Master Class: Jonathan Rigby’s Studies in Terror reviewed!

Jonathan Rigby’s Studies in Terror: Landmarks of Horror Cinema (Signum Books, 2011) follows his genre overviews, English Gothic: A Century of Horror Cinema (Reynolds & Hearn, 2002) and American Gothic: Sixty Years of Horror Cinema (Reynolds & Hearn, 2007). While the earlier books focused on chronological histories of grotesque themes in British and American films, from the silent flickers at the birth of cinema through the boom years and straight on to their respective declines, Studies limits the discourse to select titles the author believes worthy of landmark status. In other words, this time it’s personal.

Before we dive in, a few thoughts about Jonathan Rigby. That’s him on the right, looking professional and smart and a bit amused by it all. Jonathan — and knowing him somewhat, I feel comfortable calling him that — is an actor as well as a writer. Like any good utility player, he knows how to deliver the necessary information to his audience without drawing unnecessary attention to himself. That sense of professional purpose bleeds over into his books. English Gothic came out at a time when the market was glutted with books about horror movies but it distanced itself from 90% of the pack by avoiding the fannish, opinionated blather that characterized genre studies in the days before people had blogs to dump their musings into. Even before I had paged myself to its conclusion, English Gothic impressed me as an instant classic, a true textbook, one to stand on equal terms alongside the seminal likes of Ivan Butler’s Horror in the Cinema, Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of the Horror Film, Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies, and David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror: The English Gothic Cinema 1946-1972. I remember crowing to Tim Lucas, my editor at Video Watchdog, “Finally, a new genre writer to be excited about.” Tim was so impressed with my recommendation that he used it in his review of English Gothic, with my blessing. It was a testament to Jonathan’s essential worth that Tim opted to critique the book himself rather than hand the task over to some sniveling subaltern. True to form, Tim reviewed Studies in Terror in the most recent issue of Video Watchdog, preempting any possible entreaty on my part to do the job, so here I am on my own dime with my own thoughts on this most recent descent into the maelstrom.

Long story short: Rigby’s done it again. Studies in Terror finds him writing in a looser, more conversational tone. Rather than the donnish lecture hall approach of the “Gothic” texts, here the mood is more in the mental setting of a back booth at a public house on a dark and stormy night. The text is inviting and you can almost sense Jonathan cutting the air with his hands to emphasize a point or leaning in conspiratorily to ensure that you’re catching his drift. The book does spread out in chronological order, beginning with the first film to which he affords landmark status — Robert Wiene’s German Expressionist classic THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919), whose “classic simplicity… laid down a precise blueprint for a nascent genre.” Of course, there is nothing novel or controversial in this assertion, but neither does Jonathan belabor the point. He takes the association “as read” and moves on, showing how grotesque and haunting themes jumped the Atlantic to land in Hollywood in 1931, where the horror movie was born. This being a personal and highly subjective concordance, Jonathan’s choices are equally fascinating for the films he doesn’t include as those he does. James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931) gets the treatment but not Tod Browning’s earlier DRACULA (1931); Universal’s subsequent Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff follow-ups, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (1932), THE MUMMY (1933) and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) are passed over in favor of the Halperin Brothers’ independent WHITE ZOMBIE (1932), Paramount’s ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (1932), and the British THE GHOUL (1933), which marked Karloff’s return to England since sailing for Canada in 1909. The author is similarly unafraid to voice the minority opinion, as when he stumps for Vincent Sherman’s THE RETURN OF DR. X (1939), which generally receives attention from film writers only as an indication of how bad Humphrey Bogart’s career was pre-THE MALTESE FALCON (1941), champions DAY OF THE DEAD (1985) over DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978) and THE EXORCIST III (1990) over THE EXORCIST (1973), and says nice (and bullseye) things about that red-headed stepchild of Hammer horror THE LEGEND OF THE 7 GOLDEN VAMPIRES (1974).

