Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Horror - 333 Films To Scare You To Death

Half A

Horror! 333 Films To Scare You To Death
James Marriott,
Kim Newman
Carlton Books Ltd
ISBN: 9781847325204

And here we have a list book which, like all things that rely on personal choice to create a list, is always going to be seen as fairly contentious in it’s choices of inclusions. This is all fair enough and I am fully aware of the pitfalls of creating material based on lists but, at the same time, I had very high hopes for this book. The design and layout “looks” fantastic and was enough to sell me on it just from a few pictures on Amazon.

So I was expecting to be a little irritated by some of the choices on this list but, to be honest with you, I wasn’t expecting to be furious with them... but ultimately that’s how I felt on reading this particular tome. If I was feeling more charitable to the authors of this work after enduring their less than error free and sometimes blatantly contradictory entries in said attractive looking tome, I would perhaps be quick to point out that the definition of a horror movie can mean all things to all people... but after some of the inclusions and, frankly, the mini masterpieces which have been excluded, it’s hard for me to get anything other than horribly worked up about the whole affair, to be honest.

Now I personally don’t consider a movie a horror film unless it has either a definite supernatural force or an non-human monster present in the narrative at some point. That’s my, possibly childlike, definition of a horror fillm and it seems to be a strong acid test for me. I don’t hold with all this “human-monster” stuff and so the inclusion of serial killers and such like belong firmly to the realms of thrillers and gialli and my personal experience happens to be that people I know who will never allow themselves to even look at a horror film for five minutes are more than happy watching the likes of the Hannibal Lektor films and films of this kind of nature where serial killers are the central “attraction of fear”. Therefore, frankly, they’re not horror movies (anything which supports my definition of a horror movie is good I reckon so please forgive me if I labour this point a little).

What I don’t think anyone can rely on... and I have heard this defence when used in similar instances to defend the human killer as evidence of the manifestation of the silk purse of a horror movie spun from the sows ear of the serial killer flick... is that a horror film contains scenes that horrify. Nope, don’t buy it. What horrifies me may not horrify you and vice versa... too subjective to be useful as the sole criteria of an applied generic label, thank you very much.

This book, however, not only includes films like the horrendous adaptation (of a great book) of Silence of the Lambs but also various gialli and films by the likes of Fellini and Bergman. C’mon guys. I know we all like films by these directors but this seems more like a book about cramming as many “horror definition stretching inclusions” as you can get away with, just because you happen to like those movies. And seriously people... let me clarify it again, just in case you missed it the first time... A thriller is a thriller! A giallo is a giallo. These are not horror films and though a spare few Dario Argento movies could (and are) included... putting stuff like The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in a book about horror movies just makes you look like idiots. And contrary to popular modern belief... Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up is not a giallo... there’s possibly not even a murder in the movie, depending on how you read it. So once again, inciting it as giallo turned art film is an absurd state of affairs.

You can probably get a good idea of as to my state of mind when I read this. But it’s not just the bizarre never-in-a-million-years-is-this-a-horror-movie inclusions which got to me in the end. It’s just as much about the exclusions. Seriously guys... you include movies like the above but you miss out some of the truly scary horror movies of recent years like the excellent [REC] series and, instead put in tired teenage slashers like Jeepers Creepers. This is not a quality choice.

Added to this I found a few factual errors and contradictory opinions in the text. One has to ask, if the reviewer finds occasion to give a movie a bad review, why the damned thing is in this book in the first place. If this is supposed to be only the 333 essential movies to see then surely you don’t include what you think are the clunkers.

Another gripe is that there are various “categories” reviews which try to dance around the possible silliness of some movies inclusions by giving a particular sub-genre (which for the most part isn’t a sub-genre) a highlighted section within the book in the hopes that the boldness of the inclusion will mislead readers into accepting the authors definitions of “Horror” as Gospel. But this is just not the case because... you know what? A giallo is not a horror film! Oh, hang on... I might have already said that one.

Adding insult to injury, at least one of these mini category reviews is not present in the actual finished book... even though the section is referred to on specific page numbers throughout the remainder of the tome. This seems to be in keeping with the books index which also seems to list appearances by various films on pages where they are nowhere to be seen. Seriously, what happened here?

And that’s about it for me and this book I’m afraid... nice to look at but ultimately it doesn’t deliver on content. Can’t bring myself to recommend this one and am now going to cast my nets further because there seems to be an abundance of these horror-movie lists type books doing the rounds at present. Maybe, if I’m really lucky, I can find a book called, something on the lines of, 200 Colours of Gialli You Should Profoundly Watch Before The Drops Of Blood In Your Body Go Velvetly Cold. Now that’s a book I’d really want to read!


  1. Shame. Alaways had a lot of time for him, especially after Anno Dracula. I heard Newman talking about this book on the Mark Kermode Radio 5 show. He cited both Texas Chainsaw and Halloween as key 70s horror movies - the bench marks for the modern horror movie. Not sure they would make your definition of the genre - although I suppose Halloween does have a supernatural slant (the indestructible killer). And he was rather dismissive of Rec. Arguably a derivative flick, but still very effective.

