The Gruesome Gazettes Part 2: Fangoria and Beyond

During the ’50s, Famous Monsters of Filmland forged horror culture by cultivating, exposing, and connecting thousands of young fans all over the world. Showcasing a juvenile attitude that kept hidden the most macabre aspects of the genre, the magazine was a clear reflection of its time. Unfortunately, Famous Monsters failed to adapt to the new type of technically and aesthetically sophisticated gore flicks that flooded the screens during the ’70s, movies that shifted fear towards a more mature audience. And even though Cinefantastique knew how to take advantage of the new times, presenting a serious analysis of the genre, the quintessential horror film magazine of the modern era was yet to be born.

A remarkable publication born shortly after Cinefantastique was Starlog, a magazine that, as its name suggests, was originally envisioned with the avid Star Trek fan in mind. Since its premiere issue in 1976, Starlog has diligently covered a wide variety of contemporary science fiction films, providing an array of rather insightful interviews with directors, actors, and writers. Similar to Cinefantastique, Starlog also prints each issue on high quality materials and provides a serious examination of the genre.

It is perhaps ironic then that it was the publishers of Starlog who dramatically changed the face of horror culture — all by pure chance. Back in 1978, when Hollywood showed a renewed interest in fantasy films such as Conan The Barbarian, the minds behind the sci-fi magazine envisioned Fantastica, a sister publication devoted to this type of movie. However, after a long lawsuit with the owners of a similarly named periodical (Fantastic Films), the name was changed from Fantastica to Fangoria.

The first issue of Fangoria, published in 1979, was an abysmal failure, and subsequent issues did not fare much better. Apparently there was little or no interest in another magazine that did not deviate much from the already established Starlog/Cinefantastique structure. After four issues, Fangoria appeared destined for extinction. However, as legend goes, editor Robert “Bob” Martin received an extraordinary amount of positive feedback from readers celebrating a lavishly illustrated article on Tom Savini’s gruesome make-up effects for Dawn of the Dead. By the seventh issue, the magazine’s focus had already been aptly changed to address the readers’ macabre interest in gory images of monsters and carnage. And it was at that moment that Fangoria became the beloved horror film magazine we know today.

Since then, after nearly 27 years and 255 issues, the structure and focus of Fangoria remains pretty much the same. Printed on high quality paper and profusely illustrated with graphic images of death, mutilation, and monstrosity, Fangoria is heartily devoted to the modern horror film. Featuring well-written articles and insightful interviews, Fangoria is undoubtedly the most important and successful magazine of its kind. Indeed, just as Famous Monsters influenced an entire generation of fear makers, younger directors of the caliber of Eli Roth, Zach Snyder, Rob Zombie, Quentin Tarantino, and Robert Rodriguez have adulated Fangoria.

However, because of its reliance on gory pictures printed on glossy paper, critics of the magazine have unjustly referred to it as a “necrophilic Playboy” (such condemnation was made visual in Seed of Chucky, in the scene when the evil doll masturbates using an issue of Fangoria). But this should not be surprising, as Fangoria‘s gruesome content has often caused uproar by those with a more conservative frame of mind. This was especially true during the ’80s, when graphic scenes of unparalleled mayhem characterized the genre.

In those days, after receiving several complaints from its customers, a Canadian grocery store chain completely stopped selling the magazine. And perhaps more dramatic, England’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called Fangoria “absolutely appalling”, and alluding to the Obscene Publications Act of 1959, she attempted to ban it. With stories such as these, Fangoria raised horror fandom to new heights, transforming it into a powerful cultural movement that had to be acknowledged by the society at large, but unfortunately, in doing so, it also placed its public reputation at an all time low.

But perhaps more remarkable, Fangoria has transcended its printed pages and become a sweeping cultural phenomenon of its own. In recent years, Fangoria has broadened its scope and now it has a line of horror DVDs, comic books, an informative Internet site with a busy discussion forum, and cable TV and satellite radio programs. And even more important, Fangoria regularly organizes the Weekend of Horrors: well-attended conventions all over the country that bring together celebrities and fans.

But nevertheless, Fangoria is far from being the “perfect” horror film magazine. For one, Fangoria consistently ignores horror films made before 1969. To read about the old classics, one needs to find the elusive Midnight Marquee, Filmfax, or the recently resurrected Famous Monsters (published amidst a myriad of endless legal battles between the new publishers and Ackerman). However, these magazines often have irregular schedules and are hard to find at the local bookstore.

Also, Fangoria is mostly devoted to films scheduled for release during the couple of months following its publication date. As a consequence, Fangoria usually lacks thoughtful, critical appraisals. Instead, the fan mail section usually ends up being the most reliable source of analysis. But then again, issue after issue Fangoria has proved to be more interested in divulging the secrets of movie magic and chronicling the filmmaking process than on the cultural and aesthetical analysis of the genre.

