It took only one flip through “Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond” to see we were going to be good friends.
While I love deep-dive books about film history, they often sit on the shelf after the initial reading waiting to be pulled out again for special occasions and projects. The informative “Fright Favorites,” however, is a book you’ll want to keep within easy reach.
It is the latest in the Turner Classic Movies Library series that has reimagined the coffee-table book in a compact size (roughly 7.5 by 8 inches) that’s easy to hold and read, or just flip through to look at the gorgeous photography.
Noted film historian and author David J. Skal grew up during the monster movie craze of the 1950s, becoming part of the first generation of “monster kids.”
So he dedicates “Fright Favorites” to “monster kids of all ages everywhere” as he takes us through horror movies not as a comprehensive history, but rather as a “diverse sampler of chilling, thrilling, and often laugh-provoking classic movies especially well suited to mark the thirty-one days of October.”
Skal succinctly explains how our celebration of Halloween has changed over the past century-plus from Hollywood’s early affection for cute and whimsical pinups of starlets posing with broomsticks, cats, pumpkins and witch hats, to what has become a growing cinematic season and part of a multibillion-dollar annual industry.
He credits John Carpenter’s original “Halloween” with contributing to “the explosive growth of Halloween as the second-biggest retail holiday in America after Christmas,” and helping fuel the urban mythology of Halloween.
“The ‘Halloween’ phenomenon reconnected the holiday to its primary, if forgotten, cultural purpose: a ceremonial acknowledgment of mortality and the never-ending cycles of life, death, and the mysteries that follow. Before John Carpenter reinvigorated the holiday with ritual human sacrifice, did anyone still make a conscious connection between a jack-o’-lantern and a grinning skull?” Skal writes.
Movie fans love trivia and Skal goes beyond familiar stories to offer anecdotes that will be fresh to most of us. I won’t be able to think of “Nosferatu” again without recalling the creepy fact that it was based on vampire legends that Albin Grau, the film’s producer and production designer, heard during World War I. As a fan of “Them!” I’m embarrassed to have not known it was originally planned in 3-D and color but nixed by budget cuts.
“I’ve done a lot of research I haven’t been able to use and there are anecdotes and insights I haven’t put into a book before and I’m happy to have them here,” Skal said during a recent telephone interview about the book.
The title touts 31 movies, but Skal doubles that with a short piece about a second film that pairs nicely with the main movie. For “The Mummy” (1932) he gives us the 1980 Charlton Heston film “The Awakening”; for “Cat People” (1942), he suggest the Persian-language vampire film “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” (2014) that has been discussed in the “Women Make Film” documentary airing on TCM.
Skal gets us thinking about how the world influenced horror movies in new ways. Again, he takes it beyond the obvious – like the fact that giant bug movies grew out of American’s increasing fear of nuclear weapons – by explaining how Lon Chaney’s trademark portrayals of disfigured and disabled characters endeared him to audiences who were seeing maimed World War I veterans in their neighborhoods.
The visuals are another highlight with candid and publicity photos on nearly every page. Skal said he loves “digging for photos” and that he spent almost as much time finding the right pictures as he did on other aspects of the book. It shows.
The black and white photography is especially crisp and detailed. Take the famous publicity still from “House on Haunted Hill” with Vincent Price leaning over a table with cobwebs on lamps and statues. In “Fright Favorites,” that picture is so crisp that you can see the twist of his moustache coming off his mouth and a second cupid I never noticed.
While the book was written in conjunction with TCM, Skal includes a few modern films as well, but they recall the classics. “Young Frankenstein,” for example, was “simultaneously a loving homage and irreverent spoof” that follows the template of Universal films starring Boris Karloff in the 1930s.
And Jordan Peele’s masterful “Get Out” (2017) “reflects the legacy influence of a number of works, including ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956, 1978, 1993, and 2007 adaptations), ‘The Thing’ and ‘The Stepford Wives.’ ”
“Fright Favorites” may be about horror films, but it’s a fun and entertaining read, too. It works double duty as a solid introduction to these films as well as a handy reference guide for monster kids everywhere.
Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond, by David J. Skal.
224 pages from Running Press; $25.