John Kenneth Muir’s breakdown of the horror fiction genre in his book Horror Films FAQ proves to be a delightful addition to anyone who loves a good, scary movie. Referenced in the book are typical horror staples such as The Exorcist and Psycho, but Muir is not content to only point to the canon of Hollywood classics. Instead, Muir expands his scope to include films that, while under the radar of mainstream Hollywood, helped to establish periods in the genre and pushed films to new and groundbreaking cinematography.
In addition to breakdowns of the movies that helped to shape the growing culture of horror, Muir explores monsters that have made it into the common realm of consciousness, such as the vampire, werewolf, mummy, and reanimated man (re: Frankenstein’s monster), and why the genre has persisted. The work is a dense text, rife with information on the different types of films, how the films evolved, and how the genre as a whole has expanded. Muir puts his considerable movie knowledge to use in the construction of this book, referencing films as early as expressionist “shudder films” through to the sub-genre of “torture porn” which have become prevalent.
The book is set up as a series of expanded lists ranging from directors, characters, and types of horror movies, and prepares the reader for what to find in the rest of the material. Muir pulls together his knowledge of the genre with an expert eye for what constitutes “good” horror movies, constructing a broad and in-depth reference text. Muir makes good use of the sections to explain how the genre has transformed due to a number of factors, not the least of them Americans and their ever-shifting fear mentality. One of the best things about this book is the early breakdown of films by decades, to showcase the way in which media and fear have changed over time to create the scare-and-shock culture of the horror movie today.
The amount of information in Horror Film FAQ can’t be overstated. Muir has compiled dozens of pieces showcasing the best of each sub-genre, and has broken the book down to reflect such. Each section serves as an explanative dictating the way in which the film impacted the horror community, the director’s evolution, and the shifting consciousness that propels the genre forward. The wealth of information and Muir’s keen insight provide both an explanation of the films as well as a great dissection of what actually makes the movie scary. It doesn’t at all hurt that Muir has an entire section devoted specifically to Stephen King films, either.
Muir’s book is dense and vivid, but one thing seasoned horror fans may notice is the very lacking section on both zombies and television. Aside from White Zombie, I Walked With A Zombie, and The Serpent and the Rainbow, the collective of zombie films referenced is fairly limited in scope, with heavy reliance on the Romero film culture of zombies, including Romero’s last (and arguably worst piece) Survival of the Dead. The section on horror television is also sparse, addressing new favorites such as The Walking Dead and old classics like Twin Peaks. But, there are no references to groundbreaking horror series such as Tales from the Crypt, Dark Shadows, or The Outer Limits, though there is a beautiful treatment of The Twilight Zone included.
Beyond the first glance, this book serves as a great beginners text for not only knowing which movies to see, but also for people seeking to have a deeper understanding of the genre. It provides a core understanding for the evolution of the horror movie, and its gradual turn from films bent on simply spooking an audience, to films that are as effective as they are emotive, introspective, and, in some cases (especially in the new day and age of “torture porn,”) disturbing. John Kenneth Muir puts to use an expert wealth of knowledge and keen introspection to render a reference book that would be a welcome addition to any collection.