REVIEW: Untold Horror Is a Horror Revelation

A greyscale close up of a woman's nose and lips, which are sewn shut with orange and black strips of film.

Like many writers and creatives, I have a file on my computer of incomplete projects. Some things I have abandoned, and other times I have been left high and dry by gonzo publishers. A few months ago, I filed multiple pieces to be greeted not by cheque but by ghosting. Their silence is impenetrable, and I am without payment or even a thank you. Not even a ‘see ya!’ But I digress. While such an experience will be familiar to many  (and sure, some of these drafts are best locked away in a file on a laptop), occasionally some ideas sound so startling exciting, we cannot help but wonder, ‘what if?’ 

Untold Horror

Dave Alexander (author), Justin Erickson (cover)
Dark Horse Comics
August 18, 2021

The cover to Untold Horror: A cream background looks weathered, and in the top there is a box with an illustration of a woman's mouth and nose in grayscale. Her lips are sewn shut with strips of film in a lurid orange, the needle dangling at one end of her mouth pointing to the period in the title "Untold Horror," in the same orange.
Untold Horror by Dave Alexander. Cover by Justin Erickson

Such stories fill film history, and horror is no exception. Untold Horror is a glimpse into some of these tales. Packed with stories, anecdotes and interviews with creators including the late George A. Romero and Joe Dante, the book is a testament to the sheer volume of ideas along with a record of the films taken from us. Furthermore, it just goes to show that even the most prominent names, whether through studio interference, financial barriers, or unexpected setbacks, are sometimes thwarted in their creative endeavours. Most, if not all, of the stories in this compendium, have one thing in common: they become very messy in development. And as ideas and visions pass to and from various individuals, the original concept, the interesting ones, sometimes disappear in the journey. 

Initially formulated as a film by Dave Alexander, the project adapted into a book as the Covid pandemic took hold of the world. While a movie would be excellent, there are enough treats here to keep readers enticed and happy, as they find themselves hooked on the tales inside. The film opens with film historian David J. Skal’s rich exploration into the background of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), including Bela Lugosi’s much-publicised disdain for Frankenstein (and later regret in refusing the role that would make Boris Karloff a star). From this, we spin to the tale of a comedic version of Jaws (which sounded like total madness and something I would watch), to stories of a “lost” Re-Animator sequel. This book is a riot of gems, some better known than others, but all deserve notoriety and acclaim for not only their ingenuity but the fantasy of their often insanely brilliant potential.

A photo collage page, with Bela Lugosi's Dracula, and Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, most notably.

I was hooked on William Malone’s interview: his retelling of attempting to bring two collaborations with H. R. Giger, Dead Star and The Mirror, to the screen. Malone and Giger became friends when the former worked on Alien, as Malone fondly remembers his friend with the “good sense of humour” who was the antitheses of the “dark, brooding guy,” a moniker some might pin on Giger due to the darker tones of his art. I loved the idea of Giger being responsible for the visual representation of hell, a place that you could visit without dying. The drawings are extraordinary, bristling with Giger’s trademark flair and an insane amount of detail.

The Mirror, however, sounded incredible; a darker Alice Through the Looking Glass. I am stupidly intrigued because Malone has Giger’s sketchbooks in his possession, each filled with illustrations for both films. While some are alluded to here, I cannot help but wonder what else is in there, what incredible treats will never see. Now that is a book waiting to happen (and I am waiting for it to happen).

The book’s art is not so much decoration but an archive. Posters, sketches, workings, and photographs assist work with the text to create a working visual document of the projects. It is wildly exciting to see all the drawings for each project pulled together this way. Justin Erickson’s cover is perfectly playful, implying that some of these projects are so outlandish, they should remain behind closed doors. Or, in this case, lips, never to be spoken of again. I am relieved we are hearing about them here. 

While the Lugosi and Karloff rivalry, for example, is pretty widely known, readers may still glean a few new nuggets of information. This is why I consider the market for the book to be threefold. I’m sure readers interested in film history and pre-production stories will be intrigued, while horror fans may be interested in the tales withheld from the silver screen. Artists and creators, meanwhile, may appreciate the images and renderings on display.

Probably my most significant issue in the book is that it dwells on the failed projects of well-known names but does not give any women working in horror a chance to talk about their scripts and storyboards that never made the screen. Numerous women are working in horror, and I know they have many, MANY, stories to tell, so it is a shame that the only woman in this volume is the screenwriter Christine Contradt in the chapter on the failed Cannibal Holocausts sequels. The chapter is fascinating for many reasons, one being the anonymous shady investor who declared himself a former corrupt cop with mafia connections, promised a $1.5 million investment and then reneged on his promise. I would watch a movie on the chaotic production, one hundred per cent.

Untold Horror is merely the tip of the iceberg. I know there are plenty more stories, maybe even wilder, waiting to be told. Yet when reading this, you cannot help but be sad we missed out past madness and ingenuity — George Romeros’s MCU Copperhead, anyone? Untold Horror is undoubtedly a revealing read. Yet if it does spawn a sequel and the intended documentary made, let’s hope it includes some more women.

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