V for Voluminous: Classics of the Horror Film

Classics of the Horror Film
by William K. Everson
Citadel Press | 1974
Paperback | 248 pgs.
5th paperbound edition


I am still waiting to see Murder by the Clock.

This 1931 mystery/horror film has always eluded my grasp, no matter where I have looked for it. I know it's out there somewhere. It is not marked as a lost film anywhere, and if you look for a DVD of it, you can find offers for it on most of the "non-legitimate" sites. I don't really trust any of those offers or sites, but they are out there. Where you don't find Murder by the Clock for sale is on places like TCM.com, BestBuy.com, BarnesandNoble.com, or Amazon.com, which is a pretty certain sign that any DVDs of the film that are floating around out there are most likely highly illegal in nature. I have found sites that say the film is definitely in the public domain and on YouTube, but the provided links are always shown to have been pulled down for copyright infringement, which would say to me the lie was put to their public domain statement in a fairly definite way. Elsewhere, I have found a notice that this Paramount title was sold to Universal along with some 700 other titles in 1958, so it is likely that is languishing in Universal's vaults somewhere.

So, what's the big deal with this Murder by the Clock film anyway? Don't know. Still haven't seen it. I have no idea if it is any good or not. 128 people have rated it a cumulative 6.8 on IMDb, so if you want to trust that rating, it sounds like it is more than good. Then again, 978 people have rated Tod Browning's 1927 film, London After Midnight, a 7.0 on IMDb, and I know that at least 99% of those people have probably never seen the film since IT IS A LOST FILM. It is likely that many of them are rating the concoction that TCM built from intertitle cards and still photographs and released as a special feature on a Lon Chaney collection a few years ago, but they still have not seen the actual film. With IMDb, you have to take popular ratings and any posted reviews with a grain of salt the size of the biggest ball of twine in Minnesota.

OK, wise guy.... then why are you so obsessed with seeing it? Well, it is one of the very few films left (not counting films, such as London After Midnight, that are definitely lost to time) in a certain book called Classics of the Horror Film that I have never seen and to which I cannot find access.

Ages ago, just out of high school and working for the first time, before I finally did have a decent film book library growing on the shelves of my apartment amongst all of my other books, I had only a handful of titles related to the movies. The Leonard Maltin Guide, of course, was standard and in my collection since I first found one as a teenager. I always had the latest edition at hand for a couple of decades. For a chunk of that time, I also kept the latest edition of Steven H. Scheuer's rival guidebook (which actually preceded Maltin's series by eleven years, being first published in 1958), though I never liked Scheuer's book as much. The Making of King Kong was there in those early years, of course, as well as Tarzan of the Movies, as well as the Medved Brothers' series of Golden Turkey Award-related books.

One of those early books, bought near the start of a very long tenure working for The Book Cache and its affiliated companies, was a volume by William K. Everson titled Classics of the Horror Film. As I was still a teenager and no internet existed to find instant information, I had no idea who Mr. Everson was when I bought the book. The volume does not contain an "About the Author" page or even a simple paragraph, nor is there a picture of Mr. Everson. So everything that I would get to learn about the author at that time would be directly through his writing. And while that writing did bear large traces of his personality, I still did not learn of his long reputation as a film society head and movie collector until much later.

But, oh! That personality! To say that it was, for a young film fan, a glimpse into the mindset of a man rather set in his opinions, which ran from a tad snooty but begrudgingly cognizant of changing trends to hardcore unwavering with a steadfastly upturned nose adorned with a clothespin, would be an understatement.

When I first encountered the book, having only seen a small portion of the films contained inside, I felt that I might never get a chance to see most of them. This was largely due to Everson's writing of the time leading up to its publication (1974 being the year), in the pre-video era, where unless you were blessed with a rare film revival, you pretty much had to hope that some local TV channel would play one of these films in the middle of the night or on a daytime matinee show. Everson broke my heart consistently throughout the book over my chances of seeing certain films. He speaks over and over again in the book about how modern audiences may never get the chance to see this film or that one, and even in the chapter devoted to Murder by the Clock, he speaks of it as if it were indeed a lost film. This is precisely how I was led to that conclusion until just recently.

