Book review: ‘Fright Favorites’ is a classic horror film treat

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.

Among the anecdotes shared by David J. Skal in “Fright Favorites” is that “Them!” was originally going to be shot in color. I think black and white suits the film much better.

“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.

[Read: More of my interview with David J. Skal]

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.

Wartime audiences connected with Lon Chaney’s portrayals of disabled characters like the armless circus performer in “The Unknown.” He’s pictured with Joan Crawford.

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.

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