Indeed, grizzly special make-up effects and its artisans have often been at the core of the publication. During the ’80s, for instance, the pages of Fangoria were a shrine to the idolatry of celebrities such as Tom Savini, Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. But if you think about it, this is quite perplexing. Consider how the knowledge of the cinematographical techniques behind our beloved creepy creatures actually reinforces the idea that these are fictional characters. Thus, in a rather paradoxical way, Fangoria repudiates cinematic reality by explaining how these monsters are created, yet at the same time, it buttresses it by celebrating the effect that these types of films have on the audience.

But even though Fangoria and Cinefantastique have provided insightful information about the sophisticated techniques and technology necessary to create movie magic, their efforts pale in comparison to the articles featured in Cinefex. First published in ’80, Cinefex is the brainchild of Don Shay, who envisioned this lavishly illustrated quarterly journal as a source of detailed information on how complex special effects were fashioned in a variety of contemporary films.

Most issues of Cinefex are devoted to one or two films, depending on their level of technical complexity, and each article describes, in minute detail, the special effects involved. This is a professional looking magazine, printed in color on high-quality paper, and with dozens of behind-the-scenes photos. The reading of Cinefex usually requires concentration and a considerable amount of background information. Indeed, most articles presume that the reader is familiar with standard FX terminology such as blue screens, motion control, motion capture, reverse kinematics, digital compositing, and rendering.

Thus, Cinefex is not for the casual film fan, nor for the beginner. As such, its continuous success over the past 26 years indicates how clever and knowledgeable modern film fans can be. While filmmaking has always been characterized by its complex techniques and equipment, regardless of its historical period, it was not until recently that non-professionals became more familiar with the inner workings of this wonderful technology. At the same time, this cultural transformation may be a direct consequence of the invasive, and pervasive, nature of modern entertainment devices that have found a comfortable niche inside our homes.

While Cinefex is much broader in scope than any other film magazine discussed here, a substantial number of horror flicks have been aptly dissected by this outstanding publication. Also, while Fangoria has a tendency to idolatrize make-up gurus such as Tom Savini, Cinefex often concentrates on the scientifically challenging visual effects created by big companies such as Industrial Light and Magic and Digital Domain. In fact, both publications tend to nicely complement each other.

Perhaps realizing the lack of a periodical devoted to the professional make-up artist, the aptly named Make-up Artist Magazine was launched in the mid ’90s. However, in spite of visually arresting pictorials and insightful articles on the trade, Make-up Artist blatantly fails to achieve the level of analysis that characterizes Cinefex.

Another major revolution that changed horror fandom occurred in the early ’80s. Since then, home entertainment technologies such as videotapes and DVDs have been shifting horror fans away from the cinema. But even though the issue of home video vs. theatrical experience can quickly turn into an endless debate, it is indisputable that fans now have immediate access to a large number of films, in rather different lengths, versions, and presentations.

However, consider the rather absurd situation where it is not unusual to find two, three, or even 10 different versions of movies such as Dawn of the Dead or Army of Darkness on the store shelves. And still, each one of these is different by a few seconds of added footage, or by a more precise preservation of the original aspect ratio. They might even have a few more additional features. Interestingly, this consumerist fixation usually affects horror and science fiction enthusiasts the most, while followers of other genres often remain immune. With this type of obsessed fan in mind, in ’90 editor/publisher Tim Lucas launched Video Watchdog, a spin off of his column of the same name that originally appeared in the pages of Gorezone (a short lived official companion to Fangoria that haunted newsstands from 1988 to 1992).

Video Watchdog truly honors its seductive motto of being “The Perfectionist Guide to Fantastic Video”. Each issue of this outstanding magazine presents dozens of well-written, thoughtful reviews, as well as a couple of interesting special features on celebrities, trends, or landmark films. The discussion for each movie usually gravitates towards how faithful the video presentation is, with marked interest on the aspect ratio and runtime of the presentation. The scope is often broad, encompassing genres such as horror, science fiction, action, and thrillers, and committed to spreading the interest on Asian and European cinema.

Unfortunately, the DVD subculture that Video Watchdog addresses is the one that is pretty much driving horror film magazines out of the equation. A quick look at the dealers’ tables at the Fangoria or any other horror convention reveals such a transformation. Prior to the explosion of DVDs as the prime home entertainment medium, back issues of macabre magazines were a quintessential part of horror aficionado’s library, and in a sense, they embodied the main cultural capital being traded among fans. But nowadays, it is actually rare to find dealers selling Famous Monsters or early issues of Fangoria. Instead, the DVDs of officially unreleased fright flicks have become the most prized cultural capital embraced by fans and collectors alike.

But regardless of their future, it is undeniable that, for nearly 50 years, horror film magazines have embodied the cultural history of the genre. Not so much because of the landmark movies that have been reviewed or analyzed on their pages, but because of the way they have implemented, nourished, disseminated, and exposed horror fandom as a complex social phenomenon.