INTERVIEW: Matt Glasby, author of “The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film”

Author Matt Glasby knows his horror. An international film journo with credits at Total Film, GQ and SFX, he’s spent plenty of time in the dark, and – with the publication of his new tome “The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film” – it shows. Here we sit down to discuss all things that go bump in the night…

The Book of Horror” uses an almost scientific rubric for assessing the effectiveness of films based on categories such as uncanniness, dread and grotesquery. How did you settle on what the assessment criteria should be?

This was a group effort. My publisher suggested the idea as a way to offer something extra to the reader, but it took some serious finessing. And by “finessing” I mean sitting in a pub with my friends (and fellow critics) Rosie Fletcher and Josh Winning, whittling down the categories to just seven, which was tricky but fun. When you think about it, there are lots of tricks that most films use to affect us ­– non-linear editing, dramatic music and so on – so it was a question of picking techniques that are unique to horror movies.

There’s a really interesting mix of more established classics (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre; The Exorcist; Don’t Look Now) as well as lesser seen, smaller films (Terrified; Lake Mungo). How did you make the selection? And were any films omitted which you’d liked to have included?

Firstly, thank you. The aim was to acknowledge the classics while highlighting some smaller gems, so I’m pleased you think it succeeded at that. How I made the selection is perhaps less scientific than you’d imagine. Basically I watched an absolute shit-ton of horror films (sometimes up to five a day) over a period of about eight months and made a list of the scariest. Obviously, this did involve making compromises. Some films had to be included – I’m not a massive fan of The Exorcist, for example, but I can’t deny the power it has over people ­– and I was determined to feature more than a token percentage of films directed by women. But scariness had to be the final consideration, otherwise the whole thing would fall flat. For that reason there were no films omitted that I wanted to include, it was more a question of breaking my back trying to find, say, serial killer flicks that are actually frightening ­­– and actually horror films – which is harder than you think.

In the introduction you make some interesting points about the boundaries of the horror genre, and argue – perhaps controversially – that films like Jaws and Alien are not horror films. Can you talk about your approach to categorising genre?

I think people make a basic error when it comes to categorising films. Just because it scares you, doesn’t mean it’s a horror film. Jaws has some scary moments, the music is intense, there’s more gore than you’d expect, but it’s not a horror film, it’s a thriller or creature feature. Its main goal is not to scare us, but to present a realistic milieu in which exciting things can happen. Alien is not a horror film, it’s a sci-fi with some horrific imagery. Again it isn’t setting out to scare us, but to present a convincing portrait of space travel and extra-terrestrial life where scaring us is a by-product. See also Silence of the Lambs, The Thing and The Fly, which are often mistakenly thought of as horror too.

Horror is more about style than content. I categorise a horror film as one that sets out to scare you. Usually it’s obvious in the music, the styling, the mise-en-scene, but there are always exceptions. You could argue, for example, that something like Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a drama, because stylistically it’s very matter-of-fact. But the violence is so extreme and the music so gothic, I think it counts. Equally, to my mind some of the most chilling films ever made, like The Vanishing or Mulholland Drive, aren’t horror films at all.

Of course the idea of genre is reductive ­– it’s about reducing things to a set of criteria in order to understand them better – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. As a wise person once said, you can’t have everything: where would you put it?

Does horror have to be scary?

This is a great question. While I stand by my definition, at least as it relates to the book, there are tons of great horror films that aren’t very scary. On the one hand there are art/horror films like the Suspiria remake (which I hated) that uses unsettling imagery to explore complex ideas instead of scare us. Then there are things like the Final Destination series (which I love), which nobody could really call scary. I guess it all comes down to the fact that horror is a broad church, and The Book of Horror only covers one ­­– crucial – aspect of it.

What film – or scene – has scared you the most personally?

This is a big question, so I’m going to have to answer with a list. In no particular order:

  • Ju-On: The Grudge, any time Kayako comes creaking towards us
  • Ring, you know what scene
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Leatherface’s first appearance
  • Terrified, the big white dude under the bed
  • Lake Mungo, the camera-phone footage
  • Hereditary, the piano wire decapitation
  • The Blair Witch Project, Mike standing in the corner
  • [Rec], the last ten minutes

I could go on…

There are some incredible illustrations throughout from Barney Bodoano, who reimagines key moments from the films discussed. What was it like collaborating with Barney?

It was an absolute dream. Barney’s one of the most talented artists I’ve ever come across (check him out on Instagram at bbillustration), and his black-and-white illustrations give the book its soul. As you know, the problem when writing about films is how to approximate the effect they have on you, which is why writing about comedy is so hard. Barney’s illustrations make the book feel scary, which allows the writing to concentrate on the mechanics of horror without, I hope, running too dry. Also, the reality of modern publishing is that you need to give the reader more than they could get online, so the illustrations provide that.

What’s next for you?

A book on the least scary horror films ever made, featuring the Suspiria remake, the Final Destination series and so on. All suggestions welcome.

Tim Coleman

The Book of Horror: The Anatomy of Fear in Film is out now. Get it here.

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