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Cinema Macabre

Edited by Mark Morris

PS Publishing Ltd – March 2006

“Do you like scary movies?”

It is perhaps a sign of the times that Wes Craven’s once lauded Scream has not made it into this selection of bite-sized essays about horror films. Post-modern is, after all, so dated. But Scream jolted the genre out of the doldrums and it became okay to talk horror: knowing, intelligent but with shameless “chumminess” that comes from much heated debates over beer and pork scratchings. Cinema Macabre was born out of chance discussion at a convention and as a prime concept it’s a good one. Fifty writers pick fifty horror films – a bit like those Channel 4 “100 Best” programmes. But with half the entries. And no winner. Everyone likes lists because everyone enjoys disagreeing with them – what’s in, what’s out and “what do you mean they haven’t included Shivers?” Cinema Macabre differs slightly from the list format because it doesn’t purport to discuss the “best” horror films but rather ones that have had an impact on the person writing about them – whether it’s their favourite, a bona fide classic or one that triggers memories of youthful love or sneaking into films certified as unsuitable for their age. The book is ordered chronologically by film and the essays range from analytical to factual, biographical to historical in an almost haphazard fashion. This is both its strength (it doesn’t become a predictable stream of reviews) and its weakness (the tone can shift wildly).

Naturally one can applaud or bemoan omissions, and mercifully we are spared another piece on the vastly over-rated Exorcist. James Whale’s marvellous Old Dark House (Basil Copper) is a welcome addition alongside his more well regarded Bride of Frankenstein (Neil Gaiman). Simon Clark argues for The Unknown over Browning’s more familiar Dracula or Freaks. While Franju’s Les yeux sans visage is absent, the baroque shock of Les Diaboliques (Brian Aldiss) and the cerebral surrealism of Cocteau’s Orphee (Peter Atkins) cover the French strand of horror that deftly runs from exquisite thrillers to art-house. It is encouraging to see how many of the films have come from an earlier era, be it Polanski’s claustrophobic Repulsion (Lisa Tuttle rightly noting that only the external world threatens to shatter the foetid sexual tension of the piece) or the truly gruesome Carousel. Now, this may seem an unlikely choice for a horror film but what is perhaps surprising about Jo Fletcher’s analysis is that the full awfulness of the film’s disturbing redemption theme, the lauding of a thug and the glorification of violation as acceptable behaviour is, to some extent, toned down. Nevertheless its addition is welcome to help remove the rose-tinted view of the film that people generally have (hell, even the songs are bad by Rodgers & Hammerstein’s standards!). Also of interest is the number of British films that make the list – from Hammer (The Reptile and the Cornish capitalist critique Plague of the Zombies), The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now, which establishes the genre’s worldwide appeal and ability to be both universal and local. Indeed while the focus of the book is inevitably English speaking or Euro-centric (Japan’s Ringu is the sole exception) it still has an international feel – Italy, France, Australia (China Mieville stands up for the other Australian film about pigs… Razorback), New Zealand and Belgium all get a look in. This diversity is what has given the horror genre its longevity, something reflected in the authors’ occasionally eclectic choice of subject matter.

There are a couple of minor niggles but ultimately the passion of the authors writing about what they actually love rather than what they are expected to like makes for a welcome antidote to worthy criticisms or juvenile gore-counts. Hopefully someone will pick this up because it has their favourite author in it and discover the horror genre without preconceptions. And the book includes Daughters of Darkness, truly one of cinema’s most sublime experiences, so it must be worthy of your time and money.