Binge Smarter: 4 Film Books Every Horror Fan Should Read (and Movies to Go With Them)
So far this column has been about two things: horror fiction and horror film. And where they overlap. With various digressions where it has suited my mood.
But the name “Paper Cuts” is broad enough that it shouldn’t limit our book discussions purely to fiction titles. Right?
In that spirit, here are four nonfiction film books (some criticism, some history, some reference) that I think every horror film fan should read.
Yeah. “I think…” This is by no means a “definitive” or “top” list.
For example, I’m sure someone will tell me that I’m remiss for not including Stephen King’s 1981 survey of the genre, Danse Macabre. But you’re reading this article on Cemetery Dance Online. Do you need me to tell you to read a King book? In fact, let’s just assume that everyone here has read Danse Macabre, but if you haven’t: there’s the secret “fifth film book every horror fan should read!” While DM is nominally a survey of the entire horror genre, fiction and film, most of King’s anecdotes and analysis favor film, or relate print source material to film. But, love Mr. King as I may, I do take issue with his insistence that many horror films (especially on the lower budget end of the spectrum) succeed through “accident” and reach sophistication of theme through the same method.*
And because we are living in the age of binge-watching, I’ve accompanied each of the following titles with a list of films that you should be ingesting alongside them. Many of these books overlap slightly in their subjects (both Slumber Party Massacre and Targets could have been listed in 3 out of the 4, for example), and each book mentions way more than the 5 or 6 films I’ve listed as primers for each.
If I really wanted to do my due diligence, I would have limited my film picks to movies that are available on the various streaming platforms. But I didn’t want to limit myself. I will say that every film I’m listing is readily available on DVD or Blu-Ray (I think). Long live physical media!
4) House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films by Kier-La Janisse
Easily the most challenging and unclassifiable title on this list, Janisse’s book mixes autobiographical self-reflection with film criticism (often within the same paragraphs) to make sense of a life of movie-watching and an accomplished career in film festival-programming.
Split into two parts, the first half of this illustrated (B&W photos with a few pages of color inserts) tome is a personal narrative that skips around in its film chronology and reads like an intriguing and dense patchwork of memoir and cinema studies. The second half of the book is a reference text dedicated to a “Compendium of Female Neurosis,” a series of capsule write-ups that stretches alphabetically from Alice, Sweet Alice (1976) to Wound (2010).
What to watch while you read: Like the subtitle suggests, Janisse’s book does not limit itself to the horror genre, but encompasses all of exploitation film (and often references beyond). But there is a killer horror-only playlist to be carved out of the book’s index. To limit your personal film festival to a sane length, I suggest: Cat People (1942), The Whip and The Body (1963), Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), The Brood (1979) and May (2003).
3) Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie by Chris Nashawaty
I was at a loss as to whether I should include this more recent biography or Roger Corman’s autobiography How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, which is also a lot of fun. I went with Nashawaty’s book because it goes over much of the same information, but adds some fresh perspectives to the story of Corman’s career in the form of interviews with his many collaborators and admirers (Scorsese, Landis, Dante, Coppala, and more make appearances).
Using interviews and traditional biography, Nashawaty takes Corman’s career from his birth all the way up to his recent straight-to-cable producer credits (something the 1998 autobiography doesn’t cover. How can we live without mention of Sharktopus?). Chapters are broken up by interludes that go in-depth to discuss selected entries in Corman’s filmography. With the scope and sheer number of films covered, Nashawaty’s oversized and illustrated volume is a cut above your normal coffee-table book. There are plenty of pretty pictures (posters and production stills), but there’s also some real substance here.
While the positive and negative aspects of his influence can be debated (he’s done way more good than bad, I say), there can be no arguing that Roger Corman changed the way movies were made; and, in the process, profoundly influenced the horror genre.