  2. Good post. I've never been a fan of Kim Newman and your review of his book confirms a lot of what I originally suspected. Years ago I noticed his website had about as many entries as the IMDb which I thought was quite bizarre and certainly stretched the definition of horror (or sci-fi) as much as possible. I'm working on a quick list of films which I don't consider to be horror right now which pretty much agrees with you. Basically, serial killers are "crime" movies not horror and a lot of movies with horror elements to them just aren't actually horror movies at all.

  3. Hi Doctor Blood. Thanks for stopping by.

    I'm going to have to defend Mr. Newman here a bit as he's only the co-writer here and, frankly, since each review was written by another contributor (of many), I was hard pressed to figure out which, if any, of Kim's reviews are in here. I don't think he's much to blame for the failings of this particular book.

    Secondly, although I personally disagree with most of Mr. Newman's film reviews (which can be found in magazines like Sight & Sound) they're well written and always worth reading.

    Thirdly... and this is the good bit, although I don't agree with his reviews... he's a brilliant writer of fiction. Seriously dude, his Anno Dracula trilogy is fantastic... you should definitely check it out. I've honestly got a lot of time for Kim Newman... just not this particular book.

    Looks like our definitions of horror are more or less in synch. ;-)

    Again, thanks for the words good Doctor!

  4. I wrote the bulk of this book and can shoulder the blame for the films selected, which was entirely my choice. The reason why some films are reviewed that aren't well loved by the reviewers is that they're canonical films - the first Amityville film, for instance. The same goes for stuff like Saw and Hostel. I don't like them but they're influential horror films. I don't like [Rec] either but it's not such an influential film (more room for argument here) so it's not in the book. This is explained in the introduction: I wanted to cover milestones and mavericks. As for the exclusions - well, you can't please everyone. I was just happy to get reviews of stuff like Clownhouse and Horrors of Malformed Men out there.

    The idea that a film has to contain supernatural elements to qualify as horror is a bit limiting. What are The Texas Chain Saw Massacre or The Hills Have Eyes if they're not horror films? To say nothing of any slasher film - and if slashers are considered horror films (which they are by most people, as well as in industry terms) why not a giallo? Tenebrae works no less well as a horror film than, say, Friday the 13th.

    I appreciate that the book deviates from strict generic territory but - again as I say in the introduction - I think stuff like Irreversible qualifies more usefully as a horror film than something like Van Helsing, for all the latter's gothic trappings. It's disturbing and confrontational and designed to freak you out. Isn't that what horror's meant to do?

    So there it is. I'm sorry you didn't like the book, but its failings, such as they are, are mine rather than Kim's.


  5. Hi there James.

    First of all, thanks for stopping by and reading this post. I'd forgotten all about this one. It's an honour to have you visit this blog.

    My opinion? Well I've not seen The Hills Have Eyes so I can't comment on that but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although somehow often lumped in with horror by many people... is basically a thriller.

    Slasher films? No I wouldn't consider them horror films unless they have an INHUMAN monster (as opposed to just a serial killer) or they have a supernatural element. They may be HORRIFYING to some people... but I wouldn't personally say that this is what HORROR is about.

    I think the more useful of the artificial genres created for film like HORROR, SCI-Fi or WESTERN certainly are not limited to what amounts to a literal translation of the word. Otherwise, for example, any film shot in the US would be a western.

    They allow for specific generic markers and films about humans stalking other humans are certainly not in the horror category in my book. Also, the more solidly defined genres are pretty strong in getting everyone to know what you're talking about. John Carpenter's Ghost's Of Mars, for example, can be simply labelled a sci-fi film for some of the audience... but I'm pretty sure most viewers would be hard pushed to disagree with the fact that it's actually an out and out Western more than it is any other genre.

    Tenebrae is a giallo, pure and simple I think. There's no way I would ever to be able to think of it as a horror film. Argento hasn't actually made THAT many horror films.

    I don't mean to single out horror as a genre here. CULT MOVIE, for example, is a completely useless and muddleheaded term which people mistake for a genre term quite often. The term cult, however, is defined by having a small following. What do you define as small? Are there really any movies made which are seen by, say, less than 2000 people, for example?

    And what about something like Blade Runner which flopped on its first release and then developed a reputation as a cult. Would you call it a cult movie now? It's hugely popular... so does its "genre" title shift as a result of the fact that it's now been lionised by a large group of people.

    So yeah, I think Horror is a much more useful definition than something like that, for instance.

    Ha! I'm waffling now, aren't I?

