I was a kid when I received the above book for Christmas – Horror Movies: Tales of Terror in the Cinema by Alan G. Frank, to this day one of my favorite gifts. The book, published in 1974, was a compendium of horror movies , slanted toward the British horror powerhouses of the day, Hammer and Amicus, but also looking at horror movies in general.
I’ve been thinking about this book: it’s one of the few pieces of my history that has made the multiple journeys to multiple states and residences — at last count I’ve lived in more than 15 different locations, but honestly I’m not motivated enough to get an accurate count. This was the book I cared for and cherished.
I grew up in a small farming town in Ohio, and while technically only am hour’s drive to Cleveland, in the days before the Internet, cell phones or cable TV it might as well have been on another planet. The town where I was raised was isolated, and there was no theater or news stand. Most of my knowledge of pop culture came from the Mad magazines I’d get every month from the Lawson’s. I had to work hard to find horror movie trivia, reading every book on horror movies, ghost stories and anything else scary that I could find at our small school library, which wasn’t much. A book like this, then, was a life saver.
I’ve been watching horror movies for literally as long as I can remember, and while memory is fickle and unreliable, I can actually remember one of the key cinematic experienced that inspired my horror journey. I was up late for some reason, I might have been sick. I was probably six or seven, maybe even five, and was on the couch with my parents. They weren’t horror movie folks but for some reason that night they were watching a late night movie, again maybe because they were up with me if I was sick. I’ve asked them about it later in life but of course they don’t remember that particular event as it wasn’t anything memorable them, and I’m sure they had no idea how important it would turn out to be for me.
The particular movie was the 1944 ghost story The Uninvited with Ray Miland. The scene that hooked me on horror, particularly melancholic atmospheric horror, was one that you might not guess. Our lead characters, a piano composer and his sister, enter a large open room on the top floor of a spooky house with windows overlooking a bluff and the sea beyond. As they tour the house for the first time, the movie viewer sees a bouquet of flowers on the table. The flowers shrivel up and die, but it’s only seen by the movie viewer, not the characters in the movie. So simple, so understated, and so terrifying to my young mind that I cried. That scene hit at some core, primal level.
While that night I was terrified, the fascination of that fear stayed with me and I began seeking out anything spooky I could find. Luckily back then it was a golden time for horror movie hosts in Ohio out of Cleveland and Akron such as Houlihan and Big Chuck, The Ghoul, Sir Graves Ghastly, and on Saturday afternoons Super Host. These hosts became family to me, and when I was young I would tiptoe out to the family room late night (my parents went to bed very early) on Fridays to watch the late night horror hosts on a tiny black and white Zenith TV with the sound turned way down. The room wasn’t insulated well so was crazy cold in the winter time, but I didn’t care. I was hooked.
I might not remember half of the things of my youth, but I remember watching Peter Cushing in The Gorgon, practically peeing myself with terror while watching Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath (particularly the story “A Drop of Water” where a spooky corpse terrorizes a nurse in an old house) and catching the TV release of the 1971 horror film Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. While other kids knew sports and music stars, I knew Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Peter Lorie and Boris Karloff.
While some of my friends also watched horror movies, my pursuit and obsession was largely solitary. I watched them by myself and developed my knowledge independently as a kid who didn’t feel that he fit in with society in general. It wouldn’t be until decades later as an adult that I would meet other horror fans who shared similar experiences growing up. It’s like all of us were, and are still, invisibly connected by a love of horror movies even though we didn’t know a community existed out there that was waiting for us.
And then, of course, came the 1980s. By then I had a driver’s license, long hair and a theater in a nearby town. I don’t need to tell you what a rush it was for a horror movie lover to be a teen in the 80s. Even so, though, the core of my horror love always remained with the atmospheric and moody. Slashers were fun, but the upsetting ride of Roddy McDowell in The Legend of Hell House, the melancholic cynicism of made for TV movies like A Taste of Evil with Roddy McDowell (before Hell House) or The Paper Man or the American Gothic horror of The Dark Secret of Harvest Home, a mini series in 1978, are still near and dear to my heart.
But through it all, I clung to my hardback book Movie Treasury published by from Octopus (with its groovy 1970s Octopus logo). I recently learned that the author, Alan G. Frank, is still doing movie reviews and can be found at the website PicturesthatTalk.com.
Thank you, Mr. Frank, for providing a desperately needed connection to a community that I didn’t even know existed at the time. My horror movie journey would have been incomplete with you.