Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman (non-fiction review).

Kim Newman’s ‘Nightmare Movies’ is a greatly expanded update of a book previously published in the 1980s. In his introduction, he notes his influences and how this book was a reaction to the work of critics such as William K. Everson. He still recommends their work, but notes that too many of their generation hold a nostalgic view for 1920s and 30s horror. The original ‘Nightmare Movies’ is a product of the 1980s written by a man who grew up in the 1960s and 70s. We might expect work by such a critic to be mired in the same longing for youth as his forbears, but this is not so. Newman reassesses some of the work he previously did and had added an entire new section on more recent horror cinema.

The first section of the book is the original work, while part two picks up where this left off. That said, as he acknowledges, the break isn’t clean and there is some overlap. I am unfamiliar with the original ‘Nightmare Movies’, but from comments in the introduction, I would imagine some is perhaps to do with a new look at films which have shown a greater historical importance in the light of the work which followed. ‘The Silence Of The Lambs’ would seem the obvious example here, as it opens the second section.

Each chapter of the book looks at an important film or studio, considers its impact and discusses that which followed. Thus we have an opening chapter which notes the impact of Romero’s ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, a follow-up on British horror from the likes of Amicus and Hammer or a later chapter on the post-modern movies which followed the, excellent, ‘Scream’.

In each of the sections it is somewhat telling, though Newman is clearly directing the reader here, that we have, a perhaps unexpectedly, seminal movie. To take the example which opens the book, ‘Night Of The Living Dead’ or ‘Scream’ which changes something about genre. Newman sees 1968 as a definite break in what we could expect from the horror genre. Several decades of film scholarship make it hard challenge this view. Similarly, his contention that there hasn’t yet been such a break with the past is a hard one to challenge.

Knowing films, such as ‘Scream’ which blur the line between actor and viewer and, if not quite break the fourth wall, remove some of the barriers between the screen and the sofa have been in and out of favour over the past few years. ‘Scream’ is one of the better examples of this trend. I’m glad to note that Newman despises the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise which parodies the ‘Scream’ films as well as a scattergun approach to popular culture in general.

These films are bad, as Newman notes, because they are misogynist and often racist and just not funny. However, the other thing I always wonder with these is, how does one parody a work which is already a parody. Wes Craven’s films are witty, they know what they are. Having a shot at them seems cheap, lazy and obvious. A less egregious example springs to mind in the form of ‘High Anxiety’, a Mel Brooks film which parodied Hitchcock, no stranger to Newman’s book, was never po-faced so a parody seems silly. Though Mel Brooks is certainly less excruciating than the ‘Scary Movie’ franchise.

Throughout the book, Newman works to bring the films he talks about into context. That is to say, their place in genre and cinematic history, but also the wider implications from a societal perspective. An obvious example being the issues raised by ‘Night Of The Living Dead’, with its non-prejudicial casting for example. This was something with which I was familiar. However, he considers the films in light of other aspects, which I may be peripherally aware, but aren’t part of my psyche. There is a Vietnam war edge to Romero’s film, which I have to confess, mostly eluded me.

Bringing things up to date, Newman considers the ‘Hostel’ films in this light. I have to confess I didn’t like these particular films. They seemed nasty pieces of work with little to redeem them. However, one thing which does come through is the lack of concern for the people or cultures in which they holiday. The question of first world gaze is an interesting one, though I’m not sure I can stomach thinking about it while watching such an unpleasant piece of film-making.

This is, necessarily, just a tiny snippet of what Newman covers in a book which weighs in at over 600 pages. But it has much more, including sections on auteurs such as De Palma and del Toro, vampire movies and the Hannibal Lecter films. Even this barely scratches at the variety of material in Newman’s book.

A key difference between now and the time at which the original version of this book was conceived and written in the explosion in the availability of material relating to horror and, more importantly, the availability of the films themselves. The relaxing of the attitude of censors and distributors helps, certainly, but one cannot ignore how easy it is now to see even the most obscure examples of the genre through the digital release. Though sometimes it is debatable how desirable this is. Newman draws attention to this and notes it could be a hindrance for a fan attempting to complete a survey of the field.

If you wish to read a deeper analysis of an individual studio, film or director, there are myriad better choices than this. It is broad, rather than deep. However for a thoughtful and knowledgeable overview of 50 years of film-making, this is going to be difficult to rival. Newman clearly knows and loves his subject. He is not afraid to be critical of work which he adores. Early in the book, when discussing the Hammer studio, he notes the weakness of a film such as ‘Dracula A.D. 1972’ but later cites it as something for which he has a great deal of time. I appreciate this about the book. I sometimes wonder at on-line criticism and reviews which, in their adoration for their subject, seem unwilling to acknowledge their flaws. Especially in genre, and I love genre, it is hard to be taken seriously by the uninitiated if you refuse to see failings.

Highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in horror films.

Richard Palmer

(pub: Bloomsbury. 633 page illustrated indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £30.00. ISBN: 978-1-408-0503-9)
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One thought on “Nightmare Movies by Kim Newman (non-fiction review).

  • Sounds as though Kim has done a good job of looking at the British side of horror, rather than taking the usual American-centric view of things! One to check out on my ever expanding to-read list.


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