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Horror Films was written by James Marriot and published in 2004. I'm a big fan of film books like this and sometimes end up with a few duds but this one is pretty good. To Marriot, horror is the Mrs Rochester of cinema, the 'madwoman in the attic' and is a genre that 'throws up a kind of wild creativity that just isn't seen anywhere else'. The book is over 300 pages long and offers a detailed retrospective on the most salient entries in this field, taking in zombies, ghosts, chainsaw wielding lunatics, Dracula, and so on. The 20 chapters contained within look at the films the author regards to be highly influential and important in the history of horror. Each picture is analysed ('Critical Eye') with further categories such as Synopsis, Origins and Inspiration, Casting, Industry Impact, Soundtrack, and Final Word. The films under review range from Nosferatu (1922) to Ringu (1997) and take in the usual suspects along the way. Obviously, the type of person who would buy this book will more than likely have seen most if not all of these films already but the author manages to come up with enough interesting stuff to negate the fact that he's often treading on very familiar turf.
There were some films here I haven't personally seen myself like Deep Red, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Cannibal Holocaust (a film I have no time for or interest in viewing because they killed animals when they made it). Marriot veers towards the view that the horror film has lost its way since the heyday of the seventies and classics are harder to find these days. As someone who loves John Carpenter, George A Romero and things like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Haunting but has zero interest in watching dreadful remakes or backpackers being tortured in Eastern Europe (or whatever) I tend to agree. While none of the choices are terribly surprising and you might not feel as if there is not much more to say about some of these films, the book is always interesting and there were a number of selections here I hadn't seen for a long time and enjoyed reading about. I liked the focus on the origins of each film and also the impact it had on the genre.
Alien, for example, was heavily influenced by some fifties b-pictures and a 1974 John Carpenter comedy called Dark Star. Dan O'Bannon, the writer of Alien, was also involved in writing Dark Star. Dark Star had a humorous subplot involving an alien shaped like a beachball (the film was made on a shoestring) loose on the ship. O'Bannon wanted to twist this and do a horror film about a realistic and frightening alien loose on a spaceship and Ridley Scott's big budget 1979 film gave him the chance. It was originally called Star Beast but O'Bannon didn't care much for the title and eventually came up with 'Alien' after noting how many times the word appeared in the screenplay. Alien's legacy was to spawn almost a genre of its own. Everything from Titan Find to Galaxy of Terror to Pitch Black has drawn inspiration from it with varying degrees of success.
Cannibal Holocaust (apparently) was shot in a documentary fashion as it was supposed to be footage found after journalists went missing in the jungle. This device was used a couple of decades on by The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast so clearly someone was influenced enough to pilfer this idea even if they weren't too enthusiastic about owning up to it. George A Romero's 1968 classic Night of the Living Dead is obviously highlighted in the book for a number of reasons. The book explains how it breathed new life into the zombie genre and kickstarted a craze for the undead that shows no signs of abating even today. It was a film with a political subtext but also seemed to usher in a new type of visceral horror cinema. Despite being made in black and white, it was a sometimes grisly film that subverted people's expectations. As regards the fate of the characters, all bets were off in this film. Anything could happen to them. Marriot understandably prefers to dwell on the 1986 remake of The Fly by David Cronenberg rather than the original here. I absolutely love the original with Vincent Price but it's so camp I've seen it shown on television in the afternoon a few times recently!
I haven't seen the eighties Fly remake for ages but It's fun to read about it here again. It was, perhaps surprisingly, quite a big hit when it came out and saw Cronenberg working with more commercial fare than he was used to (he also had blockbuster staple Jeff Goldblum as his lead) but still manage to incorporate many of his usual themes and ideas into the story. Whereas the original scientist and fly got their heads and one hand mixed up, in this more grotesque update the scientist gradually turns into a gigantic fly! The Haunting is cherished here as the ultimate ghost story, a prime example of a film that is all the more scarier for leaving everything to our imagination. Rarely has a film got so many shudders from creaks, moans and banging doors. It's interesting here to see the emphasis placed on Evil Dead 2 rather than the original. Evil Dead 2 is more or less a remake but perhaps more of a tour de force from director Sam Raimi, a sort of horror version of The Three Stooges with Bruce Campbell as The Three Stooges waging an increasingly bloody and comical battle against haunted inanimate objects, demons and all manner of spooky things. I remember being surprised when I finally saw them at just how tongue-in-cheek the Evil Dead films were, given that the first one was banned in the video nasties hysteria of the eighties. I can't say I found them scary.
You can read about The Exorcist here too and it's interesting stuff. I probably find the backdrop to The Exorcist more interesting than the film, which I found a trifle dull when I finally watched it a couple of years ago. It sounds like it was a pretty bizarre production, especially considering that the main role in the film was played by a little girl. There is much more in the book I haven't mentioned and the author is always an engaging and entertaining host to trawl through this with. One thing that's quite interesting too is reading about the censorship and controversy that surrounded some of these films. We look at something like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre today as a classic. A surprisingly restrained and influential horror film that is often on the television. But that wasn't always the case. It was difficult once to even see some of these films. This is a good read on the whole and (at the time of writing) can be found very cheaply online in the usual places.
What's It About?
