Just in time for Halloween, VideoHound's latest entry in their ever-growing kennel of movie guides is now hitting bookstore shelves. VideoHound's Horror Show: 999 Hair-Raising, Hellish, and Humorous Movies surveys the entire horror movie genre. It concentrates primarily on American and British productions, but it also contains a good sampling of productions from around the world.
Bookstore shelves already brim with books that survey the horror genre, such as Michael J. Weldon's Psychotronic Video Guide, John Stanley's Creature Features, and Phil Hardy's Overlook Film Encyclopedia: Horror, but that hasn't deterred VideoHound from plowing through some of the same well-tilled soil. However, VideoHound does it with a difference: in addition to the capsule reviews of the movies, you'll also find dozen of page-long articles that examine major actors, directors, movie studios, serial killers, video companies, and of course, the monsters themselves. In addition, the book also tackles the horror genre decade-by-decade and traces the developments and trends. As a result, VideoHound's Horror Show becomes not just a reference book, but a book that you can sit down and read. In addition, it contains a wealth of stills from scenes in choice movies. (I'm also very grateful that the publishers refrained from the temptation of camping-up the photo captions. VideoHound's Vampires On Video, for example, is seriously marred by its dreadfully unfunny captions.)
On the debit side, though, author Mike Mayo's movie descriptions are frequently so vague that they're virtually useless. Mayo is so afraid of giving away too much about the movies that he frequently fails to convey those elements that get people excited about seeing a movie. For example, his plot description of Brian DePalma's Carrie fails to mention anything about Carrie's telekinesis. Instead, he focuses on the movies' opening locker room scene--but even then he fails to say what happens in the scene. Likewise, Mayo manages to talk about Carnival of Souls without discussing the main character's interest in an abandoned carnival; the word "expressionism" is no where to be found in the review of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari; and there's nothing about "the brood" in his description of David Cronenberg's The Brood.
When he turns to the Charlie Sheen movie The Arrival, Mayo praises the movie as "deeply frightening," but here's his plot description: "Radio astronomer (Charlie Sheen) discovers a signal from another star and is immediately downsized by his boss Gordian (Ron Silver). At the same time, environmental researcher Ilana Green (Lindsay Crouse) can't believe some of the numbers she's seeing." Mr. Mayo mildly perks my interest in the movie when he writes about its atmosphere of "paranoia" (which he compares to The X-Files) but he completely fails to convey enough of the story to hook my interest.
Or take the case of George Romero's Monkey Shines: when Mr. Mayo describes the movie's plot, he says, "When an accident leaves law student Allan Mann (Jason Beghe) a quadriplegic, his friend Geoffrey (John Pankow) arranges for a special monkey, Ella (Boo), to be trained to help him with the tasks most people take for granted." And in the subsequent sentence, Mayo suggests that Geoffrey and the monkey become "psychically linked." This description fails to get at the ingredients that make the movie compelling for an audience. In comparison, here's the plot description of the same movie from Michael J. Weldon's The Psychotronic Video Guide: "A quadriplegic Boston law student (Jason Beghe) develops a mind link with Ella, a superintelligent experimental monkey who's there to help him get through each difficult day. Ella carries out his subconscious wishes, and people are attacked and killed." Weldon's description gets me excited enough about seeing the movie that I might actually rent it the next time I'm at the video store; however, Mayo's description leaves me yawning. Admittedly, Mayo is much superior to Weldon when talking about themes and production issues. But at a very elemental level, a genre book such as VideoHound's Horror Show must get its readers excited about seeing the movies themselves and that's where this book fails.
To be fair, Mayo sets the rules in his introduction, where he says, "I do not give away any important details. Even though this book is meant for fans who have probably seen a lot of horror movies, nobody's seen everything, and it would be unforgivable of me to spoil a film." No, what's absolutely unforgivable is making movies such as Basket Case and Burn Witch Burn sound mundane. When Mayo breaks his own rules, as in his description of Boccaccio '70 -- where Anita Ekberg stars as a "giant temptress who steps off a billboard. . . . The sight of this huge buxom goddess striding through miniature sets like a blonde Godzilla is indescribable and altogether wonderful" -- he provides compelling reasons to search out a movie. But when he sticks to his rules, the capsule reviews are maddeningly incomplete.
VideoHound's Horror Show: 999 Hair-Raising, Hellish, and Humorous Movies is now available from Visible Ink Press. Suggested retail price: $17.95. Paperback.