The subtitle for the book is From the Days of the Silent Film to The Exorcist, the latter film having just been released the previous year in 1973. While he admits the film does work with an audience, he was clearly not built to deal with its speed, and calls it "a cheap and shoddy picture" that keeps taking "the easy way out" by dealing in disgusting imagery rather than shadowy thrills. Both points can be argued, but even when I first read the book in the early '80s, after being pretty thrilled to have read his preceding chapters relating, somewhat choppily, the history of the genre through its various cycles (German expressionism, Chaney, Universal, RKO Lewton, Hammer, Corman Poe), and its archetypal characters (vampires, mad scientists, werewolves, zombies, et al) – the final section of the book was the one that turned me off the most at the time when he started dealing far more harshly with modern pictures, especially as films had taken a turn away from monsters of the physical sort and more to those more ethereal types possessing our homes, bodies, and souls.

You can say the situation was either a snapshot of a man for whom the current movies were moving just beyond his grasp, or that he was just a guy who preferred his thrills a certain way -- and why change after all? But the genre was just on the cusp – or in the early years – of introducing us to George A. Romero, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, Joe Dante, David Lynch, and so many other filmmakers who were going to remake the genre over and over again, and Everson was clearly not up to the task of keeping up with these more modern filmmakers. He dismisses Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now in less than a paragraph (though he admires its look) for being too doom-laden from the start because of the supernatural elements of the plot. (Well, yeah, that's kind of the point of the story...) As a young man, I detected a certain fuddy-duddiness that I found somewhat unappealing.

Reading the book again in the modern sense, I was able to rather cast aside this later, and rather short, portion of the book, and enjoy Classics of the Horror Film for what is mostly was then and for what is still is today. It was a primary influence on my attitudes towards films of this bent in my young adult days, written by a man who pretty much grew up with the films of the '30s and especially the '40s (he was born in 1929) in much the same way that my horror consciousness was raised by all of those more modern directors I mentioned above. (Of course, I also had many of the films he was raised on in my range of influence, so I feel that I had it much better off than he did in the end.) What I really like about the book is the devotion he gives to some much smaller, less noticed films such as The Black Room and Strangler of the Swamp, while still paying proper obeisance to bona fide classics like FreaksThe Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy. Without Everson's book, films like Strangler may never have attracted my notice, at least until I found it in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film a little while later.

This book was where I first read about the Halperin Brothers and White Zombie, Michael Curtiz's The Walking Dead, and James Whale's incredible production of the original version of The Old Dark House. It is also where I got my first big dose of Tod Browning lore, even if Everson mostly considers him overrated as a director and seems to hold a great fascination over the sudden increased interest in the man's career at the time this book was going to press. And years before I ever got to see Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Everson absolutely dominated my opinion over its special effects transformation being far superior to those used in the later versions of the story and even in Universal's 1941 version of The Wolf Man.

Everson's book is a thing of its time, a look at a genre that had reached the end of one major era, running out of black and white steam (you can practically feel Everson's interest in continuing to right about the genre ebbing away the deeper he gets into the book), and that was right on the edge of entering a new, fully full color, far bloodier, far more profane, far more everything era. And, at the risk of sounding a bit of a fuddy-duddy myself, a not necessarily better era, when everything that was involved within the genre in the time since is figured into the equation. These things, like almost anything film-related where mere opinion enters the fray, can be argued to the end of time, and there will never be a resolution. Because there never can be. 

We each have our loves, and we each have our hates, and they are individual unto ourselves. It is clear from Classics of the Horror Film that not only did William K. Everson love old horror films, but that he loved the very idea of film itself. How you wish to interpret his writing is up to you, but for me, while I may not agree with everything he says in the book, it will remain a prime source for me when I need a dose of genre movie obsession.

I just have to skip that short chapter about Murder by the Clock, because not seeing that film is driving me nuts...

RTJ

And for those of you wishing to play along at home, here is a list that I have created on Letterboxd which features all of the movies listed in Classics of the Horror Film by William K. Everson. How many of these films have you seen? Follow the link:
http://letterboxd.com/thecinema4pylon/list/classics-of-the-horror-film-by-william-k/


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