A dab hand at discussing the respective canons of Universal in Hollywood and Hammer in the United Kingdom, Jonathan seems particularly enthused when his selections hail from some corner of the world he hasn’t already written about at length. One of the real lures of Studies in Terror is the light he is now able to shine on such under-discussed titles as Maurice Tourneur’s LA MAIN DU DIABLE (aka CARNIVAL OF SINNERS, aka THE DEVIL’S HAND, 1942), Fernando Mendez’s LADRON DE CADAVARES (1956), Kaneto Shindo’s ONIBABA (1964), Carlos Enrique Taboada’s EL LIBRO DE PIEDRA (1968), Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s ¿QUIEN PUEDE MATAR A UN NINO? (aka WHO CAN KILL A CHILD, aka ISLAND OF THE DAMNED, 1975) and Pieter Van Hees’ LINKEROEVER (LEFT BANK, 2007) — to name just a few. Rare is the genre-wide, international horror study that is this uniformly enthusiastic and persuasive. Even the giants — Butler, Clarens, Gifford, Pirie and William K. Everson with Classics of the Horror Film and its followup More Classics of the Horror Film — could turn surly and churlish at times and default to grouchy old fogeyisms which tended to devalue their assessments somewhat in the long view.

As a horror lifer, as someone whose interest was piqued by Universal’s monster rallies, nurtured by the psychological/suggested horrors of Val Lewton at RKO, honed by the British boom that occurred within my lifetime, and vulcanized by the invention, daring, and absolute insanity of 70s horror (domestic and imported) — as someone who has invested nearly half a century in his passion — I cannot tell you how valuable and inspiring it is to find a writer who sees the genre not as life itself (if Jonathan Rigby owns even a single black graphic tee shirt I would be very much surprised) but as a reflection of life and one who is able to speak on this subject without condescension. We’ve gotten to a very bad place in America with our enthusiasm for horror, conflating it with comedy (how many horror-themed programs, such as Bravo’s 100 SCARIEST MOVIE MOMENTS and AMC’s THE TALKING DEAD, truck in stand-up comedians and sitcom stars to offer color-commentary?) and pitching the result somewhere between the juvenalia of MTV and the bombast of ESPN. The Brits have a better handle on horror, trucking in as they do from time to time the knowledgeable and often laugh-out-loud funny likes of Mark Gatiss (who provides Studies in Terror with its foreword), Mark Kermode, Kim Newman, and Jonathan Rigby. Aficionados all, and interested more in getting the facts right than in seeing their names in print or pushing their mugs into camera, these writers up lift the genre while so many others who profess a love for the genre tamp it into the mud with the weight of their vanity. As it argues the reasons why horror still matters, STUDIES IN TERROR, by virtue of the medium in which it is tendered, is also a persuasive argument for why the printed word still matters. Books such as this were made for the ages, to be cherished and handled, to be pulled down off the shelf and set in one’s lap for a long clip of reading, with the day’s business done, the children tucked into their beds and the goddamn computer turned off for the night.

To order STUDIES IN TERROR:
 
Signum Books
Amazon.com
Amazon.uk
Powell’s Books
0 Response Master Class: Jonathan Rigby’s Studies in Terror reviewed!
Posted By Jenni : March 23, 2012 1:20 pm

Thank you for the critique of this book which I do plan on seeking out. Just saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the first time this winter, mesmerizing, and I would like to read Rigby’s views on it, among the other films he’s chosen.

Posted By Jenni : March 23, 2012 1:20 pm

Thank you for the critique of this book which I do plan on seeking out. Just saw The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for the first time this winter, mesmerizing, and I would like to read Rigby’s views on it, among the other films he’s chosen.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 23, 2012 1:22 pm

Jenni, yours may be the fastest reply I’ve ever gotten here at the Movie Morlocks. I hope you like the book as much as I did.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 23, 2012 1:22 pm

Jenni, yours may be the fastest reply I’ve ever gotten here at the Movie Morlocks. I hope you like the book as much as I did.

Posted By tdraicer : March 23, 2012 2:00 pm

I’m interested in the book, but I have to say, I saw The Ghoul recently and found it deadly dull. And though it may mark Karloff’s return to England, his role is little more than an extended cameo.

Posted By tdraicer : March 23, 2012 2:00 pm

I’m interested in the book, but I have to say, I saw The Ghoul recently and found it deadly dull. And though it may mark Karloff’s return to England, his role is little more than an extended cameo.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 23, 2012 2:04 pm

Karloff added value to a film no matter how fleeting his appearance. He’s used sparingly in The Old Dark House as well but his being there changes the equation for the better and I feel the same about The Ghoul. Yes, it feels in many ways antiquated and the pacing is slow but I like it better than you do. Now that you’ve gotten what I presume is your first viewing it under your belt, maybe you should give it another shot after the passage of time, to see the movie it is rather than (again, I presume) the movie you expected it to be. Of course, you might as well end up feeling the same way but if Karloff isn’t worth a second chance who is?

