A Vault of Horror by Keith Topping
Telos, 2004, softback, £12.99
Keith Topping has written several episode guides to Buffy, Angel and Doctor Who (as well as some Doctor Who novels) and now turns his critical eye on British horror movies. A Vault of Horror is not an attempt to document the whole genre but instead looks at 80 films produced between 1956 and 1974, which Topping considers - with some justification - to be the Golden Age.
Though one’s favourite movie may not be included (whither Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed?), one cannot really criticise the choice of titles. Most of the expected classics are here: The Curse of Frankenstein and Curse of the Werewolf, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General (which, in a Kim Newman-esque display of pedantry, Topping refers to by its on-screen title rather than the one on the posters, novel, video and DVD which everyone else uses). There are also some stinkers here, but Topping makes no claim to these being the best or even most important British horrors of the period; they're simply the ones that he feels are worth discussing.
For each film we get a basic list of cast and crew, a brief plot summary and then a succession of info-bites under various subheadings. 'You Don't See Many of Those Today', for example, points out props, scenery and costumes that date the film, while the rather facetiously titled 'Logic, Let Me Introduce You to This Window' (a subheading also used in his Buffy books) lists not only plot-holes but also continuity errors or on-screen accidents which, whilst unfortunate, don't actually defy logic. 'Roots' looks at the story source and other material quoted or referenced in the film; 'Themes' astutely highlights some of the subtext beneath the obvious horror and violence; 'Critique' cites contemporary and/or recent reviews, something I would like to have seen more of; while ‘Review' is Topping's own opinion in a paragraph or two.
Inbetween these we find the book's major failing. The longest section in each entry is a series of very dull paragraphs providing partial filmographies of cast and crew which mostly consist of a list of film and TV titles without dates or context. For example, Eric Sykes is featured in the section on Theatre of Blood and we are told he "played Mollocks in Gormenghast, Arthur in Curry and Chips, and Eric in Sykes" which rather misses the point that for the best part of 19 years this man both wrote and starred in the third longest-running sitcom in British TV history. Topping notes that Sykes is "a legend as a comedy writer" citing The Plank, Howerd's Hour and The Tony Hancock Show, the last two of which are ultra-obscure programmes that even most Howerd and Hancock fans won't be familiar with. Surely the man’s work on The Goon Show better justifies his status as a legend?
Most of the cast are bundled together, several to a paragraph, with a few credits listed for each, giving no clue to the scope or length of anyone's career. Unfortunately, it is obvious from the order in which actors are listed and the order of their credits that Topping has copied much of this info from the Internet Movie Database with all the problems that that entails (my antipathy to the frequently inaccurate IMDB is well-known; I maintain that it should always be the first place one looks for info, but never the last place).
His choice of which credits to include is most curious and seems, to be honest, completely random. For example, Curse of the Crimson Altar’s Virginia Wetherell "was in The Troubleshooters, Doctor Who, Alfie, A Clockwork Orange and The Big Switch" but surely it would be more appropriate in a book such as this to cite her roles in Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde, Disciple of Death, Demons of the Mind and the 1973 version of Dracula. Here's another one: the four-decade career of that busy character actor George A Cooper (included here for his role in Dracula has Risen from the Grave) is reduced to ten randomly chosen titles including Wonder Woman - which he was never even in. That was the American actor George Lane Cooper, a typical IMDB goof but one which is easy to spot and which should not have been repeated in print. (Topping also freely quotes all the ‘alternative titles’ that the IMDB likes to list, many of which are spurious to say the least.)
The reader's eye drifts over these unreadable paragraphs of endless italics, ironically headed 'You May Remember Me From' even though many of the credits are films that nobody remembers. Since these lists give us no greater understanding of who these people were or why they were cast, one simply thinks: “If I was bothered about this, I could look it up on the net and get their full filmography.” Without these frankly pointless reams of credits, this hefty tome would be not only a more reasonable size but also a much easier read.
It's clear that Topping has sat down and studied all 80 movies closely and, where he allows himself to actually comment, his opinions are informed and interesting. But they are swamped by pages of facts and figures, not just the filmographies but also production dates, locations, lists of on-screen deaths and the like. For a personal selection of movies, this book is depressingly impersonal. Topping has eschewed the chance to present, explain and justify his own critical assessment of these films in favour of page-filling lists.
Studying the book, and considering Topping's previous work, it dawned on me where the problem lies. This is film criticism written like a TV episode guide, relentlessly detailing who did what when while making little attempt to analyse and explore the films: why they are how they are. But horror movie fans are not like Buffy fans; we don't care who played 'Fourth Demon from the Left', rather we're interested in how and why those demons are there at all, in both artistic and practical terms, and we welcome informed speculation and erudite opinion. Topping actually seems frightened to present his opinion which is a shame because when it does break through it's worth reading. I frequently found myself in agreement with his critical acumen - Curse of the Werewolf is indeed one of Hammer's finest, Invasion is indeed a forgotten gem ripe for rediscovery, and Virgin Witch, though rubbish, is indeed not quite as rubbish as many people believe - but a couple of paragraphs later the authorial voice has disappeared again, replaced by another page of who was in The Avengers and Are You Being Served?.
Topping is not afraid to do his research when it comes to explaining headlines in on-screen newspapers, making some fascinating historical comments in footnotes, but he simply doesn't apply the same diligence to the movies themselves. He also goes into extraordinary - and frankly unnecessary - detail about demonology, presumably based on knowledge gleaned while compiling his Buffy and Angel guides.
The information presented here is mostly accurate although there are some careless mistakes, such as dating the Hamilton Deane stage version of Dracula 30 years too early and describing the five Universal Mummy movies as a trilogy. There’s certainly plenty of detail and some interesting trivia - although I'm surprised that there's no mention of the well-documented fact that Virgin Witch's script was written by the future producer of Men Behaving Badly! A good selection of interesting black and white stills is complemented by a colour section with some extraordinary posters that I have certainly never seen before. However the book could have done with one more proof-reading and the editor should have pointed out, to Topping, that his use of commas, separating every single clause, in every sentence, starts to grate, after a while.
If one can skip over the boring, uninformative, partial filmographies - and there's really no other way to treat them - one finds an interesting and enjoyable book which simply doesn't know whether it wants to be filed under 'reference' or 'criticism'. I would like to read more of Keith Topping's views on horror films but he must have the courage of his convictions, realise that he is writing for an audience more discerning than Buffy fans, and present us with some in-depth analysis rather than just dull information copied off the internet.
This review was originally published on the now-defunct The Alien Online website.