Horror Historian David J. Skal Talks TCM ‘Fright Favorites’ Book: The Conskipper Interview

Horror fans who’ve ever ventured into the world of the scholastic study of the genre know few authors as prolific and influential as David J. Skal. Writing with both the encyclopedic knowledge of all things horror and the sharp perception of the symbiotic relationship between horror, culture, and human nature, Skal penned such enduring modern classics as Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen, The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror, and Death Makes a Holiday: The Cultural History of Halloween. He collaborated with Turner Classic Movies to create his latest book, Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond, and he is currently hosting a Fright Favorites run of classic horror films on TCM alongside Ben Mankiewicz. Skal took some time out of his busy schedule to speak with us about his process, the classic horror films we all love, and more.

As a film scholar and horror movie lover, what process did you use to whittle your list down to 31 entries for Fright Favorites? What criteria did you establish for deciding what to include?

David J. Skal: I was approached by Turner Classic Movies and Running Press to take this on, and we knew from the beginning that it couldn’t be an encyclopedia. Several decades ago you could have really covered the field in a 200 page book, but not anymore. Horror and dark fantasy and horrific science fiction have all kind of blurred together into one big genre. I did a preliminary list that went decade by decade and there were many, many more than 31 films. Of course, Turner Classic Movies is full of people who are very knowledgeable about film, and they had many suggestions. My publisher, Running Press, also specializes in film books, so there was plenty of input. The first thing to do is winnow out the over-represented people. We couldn’t have too many films with Vincent Price. We didn’t want to over-represent one director or one type of film. You could do a whole book about vampire films. You could do a whole book about serial killers. So we would frequently meet for phone conferences and I would provide a revised list, but there were still a lot of movies that we weren’t seeing. So I finally suggested: Why don’t we do this as kind of a modified double feature? And for each entry, we’ll do a “if you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy that” segment. That kind of broke the dam and made it a much more manageable process. So we decided that what we wanted to do is give a representative cross section rather than a complete look.

Beyond the 62 films, there are plenty more others mentioned in the text. But it’s not a book for completists; it’s a book for people who enjoy the genre, who know something about horror movies but would like to know more. And it seems to be working that way. I’m getting a lot of feedback and fan mail from people who are saying, “This was the perfect gift for my significant other who was always curious about horror but never took the jump.” Also, the countdown format makes it perfect for a virtual Halloween, which we weren’t expecting. Usually at this time, I am on the road with a book or project. I do college lectures and bookstore signings, and convention appearances, and usually the month of October is packed to the gills. And that was true this year too until the spring when the pandemic hit. So it’s not going to be a hands-on Halloween. Fortunately there are streaming services, there are DVDs and Blu-Ray, there is Turner Classic Movies, and there’s my book. So it provides a road map for people who are going to be watching rather than doing this Halloween season.

The “If you enjoyed this, you might also like” sections of Fright Favorites do a nice job of including more great films beyond your primary selections in your book. Were there any movies out there that you struggled with eliminating from your final draft, and you might have kept them in the book if there were just a few more entries?

Skal: No. There are a lot of films I love, but they would just be the equivalent of something that’s already included in the book. We started with Nosferatu. I just as easily could have started with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. If there’s a second book, that’s exactly how I will start it. When we decided not to be all things to all people, but just to create a satisfying experience in its own right, it all kind of clicked together.

Max Schreck in Nosferatu (1922)

Fright Favorites covers just about every era of horror cinema, but we know you have a special place in your heart for classic Universal horror films. Now that Universal is planning to reboot more of their classic properties after the success of The Invisible Man, which of the signature trappings of those classic films do you think could be resurrected and reimagined in these new movies for a modern audience?

Skal: I’m not quite sure, because the atmosphere of those films was very peculiar. It was rather anachronistic. You would have medieval trappings and buildings and automobiles in the same film. You couldn’t quite tell when things were happening and where things were set. The concept of Europe was very, very fluid. I’m not sure where Vasaria is, the country where later films like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man took place. Or in The Wolf Man, you seem to be able to get from Europe to Wales on land. It’s crazy. It’s an alternate universe, and I think that would be something for Universal to try.

