Horror movies are so much more than splatter and jump scares, if you want them to be. While repeated viewings can sometimes yield surprises, there’s nothing quite like an informed opinion from a different perspective to offer further insight into longtime favorites. While the pendulum horror film criticism seems to frequently swing from fannish enthusiasm to academic dryness with little in between, there’s a slew of interesting reading to be had. What follows is a list of the most-readable and interesting books any self-respecting horror fan should have on their shelf.
So what if it’s 35 years old? The fact that it focuses pretty much on classic stuff from the ‘50s through the ‘70s really gives this book a focus. Plus, King’s writing from the position of a fan at this point, rather than as a legend in the field, gives the book the tone of a series of recommendations from a really well-informed friend. There are some really solid suggestions in Danse Macabre, and not just in terms of movies: there’s some great TV, book, and radio suggestions, as well. If nothing else, I’ll be forever thankful to Mr. King for his enthusiastic endorsement of X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, a ‘63 sci-fi film that still makes me shudder. There was a new edition of Danse Macabre in 2010, which featured a new essay entitled, “What’s Scary,” but it’s not essential reading.
The Dread of Difference: Gender & The Horror Film
Barry Keith Grant, editor
University of Texas Press
This is an absolute classic, not least of all for its inclusion as the first essay the seminal 1987 piece by Carol Clover, “Her Body, Himself: Gender in the Slasher Film.” It’s the piece which first introduces the term “final girl,” and really does a fine job of creating a new and unique way of looking at horror films in a way which takes gender into consideration in a new way. As an an added benefit, there are quite a few pieces which refute Clover’s claims, and the 2015 edition includes a lot of films not mentioned when it was originally released in 1996. It’s like having an active, lively discussion between two covers. There’s no solid examination of transgender depictions in horror — a seemingly ripe topic for analysis, given the way that trans folks have been repeatedly brutalized by the genre — but here’s to hoping for the third edition.
The Slasher Movie Book
The University of Chicago Press
Of all the movie listicle type books out there — The Good, The Tough, & The Deadly; Heavy Metal Movies; et al — the only one which can match the exhaustive thoroughness of The Slasher Movie Book is Destroy All Movies, and it lacks the distinct focus and overall vision that Kerswell’s analysis offers up. Dividing the book into sections based on time, themes, locations, and franchises, and adding in scads of visual material, Kerswell has created an invaluable tome. If you’re like me, you’ll end up using this book as a way of searching out long-since-forgotten oddities.
Now a Terrifying Motion Picture!
James F. Broderick
McFarland & Co.
There’s really nothing so meta as a list of books about movies which includes a book about movies adapted from books, is there? James Broderick does a fine job of analyzing both literature and film in a well put-together piece of analysis. Each work gets the same treatment: analysis of short story/play/book, then analysis of the film, then a bit of comparison and contrast between the two. Those topics are all contained in each 7-8 page chapter, but it’s not as if Broderick follows a pattern. Each work gets its own flavor of treatment. “The Masque of the Red Death” allows for a brief summation of other Poe collaborations between Vincent Price and Roger Corman, while works like The Fly and The Thing From Another World let the author look at multiple adaptations over the years.
Joe Bob Goes to the Drive-In
Joe Bob Briggs
Basically, you could pretty much sub in any collection of film reviews done by the alter ego of personality John Bloom, which include Joe Bob Goes Back to the Drive-In, Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies that Changed History and Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies that Changed History. We’re going with the original here, because where better to start than the original? This is another collection of movie reviews, but there’s really nothing else like this. If you were ever lucky enough to be exposed to Briggs on the likes of TNT’s MonsterVision, you know that the rating system here is where it’s at, ranking things in terms of car crashes, breasts, corpses, various varieties of “fu,” and so on. Nick says check it out.