"Horror Films" is an unimaginatively titled, self-styled "step-by-step companion to horror films" produced and commissioned by Virgin Books Ltd's "Virgin Film" subgenre written by James Marriott. Marriot has also written three other Virgin travel books under the pseudonym Patrick Blackden. The book's cover features a full page single black and white still of a fang-baring, blood drooling Christopher Lee in his iconic role of Dracula. Each of the book's 20 chapters focuses on an era defining and highly influential horror film and following a list of full cast and key crew members divides its discussion up under the following titles:
Origins and Inspiration
"It's Only a Movie...Only a Movie..." (a section that looks at the marketing of the picture)
Looking very briefly at the above premise it would appear that this is no more than a genre filling book that can be found in most airports or large chain newsagents. It's going to be an extended magazine-style read, written by a hack author (c'mon the guy writes travel books) and new copies will quickly find their way into bargain baskets whereas unread ones will be amongst the cheap paperbacks in your local second hand bookstore. However, I am delighted to say that this is one of those little rough diamonds that doesn't deserve to be lost in the cynical sell-through mines of media publishing. Marriott is not a regular journeyman, but a writer who brings a real passion and a strong opinion to his writing that rivals the likes of Kim Newman in its enthusiasm and knowledge.
True, Marriott is working within the conventions set down by Virgin to produce a very accessible and formulaic manuscript designed to be a guide as opposed to a serious cultural or artistic study. However, restrictions often provide fertile ground for creativity. I have a good number of companion books - often coffee table hardbacks filled with large movie stills and text which is a general trudge through easily researched data, edited to appeal to the lowest common denominator movie buff - and this book far apart from most of my collection. What makes it of particular interest is the general angle. It follows the basic mandate of recounting the history of horror movies, but by throws the spotlight on the most important feature films, as opposed to personal favourites or the most critically acclaimed or the ones that made most at the box office. This helps take the book into the territory of critical analysis and Marriott clearly enjoys discussing what led to the film's creation and what followed in its wake.
The films selected are the original silent Nosferatu, James Whale's Bride of Frankenstein, the original Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, Hammer's Dracula, Eyes without a Face, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, the original The Haunting, the original The Night of the Living Dead, Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, Don't Look Now, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deep Red, Halloween, Alien, Cannibal Holocaust, David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly, Evil Dead 2, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Ringu. Finishing with a 1997, some seven years prior to this book's publication is appropriately abrupt. Marriott puts across perhaps his most controversial and interesting opinion here. He believes that horror has "lost its teeth". Not since Ringu has there really been a film that has made some significant artistic changes in the genre. I would argue that there have certainly been some good films, which warrant acknowledgment. Torture porn is perhaps one of the lowest ebbs that horror has descended to, but Saw should be given at least a nod for the puzzle element it has brought to genre, the heightening of plot twists and tightening of continuity throughout sequels. This is not praise for its place as a good film, but its influence is pretty undeniable and like it or not (and I generally don't) torture porn was the dominant face of horror throughout the 2000s. Of course, the book is a little out of date now so it is arguable that the author wasn't in a position to evaluate its impact and he does mention films that lead up to the book's publication.
Marriott wisely sticks to genre specific works, discounting films that contain surreal or horrific imagery like some of David Lynch's stuff (although I debate Erasurehead's place as a horror film) or deeply disturbing Irreversible. However, his filter is comparatively loose when you look at other companion horror guides. For example, I have an attractive looking hardback coffee table book called "Monster and Horror Movies", which boasts at its inclusion of not only straight horror, but also films featuring the likes of Godzilla, King Kong and prehistoric creatures. However, this book discounts films that Marriott includes like Psycho as not being real horror movies. On the whole, I agree with both his decisions on what horror movies are included - and I like the fact that he notices at least two sequels, Bride of Frankenstein and Evil Dead 2 as being more important than their predecessors - and also the breadth of his filter. I do take issue with his moralizing over the serial killer biopics released at the beginning of the 2000s. Aside from these being one of the only types of film I think Marriot should have closed his horror filter off from, I don't think they are any worse in their exploitation of true events than films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which only pretend to be based on genuine criminal history.
The style is very opinionated and, as the title suggests, is written from a British perspective. Given the huge amount of horror pictures created in the USA and their undeniable impact, their presence and importance is a given. However, what is great to see is the fair amount of acknowledgment given to British, European and even Asian cinema. Each has their own very strong and unique flavour and all have contributed a tremendous amount to the history of horror movies.
Horror Films is one of those sort of books that pleasantly surprises you - like a movie tie-in novel that is actually better than the film or a cheap looking "True Crime" book that is actually an in depth study of criminal history and psychology. Even its interior is set out with a bit more dignity than your average companion book, keeping the four pages of colour and black and white stills from the films to the middle of book rather using them to illustrate the text. It is 298 pages long, containing not only acknowledgements, introduction and afterwords, but also a select bibliography (again hinting towards the book's more serious historical nature), a charming index of quotations and even a helpful appendix on recommended DVD releases.
I bought my copy of Horror Films off the shelf not long after its release on a complete impulse for just under a whopping £17. Those were the days! Now you can pick up a new copy from Amazon Market place for as low as 1p plus postage.