I first got hooked on horror films in high school. This was after a childhood of growing up with Scooby-Doo and Abbott and Costello meet the various monsters. My tastes have expanded a little since then, but when it comes to horror films, I have to stick to the old classics: black and white films from the 1920s-1950s. I love Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, and Lon Chaney. Along the way, the technology has improved, meaning that I’ve been able to move away from VHS tapes to checking out these films on DVD and streaming. It’s hard to believe how far we’ve come, from unwieldy and easily-damaged rolls of film to instant internet access!
The titles on this list will give you a little glimpse behind the curtain and into the dark and magical world of classic horror films. While most of the titles provided focus on horror actors, I do have a couple about horror hosts (from late-night TV) and one about a costume designer. I hope you’ll find plenty to occupy your time as we move into the coming winter and the nights get longer. And I hope you’re able to enjoy a small taste of the magic of horror in Hollywood.
Vincent Price: A Daughter’s Biography (Victoria Price)
Vincent Price has easily one of the most identifiable voices in horror history. Fans of songs like “Thriller” by Michael Jackson” and “Black Widow” by Alice Cooper will certainly recognize him. In addition to that, this master of the macabre has been scaring film-fanatics for generations with roles in films like House on Haunted Hill, House of Wax, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, and The Tingler. If you ask this librarian, however, my favorite of his roles has to be in The Comedy of Terrors. Regardless if you discovered Price through his movies, his mail-order book club, or his gourmet cookbooks, you’ll definitely want to check out the story about a man who was so abundantly fascinating. This biography, lovingly written by Price’s daughter, Victoria, is a beautiful tribute to the close and loving relationship that the pair shared. Far from just a monster on the silver screen, Price was a deeply complex, and deeply loving human being. See the softer side of one of Hollywood’s favorite human monsters.
Laird Cregar: A Hollywood Tragedy (Gregory William Mank)
When I discover a new book written by Gregory Mank, I get really excited. Not only is Mank an excellent writer, but he writes all about the golden age of horror, so he’s perfect for those of us who can’t get enough of our monster movies. While Cregar’s name is not necessarily going to come up on lists of the big horror greats like Karloff, Lugosi, or Price, he’s certainly one to check out. Standing at 6’3″ and weighing over 300 pounds, Cregar quickly found himself typecast as psychopaths and villains, and set out to become a “beautiful man,” with a shocking diet that would cost him his life at 31. This tragic end wraps up a brief, but fascinating career on both the stage and the screen. Read the haunting story of this little-known American actor and then check out a few of his films, such as The Lodger (where a nervous landlady begins to suspect that her new tenant might be Jack the Ripper) and Hangover Square, a psychological thriller about a composer who keeps experiencing strange blackouts, during which he’s convinced he’s committing heinous crimes.
Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick (Mallory O’Meara)
It could easily be argued that one of the best costume designs in 1950s horror films was that of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The design is so iconic as to be unmistakable, like Dracula and Frankenstein in the 1930s and the Wolf Man in the 1940s. But, do you know where the design came from or who first created it? The Lady from the Black Lagoon looks back on the true story Milicent Patrick, the brilliant mind behind this amazing monster. The story is shocking, and even sad. Little information was published on Patrick, thanks mostly to the work of a jealous male colleague who claimed her contribution and had her career cut short. Soon after, she had disappeared from the public eye and no one ever discovered what had happened to her–until now. Determined to correct the accounts, author Mallory O’Meara set out to discover what really happened to Patrick after the Creature’s success. Part detective story and part celebration of life, this fascinating little book firmly establishes Milicent Patrick back where she belongs in the annuls of Hollywood history.
Yours Cruelly, Elvira: Memoirs of the Mistress of the Dark (Cassandra Peterson)
You really can’t talk about the history of horror hosts and hostesses without talking about Elvira. Perhaps one of the most iconic horror hostesses of all time, this book is the fascinating story of how Casandra Peterson became a film legend. When she was only 18 months old, 25 miles from the nearest hospital, Cassandra Peterson reached for a pot on the stove and doused herself in boiling water. Third-degree burns covered 35% of her body, but she survived. Burned and scarred, and feeling like a misfit for her love of horror, Cassandra grew up playing with model kits of classic Hollywood movie monsters and idolizing Vincent Price. Complications in her home life led to Cassandra moving out at 14 and by 17, performing at the famed Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas. Peterson traveled Europe as the lead singer in an Italian pop band and even joined the famed comedy improv group, The Groundlings in LA, all before the age of 30, when as a struggling actress considered “past her prime,” she took a chance on an audition for the local TV station KHJ as the hostess of a late-night horror how…and the rest, as they say, is history!
Ghoulardi: Inside Cleveland TV’s Wildest Ride (Tom Feran)
And speaking of horror hosts, there’s no way that we could have a post like this without including Ghoulardi! The first of the Cleveland horror hosts (followed by The Ghoul, Son of the Ghoul, and more modern faces like The Mummy and the Monkey), Ghoulardi is a big part of Cleveland history. Learn all about Ernie Anderson, who shocked and delighted audiences in Northeast Ohio in the mid-1960s with his outrageous performances and classic horror fun. More than 30 years later, the Ghoulardi legend is still firmly rooted in the minds of the people who watched and in the pop culture of an entire city. Ghoulardi captured the hearts and minds of Cleveland’s first TV generation and inspired other creative talents, including Tim Conway and Drew Carey. This is a must-read for fans of Cleveland history, classic TV, and of course, horror films.
Lugosi: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood’s Dracula (Koren Shadmi)
These next two items on our list are both going to be graphic novels. Bela Lugosi is one of the most famous of the classic horror actors, and in my mind, has always stood apart with Boris Karloff as the two kings of horror. However you choose to view him, however, there is no denying that Lugosi’s life and career were both troubled, and decisions he made had lasting consequences for many of his future acting roles. If you’re a fan of classic titles like Dracula, The Black Cat, or White Zombie, I cannot recommend this book enough. Fans of Lugosi, graphic novels, and biographies will learn a lot about this iconic actor, from his early career until the end. While Shadmi doesn’t pull his punches, he presents Lugosi’s story in a way that is both honest and sensitive, and deeply emotional.
Lon Chaney Speaks (Pat Dorian)
While Lon Chaney is not strictly a horror film actor, his most famous roles, including the 1925 release of The Phantom of the Opera have permanently secured him a place in the pantheon of classic horror. This fascinating graphic novel is a look at Chaney’s life and career that will leave curious readers eager for more. Wonderfully illustrated, if a bit too short, this is a great introduction to the works of this immortal silent film star. More than anything, Chaney’s legacy was perfected in taking unloved and unlovable characters and making them deeply sympathetic and richly human, presenting them not only with his incredible acting talents, but also through his groundbreaking makeup techniques and costumes, which allowed him to embody his characters in a way that other actors before and since could have only dreamed of doing.