101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die, as the blurb explains, investigates the enduring popularity of this most interesting and complex of genres. Why, when we are fully aware none of it is real, is it still possible for grown adults to feel fear at the moving images they see on the screen? Why do we gain enjoyment, and maybe even excitement, from watching limbs get hacked off, heads decapitated and throats slit, when such an occurrence in real life would truly horrify?
Perhaps most interestingly, this book – which charts the history of the genre from 1919 all the way up to 2007 – explores the primary function of the horror film. Are they designed simply for cheap thrills, to entertain, to hit us hard with difficult issues, to reflect the current political climate, to make us think, or a combination of the above?
The problem with compendiums such as this, which aim to represent a conclusive history of a particular subject, is that a great deal of old ground is inevitably covered. As such, we have articles on The Wolf Man, Psycho, Rosemary’s Baby, Night Of The Living Dead, The Exorcist, The Wicker Man, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday The 13th and Scream, to name a few.
Any self-respecting horror fan will be fully aware and have seen over half of the titles talked about here, and seeing as the book is most likely targeted at this exact same audience, you have to question the value for money. There’s nothing here you can’t find out for free by doing a little browsing on the internet, although the accompanying commentary for each entry is lucidly written and insightful, without being overtly academic, and manages to engage. Editor Steven Jay Schneider is a film critic and scholar with a clear passion for his subject.
The strength of the book is that it includes entries one might not initially have considered fitting the horror cannon. Films like David Lynch’s Eraserhead and the French classic Eyes Without A Face, and even Jaws, would not be found in the ‘horror’ section in your local HMV, but they are films heavily infused with horrific elements, be it psychological or more graphic in nature.
In this way, the book manages to open up the boundaries of what we consider a horror film, and surprise as well as inform. Even as a dedicated horror fan myself, I managed to find a good handful of films I had previously not been aware of and set off to track down having read about them here; Onibaba and The Old Dark House instantly springing to mind.
For the casual horror fan who’s interested in learning more about the genre and widening their film palette, this is a worthy investment. For the more informed, there is still some value here, although perhaps a tenner is a lot to pay for the chance of uncovering some hidden gems that could otherwise be discovered online.