NIGHTMARE MOVIES by Kim Newman – Book Review

Kim Newman
Bloomsbery, 2011
Trade Paperback
650 pages

Review by Dejan Ognjanovic
originally published on TWITCH

At one point in this book its author admits: "I'm well aware that the vogue for remakes, reimaginings and reduxes extends to books like Nightmare Movies." But there is no reason to fear: this is not one of those cash-in products with dollar signs in their evil eyes. The new, extended edition of Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s is clearly a labor of equal amounts of love and understanding bestowed upon a genre which few writers take this seriously. This book needed to happen: the cult original (in its three editions: 1985, 1988, 1989) has long been out of print, and the new developments in horror after its publication practically begged for an update from an author whose judgements have already been proven right.

When they announced the updated version, it was reasonable to expect some 20-25% of new material to fill us in on the movies made in the two decades after the original Nightmare Movies. What no one expected was a whole new book added to the old one, equal in size and even better in quality! Yes, folks, this humongous volume – 634 pages in large format (+16 pages with photos) – contains the good old Nightmare Movies we all know and love on its first 293 pages, followed by more than 300 pages of entirely new material + index of titles, fully updated. The result is, plain and simple, just the best and most reliable study of modern horror film you can find! You want one book to tell you all you need to know about horrors made between Night of the Living Dead and A Serbian Film? This is it!   

And why is that? Simply because Kim Newman is the Man. As he said in the original introduction: "I was around to gauge the impact of Shivers, Carrie, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Halloween and The Evil Dead on their original releases. My first professionally published piece was a review of Last House on the Left in 1982." He's been around. And he's been watching, it seems, even the unwatchable: in this huge book you will find references not only to unknown gems (the Russian Jekyll and Hyde from 1985!) but also, occasionally, to unbelievable trash. 
Who else but Newman would notice that Coppola's Dracula (1992) has a set-up which is "surprisingly close to the way Dracula (Jamie Gillis) becomes a vampire in the porn movie Dracula Exotica (1980)"?! Who else but Newman has seen this many low budget flicks few people have even heard of? Let me rephrase this: yes, there may be horror freaks out there with nothing better to do who have seen all this, and more, but how many of them are able to see through them, to analyze them with such wit and precision, and to draw comparisons with their nobler, better known brethreen?

Newman's knowledge of horror sometimes seems scary, but it's never dry, dusty nor burdened with the tiresome "discourse" of the post-structuralist-feminist-Marxist-Freudian-Lacanian-Žižekian claptrap which passes for horror theory these days. His insights are penetrating and profound, but always clearly put, in a finely wrought language of a good writer (Newman is equally known for his novels and short stories) – language which most theoreticians of horror can only dream of. Here is just one example, in dealing with Branagh's Frankenstein (1994): "Few Frankenstein films are as reactionary, with the punchline coming when Walton learns his lesson from Victor's awful example, deciding that all his science is a bad thing and turns his ship away from the ice floes to return to a civilisation where surgery is performed without anaesthetic and the natural process of birth is as bloody and doomed as the unnatural activities of mad scientists."

It certainly helps that Nightmare Movies is the result of a life-long devotion, instead of a hasty "research" conducted by some stuffy professor on his/her black sabbatical. Newman gets his names, titles and facts right; okay, there are about a dozen misspelt names in the new volume, but that's almost unavoidable in this "encyclopaedia of evil", as Robert Bloch calls it in his blurb. Even more preciously, his analyses are uncannily right, too. When one covers such a vast field, with hundreds of titles overviewed, a certain percentage of disagreement seems inevitable. Not so here. In this particular instance I can't think of any major issues of that kind (well, I wouldn't call Dead & Buried "disappointing" but I cannot entirely disagree with the complaints Newman has to it). His evaluation is always well-supported and convincingly argued, and this surpasses the matter of "taste".  

The thing is that Newman approaches his films as parts of a bigger whole: the oeuvre of a particular director, the period, the cycle, the sub-genre... No horror is an island, and Newman is at his best when it comes to pointing to connections and influences and trends beneath the trends. After all, that's how the book is organized – in chapters devoted to particular dominant categories of modern horror. The original Nightmare Movies has chapters on zombie films, British horror revival, neo-Gothic, Devil movies, slashers, paranoia (about the horrors of nature, machines, disasters, conspiracies and apocalypse), psychos, auteurs (Argento, Cohen, Cronenberg, DePalma), ghost stories, Italian zombies and cannibals, post-Romero living dead, post-modern horror, and even on the weirdo horror film (cult, kitsch, camp, sick, punk, porno).  
The New Nightmares addition contains chapters on serial psycho-killer films after Silence of the Lambs, classical monsters in modern guise (vampires, werewolves, mummies etc), Scream and its po-mo slasher clones, modern ghost stories (including, inevitably, Ringu and other J-horrors), virtual reality, "torture porn", more fresh zombies and more auteurs (Burton, del Toro, Fessenden, Lynch). Always with a bigger picture in mind, Newman puts modern horror in a perspective and explains its numerous phenomena so effortlessly it may seem deceptively easy – until you try it yourself.

And this is what makes Nightmare Movies a pleasure and a treasure: it covers the most flourishing period of horror cinema – the past 40 years – but its vast ambition and scope are perfectly matched by the knowledge, taste, authority and insight unrivaled among the contemporary critics. In plain English this means merely that the new, mammoth two-books-for-the-price-of-one edition of Nightmare Movies is your ultimate guide to modern horror cinema. Kim Newman has explained it!