There is not going to be one shaping, creative force behind these new reboots. You had a consistency in the old days because you did have the scenario departments who were shaping the material for the directors, who worked with contract performers. Now, every film is kind of a studio in its own right, a self-contained universe. We won’t recapture that as styles of moviemaking change, and as audiences’ tastes change. If anything, good storytelling always works, and The Invisible Man is a really good example of that. It was done for a fraction of what Universal usually spends on these type of films, and it wasn’t trying to be a summer blockbuster. It was trying to be a scary film. It was very well-acted, and it delivered its punch on a really small budget. The old Universal films were all mid-range money outlays for the studios, or even less. I think a low budget really does foster creativity in a lot of ways.

One of the films we include in the book is Val Lewton’s Cat People, which was done as a direct response to Universal’s The Wolf Man. But it did not have the same kind of budget that Universal was putting into these things, so we were not going to get horrific make-ups and on-screen transformations. But Lewton made that into the strongest point of the film. He let the audiences create the terror in the back of their own minds. This is why horror has always been a great medium for radio shows and for stories around the campfire, because it’s very, very participatory. You have to do a lot of the imagining rather than leaving it to the technicians and make-up artists and special effects people.

You mentioned that Fright Favorites is a virtual countdown experience through the 31 days of Halloween. Sadly, some of the horror classics of the golden age of cinema have been lost to time due to things like studio fires and old prints vanishing from archives. If you had a supernatural opportunity this Halloween to watch one of the lost classic horror films, what would you pick to watch and why?

Skal: It would definitely be London After Midnight, a 1927 film with Lon Chaney and directed by Tod Browning. That was really the template for Mark of the Vampire, which is one of the “you might also like” films in Fright Favorites. It’s the kind of horror movie that was made before Universal changed things with Dracula. In the silent days there were terrifying characters— often played by Lon Chaney— but they were always human or revealed to be human beings. Or the terrifying, unearthly events were the result of a criminal conspiracy or somebody trying to steal an inheritance… that sort of thing. And London After Midnight was in that category. It’s sometimes called the first American vampire film. The vampire is not real, but Chaney does quite an imaginative job of creating it. The only print of the film and its negative were destroyed in a vault fire at MGM in the sixties, and it is on the top of everybody’s list of the most sought after lost films. It was a very successful film. It made more money than Chaney and Browning usually did, and it was shown all over the world. So there’s always the chance that there is some nitrate print of it somewhere, and we’ll just have to see. One of the rumors about it is that a collector has it and is simply trying to run out the clock on MGM’s copyright. I don’t think that’s true. A collector wouldn’t be able to really present the film or really make much money from it. But stranger things have happened. The Edison Frankenstein movie, for years, existed only in the collection of one rather eccentric collector who did not want to share it with the world, or even have a protection print made from it. He finally came around to it. Film preservation is a very precarious business.

I’ve talked to some people who saw London After Midnight. Three people, actually. I talked to Forrest J. Ackerman: the editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, the late film historian William K. Everson, who wrote one of the first serious books on horror movies, and Robert Bloch: the author of Psycho. Ackerman and Bloch saw the film as kids, and Everson saw it as an adult. He was one of the last people to view it at the MGM vault. And they all kind of said, maybe people would be disappointed if they saw it because— as scary as Chaney looks in the surviving skills— on camera he came across as an almost comic kind of character. Ackerman compared him to Groucho Marx scuttling around. And I could kind of see that in the photos. Tod Browning had a strange sense of humor and it wouldn’t be out of character for him to have grotesque fun with the movie. But hopefully we’ll find out sometime. If Fright Favorites 2 comes along, it’ll definitely be included in that volume.

Lon Chaney Sr. in London After Midnight (1927)

And in the meantime, we’re just going to have to keep looking at those stills that still exist and dream, right?

