“REEL TERROR” – INTERVIEW WITH AUTHOR DAVID KONOW

The Horror Spirits and Heavy Metal Gods have united to host a party. Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett is invited. So is author David Konow. It’s a surreal case of supernatural serendipity.

Let me explain.

In 2002, Konow released “Bang Your Head: The Rise and Fall of Heavy Metal,” a meticulously researched history of the genre. Meanwhile, it’s a known fact that when Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett isn’t hammering out sonic bullets from his six-string instruments of death, he’s collecting horror memorabilia. In fact, there’s a “Creature of the Black Lagoon” pinball machine residing in the band’s rehearsal headquarters.

Flash forward to the present. Hammett has just released “Too Much Horror Business,” a vicarious tour of his mammoth collection of monster-movie memorabilia. Within the same month, Konow has unveiled “Reel Terror: The Scary, Bloody, Gory, Hundred-Year History of Classic Horror Films.”

What’s going on here?

This strange intertwining of the two horror-movie books, one from a heavy metal musician and the other by a heavy metal historian, is a remarkable coincidence – but not a completely surprising one. Metal music and horror films are the most fan-driven forces in pop culture, and both prompt violent, visceral surges of sensory crack. They’re two tastes that taste great together.

With “Reel Terror,” Konow proves that he’s not just a critic of crunch – he’s also the Dr. Frankenstein of prose, and Reel Terror is his magnificent monster of a book. Konow assembles the skin, bones, and viscera of horror’s hundred-year onscreen history, and doesn’t miss a bloody stitch. This definitive terror tapestry delivers what Quint promised in Jaws: “the Head, the Tail… the Whole Damn Thing.”

Because of the strong fan-base battery powering these resilient entertainment machines, books that attempt to take on “genre” histories had better be exhaustive and definitive… because competition abounds. There’s a global geek battalion dissecting and documenting horror’s freakishly finite details… sometimes to a ghoulish fault. Peruse the web, and you’ll probably find forum notes, tweets, and YouTube trivia on everything from George Romero’s dental records and Lucio Fulci’s birth certificate. Fortunately, “Reel Terror” offers a cemetery’s worth of intriguing trivia while avoiding unnecessarily voyeuristic dissemination. Sure, Konow is a rabid fan, but his passion is anchored in reverence and respect.

While “Reel Terror” is available in e-book form, there’s something appealing about having this encyclopedic compilation in hard copy. You can stash it on the passenger side of your car, leaf through it during lunch hour, and learn that Tom Savini earned a mere $15,000 dollars for his revolutionary gore effects in “Dawn of the Dead.” Then drop it. Peruse it again after work, and discover that when Bruce the Shark from “Jaws” first bares his dead-eyes and bear-trap teeth in “Jaws,” the scene’s impact is maximized by the hissing explosion of a shaken pop can exploding on concrete.

“Reel Terror” begins its journey in black and white, exploring the early 1920’s emergence of “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu,” and ends by wading through the the crimson-red, contemporary currents of Reality Horror (“Paranormal Activity”) and Torture Porn (“Hostel”). Konow seldom interjects his own subjective critiques. “Reel Terror” might be a paperback coffin flooding over with infectious vampire blood, but it’s also anchored in the purity of fact.

In the paragraphs that follow, Konow not only provides a taste of the “Reel Terror” trivia he’s so expertly compiled. He also sheds light on the process of writing an encyclopedic film history. What does it means to put a passion for films into a time-capsule tome? Read on.

“Reel Terror” boasts 565 exhaustive pages of horror-film history. The detail is extraordinary. There’s a huge index of source material. How much of the book was based around outside sources, and how much resulted from personal interviews?
I tried to get as many interviews as I could, and I did a lot for “Reel Terror,” over 120 if I’m not mistaken. But there’s a ton of secondary material I relied on as well. That’s the skeleton you hang the meat on, and there are stories I always love and want to get for certain projects. There were tons of anecdotes I’d heard over the years I wanted in “Bang Your Head.” Some I found in print after a lot of searching, and some I was able to get first-hand from whoever was available to talk. Even when you know certain stories, you want to include them like a “Greatest Hits.”

