Book Review:

Studying Horror Cinema, by Brian Turnock 

Reviewed by Cary Elza 

University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point

Review of Bryan Turnock’s Studying Horror Cinema, Auteur Publishing, 2019. 298 pp. Paperback (ISBN: 978-1911325888).

Given the substantial amount of critical and academic attention paid to the horror genre in recent years, Bryan Turnock’s 2019 introductory survey, Studying Horror Cinema, has a lot to live up to. From Rick Worland’s 2007 The Horror Film: An Introduction, which aimed to explain the genre, in clear and accessible prose, in the context of culture and society, to Murray Leeder’s excellent 2018 Horror Film: A Critical Introduction, which provides well-researched historical context as well as a deep dive into reception, major themes, and visual characteristics of horror, successful attempts to frame the genre for newcomers are not hard to find. This is in addition, of course, to the many academic anthologies produced on the subject. In other words, this is a crowded field, and Turnock has his work cut out for him in justifying the existence of another introductory text.

With a predictable start—“since its inception, horror has been one of the most universally derided and dismissed of film genres. Yet at the same time it has consistently been one of the most enduring and commercially popular”—Turnock follows a well-trod trajectory in his presentation of the history of horror, with few surprises or deviations from previous histories of the genre (1). But the fact that he has selected thirteen films, one per chapter, to illustrate major changes in the genre and in cinema more broadly helps his case—the book serves as a ready-made primer for students of horror and film history. This crash-course, syllabus-like structure is perhaps the book’s greatest strength. Each chapter covers a single film as a case study, but also seeks to connect that case study to major topics in the study of horror—the problem of censorship and ratings, the genre’s association with the literary gothic, Tzvetan Todorov’s theory of the fantastic—providing a wide-ranging introduction to ideas, discussions, and preoccupations of those who study and enjoy horror. He breaks down chapters into clearly marked sections: introduction, background, textual analysis, and reception and aftermath, and also includes recommended viewing lists of five or six films worth viewing in addition to his chosen case study. 

In the background and reception and aftermath sections of each chapter, Turnock weaves together a staggering breadth of short lessons on the history of U.S. and international film industries, movements, and social and cultural forces. While I’m not certain that some students would absorb the nuances of, for instance, Poetic Realism (discussed in a single paragraph on page 62), I’m grateful for the commitment to surveying the wide variety of influences on the genre, and his use of specific examples to illustrate how these influences manifest in a given film. I can imagine this book being especially useful as a starting point for someone interested in teaching a certain film, or beginning research on a particular film or subgenre of horror. 

Turnock’s textual analysis of each of the thirteen films, especially, is deft and comprehensive. His prose style is accessible to undergraduates and popular readers, but not at the expense of depth or breadth. He has a knack for clarifying murky and complex topics; in one of the better chapters, he discusses Wes Craven’s New Nightmare in the context of postmodernism, and while a bit of lit review on the concept itself would not have been unwelcome, he boils down this tricky set of ideas into a streamlined but solid working definition for the sake of analysis. Similarly, in another interesting chapter on body horror and David Cronenberg’s The Fly, he weaves together a discussion of the figure of the auteur with an emphasis on the rhetorical value of practical effects for this sub-genre of horror. 

But given the sheer volume of scholarship on the genre, and on each of the films which Turnock analyzes, the paucity of citations is disappointing. While each chapter includes a bibliography, actual citations are rare in all but the last chapter on Andy Muschietti’s It (2017), which almost seems as if it were written at a different time, with a different level of attention paid to attributing credit for ideas. For example, in the first chapter on early European horror, Turnock writes, “It has been estimated that by 1910 over half of all films being produced were adaptations of novels or plays,” but does not cite a source or provide any kind of justification for this claim (17). And overlooked citation opportunities are not limited to facts; Turnock is performing textual analysis on some awfully popular films, each of which have been analyzed many, many times. When I read a statement like “Whilst Universal’s use of European settings reflects the origins of many of the novels or legends that formed the basis of the films, as well as the background of many of the film-makers involved, it has also been suggested that this choice for the source of horror played on American fears and prejudices of the period,” I want to know who suggested these things—this, to me, would be the real value of such a book for novice readers (48). Or when he writes that Psycho is “one of the most analysed and discussed films in cinema history,” it would be prudent to at least include a couple names of prominent critics associated with its analysis (100). Allow those new to the genre to understand and appreciate its rich history of criticism, research, and analysis.

It’s also a bit disappointing that the chapter on Asian Horror is mis-named; it’s a chapter on Japanese horror, with no attempt to cover the rich horror cinema of China, Hong Kong, or Korea. Either call the chapter “Japanese Horror,” or better yet, include sections on other Asian horror traditions. And while Turnock does mention the relationship between the genre and feminist film studies several times, even giving Laura Mulvey and Carol Clover the shout-outs that they deserve, to my mind the relationship between, for instance, the slasher film and gender is treated as a bit of an afterthought, when it deserves more foregrounding, given the influence that these theories have had on analysis of the genre. And the choice of It as the final case study, rather than, say, Get Out (which he does include in his list of recommended viewings) misses a great opportunity to delve into issues of race and identity in what he defines as recent “mainstream horror.”

As an introductory textbook for a horror course, this volume, with its broad survey of topics, would be well supplemented with articles and chapters from critics whose work on each of these films, and on the genre as a whole, deserves to be foregrounded. But the structure of the book, as well as its clarity and readability, makes it useful as an introduction to the genre, especially for undergraduates or nonacademic audiences.

-9 Jun. 2020