Brenda S. Gardenour Walter. Our Old Monsters: Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema. McFarland, 2015.
In theory the idea of reading these two books on (a) Hollywood’s relationship with the UFO and (b) Western Culture’s relationship with mythic monsters, and their representation in horror cinema, seemed appealing. They appeared serious accounts of phenomena that are perhaps not taken seriously enough. Unfortunately they are unduly over-serious and overlong. Robbie Graham (UFO expert) did nine years of research. Whilst Brenda Walter (Monster historian) sounds like she’s devoted a lifetime to her project. I admire them for all their hard work but not for giving me a hard read. Their dogged duty to scholarship results in pages and pages of footnotes, chapter synopses and repetitive interviews.
Take Robbie Graham’s Silver Saucer Secrets. It was never properly revealed to me why he thinks UFOs still have an enduring status in popular culture. Near the end of his nearly 300 pages, Graham gives us the most blindingly obvious of conclusions - “My position is this: Hollywood draws extensively from fact-based discourse on UFOs – a phenomenon whose existence is already rejected by consensus reality. The presentation of this UFO discourse on-screen (and particularly within the context of the sci-fi genre) serves to blur the boundaries between UFO fact and fantasy.” Before I’d read a page of Graham’s book I had basically understood this to be true.What I wanted to know was why these practices occurred and what it tells us about being human, or maybe even alien!
I wouldn't have had such a problem with Brenda Walter’s full book title, Our Old Monsters, Witches, Werewolves and Vampires from Medieval Theology to Horror Cinema, if she’d made salient connections between those old monsters and their new incarnations. Unfortunately she relentlessly bombards you with her impressive knowledge of medieval history so as to loose her, as a film-book writer, in a plethora of huge slabs of factual information. Walter frequently uses the arresting and poetic term “the melancholic earth” to describe where the monsters roam. Yet I had little sense of how the title chapter 'The Transgressive Monster' became for me 'A Cured Embodiment' - another chapter title. I’d have loved to have known the stages through which say 'the melancholic werewolf' crossed over into a kind of public acceptance. Yet the author makes it so difficult when her language contains such sentences as “Like the witch and the vampire, the modern werewolf is a flesh canvas on which we inscribe our ever-changing constructs of abject otherness.” this having been preceded by a heading entitled 'Post-Modern Fluidity: The Transformative Power of Otherness.'
At this point I wished for more meaningful fluidity in Walter’s argument, so as to explain what she meant by those terms: followed by an in-depth exploration of the ideas that monsters engender in film culture. I yearned for an essay comparable to the lucidity of Robin Wood’s essay, “An Introduction to the American Horror Film.” but Brenda Walter just gave me historical fact after fact. This learned information was most apparent when tagged onto the book’s photographs. Take the description of an image from John Carpenter’s film, Prince of Darkness: “In an inversion of Christ’s conception and birth, Kelly (Susan Blanchard) is impregnated through the mouth and eyes by a Satanic goo and becomes an inside-out and decaying vessel for the Antichrist.”
That might be all historically true but it somehow didn't make me want to rush out to see the film. And that’s the issue here; Brenda Walter is a historian and not a film critic. She has written a solid history book that doesn't join up well with her chosen films. The virtue of Robbie Graham’s ‘flying saucer’ book is that his tone is lighter and not in-your-face academic. Yet like Walter he’s also written two separate narratives of UFO’s and cinema that don’t make for a unified whole. At least he’s more readable and humorous. Fun is not to be found with the Monsters & Co.
If I've sounded rather harsh then don’t let that put you off buying these books. If you’re obsessive about UFO studies then you will definitely want to cover the Hollywood slant on such mysterious sightings. Whereas if you want a feminist reading of film monsters, still on the rampage, then this effort will greatly appeal. I shall wait for someone else to tackle the subjects one day with a leaner essay or compact monograph. Maybe I should pack away my scholarly stake, remove my silver bullet and watch the skies for inspiration? -- Alan Price.