The Penguin Press
Kendall R. Phillips
Southern Illinois University Press
These two get grouped together because they were both released within a year of each other, and cover similar ground: namely, the horror renaissance which took place in the ‘70s, with a focus on directors like George Romero, Wes Craven John Carpenter, and Roman Polanski. Jason Zinoman does a stellar job of presenting the story of the ’70s horror directors who took the horror genre from its supernatural underpinnings and clean, “good triumphs over evil” endings into the realm of modern-day psychological terror and equivocating conclusions.
Dark Directions – while, at times, covering a similar era as that of Shock Value – is a totally different book. Kendall Phillips takes the work of three directors, susses out a particular thematic thrust from each, and uses that particular theme as a lens to focus his view of each man’s work. The particulars are what allows Dark Directions to succeed as it does. Specifically, Phillips doesn’t focus entirely on the “horror” output of each director. Recognizing that such a limited range would hamstring his work, the author brings similarly-themed “genre” pictures from the three filmmakers into his criticism, allowing for each argument to be made more fully.
Zinoman effectively uses snapshot biographies, which allow the reader to get a glimpse of the director as a youth and in their early career, without delving too much into pointless back story. Only the pertinent details are communicated. Also, rather simply focus on the major players, Zinoman ties in quite a few players one might not expect, like Steven Spielberg with Jaws – and, although to a lesser extent, Duel – factoring in, as does low-budget b-movie mavens George Romero, Roger Corman and Herschel Gordon Lewis.
Scored to Death
J. Blake Fichera
Interviews with fourteen film composers best known for their work in horror films could possibly get boring, but the clever interviews of author Fichera let Scored to Death illuminate a darkened corner of horror film writing. Whereas so many books about horror only make passing mention to the music, it only seems natural that the recent horror score reissue game would lead to more people wanting to know about those who make it. Fichera not only speaks with the greats, such as John Carpenter and Alan Howarth, as well as Christopher Young, Harry Manfredini, and members of Goblin, but also newcomers such as Joseph Bishara. While there’s a number of connecting threads, such as the near-universal adoration of Bernard Herrmann, it’s intriguing to see what diverse backgrounds birthed such talented musicians.
If Chins Could Kill
LA Weekly Books
Even if one discounted everything else he’s ever done — and would be a fool to do so — actor Bruce Campbell’s work on the Evil Dead franchise would have assured him immortality amongst the horror cognoscenti. Which is good, because the vast majority of Campbell’s autobiography is devoted to his work with those iconic films. As a longtime fan, would I have liked to read more about his involvement with the Maniac Cop movies? Yes, absolutely. Is the book weaker for not including more details about Robert Z’Dar? Probably not. It’s clever, fun, and the amount of making-of tidbits regarding the Evil Dead films is almost enough to count as a class in film school.
Campbell’s written a second book, Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way, which is kind of autobiographical, kind of satirical, and kind of not as good as this one.
Joseph P. Laycock
University of California Press
This is a book about Dungeons & Dragons, as well as other role-playing games, but it has a place on this list. Bear with me, but it makes sense, especially given the fact that the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s encompassed so many forms. Take, for example, Turmoil in the Toy Box, a book which deals with “the way toys and cartoons are being used to introduce the occult, violence and pagan religions to millions of our children.” If you can make the Care Bears an occult danger, a game that allows for the possibility of resurrecting the dead or dealing with demons must be way worse, right? So thought thousands of parents, despite a variety of things which would’ve immediately disproved their theories, not the least being that the folks at TSR were pretty Christian. Anyhow — if you have any interest in horror films, a deep analysis of how a game became emblematic of a fear, wherein the main question was, “What about the children?!” is a necessity in your life. Given the nature of horror fandom and how it’s viewed from the outside, knowing how folks get together to “construct and maintain meaningful worlds” might be of interest to you.
The recent Satanic Panic: Pop-Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, from FAB Press, also explores this topic in wider scope, but I didn’t have a chance to really dive into it before finishing this list. What I was able to check out was clever and interesting — and loaded with a slew of images and sidebars to keep you interested for days.
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