Generally speaking, there are two types of books about film history — lightweight, easily digestible love letters from armchair auteurs and dry, minutiae-heavy dissections penned by obsessives that go down about as easily as a thumbtack stuck in glue. Granted, both categories can produce great, readable books. But nearly every title on the subject of movies can be shoehorned into either territory, and fans of one type can usually be counted on to exhibit a marked disinclination to give the other a shot.
To its credit, Wheeler Winston Dixon's A History of Horror admirably attempts to straddle the fence via a blend of comprehensiveness and more-or-less casual tone. At its core, the book is a scholarly resource; Dixon is an academic — a professor of English and film studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln — and his book is essentially an academic text, a compendium of horror movies made and released since the advent of the medium, with assorted additional interpretation, perspectives, asides and anecdotes. But Dixon is obviously interested in horror movies, and he tries gamely to present an unwieldy amount of information in a succinct and reader-friendly style.
After the requisite introduction, A History of Horror breaks down the, er, history of horror into five somewhat arbitrary eras, from the dawn of moving pictures — many early films found their inspiration in iconic terrors like Frankenstein — up through the current mix of franchise reboots and torture porn. (The book's title is somewhat misleading; beyond mentions of folklore, Henry James' Turn of the Screw, Edgar Allan Poe and the classics that gave cinema its original timeless monsters, it sticks almost exclusively to film.) Dixon's coverage of scary movies from the late 19th century up through the 1970s is thorough, immaculate and impassioned; he makes a list of titles and tropes seem like much more, and veers into gore-geek advocacy with an engaging earnestness. Films that are always talked about, such as Donovan's Brain and Cat People, are covered alongside lesser-known gems from around the world, often packaged with entertaining and informative trivia.
The author is less interested in and more dismissive of more recent movies; anything that spawned multiple sequels, it seems, is beneath contempt, though Dixon does reserve praise for envelope-pushing modern horror flicks like The Descent, The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity and others. The underlying message seems to be that horror movies have lost their romance and subtlety. At the same time, however, Dixon makes several rookie mistakes while referencing contemporary films (citing Jason as the killer in the first Friday The 13th, misspelling the name of The Shining's Torrance family, referring to Freddy Krueger's glove as fingernails), leading the reader to wonder how closely he studied them, or if he watched them at all.
What one takes away from A History of Horror is, more than anything, an appreciation for the author's appreciation of the genre, and his concerns about where that genre is headed. The book is more engaging than required reading, but less entertaining and effortless than, say, Danse Macabre, Stephen King's meditation on horror in books and movies from the second half of the 20th century. It's not for movie buffs — it's for horror movie buffs, and perhaps only the most dedicated of that breed, because diehard horror movie buffs won't just devour it, they'll devour it with a pen and pad nearby to list any movies they've missed ... or at least to stock up on ammo with which to one-up their fellow diehards at the earliest opportunity.