Looking back at the life and work of one of the iconic figures of British horror film criticism.
If you were British and into horror movies – or science fiction movies for that matter – in the 1970s, then Alan Frank will be a familiar name to you. The author of numerous books on the genre(s), South African-born Frank often tended to be seen as in the shadow of Dennis Gifford – whose Pictorial History of Horror Movies was the classic tome of the time – but he was the more interesting writer and unlike Gifford, he didn’t think that the genre peaked in 1932. For those of us growing up on Hammer movies, Frank’s books were a welcome alternative view to Gifford and his American contemporaries, though he was – in his own way – just as critically bigoted. But then, aren’t we all? For Frank, it was films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and House of Whipcord that were beyond the pale, and as readers like myself reached our teens and began to discover those films, so he too began to seem like a reactionary old fart – a harsh opinion in retrospect, because Frank was never quite as narrow-minded as those older writers. While the more extreme horror movies of the 1970s were not to his taste, he was still open to newer films into the 1980s. One of his favourite films was The Exorcist, and early 70s films didn’t get much more excessive than that.
His books included the fairly disposable – the likes of his Movie Treasury books Monsters and Vampires and Horror Movies, Sci-Fi Now and others were sold more on the basis of their photographic illustrations, often from films barely or not at all mentioned in the text, than for the writing. We should not ignore just how important these books were to horror fans of a certain age though, with their spectacular imagery that you wouldn’t see anywhere else back then – in the 1970s, there was rather less information available about genre movies than there is now, and these books were eagerly gobbled up as soon as they appeared in WH Smith. They were an important introduction to the genre for many youngsters. But when Frank was given the chance to really get his teeth into the history of the genre, he did a fine job – books like 1977s Horror Films and the Horror Film Handbook and Science Fiction and Fantasy Film Handbook might seem lacking in detail now but were solid, informed histories at the time – this was almost certainly the first time that British readers had seen any mention of Herschell Gordon Lewis for instance, as fleeting and dismissive as it was. The books were very slanted towards British films – unusual in itself – and the likes of Hammer and Amicus, but even that was relatively rare information back then unless you were immersed in the fanzine world – which, at the age of ten, you probably wouldn’t have been.
Frank also contributed to House of Hammer and was the film reviewer for the Daily Star for 32 years. His writing went far beyond genre film and into the whole movie world – he interviewed big stars for newspaper and magazine puff pieces as well as book biographies like The Films of Roger Corman. None of those had quite the impact of the 1970s and early 80s books, if only because there was so much more information and so many more books out there about everything by that point.
I still have my classic Frank books sitting on my shelves. Every so often, I will pull them out – not for research, as I ruthlessly did as a child for many years, but for nostalgic entertainment and to occasionally chortle at his outraged or dismissive comments about films I love or nodding approval of the films that we agree on. Those of us in the UK who have written books about horror movies all owe him a debt of gratitude – he paved the way for us to do what we do, and many of our books are direct successors to his work.
He died aged 85, just a fortnight after my father – the man who would buy me these books when I was a child and indulged my desire to see all of the films featured – passed away, which makes his loss feel all that more personal for me. He will be greatly missed by those who knew him, either in person or simply through his work.
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