Tuesday, April 21, 2009

It Lives Again!

In April 2007, I took a crack at summing up the current decade of American horror films in a two-part blog post called “The Culture of Fear.” The post focused on the prevalence and popularity of three main groups of films: J-horror remakes, 1970s-style throwbacks, and so-called “torture porn.” I also provided my own list of favorites from the decade - my response to a growing myth that the horror genre, despite its current commercial popularity, is creatively dead. In my opinion, this is a misconception resulting from the over-saturation of the market. I think that today’s horror fans simply have to be more selective in order to discover new favorites.

With that in mind, I couldn’t possibly be more thrilled about the publication of Axelle Carolyn’s book It Lives Again! Horror Movies in the New Millenium (Telos, 2009) – a super-intelligent, super-dedicated horror fan’s guide to the current decade of darkness. Like me, Carolyn came of age as a horror fan during what is arguably the genre’s least interesting decade and, in her book, she uses the writings of genre theorist Thomas Schatz to explain the 1990s as a “baroque period” – a time when the familiarity of the genre formulas and conventions undermined the genre’s effectiveness with most audiences. (SCREAM, anyone?) She also offers a more likely explanation for the dry spell: a general malaise in Western culture. We simply didn’t have as much to be afraid of in the 1990s, so horror fans who came of age during that period drew their inspiration from the genre’s modern classics – a well-known body of work that has been enshrined by studies like David J. Skal’s The Monster Show. Taking her inspiration from Skal, Carolyn began writing about horror movies in the early 2000s in publications like Fangoria, SFX Magazine, and in a running column on IGN.com. She also married Neil Marshall, the director of the 2005 film THE DESCENT. Long story short: she is more than qualified to write the book on 21st century horror… And, as she says in her introduction, it’s a book that needed to be written to remind fans that the genre is more alive than ever.

In the U.S., 9/11 resurrected the current phase of the genre, which peaked in 2006. It Lives Again! starts even earlier, noting that a horror movie renaissance was already underway in Japan, where recession and terrorism had dramatically transformed the culture in the 1990s. Carolyn not only notes the often-discussed fear of technology in the J-horror cycle, but also perceptively points out a recurring theme about the marginalization of women and children. She goes on to note surges of horror movie interest in France, Spain, Germany, Italy, Korea and New Zealand, citing dozens of films that have proven influential – and making it clear that one can no longer talk about "American" horror films without simultaneously delving into a discussion of international horror films.

On the home front, the genre’s popularity slowly escalated, beginning in 2002 with the popularity of subtle ghost stories, continuing in 2003 with a handful of more savage 70s-style horror movies, and shifting into high gear in 2004 when the success of SAW revealed a huge audience that was receptive to hyper-violence. According to Carolyn, the high water mark for this phase of the horror genre appeared in 2006, when Eli Roth’s controversial movie HOSTEL polarized audiences. By 2007, the hyper-violent horror movie was already passe. The author’s presentation of these overarching trends is astute without ever seeming forced or oversimplified (as it is in this review), and her critical analyses of the individual films are enthusiastically expert. Much to my amazement, she manages to highlight the most rewarding aspects of each film while still being judicious enough to point out the shortcomings of even the best. What emerges is a portrait of a decade defined not by a few canon-worthy blockbusters, but by an overwhelming variety of unique perspectives.

Along the way the book also offers a handful of short, illuminating interviews. The author's interview with Mick Garris about RIDING THE BULLET helped me to understand why that film didn’t quite work for me, despite some truly beautiful moments. Likewise, she allows the reader to understand Wes Craven’s disastrous werewolf movie CURSED in light of production problems, rather than simply as a creative failure. She also (naturally) got some great insights out of her husband, who remembers a day when real-life terrorism mixed with the release of his latest horror movie.

All in all, It Lives Again! is a thoroughly entertaining read (I finished it in one late-night sitting), attractively bound and illustrated with hundreds of lush photos. The best thing about it is that it will inevitably leave the reader with a long list of films to see. I was thrilled that it called attention to some of my favorite “discoveries”: THE HOLE, MY LITTLE EYE, DEAD END, THE ORDEAL, MAREBITO, INSIDE, THE SIGNAL… I agree that horror fans should track down these gems. Meanwhile, I’ll be working my way down an even longer list of films that I either hadn’t heard of or hadn’t bothered to prioritize until now: THE CONVENT (Adrienne Barbeau as a demon hunter? How the hell did I miss this?!), THE LOCALS, THE DARK, SATAN’S LITTLE HELPER, THE NUN, THE WOODS, THE GRAVEDANCERS, ABOMINABLE, TEETH… This book will be guiding my Netflix rentals for some time to come, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for other horror fans in search of something new.


  1. I will try to get my hands on this. I'm glad that someone has written a history of "contemporary" horror in the midst of everything, rather than a 10-year-later retrospective (though those will, of course, be useful as well).

    One book that I just picked up that I highly recommend for you is NIGHTMARE U.S.A., which, aside from the Bava book, is one of the hugest and most tantalizingly illustrated film books I've ever seen.

  2. Kevin: it's available online from Amazon, or if you fancy a signed copy, then Telos has some signed by both Axelle Carolyn and Neil Marshall available for the cover price + p&p at www.telos.co.uk.

    Great review as well Joe - really pleased you liked the book.

    David, Telos Publishing