The Invisible Man, neat freak by design, was known to fuss over the grit beneath his fingernails. According to British horror historian Denis Gifford, dirt threatened transparency. In A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, Gifford sees “a pair of disembodied trousers skipping down the lane to ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts in May.’” The hands are clean.
For Gifford, the devil was in the details, if not in all of us: “We who came to stare only see ourselves.” Or through ourselves. He notes the shabbiness of Mr. Hyde’s tailcoat, and the yak-hair transplants on the Wolfman’s face. Also important: “a sinister sofa,” controlled by an underground switchboard operated by a man in a wig. And Frankenstein’s homunculus, taken out by a falling crossbeam no fewer than four times in his film career.
These images were filtered through words I’d just discovered. Until last week, I had never actually read the most important book of my childhood. The text had gone unseen. My mother had given A Pictorial History of Horror Movies to my brothers as a Christmas gift in 1973. She still cheerily refers to it as “that book with the girl with the hatchet in her head.” I was forbidden to read it but was never told I couldn’t look at it. A film still was never satisfied with just being a still: activated by the eye, it became the moving image framed by the page, something far more terrifying than the films themselves. You can shut your eyes from the screen only to find yourself seeing what’s inside your own head. Protecting the memory of these images from the mythbust of adulthood meant that some of these films could never be watched. (Or if they were watched, the still may not have been captured by the eye, or by the film itself, thus leaving the image—say, Dr. Phibes posing at his Wurlitzer with bright orange Lucite pipes—to exist only in the book.) The photograph depicting a charred Karloff, with the arm of his dead wife, also blackened, flung across his lap, was far more disturbing than actually watching The Sorcerers. Karloff’s anthracite blue cardigan and peach shirt remained unharmed.
My friend and I maintain a virtual list of prohibited films that generate more anxiety in discussion than had we actually seen them—a convenient rationale to excuse us from Cannibal Holocaust and Martyrs. This modus channels some of that old middle school adrenalin, when the one kid with HBO tells the lunch table about Silent Scream or The Godsend, privileged information that shadows you for rest of the day. (Or, if you’re my brother, Alone After Dark, with Jack Palance, Martin Landeau, and—good Lord!—Donald Pleasance.) I felt a different strain of this unease during a recent dinner conversation about the 1967 British classic Quatermas and the Pit, scripted by Nigel Kneale. The idea of our descendants being an ancient psychic Martian culture predicting—and projecting—a race war on Earth resonated well beyond the screen.
A Pictorial History of Horror Movies scared me more than the movies. A constant presence in the house, I knew where that big red thing was at all times. The fear lay in the possibility of what happened within those images when the book was closed. Did the Phantom remove his tombstone dentures when I wasn’t looking? The suspense was in the flipping, the dread of approaching page 75 and Conrad Veidt’s prefixed Joker grin in the Paul Leni silent classic The Man Who Laughs. (Mind the image of French auteur Georges Méliès being licked by a giant skull, along the way.) Years later, I realized the smile was a scar. It turned out that Veidt’s Gwynplaine, the book’s most unsettling image, just needed my sympathy, if not a way out of that cruel village.
A Pictorial History fed off these misapprehensions. It was more than mistaking Reptilicus for a hotel awning. Across from the opening title page, a little girl looks up at the Glenn Strange edition of Frankenstein. (Strange sweated so much under his airtight skullcap, he could hear his stolen brain sloshing around inside.) In the upper left corner, a giant pair of flying scissors is en route to giving Frankenstein a flat-top trim. Monster and girl don’t know what to make of one another, but I was more confused by those flying scissors. Nobody told me that Ghost of Frankenstein came with a barbershop. In fact, A Pictorial History is framed by images of monsters hanging out in front of barbershops.
More questions followed, as the book had just begun. Why was Joan Crawford smiling so affectionately at Trog? Why was the alligator person in The Alligator People wearing khakis? Why was the zombie in The Plague of the Zombies throwing that woman down a hill? (And when did zombies start throwing people down hills anyway?) I referred to Gifford’s captions for guidance. One concerned a “chlorophyll man,” washed up on a beach in the Philippines (The Mad Doctor of Blood Island). After reading the caption for Fiend Without a Face, I asked my parents what it meant to have your brain sucked out the back of your neck by materialized thought. My mom laughed. Who put this idea in your head?
I was Gifford’s audience, though I wasn’t allowed in the theater. First Halloween costume: a semi–flame retardant Gill Man suit. Was convinced by my family of a green ghost living in the sewer. Once accused by a neighbor for using the lamppost in our front yard to “signal the Martians.”
With Gifford, I was placing my trust in a man who owned the original marquee poster for Fight with Sledgehammers (1921). But I want a pictorial history from author’s imagination—to actually see what he has written. From a movie whose title I can’t recall, a V-2 rocket disinters Dracula’s coffin during World War II. An excavation team removes the stake from his heart, thinking it’s shrapnel. Mayhem ensues. Sometimes the titles alone are enough. I sleep well knowing there was a time when you could sit in a theater and watch something called The Coughing Horror (1924) or The Cheese Mites (1901). King Klunk (1933) was an ill-advised Kong spin-off. Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory (1961) somehow received an X rating, while Dr. Zanikoff’s Experiences in Grafting (1914) was banned outright.
Then we proceed to the chapter subheads. Take “Dr. Jeckyll Is Not Himself”: “In which James Cruze is Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is somebody else, Uncle Carl makes his first monster, John Barrymore loses his Great Profile, and Mr. Ogle’s eyeballs leave Percy Darrell standing.”
Two years ago, I read some of the subheads during a radio show for Resonance FM in London. Ken Hollings, my host (and author of the great Welcome to Mars), brought his own copy of A Pictorial History. I was there to discuss my own book, but instead we happily flipped through Gifford’s montage on air, for an audience who couldn’t see. We turned our attention to Rondo Hatton, located next to Hurd Hatfield in the index. Hatton suffered from acromegaly, a glandular distortion of the face, hands, and feet. Cast as the Hoxton Creeper in The Brute Man (1946), Hatton required no makeup to break spines onscreen. “The only genuine monster star because he was a monster,” wrote Gifford. (A bust of this coveted face is commemorated in the annual Rondo Awards, for outstanding service in horror research and film preservation.) Acromegaly may have been the one word I read in A Pictorial History as a kid. Rondo Hatton’s name seemed to have stuck as well—it’s my first and current e-mail address. I’ve read his name on my screen every day now for the past fifteen years. Perhaps it’s time to watch him.
Dave Tompkins’s first book, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop is now out in paperback. Audio mixes and more can be found at Howtowreckanicebeach.com.