Review: Fantastic Films of the Decades Volume 1: The Silent Era by Wayne Kinsey (2015)

Fantastic Films of the Decades Volume 1
Review by N Emmett.

Fantastic Films of the Decades Volume 1: The Silent Era is the first in a slated 9-volume series by Wayne Kinsey. The collection aims to provide an overview of fantasy, horror and science fiction films from the dawn of cinema through to the end of the 1970s – after which the field was forever altered by the coming of VHS, and with it the direct-to-video film.

In his introduction, Kinsey quotes Alan Frank as saying that “You can’t do any reference book anymore because it’s all on the net, which is a tragedy.” While the pros of online scholarship obviously outweigh the cons, it is hard to deny that such tomes as Frank’s Horror Movies: Tales of Terror in the Cinema are on the verge of extinction, even though leafing through a lavishly-illustrated book on cinema history offers an experience that Wikipedia has never really duplicated.

But if the first volume is anything to go by, Fantastic Films of the Decades will make a worthy epitaph to this dying genre of book.

silentsmarsTo an enthusiast of fantasy film, even skinning through the book will be a delight: Kinsey has gathered together a truly luscious array of stills, publicity shots and posters. We see the expressionistic otherworlds of German cinema, and the comedy spook-shows of The Headless

Horseman and Buster Keaton’s The Haunted House; the prehistoric recreations of The Ghost of Slumber Mountain and The Lost World, and the futuristic visions of Metropolis and Frau im Mond; the gleeful camera trickery of Georges Méliès, and the grotesque transformations of Lon Chaney. The film posters alone, showing illustrative influences from pulp magazine covers to art deco, would have made for a worthy coffee-table book.

Along the way, the book digs up such long-forgotten oddities as Message from Mars, a British film from 1913 that gives a science fiction overhaul to A Christmas Carol. Many elements of the films covered here would later turn up in the Universal horrors in the thirties; but while the latter movies
were more refined, they had lost the wild spirit of invention that characterised silent fantasy.

Kinsey, who previously wrote two rigorously comprehensive volumes on Hammer films, does not scrimp on the textual portion of the book. Each film has a synopsis, review and background, while silentsphantomcertain individuals are given their own one-page biographies; as well as famous names such as Alfred Hitchcock, Lon Chaney and F. W. Murnau, these sections cover lesser-known talents including pioneering animator Herbert M. Dawley and art director Charles D. Hall. The text contains a few spelling mistakes and grammatical oddities, but these are easy enough to forgive on the whole.

Also included are various checklists of films, some based on genre (such as vampire or dinosaur films) and others on source material (films adapted from Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and She). These run right up until 1979, and whet the appetite for future editions in the series.

The book has a limited run of just 500 copies and is therefore aimed squarely at dedicated enthusiasts. This unfortunate state of affairs, the inevitable result of the current media climate, means that Fantastic Films of the Decades is robbed of what may have been one of the most appropriate audiences: youngsters. Generations of children and adolescents got their first education in horror cinema from the illustrated works of Alan Frank and Denis Gifford, but this experience is lost to contemporary youth. Speaking a child of the nineties, I may well be one of the last people to have pored in fascination over the likes of Alan Frank’s Monsters & Vampires, and I can only imagine how much I would have treasured this glossy celebration of fantasy film’s beginnings.

Of course, Fantastic Films of the Decades Volume 1: The Silent Era is a book that deserves to be treasured by adult cineastes as well – and no doubt it will. Not only does it provide an insight into the history of silent fantasy films, it also has a nostalgic connection to a a bygone age of film books.

Fantastic Films of the Decades Volume 1: The Silent Era is exclusively available directly from the website of Peveril Publishing.