Dixon, Wheeler Winston. A History of Horror

By Rodje, Kjetil | Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

Dixon, Wheeler Winston. A History of Horror


Rodje, Kjetil, Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts


Dixon, Wheeler Winston. A History of Horror. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2010. 248 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978-0-8135-4796-1. $24.95.

Wheeler Winston Dixon's A History of Horror--which should more appropriately be titled A History of the Horror Film since it limits its discussion to cinema--makes for a fun read and is impressive in its encyclopedic breadth, yet falls somewhat short of fully living up to its promise. With five chapters, each covering approximately two decades, the book sets out to present a history of key horror films from 1896 to 2010. Less than 250 pages in length, the text is by necessity condensed, offering little space for elaborate description, analysis, and contextual materials. Nonetheless, Dixon does an astonishing job at including a wide spectrum of not only American, but also international horror cinema. Indeed, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer number of films that Dixon manages to cover in this historical survey. Although readers will inevitably find particular films missing, Dixon for the most part succeeds in presenting "representative examples" of "key films that defined the genre, and [continue] to influence the horror films of the present day" (xi).

The condensed and comprehensive format of the book is also perhaps its greatest weakness. Few films are given more attention than a paragraph or even a sentence. The book, thus, serves more as a guide for further viewing than as a source of extensive information and analysis. This makes the book readily accessible to the wider public, comprised of anyone with a special interest in horror movies. With this in mind, it would be excellent as an introductory text for students of the genre. At the same time, the book falls short of providing satisfactory source materials for researchers and more advanced or specialized students of horror. The book includes a bibliography, but since no references or notes are given in the text, the reader is left without any specific clues about how to explore further the information provided, and this limits the potential of the book as a starting point for further research.

The text is loosely organized chronologically and includes discussions of important studios, actors, directors, producers, and franchises that have influenced the horror genre. Particularly illuminating are the discussions of Lon Chaney's silent movies of the 1920s; the classic Universal Pictures productions with Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr., in the 1930s; Val Lewton's productions for RKO in the 1940s; and the Hammer films of the 1950s and '60s.

The strongest sections of the book cover pre-1970 horror cinema. Dixon traces the horror film back to the very invention of the cinematic medium and presents early examples of the genre, such as the sensational American shockers Electrocuting an Elephant (1903) and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), as well as the early fantastic films of French pioneer Georges Melies. Besides these well-known pioneering films and directors, Dixon also

covers a number of lesser-known early excursions in horror, leading up to the first "classics" of the genre that Dixon sees beginning with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920).

Besides major studio productions, Dixon covers low-budget operators such as the Poverty Row productions of the 1940s, from companies including Monogram and Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC). Also attended to is the 1950s boom of sensational horror films catering to a teenage market from companies such as American International Pictures (AIP). Dixon further deserves credit for including oft-neglected micro-budget directors such as Edward L. Cahn, Al Adamson, and Andy Milligan.

After a great start, the narrative becomes somewhat more muddled with its discussion in chapter 3, "Rebirth: 1949-1970," of films from the mid-1950s onwards. Dixon's choices of which films and filmmakers to elaborate upon can here at times seem especially idiosyncratic, and no explanations or justifications are given for these choices. …

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