I first discovered Kim Newman through his excellent Video Dungeon columns in Empire magazine, which, along with his more mainstream reviews for the magazine, demonstrated a man with a great knowledge for the fringes of cinema. So, when I saw his 1989 work, Nightmare Movies, had been reversioned and rereleased I picked it up as soon as I could.
It is an initially daunting tome, clocking in at 500 pages it is undeniably an in-depth look at horror cinema since (roughly) 1960. The first half is the original book reprinted with extra footnotes and it lives up to all the good I’d heard about it taking us through the 30 years after Psycho in fairly extreme detail.
Each chapter takes on, loosely speaking, a different sub-genre by focusing on a few of the well-known classics and referencing their connections to lesser known films while both critically exploring what, in Newman’s view, motivates and drives both the individual films and the styles as a whole.
Added in to this first half of the book are new explanations and footnotes that generally are asides to the main text but are none-the-less fascinating – this is one of few books where the footnotes are essential to read as you go, rather than ignoring or reading later.
While Newman’s style has evolved since the late 1980s this original section of the book is still very readable and you can hear the same tone in it as in his Empire columns that makes it very easy to read despite the sometimes graphic descriptions and fairly heavy ideas being offered up.
The second half of the book goes through much of the same territory, bringing us up to date, to roughly 2010, and also taking in the new genres that have arisen and those that have fallen away. So, while the first half includes gialli and the like the second delves into the murky waters of torture porn, but all the time Newman joins the dots as to how the sub-genres interlink and what it is in the real world that is driving these changes in style and attitude.
As with the first half the tone is generally like that of a the best lecturer you ever had so, while it is authoritative, it is also friendly and entertaining and really shows off Newman’s famously ridiculous knowledge of obscure cinema.
My only real issue with the book is that there are points where it becomes a list of movies its likely few other than Newman have heard of, but even these have their purpose at times as they demonstrate quite the phenomenal breadth of horror cinema – I find it hard to believe there could be quite such an extensive number of movies in the various sub-genres of other aspects of film.
If you’re a fan of horror cinema and some of the thought behind it, this never quite hits the level of full on academic but treads the line between that and entertainment expertly, then Nightmare Movies is indispensable and, unless you are extremely dedicated to the field, will leave you with new must watch list and a greater appreciation for the form.