A History of Horror
By Wheeler Winston Dixon
Published by Rutgers University Press, 2010. 247 pages
Boy…where to start with this one. Whenever someone, usually of some huge academic background, writes a book about the history of the horror genre, it seems (to me at least) that they might be a fan of the classic era of horror films. But once they get to the ’70s and move through the modern day films, they either lose their interests, basically slide their way through them, or both, usually with some negative slant as well. Now I’m not expecting anybody to love each and every horror film out there. But if you’re writing a history of the genre, then it should be based on facts, not opinions. And even more importantly…now listen up folks because here is the important part…you have to your facts right. If you’re talking about a movie, you better make sure you’ve seen the movie. If you can’t get a basic plot point right, then how is anybody going to believe a word you’re writing? Want more details? Just keep reading.
The first part of this book isn’t that bad, going through the beginnings of the genre, mentioning all the important titles, actors and whatnot. I didn’t really learn anything I didn’t know, but for a beginner to the genre, it wouldn’t be that bad. But once we got to the more modern era, things went south. He what he has to say about the film Last Man on Earth:
“Although the film has moments, the 2007 remake, I Am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence, with Will Smith in the title role,as well as the Charlton Heston version, The Omega Man, directed by Boris Sagal in 1971, make much more effective use of the material.”
Really? I assume by saying “more effective use” he’s not talking about faithfully adapting because those two versions are about as far from the source as possible. But wait…there’s more. When he gets to talking about low budget filmmaker Al Adamson and his films, Dixon writes that Adamson “…displayed an almost complete lack of care in their productions.” Adamson was trying to make films with little or no money. He knew that if he didn’t have a film done on time to meet the distribution sale dates, he would be out of business. But he continued to knock out these films, over and over again, however and with whatever he could. To say that these guys just didn’t give a shit about their craft is just a plain disrespectful. If he’d had money falling out of his pockets, I’m sure his movies would have looked a lot better. I’m not trying to claim that Adamson’s films are classics, but I do believe that he was working just as hard at making a good film, with what he had, as the guys in Hollywood was. Actually…probably more.
Then there are a couple of comments that make me feel that he doesn’t even know or had seen the films he’s talking about. Like calling Leatherface from Hooper’s Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the “chainsaw wielding leader of the group”. Leader? Really?
But it gets even better. When discussing Richard Donner’s The Omen, Dixon says the following:
“The Omen has the distinction of being one of the first films from a major studio that has no plot except unremitting violence, with a violent murder punctuating every ten minutes off the film’s running time.”
No plot? Maybe if he would have been paying more attention to the movie than his stopwatch waiting for the next ‘violent murder’, he might have caught some of that plot. Like the part where Billie Whitelaw’s character visits the recovering Lee Remick in the hospital after her fall. Because according to Dixon, Remick’s character then “inexplicably jumps from a window”. But again….no plot. So he can miss a part like that, but can still criticize this movie as a whole.
And lastly, when talking about the original Friday the 13th:
“Jason, played in the first film by Ari Lehman, is a mute, imbecilic, homicidal maniac in a hockey mask who runs amok at Camp Crystal Lake, where an assembly line of teens who smoke pot, have sex, and drink are hacked to death for their ‘transgressions’.”
Let’s start with the fact that Jason doesn’t start wearing a hockey mask until part 3. Or the simple fact that Jason isn’t even the killer in this movie!!! Oh sure…some might say I’m making a big deal over this. But what this tells me is the author clearly doesn’t know the film well enough to be talking about it if he can’t remember a simple fact about the movie. You ask ANY fan of the FRIDAY series and I guarantee you they would know this. So how could one be critical of these types of movies if he has never paid that much attention to them, or even seen them?
Lastly, when discussing the trend with all the remakes and sequels, Dixon makes a comment that shows how his tunnel vision is blocking the plain truth right in front of him.
“…franchise filmmaking ruled the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s in the horror genre, in a way that even Universal in the 1940s could never have imagined. One hit film would often generate six or seven sequels. Moreover, all of the films in which a high body count was the chief prerequisite and character development and motivation were singularly unimportant. They offered more of the same with only minor variations, and the audiences apparently loved it.”
I will agree with his comment that in the modern day films a high body count was sought after, and that was something the older films from Universal didn’t look for. But besides that, that entire quote could be talking about the Universal movies from the ’30s and ’40s. They would bring those monsters back time and time again, throwing them in some of the silliest and thinnest plots around, throwing different monsters together because they had already run out of ideas. Restarting a series, like Universal did with their Mummy series. It is nothing new. But they knew the fans would come back to see their favorite monsters. And that hasn’t changed in over 100 years of horror films.
So the bottom line is that as book on the history of the genre, Dixon does an adequate job about halfway through the book. But once he gets to the ’70s, that is when his negative opinions take over and any educational aspect goes out the window. Remember, this is a book on the HISTORY of the genre, not the author’s thoughts about it. And for those reason, it would be difficult for me to recommend this book. There are plenty of other books out there that speak about these movies with a true passion about them, looking past the negative side and either giving us a straightforward look at them, or at least admitting well up front that it is just the author’s opinion and that others may like them, or dislike them if the case may be.
But what bothers me the most about this guy….he actually is teaching this misguided and incorrect information to future fans. Ugh.