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 23, 2012 2:04 pm

Karloff added value to a film no matter how fleeting his appearance. He’s used sparingly in The Old Dark House as well but his being there changes the equation for the better and I feel the same about The Ghoul. Yes, it feels in many ways antiquated and the pacing is slow but I like it better than you do. Now that you’ve gotten what I presume is your first viewing it under your belt, maybe you should give it another shot after the passage of time, to see the movie it is rather than (again, I presume) the movie you expected it to be. Of course, you might as well end up feeling the same way but if Karloff isn’t worth a second chance who is?

Posted By Susan Doll : March 23, 2012 10:56 pm

I’m always on the lookout for new books on horror. I will have to check this one out.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 23, 2012 10:56 pm

I’m always on the lookout for new books on horror. I will have to check this one out.

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 25, 2012 11:56 am

RHS, I love it when you make me feel I’m on the right track. I’ve just started ENGLISH GOTHIC, which I just purchased as a slightly used volume. I lost my copy of AMERICAN GOTHIC on my shelves after having started reading it a few years ago, but it recently surfaced, and I have it and the book you’ve reviewed above waiting nearby. Sometimes, as when I see that I’ve also finally started Kim Newman’s revised NIGHTMARE MOVIES, I feel like Burgess Meredith in that “Twilight Zone” episode, “World Enough & Time.” But that’s my problem, not yours, isn’t it, my friend?

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 25, 2012 11:56 am

RHS, I love it when you make me feel I’m on the right track. I’ve just started ENGLISH GOTHIC, which I just purchased as a slightly used volume. I lost my copy of AMERICAN GOTHIC on my shelves after having started reading it a few years ago, but it recently surfaced, and I have it and the book you’ve reviewed above waiting nearby. Sometimes, as when I see that I’ve also finally started Kim Newman’s revised NIGHTMARE MOVIES, I feel like Burgess Meredith in that “Twilight Zone” episode, “World Enough & Time.” But that’s my problem, not yours, isn’t it, my friend?

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 25, 2012 12:35 pm

That should’ve been “Time Enough At Last.”

Posted By Bob Gutowski : March 25, 2012 12:35 pm

That should’ve been “Time Enough At Last.”

Posted By swac44 : March 25, 2012 3:02 pm

Forget about the black shirt, I can’t help wondering if Jonathan is any relation to Eleanor, and if he keeps a face in a jar by the door.

Posted By swac44 : March 25, 2012 3:02 pm

Forget about the black shirt, I can’t help wondering if Jonathan is any relation to Eleanor, and if he keeps a face in a jar by the door.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 26, 2012 8:52 pm

Yes, I’m sure it does. But not his own.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 26, 2012 8:52 pm

Yes, I’m sure it does. But not his own.

Posted By jbryant : March 27, 2012 2:46 pm

THE GHOUL may indeed be far from perfect, but the MGM DVD I saw a few years ago is quite possibly the best looking print I’ve ever seen of a ’30s film. I assume it’s from the original negative, since it’s stunningly clear and unblemished, with rich blacks and perfect contrast, beautifully doing justice to Gunther Krampf’s B&W cinematography. If only all classic films could be this well preserved!

Rigby’s books sound great.

Posted By jbryant : March 27, 2012 2:46 pm

THE GHOUL may indeed be far from perfect, but the MGM DVD I saw a few years ago is quite possibly the best looking print I’ve ever seen of a ’30s film. I assume it’s from the original negative, since it’s stunningly clear and unblemished, with rich blacks and perfect contrast, beautifully doing justice to Gunther Krampf’s B&W cinematography. If only all classic films could be this well preserved!

Rigby’s books sound great.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 29, 2012 1:42 pm

The book sounds extremely interesting, but The Exorcist III over The Exorcist? I think not.

Posted By dukeroberts : March 29, 2012 1:42 pm

The book sounds extremely interesting, but The Exorcist III over The Exorcist? I think not.

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