I notice that “Reel Terror” prefers the more obscure details associated with each film’s production, over subjective reviews of the films. You don’t ramble on about your own opinions or personal thoughts…
In both “Bang Your Head” and “Reel Terror,” my enthusiasm for both subjects is clear, although I tried to just present the information I’ve gathered, and let the facts speak for themselves. There were a lot of bands I wasn’t nuts about in “Bang Your Head,” but I wanted to present the story of the band, good bad or indifferent, and not be so much of a critic of the music because I’m not really a critic. Like John Kalodner, the famed A&R executive who brought Aerosmith back, once said, “I don’t give a fuck about a rock critic. I used to be one; they’re all full of shit.” And with metal and horror films, the critics never meant shit because they’re both very fan based.

Case in point with “Reel Terror.” The “Friday the 13″ films are not great movies, and they don’t hold up well at all. They’re certainly noting on the level of say, “Psycho” or “The Exorcist.” But was “Friday the 13th” important in the genre’s history and development, good bad or indifferent? No two ways about it. Just like “Easy Rider” may not be the greatest movie in the world, but it’s what “Easy Rider” represents that’s important. It opened the door at the end of the ’60s for young directors like Coppola and Scorsese to come in and make their movies.

In the history of the genre, “Friday the 13th” is an important milestone. It wasn’t the first mad slasher film, “Halloween” opened the door for that, but “Friday…” really launched the craze in a big way because, released through Paramount, it made the major studios realize there’s gold in them thar hills. It also gave horror a bad rep, much like the torture films did in the new millennium, because the violence was pretty hardcore for the time. It also helped launch the horror sequels into ridiculous numbers. Maybe it’s not as important as making a great movie, but all these things did impact the genre and added to horror’s perception in the mainstream. It’s also one of the biggest and most recognized titles in the genre, so it wouldn’t be a complete history without going into it.

For me, the most human passage from the book was when director Lucio Fulci (“Zombie,” “The Beyond”) attended Fangoria’s 1996 “Weekend of Horrors.” Fulci stood onstage shaking his head, even crying at one point in complete disbelief. He was awed that so many fans had admired his work. Did you add this as a nice emotional contrast to the thick collection of more objective history?
I do like the human touches, although you have to be careful not to get melodramatic with them. I actually didn’t expect that to be a heavy moment in the book. I just thought it was an interesting detail, and frankly, kind of unfortunate that so many filmmakers and artists can go through their entire lives without understanding their impact. Especially considering how big a following Fulci still has in the States to this very day. At least he had an inkling of it before he died, and he passed away not long after that.

Also considering that Fulci had a reputation for being such a lunatic, the fact the he could do something as human as cry in a room full of strangers… it’s almost like seeing a tear come through Jason’s hockey mask. A lot of artists are, ahem, complicated like this. Fulci is one of them, and so is William Friedkin. It’s like what Terrence Donnelly, Friedkin’s former Assistant Director, told me. He said he and Billy aren’t speaking right now, but “if he passes tomorrow I’ll give a moving eulogy at his funeral, and he’ll do the same for me.” Or like Antonella Fulci, Lucio’s daughter, once said, “To get along with dad you had to stop trying to understand him.”

To me, one moment that I thought was a terrific human touch was Sara Risher of New Line Cinema telling me about how “A Nightmare on Elm Street” almost didn’t come out because the lab hadn’t gotten paid, and they weren’t going to deliver the prints on the eve of the release. New Line had bet the company on “Nightmare…”, and if it didn’t hit, it was all over. Now it looked like it wasn’t going to make the release date. Risher had also just given birth to her son, and she was sitting there with her newborn baby, and crying that this disaster was happening at the last moment. At the 11th hour, they gave the lab a song and dance and got it into theaters, and thanks to Freddy Krueger, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Lord of the Rings, New Line were major players in the business. But it was absolutely the house that Freddy built. Making a movie is really tough. You really put your heart and soul on the line (as well as your bank account), and that was one story I remember that’s always stuck with me.

