A Book Review by Thomas Puhr.
Glasby’s enthusiasm for and knowledge of the genre win out and supersede any of the shortcomings.”
“Best of” lists are a tricky business. Undisputed classics are both impossible to ignore and difficult to approach from a unique angle. Conversely, unexpected additions to the canon usually elicit more scorn than approval. An effective greatest-of-all-time list must satisfy these conflicting sides without pandering to either. The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film (White Lion, 2020), Matt Glasby’s “sincere attempt to collate the scariest movies ever made and examine how they work” (7), mostly succeeds in maintaining this delicate balance. Of course, any such compilation is inevitably subjective; many of my choices would be different, as would more or less any other horror fanatic’s. The quest for comprehensiveness is futile; the key, then, is the author’s ability to justify their selections, and Glasby employs a novel methodology for doing so.
The author (Britbop Cinema, Intellect) “scores” his choices – which span 1960’s Psycho to 2019’s It: Chapter 2 – with a rubric which measures a film’s effectiveness in each of seven areas: “Dead Space” (a play on the use of negative and positive space), “The Subliminal,” “The Unexpected,” “The Grotesque,” “Dread,” “The Uncanny” and “The Unstoppable.” This approach allows him to incorporate a range of horror subgenres, from classic Gothicism (The Innocents, 1961), to grindhouse exploitation (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, 1974), found footage (The Blair Witch Project, 1999), and contemporary extremism (Martyrs, 2008). He also ventures far beyond British and American shores, citing exceptional horror cinema from Spain, Italy, Austria, Japan, Thailand, China, Australia, France, and Argentina. The end result is a deliberately mixed bag.
Glasby is not afraid to cast a critical eye toward beloved films, claiming, for instance, that the sequences following Psycho’s iconic shower scene are “somewhat pedestrian, with boring leads” (15) or that “The Shining is incomplete and unbalanced – a maze without a center” (59). Nevertheless, one gets the impression that he’s not here to rip apart fan favorites – after all, the abovementioned titles still secured spots on his list – but to take them down from their pedestals and acknowledge that even the greats have their weaknesses. Given that many of his choices (The Exorcist, 1973; Halloween, 1978) have already been subjected to exhaustive analyses, Glasby wisely keeps his entries concise. This brevity should not be mistaken for superficiality, though; he often offers fresh insight, such as how The Shining’s Steadicam shots underline the characters’ power, or lack thereof: “Danny [Torrance] sees around each corner before we do, but not fast enough to change course – like the shining itself” (61).
While Glasby includes both lesser-known works from the 20th century (The Innocents; Who Can Kill a Child?, 1976) and a number of 21st-century “instant classics” (The Descent, 2005; The Babadook, 2014; Hereditary, 2018), some of his best chapters make a case for left-field choices. I was delighted to see Joel Anderson’s Lake Mungo (2008) and Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013) get the love they’ve long deserved (the former features the most genuinely terrifying use of grainy cell phone footage I’ve ever seen). However, the book ends on a baffling note with 2019’s It: Chapter 2. Glasby’s assertion that the infamous naked-woman-dancing-in-the-doorway sequence is “deeply, deliciously uncanny” (170) will surely raise some eyebrows. But like I said, these choices are ultimately subjective, and the author’s passion for them cannot be denied.
The entire book, for that matter, is clearly a passion project, its organization and visual presentation exuding a love for all things horror. Much thought and care were clearly put into making it both intellectually stimulating and aesthetically pleasing. Barney Bodoano’s black-and-white, charcoal illustrations accompany all of the entries, and I appreciated how he often chose to portray important images and symbols – such as the Pazuzu statue from The Exorcist, or the veiled child from The Others (2001) – rather than lingering on gory details. These illustrations prove essential to the text; many of them take up full pages, and one may argue that The Book of Horror is just as much an art book as it is a film one. Illustrations are also embedded within the prose: small icons for each of the seven “scare tactics” direct readers to how and when the selected films make use of these techniques. It’s a shorthand of sorts, one which lends an interactive flavor to the reading experience.
Although these images enhance the prose, other visual components become distracting. Within its brief 171 pages, The Book of Horror is certainly packed with information, and not all of it seems necessary, especially the line graphs which chart the fluctuations of scares throughout a film. Graphs score every film on a scale of one to ten for each of the seven elements, an add-on that seems arbitrary, even self-defeating; what differentiates a 3/10 from a 4/10, for instance? Nothing really, I suspect. And when the likes of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990) score no higher than a six in any of the categories, one wonders why they’re included in the first place.
Nevertheless, Glasby’s enthusiasm for and knowledge of the genre win out and supersede any of the above shortcomings. His meticulously curated “Further Viewing” subsection, which accompanies each chapter, allows him to extend his scope beyond the inherent limits of the best-of list. These suggestions also make some illuminating connections among seemingly disparate films, such as his inclusion of Under the Skin (2013) in the chapter for Angst (1983). I hope such observations will not only inspire some interesting (albeit disturbing) double features, but also generate new analyses of a genre that “has never really gone out of fashion because being scared never has” (7).
Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy Beast, Birth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.