What to watch while you read: If you wanted a portrait of Corman as a horror director, you could just marathon five or six of his Poe films (only five years of his career, end-to-end) and have a pretty good time. But I’ve tried to include something from every era of directing and producing on this mix-tape: Bucket of Blood (1959), Masque of the Red Death (1964), The Dunwich Horror (1970), Death Race 2000 (1975), Slumber Party Massacre (1981), and—to round things out—Carnosaur (1993). Because, if you watch all these in a row, you’re going to be delirious by that point anyway.
2) Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman
I imagine the stereotypical horror fan who looks at critic and journalist Jason Zinoman’s credentials (theater, comedy and television critic for outlets like The New York Times and Time Out New York) and doubts the man’s genre street-cred. “If he’s such a fan why hasn’t he written anything for Fango?” But reading any page of Zinoman’s exquisite Shock Value should be enough to quite the trolliest of IMDB-comment dwellers.
In Shock Value, Zinoman focuses on the transition in American genre film from “old horror” (stage-bound? studio? there’s no real one descriptor) to the modern horror birthed in the late 1960s and through the ‘70s. Which may sound like a manageable slice of time, but when you step back and realize what was going on during that decade and change—how many of our masters were making their first films—it is a wonder that a cohesive narrative can be made out of the time period at all.
But not only is Shock Value cohesive, it’s endlessly readable and propulsive. While keeping tabs on all the major players in the “new horror” movement (Craven, Romero, Carpenter, Hooper, et. al), Zinoman shows special affinity and empathy for Dan O’Bannon, turning the Alien (1979) scribe into the secret hero of this narrative.
While the book recounts many anecdotes that horror fans will find themselves familiar with, there’s sure to be one or two that surprise you. But more than the “facts,” what’s great about Zinoman’s book is how it humanizes these creators, exploring their interests outside of the genre and how those interests led to their films. Shock Value offers an easily digestible overview of horror’s busiest decade and becomes the perfect springboard for further reading and/or watching.
What to watch while you read: Last House on the Left (1972), Dark Star (1974), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), and Targets (1968)**
1) Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in Modern Horror Film by Carol J. Clover
As far as I’m concerned: this is the big one. And that’s probably my personal bias, I accept that. I’d attempted to read Clover’s 1992 book early in high school, but found that I was ill-equipped (in both the films-watched and maturity categories). But I got a second chance in college when I took a class called “Gender and Horror Film” and this was our textbook (saved some campus bookstore money, already having it).
There is a newer “Princeton Classics” edition released last year, with a new introduction by the author, but it doesn’t matter what edition you get: Clover’s ideas are influential regardless of era. Especially her chapter on Final Girls. Clover’s is an exploration and articulation of the idea that, in the new introduction, the author admits has been dulled and misinterpreted in the years since 1992. And she’s right: horror fans own the label now, but Clover’s use of the term is not an all-in-one endorsement or empowerment tract. You should go to the source and read Men, Women, and Chain Saws. After that first chapter you’ll continue on and read Clover’s explications of possession films, the rape-revenge genre (which also couches the city/country divide), and voyeurism.
What to watch while you read: For this category I’ve tried to remember back to the films Clover gives the most page-time. At the forefront of that list is I Spit On Your Grave (1977). That’s probably not the best way to start or end the “fun” of a movie marathon, but the movie’s gotta be mentioned. In addition: Peeping Tom (1960), Don’t Look Now (1973), Dressed To Kill (1980), and, for the “final girl” chapter, you can’t go wrong with Halloween (1978).
There we go. Another list. One outfitted with four smaller lists. I’ve gone full list-ception. Come back next month for some hardcore genre discussion.
*King’s the first to admit, throughout the text, that he’s a man of dubious taste. That subjectivity is nowhere more in evidence than the newer edition’s introduction where he extols the virtues of Diary of the Dead (yuck) and Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (a movie that makes most fans say yuck, but I actually kind of agree with him about).
**the second time this film has made an appearance in our humble column
Adam Cesare is a New Yorker who lives in Philadelphia. He studied English and film at Boston University. His books include Mercy House, Video Night, The Summer Job, and Tribesmen. He has an oft-neglected website and tweets as @Adam_Cesare.