To every North American horror fan’s excitement, book editor, actor, and HorrorHound columnist Aaron Christensen (also known as “Dr. AC) has just released a collection of essays about obscure, treasured, and forgotten horror movies. Featuring 101 authors, including contributors from the best known horror movie outlets (Rue Morgue, Fangoria) alongside filmmakers, fans, and fetishists, Hidden Horror is an excellent follow-up to his much-loved 2007 collection, Horror 101. While that first book focused on the core films of horror’s canon – a gateway drug, of sorts – Hidden Horror’s mission was different: to shine light on lesser known, but equally solid flicks. Christensen – who is an amiable sort, in love with movies of all stripes (just ask him about 1973’s Westworld) – sat under a hot light for us in this exclusive interview.
When working on your first book, Horror 101, were there any flicks that you put in the book, but felt could have worked as easily in Hidden Horror?
My original idea, before H101, was to do a book called “Horror U,” where we would go through the curriculum for horror films, from the “freshman” stuff like Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong, Friday the 13th, Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and up to the “grad student” stuff like Last House on Dead End Street, Tintorera, Singapore Sling, and so on. As I started, I realized that boiling down the “essentials” was one thing, but after that it was pretty much an inverted pyramid that stretched off into infinity. So, I decided to start with the basics for what ended up being our first book, creating this horror primer of must-see films.
When eliminating candidates for inclusion, do you have any you look back on with regret?
The candidates for HH were a lot easier to put together, since I was pretty much just trying to give everyone their top picks. H101 was about creating a package with a purpose, whereas HH is just a big pot-luck party with everyone bringing out their favorites. I did try to include as wide a variety as possible in terms of older and newer films, from a variety of different countries, but on the whole, the contributors did that all by themselves. I did drop a couple hints: I wanted someone to cover a Jess Franco film, a Paul Naschy film, one from Jean Rollin, because they are important fringe figures. Carnival of Souls (1962) is one that could have been included in H101, but I think it fits just as easily into HH – it’s a classic, but how often are the younger fans picking it up?
What was the first essay you received for HH? Do you remember what you thought when it arrived?
“Only 100 more to go!” The first person to turn in a draft for their essay was Michael Klug covering Shock Waves (1977), and he did just what I hoped: he made it personal; he talked about his history with the movie as well as talking about the basics like cast, crew, favorite scenes, etc. Essentially, he told us, the reader, why he loves this film and it’s hard to disagree with that enthusiasm.
Did any contributors pick things you didn't like or hadn't seen?
Of course, and that made it interesting and challenging for me as an editor to know what to include or not. I mean, every horror fan worth his or her pentagram has seen I Spit on Your Grave, and so I wondered if we could really consider it “overlooked,” but BJ Colangelo brought so much personality to her essay, mounting such a reasoned and impassioned plea for respect for this classic piece of exploitation that I was completely blown away. I’m so proud to have it in the mix now. Jason Coffman’s selection of A Night to Dismember definitely gave me pause, since it’s one of the most inept and terrible films I’ve ever sat through, but then he discussed how it takes “bad” filmmaking to an entirely new level, shattering our expectations for how bad “bad” can be. I love his write-up so much more than the movie itself!
How has the reaction been on this book compared with the previous?
I was blown away by the reception to H101, so nothing will ever compare to that for me personally. It was my first time ever trying something on this scale, and I had no idea whether people would enjoy it or not. But dig it they did, so expectations were higher this time around on everyone’s parts, especially mine. I wanted to make sure we topped our previous effort on all levels, from the variety of selections to the layout to the number of contributors. As of this writing, we’ve only been out a little over a month, so we’re still caught up in the dizzying spell of being the new kid on the block, but so far, everyone seems to be very pleased. That said, I was pretty knocked out to learn that we had broken into the “Top 10 Movie Guides and Reviews” on Amazon – that was a good day.
Nice book cover. You kiss you mother with that cover?
Brett A. Harrison had already knocked it out of the park with his cover art for H101, so I trusted him completely. I also love how different it is stylistically from what he did before – such a testament to his talent. Throw in the fact that he’s an amazing writer as well, as he covered Humanoids from the Deep (1980). I think I gave him notes on the position of the tentacle’s eyeball and having more sawdust around the chainsaw – that was it!
The writing this time around is solid, consistent, and compelling. When gathering contributors, do you make an attempt to balance "pro" versus "non-pro?”
When we assembled the roster for H101 seven years ago, most of us were decidedly “non-pro”– these were just mutual horror fans. When it came time to pull together another group, several of our amateurs from the first book had gone pro, plus my travels had introduced me to several major players in various different fields. For example, Kenneth Hite, who covered Uzumaki (2000), is one of the most popular authors of role-playing game books in the world. We have the editors of the top three genre mags in North America in the mix this time around. We’ve got award-winning filmmakers and bloggers and podcasters. But the truth of the matter is that just because you’re a “professional,” that doesn’t make you a better horror fan than anyone else, or even a better writer.
Were there any good debates about "this image vs. that one" when placing images that represent the films in the book’s layout?
