Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: 'Horror Films of the 1980s'

John Kenneth Muir took an ambitious chomp out of horror history with Horror Films of the 1980s. His 2007 book surveys more than 325 films released during the Reagan/Bush years, tying almost every one into the broader context of that scary, conservative era. Overall, Muir’s reviews are intelligent, well written, and historically astute, which makes it hard to take him to task for some of his opinions. This guy is very forgiving and very, very fast and loose with his four star ratings, which may please horror devotees who get annoyed with critics who crap on their favorite films. For the most part, he does make strong arguments for his opinions. While I would never rank Night of the Comet as a better movie than An American Werewolf in London, Muir analyzes both films clearly enough that I understand why he does.

 Yet there is the occasional disconnect between his star ratings and his analyses. His four-star write-up of Fatal Attraction briefly prefaces the film as “brilliant” before launching into an extended finger-wagging session aimed at its “shameful” and “despicable” agenda. We get no sense of what is allegedly “brilliant” about this movie aside from its ability to manipulate the audience, which may make for a brilliant con man but not necessarily a brilliant film. Perhaps Muir based his star ratings on his uncritical enjoyment of the films while saving his more impartial insights for the reviews. It’s a little confusing though.

There are some strange entry choices too— this is certainly the first time I’ve ever seen the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple studied as a horror film—but when you’ve read enough about horror, you come to realize how subjective its definition can be. Like any critical collection, Horror Films of the 1980s is ultimately subjective despite instances like the Fatal Attraction entry discussed above, but Muir balances that nicely by including other perspectives of these films. Each entry is introduced with a selection of period review excerpts and new ones written by his fellow critics and horror fanatics. The juxtapositions can be really fascinating, as when an assortment of terrible and glowing reviews lead into the entry on The Shining. Today it’s easy to forget that this classic—and its creator, Stanley Kubrick—were not always universally revered. It’s also easy to forget that Reagan— that pioneer of contemporary extreme conservatism— swelled the federal government, the number of American’s living in poverty, and the national debt, as Muir reminds us. Often, Horror Films of the 1980s is just as valuable as a history lesson as it is an appraisal of horror movies, and it’s praiseworthy for that reason too. In fact, it might be a good book to buy for kids who can’t stomach cracking that social studies text.

Published by McFarland & Company, Horror Films of the 1980s is currently available in its original hardcover edition, which you can pick up at here:

If you find soft-covers more manageable, you can pre-order the upcoming republication here:

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