    But, as to your last thing about Irriversible and Van Helsing. Well Van Helsing has all the qualifications needed to pitch it firmly in the horror camp... whether you liked the movie or not. Irriversible? No, I didn't find it particularly disturbing or confrontational... it's just a movie with various different kinds of violence shown - physical, sexual and psychological. It's really not a horror movie and if terms like "disturbing" and "freak you out" need to come into play... well everyone's response to things are different to everybody else's. We're all individual snowflakes... nobody's going to find the same things disturbing (in my experience of people) and so I don't think you can hang a genre definition on it.

    For example, I find the last minute or so of Bonnie And Clyde extremely disturbing. It shocks me everytime I see it. But I wouldn't turn around to someone and start telling them they've got to go and see this fantastic horror movie starring Warren Beatty and Faye Dunnaway. That's just nuts. But it still disturbs me.

    Okay, I don't want to bombard you. I am looking forward to reading whatever you come up with next. I think this one must have just hit a nerve with me.

    Once again, thank you for coming on here and reading my thoughts on your book and I especially appreciate you taking the time to comment. You honour me with your presence sir.

    All the best to you.

  6. A couple of months later...

    TEXAS CHAINSAW (1973) is a thriller?

    I'd argue this point. I think thrillers are based on tension-from-chases. Cops after outlaw families, or an escaped convict on the run. Bank robberies gone bad, hostages, threats of more, hopes for escape.

    In CHAINSAW, this family isn't being sought at all. Instead, they're making BBQ and pumpin' gas on a county road - where's the thriller tension from that?

    There is a horror of a family that's had a long history of murderous cannibalism, and I think an argument could be made that "history of cannibalism" is a big step into the Horror genre.

    Here's a group that collects victims and then hangs them up on meathooks, or stuffs their carcasses into freezers, chases down a wheelchair and chainsaws Franklin (finally!) and wonderful Marilyn Burns. Tension, sure. Thrills, yes, but do these brief few scenes make this a Thriller?

    These seem overwhelmed by the horror of having victims in someone else's now very-foreign and deadly world. Of seeing friends strung up on meat hooks, in the freezer. The house of bones. Skin for lampshades.

    The supper scene - where Granddad is going to show the family he can still de-brain the next victim. Not a lot of tension or thrills in that, but it does show a history of murder and cannibalism.

    Thriller? Not Horror?

    There's the comment about needing an inhuman monster for a horror film, but I'd argue that when victims are put into an alien-to-them world that's murderous and brutally gory, then these films are Horror entries.

    But a film like SPOORLOOS (THE VANISHING) has an incredible amount of tension, and there is a huge thriller aspect to this film. To me, these overwhelm the horror that this film also delivers: that the Human can be most monstrous of all.

    It's great to have James write in, and thanks much for the review and setting off my fuse again! Always enjoyable. Every time I dig thru these older entries, I keep finding your treasures.

    1. HI again Chuck,

      Well if we took the perceptions of the protagonists to their situation to be a basis for "calling the director out" on the genre of a film then thee would be no science fiction films made... because those world which look so inhuman to us would be perfectly natural to the inhabitants of the majority of those movies. Does that mean they are not genre movies? No it doesn't.

      Similarly, the teenagers perception of their plight in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre does not necessarily make it a horror movie... and it's my feeling that it's not. It's all just people versus people.

      As far as your comment about it not being a thriller... well... all I can say is I've seen a fair few thrillers (and I'm sure you have too) which might have better been labelled "snoozers".

      Yeah, the original The Vanishing is a great film... but I would never have lumped that into horror territory anyway. Although, I guess there could be an argument made that it's trading in the same currency that Edgar Allan Poe used to.

      I'm reading Kim Newman's excellent Nightmare Movies at the moment (on the rare occasions I get the time to open the damn thing) and he completely and cleverly sidesteps the notion of horror movies in a way that the argument doesn't even come up in it. Newman also co-wrote the above book but I suspect his involvement in it was less than half.

      By the way Chuck, if you're into fiction, I'd heavily recommend Newman's Anno Dracula trilogy. It's loaded with rferences for readers like you and I.

      Again... thanks for reading.

  7. Thanks for this. You've got me, it so happens, in a dead reading zone where I've burned myself out on histories, bored with classic fictions, dipped my toes back into Jack Kirby and the Ditko CREEPY-EERIE periods, and was pondering crime fiction. ANNO DRAC, it is.

    Genres are a terrible subject - it's definitely akin to arguing politics. One dividing point has been "Is the filmmaker entitled to his Genre, or is the audience entitled to theirs?" Since I'm The Audience, I tend to side with "Audience Rulez!"

    Then again, when's the last time I bought a ticket and expected to lead myself by the nose thru a film? I've seen few Perfect Films, but those few have the filmmakers making perfectly clear their intents and goals, and then delivering on those promises. If the swelling music jerks tears, well, then they've gone a pretty good job of it.

    I'm not sure "people vs people" though dilutes my notion of Horror out of CHAINSAW and your Poe-Hammer films comment wiggles this argument further. Good stuff.