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Unsung Horrors (Book Review)

Throughout my existence as a horror fanatic, I’ve consumed an embarrassing number of movies spanning multiple eras and originating from all corners of the world. Consequently, I consider myself fairly well-versed in the genre so that when discussions turn to justifiably forgotten titles like Dance of the Dwarfs (1983) or Bakterion/Panic (1982), I can contribute to the stimulating conversation those films surely inspire (which is not often). For this reason, it piques my interest each time editors trumpet compilations of what they consider neglected work in the genre, titles that have unfairly fallen off the cinematic map if they had claim there at all. When the passionate folks at We Belong Dead assembled esteemed genre cinema historians, collectors, and critics like Troy Howarth, Jon Towlson, and JM Cozzoli to contribute essays for their tome covering these sorts of Unsung Horrors (edited by Eric McNaughton & Darrell Buxton), they received my full attention. After all, there aren’t many places to turn for reverent coverage of overlooked films like Dark Places (1973), Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977), or Damned in Venice (1978), so I’m not exaggerating when I say this is an exhilarating collection for weirdo enthusiasts like me.

Unsung doesn’t necessarily mean unknown, so aficionados will probably recognize many of these titles from browsing video store shelves, devouring specialty genre magazines, or stumbling upon a trailer within the depths of YouTube. The question to ask is: how many have you actually seen? Drawing from my own experience, more than a few are the types of films I’ve sworn I’ve watched only to realize that I merely read a synopsis on the back of a VHS cover without having rented the damn thing. There are, of course, a myriad of reasons these titles never got a fair shake: lack of audience interest upon release; maligned by critics; considered a minor work in a filmmaker’s oeuvre; shoved into a chasm of distribution hell; or simply didn’t fit the mold of their respective eras and vanished from consciousness. The purpose of Unsung Horrors is to acquaint readers with these titles that have been buried in some manner by time and neglect, unearthed here by fellow discerning devotees. While most of the films are not masterpieces by any stretch, they are worthy of rediscovery, at least in the hearts of the contributors who are moved to convince you of their value. Many are, in fact, masterpieces, and there are good arguments presented here in defense of their reputations. The point is, even among horror fans, these films are rarely discussed, and this book is a wonderful way to provoke reappraisal.

Unsung Horrors is a massive undertaking at 400+ pages exploding with content, wonderfully designed in blistering full color and filled with production stills, lobby cards, and original poster art to accompany the text. The reader is beckoned in by Paul Garner’s superb cover art with stunning caricatured renditions of Blacula (1972), Orca (1977), and Onibaba (1964) among others. The book’s blend of personal anecdotes and well-researched historical analysis works on a variety of levels; Ian Taylor’s conversational approach to the imperfect beauty of Haunted House of Horror (1969) reads like an old friend discussing the film’s merits over a few drinks; Andrew Bark recounts his wife’s refusal to watch the end of the first Soviet-era Russian horror film Viy (1967) because of sensitive ties to her life growing up in rural Ukraine; Tom Woodger’s fascinating discussion of The Golem/Monster of Fate/Der Golem (1915) and its sequels (The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917); The Golem: How He Came into the World (1920)) relates the films and director/star Paul Wegener to pre- and post-Nazi Germany. These totally different approaches have the same intent, to give the reader an accessible entry to these difficult-to-view films, and to demonstrate their significance beyond what is witnessed onscreen.

Unsung Horrors is not only about unsung movies, but also the unsung filmmakers and actors who were involved in creating these unique works. An entire book could have been devoted to the Euro horror of the “Spanish Hitchcock” Narciso Ibáñez Serrador (The House that Screamed/La Residencia (1969) and Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)) and his fellow countryman Jacinto Molina Álvarez, or more famously Paul Naschy (El Retorno de Walpurgis/Curse of the Devil (1973); La Noche de Walpurgis/Walpurgis Night/Werewolf Shadow (1971); Inquisición/Inquisition (1976)), both of whom are paid tribute by Peter Fuller, Stephen Mosley, Martin Dallard, and Tim Mitchell respectively. These creators are integral to the prominence of horror cinema in Spain, and deserving of this treatment. That’s just a snippet of the insight the reader is given throughout the book in readings designed to introduce very specific ground-breaking movements within the genre and the key figures behind them.

Unsung Horrors runs the gamut from the Pre-Code era (Doctor X (1932), Supernatural (1933)) to the eco horror of the 1970’s (Frogs (1972); Squirm (1976)), with all the sleazy Euro horror, iterations of classic Universal monsters, atomic age terrors, and prolific Hammer and AIP productions found in between. Nearly every piece is well-researched, insightful and, most importantly, enthusiastic, fulfilling the mission of Unsung Horrors free of the stiffness offered by some scholarly texts. We owe a hardy thanks to the contributors for their efforts at rekindling interest in these films, many of which missed an opportunity to connect with an audience on an initial run. With the help of books like this, their legacies are being revised by future generations. The best way to approach these films is best exemplified in JM Cozzoli’s appropriately Day-Glo colored exploration of Goke: Body Snatcher from Hell (1968) in which he opens “I need to prepare you so you can watch this movie unfettered by conventions, preconceptions, and the cinematic ignorance we have accumulated over the years as seen-it-all-know-it-alls. Clear your mind for a moment.” Clear your mind, indeed, for if you agree that a tome extolling the virtues of Grizzly (1976) is an important thing, this book is the journey for you.

About Chris Hallock

Chris Hallock is a screenwriter and film programmer in the Boston area. He has contributed to VideoScope Magazine, The Boston Globe, Paracinema, Shadowland, ChiZine, and Planet Fury. He serves as a programmer for the Boston Underground Film Festival and the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival and is a former Co-Director of Programming for Etheria. He is currently writing a book on the horror genre for Midnight Marquee Press. His other passions are cats, drumming, and fiercely independent art.

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