Kim Newman Interview

Now over twenty years old, the original edition of Nightmare Movies has retained its place as a piece of classic cult film criticism. In this new edition, Kim Newman brings his seminal work completely up to date. Filmwerk had a chance for a quick interview with the legend himself.

You specifically mention the first horror film you ever saw in the book. Did this result in an instant love for horror?

As you know, the first horror film I saw was Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and yes, it was instant. By the next day I was a horror fan. I was 11 at the time and I think there was a little bit of a build up as the classic Universal horror films were being shown on TV on the weekend. My father was a potter and I can remember one of his students telling me I should watch Frankenstein and, even though I was terrified, there was a dare element to it. On seeing Dracula it was like a thunderclap in that it was an instant love for horror. I would then watch anything that even seemed horrific on TV and read classic horror novels. This also resulted in me writing little plays, versions of the horror films I would see on a Friday night, as I couldn’t actually see the film again given the lack of video or DVD as it is now.

Did you have any other interests at the time?

Absolutely, I loved what would now be cult TV like The Avengers, comic books and anything that was fantastical in nature. Dracula was the game changer for me though as it pushed me towards horror. My mother thought that I would grow out of it, but I simply didn’t. I even managed to turn it into a career. My hobby and my passion is still what I’m talking about, so all those teachers who told me I was wasting my time were wrong. If I had trained as an accountant I sadly wouldn’t have been any good at it ultimately.

Did you ever want to write scripts for films or have you always been drawn towards the historical aspect of film?

I do have another life as a novelist and I have had some stuff done on the radio and TV. I probably know a little bit too much about how the movies work to devote my entire life to it. Although that being said, it is something I’ll get round to eventually.

In the original version of Nightmare Movies you concentrated on the auteur theory. This time you’ve moved away from that, why is that?

Well my first thought for a book when I was at university was with chapters dedicated to the horror auteurs of the time. It seemed to me then that individual directors had simply replaced Universal and Hammer. Horror books at the time would have chapters on Frankenstein, Dracula, etc. Whereas I thought of chapters on Romero, Carpenter, Hooper, Craven all the way down to Bob Clark. This was how I envisaged how a modern book on horror should be at that time. When it came to actually writing the book I realised that just having directors wouldn’t get the job done. There were so many directors who’d made just one film. So I needed a chapter to cover that, looking at films like Deliverance by John Boorman, given he wasn’t a horror director and never made a movie like that since. But the 70s were a very auteur-driven decade with directors such as Argento and Romero working outside the Hollywood system. They were able to stamp their identity on their films far more than the likes of Terence Fisher or Roy Ward Baker had for Hammer. But today I think there are fewer actual directors who simply do horror.

Having looked over the original version of the book whilst undertaking this project would you say that you stand by your opinions from that time?

I had feared that I may be embarrassed, possibly having changed my mind about a lot of things. I maybe warmed up a bit to a few films I was tough on first time round. For example my initial views on Alien and The Thing seem a little harsh now. On release they were far from the classics they are now; with Alien I don’t think I was that harsh but I have undoubtedly warmed up to it now having come to appreciate it more. But between the revised version in 1988 and now, I didn’t think I would change that much. There may be some films that I didn’t find as fresh and exciting as the first time but on the whole I stand by my opinions.

So do you think that horror is more of a genre experience now?

When I was a student I would go with a group of friends to see Halloween because it was a John Carpenter movie. Having seen Dark Star and Assault on Precinct 13, we’d been tracking his career. I don’t think that today’s fans of horror go and see Saw and then think ‘I’m going to go see everything James Wan directs’. Directors who have high profiles such as Eli Roth or Rob Zombie haven’t yet made the material that would earn them a place at the same table as, say, Romero, Carpenter et al.

You mentioned Saw there and you dedicate a chapter in the new book to torture. Can you tell me your opinion as regards the depiction of torture in modern horror and how it’s been appropriated by the mainstream?

Torture is currently a big subtext in 21st century horror with reasons that obviously have to do with the real world such as Abu Graib, Rendition and all that stuff.  But torture is very dramatic for any horror film when used correctly. For me it’s all about the theatrical, with films such as Misery being far more effective that Hostel for example. I think it’s actually starting to burn out for the obvious reason that it’s now become monotonous after over-use.

Turning to the audience, how do you think it’s changed from your experience with Dracula to today and the use of torture or extreme violence being far more commonplace?

For me the most important shift is less in terms of content and more to do with availability. When I used to go to the cinema, that was it – you’d see the film once, without making a second trip to the cinema. Now of course you can get hold of practically anything, any time you need it, taking away a certain mystique that surrounded film in the 60s and 70s. This is especially true for obscure horror – when someone had seen a film in another town I had no way of seeing that film myself. I personally feel that this has taken away a little bit from the committed horror fan, leading to certain things being taken for granted.

Moving to British horror, what do you think of the so-called revival at the moment with events such as Frightfest and the recent Cruel Britannia series on the Horror Channel?

Well I’m glad it’s happening. Given that I’m British and big on horror, it’s good for me without a doubt. There have been some great movies recently with someone like Neil Marshall building up an impressive body of work. I feel part of this movement in that a great deal of those making these films either know me, my work or are my actual friends. I always try to be honest and straight with my readers but I do feel a higher level of responsibility.

Do you have any feelings about the return of Hammer? How do you think the movies have been so far?

Off and on I would say. Wake Wood was a decent little horror film and The Resident was also OK, I was surprised they bumped it back in the schedule. The Woman in Black sounds to me like a very good idea and use of British talent. Whether it works, who knows? We shall have to wait and see. The fact that it has the name Hammer on it doesn’t mean that much to me. It’s the same with the St Trinian’s films and the recent Ealing pictures. They’re simply the corporate descendants of those who made Kind Hearts and Coronets. I don’t see a really great connection, but Hammer will succeed or fail simply based on making good horror films. But I cannot think of another case where such interest is shown to the revival of a company name associated so strongly with one genre.

What can we expect in the future from Kim Newman? Are you excited about the current horror scene and can we expect another edition in 10 years time?

I can guarantee that I’m not going to go back to do this again any time soon. I really didn’t think I would be coming back this soon after the last revision but after 20 years it seemed about the right time. Enough had happened to essentially make a whole new book stuck on to the last one. It was also nice to go back to Bloomsbury who’d been very nice to me when I started out.  There was a feeling of fondness given that it was one of their first books, and mine, that we should go back and do it again. They really supported this book and are very pleased with it so it was good to go back without the feeling of it being old and stale. Just merely reprinting it would have been frustrating for people who wanted more, having enquired over the years what I thought about Blair Witch or Mulholland Drive and so on. For fans of the original book they could simply look in it to find my opinion on any horror film from that era and now they can do it up until A Serbian Film. I’m not saying I’ll never go back but I have plenty of other things to do.

One last question. Are you a film-a-day man?

Yes I am a film-a-day man, in fact I would say that I am more than a film-a-day man. I know what that statement actually means and I can tell you that I have been a film-a-day man since January 1st 1977. That was the new year that I decided that I would watch one film every day. That’s not to say that days don’t go by without my watching a film but when I have to watch five films for my Empire column I make it up then.  I think my average is about two and a half a day.

Nightmare Movies is out now.

Aled Jones

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