I’m glad I have a chance to brag about our layout designer John Pata. John was promoting his zombie comedy short film Better Off Undead at the same time that I was pushing H101, and we met several times on the horror convention circuit. The more we hung out, the more we realized we had in common, and our man-love has only grown as time went on. We worked together on his first feature film, Dead Weight (now available through Kino/Lorber), and when it came time to do HH, he asked if I had anyone doing the layout yet and if I’d be interested in letting him have a crack at it. John has a background in design, so I was all for it, but he exceeded all expectations. I can’t say that I recall any big disagreements about which images to use, although there were definitely some situations where we had a wealth of great imagery for a film (Event Horizon, Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural) and had to kill a few darlings. Then there were other times where the horror was more subdued on a visual level (The Seventh Victim, Kairo) and we were straining to find a shot that captured the feel of the film, avoided spoilers, and was visually interesting.
In the essays, the contributors discuss every element – the performances, the music, the directing, the script, the scares, the gore and sex, etc. Could just one thing make something worth checkin' out?
I don’t think so. And to be fair, I feel like when there are flaws in the films, the writers point them out. I don’t think I could recommend a film for one moment or one scene or one aspect – not as a cohesive movie, at least. Take Sleepaway Camp (1983), for instance. I don’t think it’s a very good movie at all, but that ending is amazing. I want people to see it so we can talk about the ending and share in that experience, but I don’t think it would be first on my list of underrated horror films. To me, a great fright flick is a combination of all the vital elements, not just one or two, which is probably why superlatives abound in HH.
Any writers drop the ball and not deliver?
There were a couple folks for whom the timing just didn’t work out, but to their credit, almost all of them realized this a month or so into the process so we could start the replacement search and keep the ship sailing. There were a couple folks who got cold feet and wanted to bail at the last minute – mostly out of nervousness, I think – but I told them that I’d extend their deadline if they promised to deliver and darned if they didn’t come through with flying colors. There is nothing that compares to the feeling of someone seeing their name in published print for the first time and knowing you helped make that dream a reality. I’m so proud of everyone’s efforts and enthusiasm; seeing all of these amazing films through 100 different lenses has made me appreciate them all the more. It’s been an honor serving these different visions and voices – both the films themselves and the various contributors. When I finish reading an essay, I immediately want to revisit the movie in question. I think that’s the highest praise that can be given.
For H101, the forward was from famous horror makeup artist Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th) For HH, you got filmmaker Bill Lustig (Maniac).
I’ve been a fan of Bill’s for years, both as a director and as a curator of genre cinema with Anchor Bay and later Blue Underground. When looking for someone to act as our ambassador, he really was one of the first names that came to mind. Unfortunately, we didn’t really have much of a relationship – I’d met him once when he’d come to Chicago for a midnight screening of Maniac, but that was pretty much it. So, I asked some connections of mine to drop Bill a message. Weeks passed, and I hadn’t heard anything. Another friend gave me Bill’s number and I called him up, all prepared to make my 30-second pitch, but Bill came on the line and said, “Aaron! I’m so sorry I haven’t gotten back to you, been so busy, what’s up?” and everything just went smoothly from there. Lustig is such a fan of film, we were just chatting about our favorite flicks for almost an hour before we got around to actually talking about the book. He’s extremely awesome, and I’m honored to have his blessing.
Tell me about your horror roots.
I grew up watching Creature Features on Saturday nights in San Francisco, with Bob Wilkins as my guide to the macabre. As I got older, I became a fan of cinema in general, erring toward “good” movies that I hadn’t seen yet. As any horror fan will tell you, the good ones can be few and far between, so I was pretty much only skimming the surface of the mainstream and did so well into my 30s. Even though I considered myself a fan and knew a lot about the history of the genre from reference books, I hadn’t experienced a lot of these second-tier films firsthand. In the year 2000, I was working with a friend on a play, and he introduced me to the work of Dario Argento and Mario Bava and that whole Italian horror realm I’d never experienced before. It was a real eye-opener, that there was so much more to the horror genre than what was playing at the multiplexes. Over the next few years, I started making lists and lists of movies that I’d seen, movies that I’d heard about, movies that people were recommending, movies that I read about in reference books, and so on. Then, I just dived in and started watching. The great thing I’ve learned over the past 10 years is no matter how much you think you know, you still don’t know much. I’ve seen nearly 3,000 horror titles at this point, which is impressive until you realize that they are probably another 3,000 I haven’t seen, with independent filmmakers cranking out hundreds more every year. It’s a Sisyphean quest, but I’m having a great time doing it!
Hidden Horrors is available from many fine retailers, including Amazon:
Darren Callahan has written drama for the BBC, SyFy Channel, National Public Radio, and Radio Pacifica New York. As the author of several successful stage plays, including The White Airplane and Horror Academy, both published by Polarity Books, he is highly involved in theatre as a writer and a director. Novels include The Audrey Green Chronicles and City of Human Remains. Screenplays include Documentia, Nerves and Summer of Ghosts. He is writer, director, and composer of the films Under the Table and Children of the Invisible Man. He is also a musician and has released many records, including film soundtracks, such as the forthcoming zombie flick, Chrysalis. His website is darrencallahan.com.