Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Great Book of Movie Monsters Retrospective



Looking back, I grew up during an interesting time in the history of horror movies. I was in elementary school in the years that immediately preceded the rise of the home video industry, so that left most of us fledgling horror fans with syndicated television, magazines and books to satiate our horror needs in between horror film releases on the big screen. When it came to books, Crestwood House published a series about classic horror monsters and movies that were picked up by school libraries all over the country. These books familiarized monster kids with the best that classic horror films had to offer--which was fantastic, considering that we couldn’t always see these movies ourselves. (Read my post about Crestwood House's movie monster books here.)

In addition to reading Crestwood House books, I was also fortunate enough to pick up a fantastic horror movie reference book at my local bookstore in 1983: The Great Book of Movie Monsters, by Jan Stacy and Ryder Syvertsen. I don’t remember the exact circumstances that led me to purchase this book--or what convinced my parents to let me purchase this book--but to this day I’m glad I have it as part of my personal collection. While it has its share of errors and quirks, The Great Book of Movie Monsters is still one-of-a-kind in many ways and an absolute treat for horror fans of both popular and obscure horror titles. Read on for my complete retrospective, including pictures from the book that provide examples of its unique design.

Stacy and Syvertsen’s book is a reference book, so it is not meant to be read from beginning to end. Unlike other movie reference books, none of the movies are rated according to their quality; instead, the book’s gimmick is to provide individual profiles of the many monsters that have appeared on the silver screen, from the silent era to the early 80s. The profiles provide basic plot summaries of the movies in which each monster appeared and statistical data about each monster such as method of creation, size and weight, gender, superpowers, habits, and so forth. It is in these profiles that the book assumes a somewhat humorous tone: for example, a monster’s high number of victims is listed under “Accomplishments”, and other movie monsters that are similar to the one you are reading are listed as “Relatives”. Each profile also lists “What to Do If You Meet”, offering jokey solutions as to what you can do to stay alive when having a close encounter with the profiled monster.

At its worst, the humor in book’s profiles is somewhat uneven, particularly when Stacy and Syvertsen profile monsters in such grim and gruesome films as And Now the Screaming Starts, The Brood and I Drink Your Blood. Their humor works best when they apply it to notoriously hokey B movies such as Beach Girls and the Monsters and Invasion of the Saucer Men, which calls into question why they chose to include more serious horror movies as part of their book’s goofy approach. Then again, their selection of movies to profile--and not profile--can be baffling to understand at times. For example, many of Hammer Film Productions’ creature features are listed, but The Abominable Snowman and The Gorgon are conspicuously absent. Likewise, early slasher films such as Psycho and Halloween get profiles for their respective killers, but none are provided for Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Black Christmas.

None of the drawbacks in The Great Book of Movie Monsters detract from how well it works as a reference book for horror movies. The book features four indexes, which allow you to look for profiles according to monster, movie title, director, and studio. Each profile contains a picture of the monster and enough tantalizing details to convince you to seek the movie(s) that feature the monster. Best of all, many, many cult classics and obscure titles are included along with the classic movie monsters. This book introduced me to unique films such as Burn, Witch, Burn!, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Equinox, The Mutations, and even a really strange, largely forgotten flick from 1953 called The Twonky. I haven’t seen any another horror movie book provide as much loving attention as The Great Book of Movie Monsters does to so many lesser-known titles. Its comprehensive scope alone convinced me that it was a labor of love for Stacy and Syvertsen to produce, and that they probably grew up glued to the TV set whenever their local TV stations ran a classic horror film from Universal’s Shock Theater library. (Click here to read my review of Jim Clatterbaugh's book, Shock Theater: An Illustrated History.)

The Great Book of Movie Monsters is a great addition to any horror fan’s collection, particularly for those who are interested in fan-friendly horror movie books from the 80s. It would also make for a great companion text to John Landis’ recent book, Monsters in the Movies. Below are a few pages from the book, which you can click to enlarge.









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