Skal: Well, that’s what we did back then. I was part of the original generation of monster kids in the sixties, and there was no home video. There were no streaming services. You couldn’t watch things on demand. A screening was kind of a special event. Either a television station had to decide to show something or a movie theater had to do a revival. In the meantime, those of us who couldn’t get enough of monsters could only access them virtually, through these magazines. They were surrogates for an actual viewing. You could read the stories, and you could see the pictures. Ackerman really knew how to make his young audiences happy, and that’s exactly what a lot of us did: sitting in our bedrooms when we could have been doing other more productive and healthy things (laughs) and just rerunning these movies in our heads. I was most fascinated by the Lugosi Dracula, but it took me about six years to see it because it was not being shown on Cleveland television at the time. All I had were my magazines that I started collecting, and photos of my own, and I was just kind of waiting and waiting and waiting to see it. And I thought: it must be the greatest movie ever made. And that isn’t how it turned out when I finally watched it. It was kind of a disappointment. Dracula is a very influential film because it was the first time Hollywood took a chance on a frankly supernatural, irrational subject. And it worked. And it unleashed this whole dormant creative energy. It changed Hollywood. Because even today, the greatest grossing films of all time have some element of the fantastic or irrational. And Dracula was the turning point for that.

Now that Fright Favorites is in bookstores, can you tell us about any projects you’re working on next?

Skal: I’m going to be doing several things. I write for both general and academic audiences, and a new edition of the Norton Critical Edition of Dracula, which is the go-to academic edition of Bram Stoker’s text. I was involved in it the first time around in 1997, and now a second edition is coming out that I’m co-editing with John Edgar Browning. He is a very well-known Dracula scholar. It’s going to be out in a few months. I’m looking forward to it because it’s been my bestselling book over all these years. Classroom after classroom, students renew themselves and there’s always a new audience for it.

I’ve just finished a very elaborate revised edition of Dark Carnival, my Tod Browning biography. It’s going to be published in a coffee table art book edition by Centipede Press, who do this kind of thing very, very well. It’ll be out in the beginning of next year. It’s very exciting to me because I just had access to things I thought I’d never have my hands on, like Tod Browning’s personal scrapbooks and his whole photo collection. So, there are some visual discoveries, and certainly stills from London After Midnight that haven’t been used before. We can’t see the film but there are always things like photographs and ephemera to discover.

Beyond that, I’m doing a book called I Hear America Screaming, subtitled, The Politics of Horror. Because I really do think we’ve been living too much in a horror movie. This year is scary enough, and it has something to do with the appeal of Fright Favorites. I haven’t seen the sales figures yet, but I know I have signed more copies of this book since it hit the stores than any of my previous books. I’ve always been interested in the cultural meaning of horror movies. My book, The Monster Show, explores the twentieth century’s secret history as revealed through monster movies. And this new book will do that as well because, just look at it: People are living inside horror movies. How else could you describe the followers of QAnon and the things that they purport to believe? The boundary between frightening fantasy and political reality doesn’t exist. I’m having a little difficulty cramming everything I want to into this book, but that will probably be my next big new title.

I started out as a novelist, a science fiction writer. As people have pointed out, my brand of science fiction was terribly creepy. So I do kind of blur genres. I have a number of projects that have been novels that have been on the back burner for many, many years as I’ve been focusing on nonfiction. And I’ve also revamped a few of my early novels. So I’m going to reboot them. I’m looking forward to that because fiction is something that doesn’t require the same kind of intense research and travel and expense that a lot of my books do. With fiction, it comes all out of my head, so it’s a nice change of pace. I’m enjoying revisiting that part of my career as well.

Fright Favorites: 31 Movies to Haunt Your Halloween and Beyond by David J. Skal is available in hardcover and digital format at bookstores today. Turner Classic Movies will continue to air their Fright Favorites series of horror films through the end of October.

Nick Banks contributed to this interview.

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