“Reel Terror” often hits on the theme of horror filmmakers coming off as the complete antithesis of their films. For example, David Cronenberg is described as a wonderful guy by many of his peers, even though his work would suggest otherwise. Would you agree that many horror filmmakers come across in person as surprisingly “un-scary”?
It’s a very interesting dichotomy that horror directors are often calm, nice people, nothing like the movies they make. Much like a lot of rock stars and guitar heroes can get up in front of 20,000 people and perform, but in the living room of a party, they get extremely shy and clam up. Perhaps these directors use the darkness inside them in their films, and get it out of their system that way, or use movies as a way to go to the dark side vicariously. I’m not sure myself, and many of these guys aren’t sure themselves either. But while there are definitely demented people that make movies, if you’re really berserko, you probably wouldn’t be able to make a coherent movie like any of the ones I’ve written about. I’ve never read the Unabomber’s manifesto, but I’ve heard it’s incredibly boring. You think something created by a psycho would be fascinating, but often times it can be incredibly banal, much like something created by somebody high out of their minds. It usually isn’t as colorful or as wild as something created by Walt Disney.

Was there a particular filmmaker that proved very difficult to access?
As with any project, you almost never get everyone you want to talk to. Some people were very accesible, some I never heard back from. At least one person strung me along for a long time, then decided after a year he didn’t want to talk. But by and large, unlike a lot of experiences where people blow you off, several people who didn’t want to be interviewed were very polite about it. I really don’t have any horror stories, no pun intended, of anybody being really difficult to get to. People either wanted to talk or didn’t, and a lot of them never got back to me one way or another, which is their loss, but it didn’t change what I wrote. I don’t think someone not granting an interview should give you license to kill in print, although some people and their “people” in this town could definitely use a book like People Skills For Dummies.

“Reel Terror” prioritizes elaborate detail. The question arises… how do you find it? For example, the fact that during the “Carrie” finale, Sissy Spacek was buried in not just any rock… but pumice? Or that the sound effect accompanying Bruce the Shark’s first prominent appearance in “Jaws” was caused by a “Hizz and Fizz” (a can of soda being shaken, tossed into the air, and exploding upon impact)?
The “Carrie” detail came from an article in Premiere that was a lengthy oral history on the film, written by Josh Rottenberg. I didn’t even think about that part of the story… that it was actually pumice, except that it chewed up her hands. If I remember correctly, you can see the blood and scratches on her hand when it grabs Amy Irving, unless that’s actually stage blood. I actually liked the detail about how she was buried by her boyfriend, production designer Jack Fisk, who’s now her husband, and she felt safer being buried by somebody she trusted.

The hizz and fizz detail came from Jim Troutman, a soundman who worked on “Jaws,” who told me that when I interviewed him. He also put a microphone in the ocean and recorded a school of shrimp feeding, that’s what you hear in the beginning of the film under the Universal logo before “Jaws” starts. I also liked what another soundman, George Frederick, told me about how Spielberg always wanted it louder and louder whenever the shark came out of the ocean, and they pushed the mono mix as far as they could before it became pure distortion. Sound is very important in horror, and I also thought it was funny that Wes Craven said you often have to turn in the soundtrack separately to the ratings board in reviewing the film. Some of those sound effects can be pretty disgusting. It’s another great way to fool the audience into thinking they’re seeing something horrible, but the sound effect is really doing a lot of the work.

In terms of finding, compiling, and shaping the information, which portion of “Reel Terror” proved the most challenging to write?
The most challenging part of the book was probably the early days with the classic Universal films and earlier, because nobody from that era’s alive anymore. I wanted to make sure I presented it in a way that was still fun to read, even though we know a lot of this history already. It was definitely rewarding when I finished it to my satisfaction, but finding anything on the earliest stuff like “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” and “Nosferatu” wasn’t easy. Don’t forget, at the beginning of cinema, we didn’t have movie magazines and tons of movie TV shows that would have covered the filming of “Nosferatu” as it was happening, and that was interesting in itself in that all this was going on as cinema was a brand new art form, and just developing. It’s fascinating to see how things develop before the cement dries and all the rules are established, and again, many of the best horror films didn’t know there were rules to break.




Posted on October 8, 2012 in Interviews by
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