Wheeler Winston Dixon’s A History of Horror offers a substantial list of horror films from the silent beginnings to the first decade of the twenty-first century. He takes a studio approach, highlighting the directors, producers, and a few of the actors which thrived under certain eras. Only on rare occasions does he touch upon the cultural aspects under which these films were made, and a great deal of the text is taken up by various plot synopses. For someone new to the genre looking for a curated list of horror films to seek out, this book will suffice.
However, for a reader who’s been baptized in the blood and gore of the genre, curious inaccuracies will have one scratching their head. Some errors can be brushed off as innocently typographic, such as placing the release of Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn as 1986 and not 1996, or referring to Chucky as Charles Ray Lee instead of Charles Lee Ray. Others are more difficult to ignore, such as claiming that Henry Frankenstein perishes with the Monster and the Bride in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), when the Monster actually tells Henry and Elizabeth, “Yes! Go! You live!” and then proceeds to kill himself, the Bride, and Dr. Pretorius while his creator makes his escape. Dixon’s obvious distaste for slashers and, in particular, the Friday the 13th franchise, likely accounts for why he inaccurately describes the first installment: “Jason, played in the first film by Ari Lehman, is a mute, imbecilic, homicidal maniac in a hockey mask who runs amok at Camp Crystal Lake, where an assembly line of teens who smoke pot, have sex, and drink are hacked to death for their ‘transgressions’.” This description may serve to characterize some of the later installments, but it calls into question how much Dixon remembers the first film, or the second for that matter.
While Dixon’s long catalogs of films are largely comprehensive, he neglects the atomic age creature features, such as 1954’s Them! and many other influential sci-fi horror films of the 1950s. Where he proves most useful is in his inventory of foreign horror films for the first decade of the 21st century, which he rightly designates as being superior to the Hollywood horror offerings of the time (though he leaves out the most famous French Extremity film, 2008’s Martyrs). Dixon will, however, find few who are sympathetic to his favorable analysis of Twilight as a positive influence on the genre, and rightly so.
For someone new to the horror genre, Dixon’s history is a useful guide to finding which films one should explore. For a veteran fan, though, there’s not enough to recommend it.