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Wednesday 13 March 2013

"An interesting read disguised as a simple guide" - James Marriott's "Horror Films": A Review

 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)
Critical Eye
Industry Impact
Final Word


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.
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