Horror and the Horror Film (2012) – By Cary Conley

There are literally hundreds of books that survey the entire history of the horror film and most of these books follow a very standard and logical, albeit overused, format. Just about every survey of horror films divides the genre into decades. A typical survey of horror would include the silent films of the teens and twenties, Universal horror films of the thirties, the color Hammer films and horror/sci-fi hybrids of the fifties, and so on. Occasionally a book may attempt to divide horror films into rough categories like haunted houses, ghosts, monsters, zombies, and such. But author and cinephile Bruce F. Kawin has added a new and refreshing twist to a topic that has been dissected more times than a corpse in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab: he has divided all horror films into categories based upon the type of monster contained within the film. Thus, we have larger categories such as general monsters, supernatural monsters, and human monsters, and within these larger sub-genres, Kawin has further divided each group into more specific sub-subgenres. The result is one of the most unique treatises on horror films this reviewer had read in a long time.

Ostensibly written as a college-level textbook, Horror and the Horror Film is part of the larger series New Perspectives on World Cinema and is printed by Anthem Press. As such, the book is extremely information-rich and is filled with both film criticism and basic film theory. It is not your typical survey of horror films written for the average fan. I found myself, a huge fan of the genre, having to re-read parts in order to better process all of the information that is presented. But this doesn’t mean it isn’t accessible to the horror fan; rather, it presents a unique, in-depth analysis of many of the major thematic elements contained within the genre–some of which I was unfamiliar with–and categorized using a method that I have never seen before.

The book opens with a fascinating discussion of the horror film in general: its origins, how horror may be defined and why horror appeals to so many filmgoers as well as some of the commonly reoccurring tropes and themes contained within the genre. Kawin has a terrific grasp of horror film theory and discusses various reoccurring elements contained within the horror film such as beauty, reflexivity, horror within a framing device (usually a window), and the use of Forbidden Texts as a means for either understanding horror or initiating horror (either wittingly or unwittingly) as well as the ubiquitous One Who Knows–a person with secret or unexplained knowledge that tries to warn others of impending danger only to be killed for their warning attempts. Kawin covers all of this material in the first section of the book, using some genuine classics of the horror film as examples; thus we get in-depth analysis of films such as Carl Theodor Dreyer’s truly unique Vampyr, Michael Powell’s visionary Peeping Tom, the underrated Dead of Night, and many more.

The real meat of the book, however, is the second section which is constructed around Kawin’s unique categorization and is aptly deemed "The Book of Monsters". Categorized into three major sections, Kawin discusses films that portray natural monsters, supernatural monsters, and human monsters. Within each of these three larger categories are subdivisions in which Kawin selects a handful of films as representations. For instance, in the first section of the "The Book of Monsters", Kawin discusses more natural monsters (as opposed to supernatural), such as beasts constructed by scientists (the Frankenstein Monster) or created chemically (Mr. Hyde) or surgically (Island of Lost Souls), monsters from space (The Thing from Another World, Alien), plant monsters (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and even child monsters (It’s Alive, The Brood, The Funhouse), among many others. The second section covers supernatural monsters such as vampires, werewolves, witches, demons and devils, mummies, and zombies, while the third and final section surveys human monsters like mad scientists, crazed artists, ghouls, True Believers, killer families, and many others.

Kawin closes his book with a third and final section that is a discussion of horror comedies, dividing these into categories as well. He also briefly covers horror documentaries, choosing to discuss historical documentation of horrors like the Jewish Holocaust or the coldly clinical scientific autopsy as opposed to discussing supposed documentary horrors like the Faces of Death series and films of that ilk.

It is clear that Kawin is not just a scholar but also a fan of horror. He writes with the passion of a horror fan and includes films only hardcore horror buffs would know such as Men Behind the Sun, Basket Case, Salo, Black Sun: The Nanking Massacre, and The Mutilator. And while Kawin certainly covers the classics, from Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and Haxan to the Universal horror gems of the 1930’s, he also is surprisingly up to date and mentions films released as late as 2009. I found many of the discussions contained within the book entertaining and enlightening. One discussion in particular, an explanation of the supernatural undertones of Friday the 13th, helped me to understand parts of the movie that have always bothered me. The one problem I had was Kawin’s affinity for overly long and sometimes confusing descriptions of plotlines. While I found many of the plot descriptions to be unnecessary, one must remember that this book is meant to be used as a college text, so one must assume that some people reading the book might not have the same amount of exposure to horror films as others.

Overall, Horror and the Horror Film is an extremely insightful and entertaining examination of the genre. The structure is both unique and refreshing and the author is clearly an expert on the subject matter. This is one of the best surveys of the genre I’ve read to date and well worth purchasing if you are a student of film history or simply a horror movie fan interested in delving into some of the more cerebral aspects of the genre.