Nightmare Movies

By Kim Newman

The second edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies is less a new version of the old stand-by than an expansion into two volumes. The first part (originally published in 1988) is reproduced almost verbatim, only adding a few endnotes at the end of each chapter to explain miscues and provide updates (including an extensive analysis of David Cronenberg’s post-Dead Ringers career). At times Newman pats himself on the back (thinking highly of David Lynch), at others admits his lack of prescience (scoffing at Alien as “a dumb film”). For no good reason I can see factual errors are left uncorrected in the text but noted at the end of each chapter. The second part, “New Nightmares,” brings the story up to date (2011), and even rounds things off nicely by ending where the first volume began, with Romero’s zombie apocalypse.

Of course much had changed in the intervening years, and not just on screen. The way we watch movies, and write about them, was transformed. As Newman explains:

once, I had to rely on notes about films scribbled months or years earlier, and obscure titles had to be tracked down in rare revival screenings or (in the mid -’80s) out-of-print videotape releases; now, almost everything covered here is easily available on DVD and a prospective author has the temptation of delaying actual writing work indefinitely by watching an enormous amount of material (with or without commentary tracks and making-of extras).

As I’ve said before (on more than one occasion), the DVD revolution has had the effect of making movies more like books, consumed privately at home and rarely all in one sitting. The division into chapters and extra editorial content also borrows from the book, and indeed you can now comfortably read books and watch movies on the same device. As I have also noted previously (see my review of David Thomson’s “Have You Seen …?”), this convergence is gradually leading to a unified set of critical standards. Sloppy, sketchy, memory-based reviewing is harder to get away with now that it’s easy for amateur film buffs to trip up even authoritative critics. And it’s hard to get more authoritative than Newman, as Nightmare Movies has become the virtual Bible of contemporary horror.

Which leads us to a quick tour of lowlights and miscues. After all, we might give Newman a pass on some of his original edition (pre-DVD) mistakes, but one has to wonder why they haven’t been noted and corrected after all this time, and why so many straightforward errors have made it into the “New Nightmares.” I am no film scholar or expert on horror films myself, but in case there is a revised edition coming out soon (and not in any snarky spirit of “Gotcha!”) it’s worth pointing out the following: In Pretty Poison Sue Ann doesn’t bludgeon the watchman with a flashlight, she uses a large wrench; in Shoot Kate Reid does not complain about “the Jews and the blacks and the hippies” but “junkies, hippies, and jigs”; Kurt Russell doesn’t use a flamethrower to dispatch the creature at the end of the The Thing, but throws a stick of dynamite at it; in Phantasm Mike (the younger brother) is not “obsessed with monsters and horror films” (there are, in fact, no references whatsoever to monsters or horror films in the movie); Drew Barrymore’s house at the beginning of Scream isn’t located “out in the wilds” (though I suppose an upscale American suburb may look like the wilds to a British critic); The Three Faces of Eve is re-titled The Three Cases of Eve (both in the text and in the index); in I Know What You Did Last Summer the killer is not a “crank-caller,” he only sends written messages; in Gus Van Sant’s re-make of Psycho the strange cutaway shot of “startled goats” does not occur in the shower scene but during the murder of Arbogast; in The Others the little girl never “lifts a veil to reveal the face of a blind old woman,” the veil stays on until knocked off in a struggle with Nicole Kidman (and then reveals the little girl’s face).

That out of the way (and this is just a personal list, and so makes no claim to being exhaustive), we can turn to more important matters. Like taste. Do I trust Newman’s? A bit. His estimation of auteurs such as Romero, Lynch, and Cronenberg seems to me to be appropriate (that is, high but not without some caveats). I’m less convinced that the films of David Fincher are worth watching more than once. He’s a slick director, but calling Fight Club a “near masterpiece” and saying that it possibly marks “the final evolutionary form of the horror movie” hurts. There’s also a fair bit of work put into defending The Blair Witch Project from charges of being overhyped, though I think a lot of the backlash against that film was justified. The “buzz” was manufactured and dishonest, and the movie lousy.

On the subject of what are by consensus lousy movies, however, Newman’s take is salutary. Especially now that everything is pretty much available on DVD, a lot of pure crap is being given a second life. But while I can appreciate some of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s work, most bottom-of-the-bucket horror slop strikes me as unwatchable. William GrefĂ©? Maybe once, for a laugh. After that, the joke’s on you. Newman: “all these filmmakers – despite the fair amount of auteurist control they exercise over their micro-budgeted quickies – have really succeeded in doing is staying in business against the odds and inflicting unendurable boredom upon audiences. Any fool who thinks bad films are uproarious fun would be cured if locked in a cinema during an all-night Al Adamson retrospective.” Hear, hear.

Finally, as for movies that never seem to get their due, I guess I will just have to continue to carry a torch for Lifeforce just a little bit longer . . .

Where Newman really shines is at the start of each thematically arranged chapter, where he’s able to synthesize his truly awesome knowledge of the genre into a few pages of tightly-argued and insightful remarks about developing trends. He’s very good, for example, on the post-Millennium turn toward ghost stories (influenced by the J-Horror phenomenon), the hidden agendas of conspiracy thrillers, and the morality of torture porn. With regard to the latter he cuts directly to the essential point: that “clearly, misanthropy is in style,” and that while “the horror movies of the American Nightmare suggested there was something wrong with society . . . the message of the twenty-first century is that Other People are Shit.” Exactly.

I wish there was more of this sort of analysis and less of the mere cataloguing of titles, as impressive as the catalogue is. Of course no one person can hope to see everything, but reading this book, which extensively covers international releases and even provides a good sampling of porn, you get the feeling Newman can lay as strong a claim in that regard as anyone. I tried to think of anything missing and could only come up with the delightful Pumpkinhead, a bit of ’80s trash that spawned several sequels (Pumpkinhead, the character, is mentioned once in passing, so it wasn’t a complete whiff). But when we get away from the lists and Newman engages in a close critical reading of a movie he’s usually pretty good, and as noted he’s excellent at summarizing the big picture. It’s this that finally makes Nightmare Movies such a valuable book, and has me hoping that in another twenty years or so we’ll be seeing another sequel.

Review first published online September 3, 2012. For more on scary movies, see my review of Jason Zinoman’s Shock Value.

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