Before someone starts screaming: "Plant!" I feel obliged to find some fault with the book. Even a small one. Well, I tried, but I couldn't think of anything bigger than the following two: 1) Alexandre Aja's Haute Tension (2004) is only briefly mentioned, and the basics of its plot recounted, but there's not a hint of analysis or even evaluation of this remarkable film. 2) I must complain about the selection of photos. This edition, apparently, doesn't want to alienate the modern reading public with occasionally gruesome images that adorned the original version (rotting Fulci zombies, face falling apart in Amityville II, Edith Massey being messy…); those are now replaced by more wholesome and generic stills. And that's all. Everything else about Nightmare Movies is just perfect. If you care about horror film this is definitely a must-have!


H. P. Lovecraft's ARKHAM SANITARIUM - Script Review

All concept art for this film is done by Dave Wood
(click on images to see bigger versions)

This text originally published on TWITCH

Lovecraft's fiction is notoriously difficult to translate to cinema, for several reasons. The main one has to do with his reliance on mood, atmosphere, subtlety, hints and vague suggestions of unspeakable horrors. This doesn't mean that his stories are entirely lacking in action or memorable set-pieces, but their scarcity and brevity have usually caused filmmakers to resort to padding the brief tales with all kinds of conventional (romantic, detective, slasher, monster) elements, usually dilluting and betraying the original. Lovecraft's cosmic horror was, more often than not, turned into (unintentionally) comic horror. This author has written only two novels: one of those, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was filmed twice, as Roger Corman's lame flick The Haunted Palace in 1963 and as a much better, but still lacking The Resurrected in 1992 by Dan O'Bannon. The other, SF-horror epic At the Mountains of Madness, was almost greenlighted to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro, but Universal eventually backed-out.

It seems that anthology format is better suited for Lovecraft's shorter fiction: three short sharp shocks in a row are better than a single one padded for feature legth. This, at least, must be the rationale behind the script written by Andrew G. Morgan based on "The Haunter of the Dark", "The Shunned House" and "The Thing on the Doorstep". His anthology H. P. Lovecraft's Arkham Sanitarium is produced by Survivor Films, an independent film production company based in London, as their first feature-film. The filming of this low budget venture begins in May 2011 (on Friday the 13th!), with the movie planned for release in October 2011. What follows are my impressions of the screenplay.

Briefly and simply put, this is a very, very good script. It is pretty faithful to the stories and the changes are made mostly for dramatic and cinematic purposes. Love and understanding of Lovecraft's stories are evident (no "teens in peril" here), the structure is tight and no time is wasted on unnecessary or extraneous elements. There is no tongue-in-cheek nor wink-wink nudge-nudge nonsense here: just straight horror, in tone and approach similar to the superior anthology Necronomicon (1994). If they come anywhere near it, we should be happy. If they manage to surpass it, we'll have a new modern classic on our hands.

It is not specific about the period, but it's certainly not contemporary: a character is seen driving a 1950s Sedan, which means this is moved up in time from Lovecraft's 1920s and 1930s, but not enough for our cell-phone, video-cameras and internet age. The wraparound segment deals with a lady reporter who comes to an asylum called Arkham Sanitarium and has a meeting with a dr West (Howard, not Herbert). The following three stories depict the gruesome events which brought three of its inmates to the brink of insanity – and beyond.

All three segments take place in Arkham, fictional New England town based on Lovecraft's Providence. "The Haunter of the Dark" is about a spooky deserted church (or is it?) and a creature which dwells in the darkness. The story is faithfully adapted, except the ending is more elaborate. Whereas Lovecraft liked to confine his most epxlicit horror for the final paragraph, or even sentence – leaving most of it to the imagination – the script shows us not only the story's concluding image of "the three-lobed burning eye" but also the face and jaws of the haunter of the dark, and what they do to an unfortunate character.

"The Shunned House" is one of Lovecraft's best earlier tales, a uniquely creepy tale about a house haunted not by a ghost but by something much, much worse – a malevolent, parasitic entity which sucks out life out of the unsuspecting inhabitants. After numerous deaths the house becomes deserted, when a student and his uncle decide to spend the night in its basement and see if there is anything supernatural behind the strange fungi and yellowish miasma on its floor... This segment is excellent until the end, when the screenplay discards the uncanny and original non-human entity and replaces it with a disappointingly conventional all-too-human element. It's a pity, because it is precisely Lovecraft's ingeniously devised concept that distinguished this particular story from hundreds of similar "haunted house" stories. This change, to my mind, is the only big and serious lapse in the entire script, especially since it brings the conclusion closer to a Tales from the Crypt episode than to genuinely Lovecraftian terror. 

"The Thing on the Doorstep" is another story previously not filmed, although there were rumors that Stuart Gordon wanted to do it as a feature. It is the only instance of a Lovecraft tale with a prominent female character, although there's a twist to that, too. To put it vaguely, it deals with a marriage gone horribly wrong due to the influence of the bride's father. Who, by the way, happens to be dead. But, as HPL put it, "that is not dead which can eternal lie, and in strange aeons even death may die." So, as can be seen from these examples, church is hell, family house is hell, marriage is hell, and, obviously, insane asylum is hell. Which all leads to a nice and cheerful ending, Lovecraft style.

It is difficult to predict how this script will turn out: this is the first film from Andrew G. Morgan, the writer and director, his cast is made of mostly unknown actors, and the budget is relatively low for the ambitious concepts which will be done blending CGI and practical make-up EFX. A lot will depend on the DP's (and production designer's) ability to capture the atmosphere that the script provides opportunities for in spades. Also, they're gonna need really good EFX artists for some rather complex visual and make-up effects (and thankfully, the script is not stingy when it comes to Lovecraft's trade-mark body-horror). Anyway, the script, if filmed as written, promises to be a basis for one of the better HPL adaptations out there. Good luck, folks!