but only after a prolonged and difficult struggle, which is articulated perhaps most fully in his late film The Devil’s Bride (1968).

Here’s more on Fisher, and if you have the time and inclination, you should seek out his major films and view them. He is, without any doubt, the person who brought the horror film back to life after Universal had abandoned the classic monsters in the late 1940s, in an entirely new form.

The Skull

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

Patrick Wymark and Peter Cushing contemplate The Skull

Those who are in the mood for an atmospheric and intelligent horror film could do much worse than checking out The Skull, a 1965 horror film directed by Freddie Francis from a script by Robert Bloch, based on his short story “The Skull of the Marquis de Sade.” Recently released in an immaculate DVD in both regular and Blu-ray formats, in its original Techniscope / Technicolor aspect ratio, and boasting a cast that includes Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Patrick Magee, Patrick Wymark, Nigel Green and Jill Bennett, with music by avant-garde symphonic composer Elisabeth Lutyens, The Skull is perhaps Francis’ masterpiece as a director, and if you haven’t seen it — well, what are you waiting for?

Those who are looking for gore will be disappointed, but those who can appreciate an intelligent and superbly photographed film — the last 30 minutes are absolutely wordless, consisting only of a series of ever more ominous images as the skull takes possession of those who would trifle with it — recall the best of Val Lewton’s 1940s films, and remain as arresting and evocative as when they were first presented on the screen. Francis also photographed numerous films for other directors, including David Lynch’s Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story – this is the work of a master craftsman, who won two Academy Awards for his cinematography on Sons and Lovers and Glory. As a director, his work is hard-edged, brutal, and always stylish.

Here’s the trailer for the film – now get the DVD before they’re all gone.

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake

Sunday, August 28th, 2011

Here’s a real curiosity – one that lingers in the mind long after the last frame has vanished.

One of the most curious horror films of the late 1950s, Edward L. Cahn’s The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (1959) centers on Professor Jonathan Drake (Eduard Franz), a “professor of Occult Sciences” at an unspecified university, who is convinced that he and all the male members of the Drake family are victims of an ancient curse, handed down from his descendants, who as colonialist explorers massacred all the members of a Jivaro native tribe in South America in the late 1800s.

As a result, every male member of the Drake family dies of a mysterious paralysis at the age of 60, and Jonathan Drake is 59 1/2. Further, before the bodies can be buried, they are mysteriously beheaded, and only the skulls are returned to the family for burial. Nor is Jonathan mistaken in his apprehensions, as a supernatural agent of the Jivaros, Dr. Emil Zurich (Henry Daniell) is working feverishly to make sure that the curse does, indeed, descend upon Jonathan Drake, the last male member of his family line.

The film opens with a quotation from Act 3, scene ii of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare (Mark Antony: “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”), and Drake muses, “What if Shakespeare were right? What if the power for good dies when the mind dies, and that only the evil men do lives after them?” What follows is a curious mixture of the obvious and the hypnotic, intertwined into a narrative that is at once preposterous and yet grimly serious, directed by Cahn as if in a trance.

As Zurich notes late in the film, “when the head of a strong, valiant enemy is properly taken, the possessor acquires the spirit, the soul, the vital spark that kept his enemy alive – a degree of immortality.” So it is with this absolutely singular film, a curious artifact of 50s pop culture that, like its undead protagonist, refuses to die.

Click here, or on the image above, to see the trailer for this deeply peculiar film.

Classic Comedies: Young Frankenstein

Monday, August 1st, 2011

An affectionate spoof of the Universal Frankenstein series of horror films from the 1930s and early 40s, appropriately shot in period-style black and white, Young Frankenstein (1974) is writer/director Mel Brooks’ tribute to the undying legend of the Frankenstein monster, played for laughs with a superb cast that wrings every ounce of parody out of the source material. The film almost immediately became a cult hit, and is frequently revived today; what makes the film so effective is its combination of visual stylization, coupled with Brooks’ irresistible Borscht belt humor. This, in short, is slapstick comedy at its finest, and one of the funniest films produced in American during the 1970s.

Actor Gene Wilder, who collaborated on the screenplay of Young Frankenstein with Brooks, plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who continually insists that his name is properly pronounced “Frahnkenstein,” and avoids any mention of his infamous ancestor. As Young Frankenstein opens, Frederick Frankenstein is working as a lecturer at an American medical school, but soon news arrives that he has inherited his grandfather’s ornate castle in Transylvania. Arriving to claim his birthright, he meets Inga (Teri Garr), who will become his assistant; Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), a stern taskmaster who urges him to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps; and Igor (Marty Feldman), a hunchback whom Frankenstein soon presses into service in his experiments.

In short order, Frankenstein and his motley crew of associates have whipped up a new monster (Peter Boyle), assembled from the body of a recently executed criminal, but handicapped by an “abnormal brain” that makes him unpredictably violent. Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars, in a parody of a role made famous by actor Lionel Atwill in the original films) is suspicious of the activities in Frankenstein’s laboratory (which used the original “mad lab” equipment designed by Kenneth Strickfaden for the original 1931 film, and its subsequent sequels). When the monster escapes, he is briefly befriended by a blind hermit (Gene Hackman), but is soon recaptured by Frankenstein, who dresses him in white tie and tails and teaches him to sing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” for a group of amazed fellow scientists.

More plot complications lead up to an obligatory happy ending, but the film’s real strength lies in its deep respect for the original Frankenstein films, starting with director James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and continuing on though Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and director Rowland V. Lee’s Son of Frankenstein (1939). Brooks’ film borrows plot elements, characters, and situations from all of these films, and yet manages to remain both fresh and funny entirely on its own terms.

Much later, Brooks would transform Young Frankenstein into a successful Broadway musical, but the 1974 film version is easily the better production, and is often screened at “midnight matinees” in film theaters around the world. Brooks parodies the Frankenstein legend, but at the same time, he is faithful to it, resulting in a film that even purists can enjoy, and one of the most successful comedy films of all time.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/