A History of Cinematic Horror: Three Examinations

Every once and a while I get on these odd kicks where I read a bunch of books on the same subject. The topics vary, as do wether they are fiction or non-fiction. Sometimes this can be as simple as finding a new author.1 Other times it will be a topic. I have recently listened to three audiobooks (in a row) that deal with the history of horror in the movies. Normally I would review each one on my Goodreads account. In fact, I have already reviewed the first one. After talking to a few people about them, I thought that maybe I should put up a little three part review, do a little compare and contrast.

I will present the books in the order that I listened to them, which is not (as you will see) the order I would rate them. For the sake of this post I will disregard the narration and focus strictly upon the content of the books.

A History of Horror by Wheeler Winston Dixon
I did not care for this book.

In fact, part of the reason that I went on to download the other two books I will be discussing is that I disliked this book so much. The first disappointment was mine. I was looking for a book which went into some depth about how various directors used horror elements or how our perceptions of what scared us changed over time. This is not that book. For the most part, this is a long list of various horror titles with descriptions of who made them, who starred in them, and the plots. At first, I could not figure out who the book was marketed towards. A real horror fan would know most of these titles already. Sure, I picked up the names of a few that I want to see, but most of the films were ones I was at least familiar with. Someone who was looking to break into the genre as a viewer would not benefit from the book because the plot descriptions often gave away the ends of the movies.

I will say that the discussion of the studio system of the 40s and 50s was thorough and enlightening. It was interesting to see how this system benefited some actors and hurt others. The discussion of the careers of those actors was also interesting.

The book fell apart for me when the author reached the discussion of the 1970s. It is very plain that he does not care for the movies made in this period or for slasher films in general. By itself, this does not have to be a problem. It is possible to write about something while not particularly caring for it. This was definitely not the case here. The movies were not only described in a negative if not derogatory tone, it was obvious that the author had not seen many of the movies which were discussed. There were basic plot elements which were ignored or completely wrong. This portion of the book should have included a discussion of how things had changed from the 40s - early 60s, the rise of the importance of the special effects teams, the increase and acceptance of violence, the occasionally moralistic tone of the movies, the rise of the sequel/series, and the self-referential nature of some series.
3 Instead the author glossed over decades of movies.

There was a slight bit of redemption in the too brief discussion of foreign horror movies, but the author then used
Twilight as an example of where horror was going instead of recognizing that despite the presence of supernatural elements like vampires and werewolves, these films are essentially teen romances and the only elements of the films which approach the horror genre are the writing and the acting.

This would have been a good book if the author had stopped the discussion with the films of the 1950s. Instead you end up with a book which will annoy and anger real horror aficionados.

Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Sinoman

This book provided the things that I was looking for, primarily by narrowing its historical focus to the films of the “second golden age of horror.” The author begins the discussion with the late 1960s, but does refer back to earlier films to put the new material in perspective.

It is obvious from the very first that this is an author who appreciates the films he is discussing. The movies which are mentioned, and there are a lot of them, are discussed in depth. This book is more cinematic history and discussion than anything else, but there the author also does a good job of putting the films in perspective with what is happening in the world at the time of their release. The reader gets two complimentary views at once. At one hand we see how the film being discussed fits into the larger body of work of that particular writer or director as well as how it builds on what has appeared in previous movies. At the same time we get a feel for how the genre had to change due to what audience members were experiencing in their own lives when the films came out. When horrific violence became the material of the nightly news, the films of the “monsters” of the past ceased to be frightening. What appeared on the screen had to be at least as gruesome as what was going on outside the theater.

There are plenty of discussions of the making of the films in terms of directors, actors, and their interaction with studios and the public. There is a lengthy bit on John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon which was educational.

The author also discusses how the invention of the rating system affected the film world in general and the horror genre specifically. There is a discussion of the backlash of the level of violence in the slasher movies of the period.

If you are only going to pick one of these titles to read, this would be the one I recommend to most of you.

Dark Directions: Romero, Craven, Carpenter, and the Modern Horror Film by Kendall R Phillips

This book takes a different tack than the previous two. While there is certainly a discussion of the history of horror cinema, the focus of this title is very specifically on the genre films of George Romero, Wes Craven, and John Carpenter. The films are placed in a political-social context in some cases, but the overall discussion is an exploration of various themes which appear in each director’s work. The directors’ collective works are divided into sub-categories, each of which is used to illustrate a specific point. As such, some material, most of it non-genre, is not discussed.

This is by far the “deepest” of the three books discussed in this review. The material is examined thoroughly with an eye toward philosophical, psychological, and sociological arcs. If this is something which you find interesting, as I do, you will thoroughly enjoy this book. If you do not, I suspect that you will abandon it early on.

The author is quite insightful and most of the material is presented quite well. That being said, there are times when the categorizations feel a little forced. All in all, however, the book was very enjoyable.

1 By which I mean an author whose books I have not read before. This can literally
2 be someone who is new in the sense that they have only recently been published or just someone who is new to me.

2 Pun intended.

3 A prime example is how the author dismissed Wes Craven’s Scream films as nothing but slasher films ignoring how the movies gave us the first examples of a potential victim pool who were aware of the mechanics of the horror film.