Nighmare Movies, by longstanding gentleman of this parish Kim Newman, was first published in 1985, and to members of the horror cognoscenti it quickly became the key work on the genre post-’60s, managing not only to comprehensively chart horror’s modern history but redefining the very category of movies it concerned. Newman’s was the first book to take seriously post-Universal/Hammer films: the Nights Of The Living Dead and Halloweens that defined the post-Vietnam generation but which were, for the most part, airily dismissed as borderline pornographic trash by a generation of critics weaned on Karloff and Cushing. But it also contained the piercing and fertile insight that gives the book its title: not horror films — nightmare movies.
Like some shapeshifter from John Carpenter’s imagination, the horror movie, Newman posited, was capable of disguising itself, imprinting its DNA on other, apparently unrelated genres. Thus thrillers like Fatal Attraction, putative actioners like Southern Comfort and First Blood and sci-fi such as The Andromeda Strain all revealed new and fascinating secrets if examined through the prism of anxiety, paranoia and fear that had traditionally been reserved for movies with spooks, monster and scares.
Now the Sage Of Islington continues the project he thought he had handed off to some young whippersnapper a quarter of a century ago. The first half is the still-dazzling original text annotated with occasional and mostly generous re-evaluations — he admits being too harsh on Alien and The Dead Zone among others.
The second half picks up where he left off and charts the rise of modern horror trends: the self-reflexive horror flick à la Scream — which he quite rightly identifies as generation-defining — the controversial rise of torture porn, remakes and the Japanese ghost-story fad as well as more exotic outlying lands such as evangelical Christian Rapture movies. But again some of the most stimulating writing is ‘out of genre’ as with, for example, Battle Royale, Cloverfield and Fight Club (and his final assessment of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is a lightbulb-going-off-over-the-head moment for those of us who thought it mildly overrated). And if the extensive cataloguing occasionally threatens to become just a tad overwhelming, it provides the grist of a ‘need to see list’ that’ll last you several lifetimes. As essential, original and cutting-edge, then, in 2011 as it was 26 years ago.
Reviewed by Adam Smith