A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford

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Cover art by Tom Chantrell.

Halloween approaches so here’s a book that suits the season. Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies was published in Great Britain by Hamlyn in 1973. A large-format hardback of just over 200 pages, this was a cheap production for wide distribution, and evidently sold well: my edition from 1980 is the 12th reprint, and the book was still in print in 1983, in a slightly longer edition with a new cover.

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For a generation of British kids Gifford’s book made an indelible impression, not least because of its ubiquity. It was always easy to find—for years I didn’t have a copy of my own because I invariably seemed to know someone who did—and its mostly black-and-white pictures featured a great deal of imagery that was generally forbidden to those of us under the age of 18. This may seem surprising to Americans, or those in more liberated European countries, but Britain has always had an uneasy relationship with the horror genre despite the legacy of Gothic novels and ghost stories, never mind Dracula, Frankenstein and the rest. Literary manifestations command a grudging acceptance if enough years have passed since first publication but Britain’s moralists and censors have fretted over pictorial horror for decades, especially the film and comic-book variety.

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La Belle et la Bête (1946).

Almost all horror films screened in Britain over the past century were for audiences of 18 or over, while horror films on TV were never shown before 10pm. That scene in Halloween (1978) where the kids are watching The Thing From Another World on television in the early evening would have been impossible here. In 1982 we had the start of the “video nasties” panic, a particularly disgraceful episode for those eager to interfere in other people’s entertainment, and an issue that rumbled on for the rest of the decade. As for print media, I still have a leaflet from the late 1980s given to all applicants of UK passports which lists “horror comics” along with weapons, drugs, poisons, etc, among the items forbidden from import into Britain. This climate gave Gifford’s guide an illicit charge it might not have had if published elsewhere: the book delivered a concentrated dose of the forbidden.

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Vincent Price as Doctor Phibes.

Denis Gifford (1927–2000) was, among other things, a comics artist, a comics and film historian, and a collector of comic books and horror ephemera. Most of the material in A Pictorial History of Horror Movies is from his own collection, and an excellent collection it was. More than 300 stills run through the entire history of horror cinema from the earliest Méliès shorts to German Expressionism, Universal horror, Hammer horror, AIP monster movies, Toho monster movies, and on to the garish efforts of the late 1960s; he even manages to get in a still from Carry On Screaming. The accompanying text is concise but authoritative, although I doubt anyone ever used the book as a serious study. Yet for a 12-year-old this was a perfect introduction to the genre, as well as a dizzying intimation of hundreds of films yet to be seen. In place of the films you had pictures implying entire worlds of mystery and terror, many of which are so good they give very unrealistic expectations of the films from which they originate. Some of the most memorable examples for me have been those which are more atmospheric or eerie than horrific, like the sinister child at the window in Mario Bava’s Operazione Paura (1966) aka Curse of the Dead. (See this post for more about the extended life of Gifford’s still.) But there were also plenty of monsters, grotesque makeup effects and even some gore; a female friend of mine was obsessed with the picture of a blonde and bloodied young woman with an axe buried in her head (see below). Looking at the book today I suspect Gifford’s punning captions may have been a nod to Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine with a devoted readership but not a title I ever read myself.

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Peter Cushing (The Skull; 1965).

All the pictures here are from an upload of the entire book at the Internet Archive. Gifford isn’t around to complain about this but the book may not remain there for long so enjoy it while you can. A few more pages follow. For an earlier appraisal of the book’s impact on impressionable minds, there’s this piece by Dave Tompkins.

Continue reading “A Pictorial History of Horror Movies by Denis Gifford”

Design as virus 14: Curse of the Dead

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Curse of the Dead (1966).

Continuing an occasional series. This photograph, reproduced in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973), intrigued me for years. Gifford’s book is a very good collection of stills from horror films of all kinds, ranging from the earliest days of cinema to the 1970s. The pictures are mostly black-and-white, and are often far more stimulating than the films they would have been promoting. The text generally refers to the films depicted but in the case of this picture there’s only a single credit, Curse of the Dead (1966), a film I’d never heard of. These kinds of mysteries have been banished for good now we have resources like IMDB where you can learn immediately that Curse of the Dead is a Mario Bava film whose original Italian title was Operazione Paura. (It’s also known, with the usual hyperbole, as Kill, Baby…Kill!) “An 18th century European village is haunted by the ghost of a murderous little girl” says the summary. Bava’s films were always visually impressive so it’s really no surprise to find it was one of his.

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The first repeat usage I know of is this cover from the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult series published by Sphere books from 1974–77. Sphere used Wheatley’s name to sell a lot of reprints but the series was substantial and featured a number of titles that would have been appearing in paperback for the first time. Unfortunately the best thing about the covers was the uniform design of the horoscope circle against a coloured background. The quality of the illustrations was very uneven so it’s probably for the best that the artists and photographers went uncredited.

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Then there’s one of Dave McKean’s title pages for Arkham Asylum (1989), the heavily symbolic Batman book he created with Grant Morrison. There’s only a portion of the picture but I’d say it’s a good guess he used the Gifford book since at least one of the panels in his earlier Violent Cases was based on another of the Gifford photos.

This isn’t all, I’m sure I’ve seen the Gifford picture used on a record sleeve but there’s little way of discovering which one unless somebody recognises the photo. If anyone knows, please leave a comment. And despite all of this I still haven’t seen Bava’s film even though I’m told it had a strong influence on Twin Peaks. This account at The Horror Digest is slightly disappointing when a colour equivalent of the Gifford still lacks the particulated creepiness of the black-and-white version. More surprising is finding yet another film featuring the arms-out-of-the-walls motif. This obviously requires further investigation.

Update: Thanks to Irv in the comments for finding the following singles so quickly. The Decorators sleeve was the one I remembered. (See it larger here.) Kicks were an Australian band. Odd that these were both released in the same year.

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Twilight View (1980) by The Decorators. Design by Malcolm Garrett.

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The Secret (1980) by Kicks.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Design as virus 13: Tsunehisa Kimura
Design as virus 12: Barney’s faces
Design as virus 11: Burne Hogarth
Design as virus 10: Victor Moscoso
Design as virus 9: Mondrian fashions
Design as virus 8: Keep Calm and Carry On
Design as virus 7: eyes and triangles
Design as virus 6: Cassandre
Design as virus 5: Gideon Glaser
Design as virus 4: Metamorphoses
Design as virus 3: the sincerest form of flattery
Design as virus 2: album covers
Design as virus 1: Victorian borders