Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Review: ‘Horror and the Horror Film’

When I was much younger and working toward my film degree, I took a course on the horror film. There’s nothing quite like padding into class at 9AM to watch The Exorcist with a bunch of groggy, probably hung-over 21-year olds. I’d take my seat at the back of the class, and my professor would hover behind me near the projector, shuddering at every flitting shadow and drip of blood spurted throughout the semester. It was a fun experience, not least of all because of its weirdness, but it also solidified my love of the genre and bolstered me with enough theoretical psychobabble to create this site you’re reading right now. One thing the class lacked was a good text. Our professor’s chosen book was Gregory A. Waller’s American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. It’s a pretty good collection of essays, but as the title indicates, it’s limited. And that limitation doesn’t just apply to region: the films discussed were mostly released between 1968 and 1980. The few photocopied essays we students received to supplement Waller’s book still didn’t add up to an encompassing study of a genre with much greater breadth than many non-fans realize.

It’s a shame we didn’t have Horror and the Horror Film twenty years ago. Bruce F. Kawin’s new book is an exceptional primer on our favorite genre. While so many discussions sidestep the essence of horror to probe its political, social, historical, and purely cinematic implications and impacts, Kawin approaches it at the most essential level. What is the horror film? What are its key tropes? What scares us about them? What revolts us about them? And why do so many of us choose to subject ourselves to such unpleasantness?

Kawin then gets deeper into horror by examining the major movers and shakers of the genre. He divides his monsters into three basic categories (the scientifically explained, the supernatural, the human) and breaks each down into the various subcategories (the transforming monster, the vampire, the slasher, etc.). This allows the writer to dissect horror’s innumerable ingredients in a clear, organized fashion. By approaching the genre monster-by-monster, he can get into their films, their politics, and the way they changed and developed the genre. Kawin offers a fascinating delineation between horror and science-fiction using The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still as the genres’ respective examples. He examines the underlying horrific implications of King Kong or the Creature from the Black Lagoon making off with human women. His study reaches as far back as Méliès’s pre-turn-of-the-century shorts and extends as far into the present as Super 8. To regurgitate a much-abused cliché, Kawin’s knowledge of the horror film is genuinely encyclopedic. By approaching the films by type rather than chronologically, he places the hundreds of films he discusses on a level playing field, so The Mummy has as much historical importance as Hostel. At barely more than 200 pages, Horror and the Horror Film is easy to digest. It’s scope, however, is vast. I hope you film professors out there are paying attention.

Get Horror and the Horror Film at Amazon.com here:
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