- Robin Wood on the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews ed. by Barry Keith Grant
Barry Keith Grant has edited some of the most important books on the horror film. The Dread of Difference transformed my engagement with horror and gender and the Film Genre Reader IV provides a wonderful survey of genre studies more generally. His latest, Robin Wood on the Horror Film: Collected Essays and Reviews, corrals all but one of Wood's writings on the horror genre. Grant notes that the sole missing piece is a short plot summary of Next of Kin published in Monthly Film Bulletin (x). Thus, the book contains a collection of reprinted essays written by one critic on a single genre—a delightful resource for those, like me, interested in horror studies and genre criticism.
Arguably, the most read essay of Wood's work on the horror film is "An Introduction to the American Horror Film" from 1978, originally from American Nightmare: Essays on the Horror Film, and reprinted in Bill Nichols's Movies and Methods: Volume II, one of the most relied upon anthologies in the early days of film studies in the 1980s. In this essay, Wood describes the theory that recurs throughout his entire body of work on the genre, an amalgam of Marxism and psychoanalysis which he combines to usefully analyze horror films in terms of "the dominant ideology" (Marx) and "the ways in which that ideology is transmitted and perpetuated, centrally through the institutionalization of the patriarchal nuclear family" (73). This thread, or methodology, is woven throughout his work: from his analysis of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in "The American Family Comedy: From Meet Me in St. Louis to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1979) to the final essay, "What Lies Beneath?" (2004), wherein he names George Romero's Day of the Dead "the last great American horror film" (403). His rationale for this lies within a critique of the contemporary horror movie, suggesting that Day of the Dead was the last horror film to criticize American socio-cultural life in a sophisticated manner.
As useful and wonderful I find the book to be, there are a couple weaknesses in its design and contents, namely, its overall organization and excessive dependence on Marxism and psychoanalysis. In the Forward, Barry Keith Grant notes his considered choice to place Wood's writing in chronological order. At first glance, this seems practical, as it offers a way to see the progression of one critic's thoughts over time; however, in its application this system of organization proves jarring from a reader's perspective. By placing Wood's essays in chronological order, short film reviews, longer essays of film criticism, and interviews are thrown together. Perhaps grouping essays by type would have improved the readability of the entire book. Additionally, grouping the essays by date published instead of by type, exposes repetition in adjacent essays. For example, Wood's short essay on Death Line (distributed as Raw Meat in the United States, 1972) is followed by a second essay on the same film, "The Most Horrible Horror Film Ever?", wherein he places it in the company of Night of The Living Dead, yet argues that Death Line is the better of the two, offering a more complex and human treatment of its horrors. Not surprisingly, the latter essay offers much the same analysis as the former. The respect to the importance of Wood's work given by Grant is well-deserved but results in a book that is more archival than it perhaps should be.
Robin Wood's work offers a method for taking horror films seriously through his Marxistpsychoanalytical approach. However, by viewing horror films under a single theoretical lens, Wood [End Page 99] neglects many other useful sites of analysis. This narrow approach to the genre adds to the book's repetitive nature.
Those issues notwithstanding, the book offers many insightful and entertaining critiques. My personal favorite is his analysis of colliding music and film, "Der Erlkönig: The Ambiguities of Horror...