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‘Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films,’ by David Konow

By John DiLeo,

Many moviegoers love being scared, always have, always will, as long as they can be terrified from the safety of their theater seats. It’s vicarious, it’s cathartic and it makes the real world a comparable relief. In “Reel Terror,” David Konow displays undeniable fervor for his subject and its fans, aptly calling his book “a love letter to a great and underappreciated genre.”

This “hundred-year history,” however, gives the genre’s first 50 years shockingly short shrift. In merely 25 pages, Konow covers “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “Nosferatu,” the films of Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, “The Wolf Man” and the 1942 “Cat People.” Yet later “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” gets 12 pages all to itself.

Konow also finds ample space for such tangential material as horror fanzines, radio shows, Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” and the “Salem’s Lot” TV mini-series. I understand the impulse to include these influences, but such extended treatment seems unnecessary. In this admirable but lopsided attempt to be comprehensive, “Reel Terror” is unwieldy, sometimes racing along, sometimes drawn out. If Konow had tightened his focus, sticking to, say, post-“Psycho” horror movies, or low-budget independents or supernatural endeavors, he might have delivered a must-have book.

Despite exhaustive research and new interviews, Konow often ignores such basic information as the movies’ release dates, which can get frustrating in a history. He also skimps on storylines, often not providing enough plot points to immerse readers fully in his individual film discussions. Those not already initiated into horror fandom may feel they’ve arrived after the movie has begun.

He is more effective with his many handy behind-the-scenes accounts, tracking such details as innovations in special effects and the inevitable battles with the ratings board over ever-increasing amounts of graphic violence. One of his more balanced chapters spotlights “Psycho,” exploring the alarming content and troublingly ordinary setting of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, all the while delivering an involving “making-of” report.

Konow hits his stride when addressing the key directors of horror favorites of the past 40 years or so, including snapshot biographies that are amusingly similar. What emerges from his portraits of John Carpenter (“Halloween”), John Landis (“An American Werewolf in London”), George Romero (“Night of the Living Dead”), Sam Raimi (“The Evil Dead”) and Wes Craven (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) is a set of variations on a common profile: Surprisingly “normal” (if a bit geeky), film-obsessed home-movie makers scrounge up money and equipment, reap attention with shoestring-budget horror films and transform their nightmares into big-screen fright. Konow treats these men as major artists who found their visionary niche in an unfairly dismissed genre. Whether this is valid criticism or wishful thinking, it’s certainly worthy of debate. As he makes his heartfelt case for these directors, the outlines of a winning book come into view, the one screaming to get out: “Masters of the Modern Horror Film.”

Konow quotes Orson Welles — “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation” — but doesn’t take his advice. This ardent book, more an entertaining confusion of ambitions than a confident survey, would have been more satisfying and definitive had Konow imposed some limits and then grabbed us by the throat.

DiLeo’s latest book is “Screen Savers II: My Grab Bag of Classic Movies.”

Reel Terror The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films By David Konow Thomas Dunne. 595 pp. Paperback, $18.99

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