NIGHTMARE MOVIES: Modern Horror From A Genealogical Viewpoint

When Your Humble Reviewer was a teenage horror fan developing his take on the genre, the original edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies was one of the books he cut his critical teeth on.  Its focus on modern horror (1968 to 1988) spoke to his youthful interests, exploring this topic with a playfulness that made it fun to read but also applying an intelligence that encouraged him to think ambitiously about what the genre could be.

A few decades later, Newman has returned to his seminal horror-crit tome and given it a thorough updating.  Thankfully, he has not gone back and rewritten the book to suit a modern vantage point: instead, he has provided a wealth of new footnotes to the original text and written a new section covering the last two decades of horror cinema that functions as a sequel to the original Nightmare Movies.  Simply put, you get double the book –  at 633 pages, it looks kind of like a small phone book – and this is one of those rare cases where more is better.

The first half of the book is basically an annotated version of the original Nightmare Movies.  Newman starts with the thesis that modern horror began with Night Of The Living Dead in 1968 and uses that as the starting point for an exploration of the two decades that followed.  The chapters are usually organized around a theme, starting with the discussion of a key film for that particular era of the subgenre before connecting to subsequent examples of the form in a sort of genealogical style.  For example, the chapter on occult movies starts with Rosemary’s Baby, the slasher movie chapter gets going with Halloween, etc.

This survey format works well for Newman because he is as much as a storyteller as he is a critic (between the two editions of Nightmare Movies, Newman won acclaim for his vampire novel Anno Dracula).  Even those steeped in the genre will enjoy his takes on horror evergreens like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Dawn Of The Dead because he fashions them into compact narratives,  applying a carefully-balanced mixture of wit and insight as he brings you into the story of why these key films became popular and how their influence spread through subsequent films.

It’s also worth noting that Newman adds copious footnotes in this new edition.  This allows him to compare and contrast his current viewpoint with 1988-era opinions instead of rewriting himself.  He’s not afraid to point out where he has learned more or changed his mind – and he often adds highly detailed post-1988 updates on particular genre figures that bolster the main text of a chapter (a great example comes in the Auteurs chapter, where Newman adds generous updates on the subsequent career of the five directors he covers).

The second half of Nightmare Movies delves into horror’s 1990-2010 period.  Newman’s basic critical approach remains intact and this serves him well because the terrain he covers has grown more complex.  For instance, one chapter takes the kind of basic horror archetypes (vampire, werewolf, etc.) that might have gotten their own chapters in the first half of the book and explores how they mutated in the 1990-2010 era by being combined with other genres.  The genealogical roots become twisted so Newman’s thorough, scholarly style becomes a welcome map that helps the reader keep it all straight.

Newman also devotes expansive chapters to how the mystery/thriller format of serial killer movie, led by the success of Silence Of The Lambs, morphed into a crossover strain of the horror genre as well as one of the most thoughtful, incisive explorations of the “torture porn” subgenre Your Humble Reviewer has ever read.  Other highlights of the second half include an examination of how indie filmmaker Larry Fessenden has become a horror auteur and a chapter that contextualizes the modern “zombie film” trend as part of a movement of films that subconsciously explore society’s post-millennium/end of the world fears.

The end result requires a substantial investment of time but rewards it several times over. You might not always agree with Newman’s opinions – Your Humble Reviewer was surprised by his dismissal of Return Of The Living Dead – but he makes his arguments in a reasonable fashion and always leaves the reader with food for thought.  This new edition of Nightmare Movies is as much a standard-bearer as its well-loved predecessor – and it deserves a place of honor on the shelf of any thinking horror fan.

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