Monday, September 03, 2012

Ask JKM a Question # 31: How Do I Research My Horror Surveys?

A reader, Trent, asks:

“How do you set up your research for your horror decade surveys? Do you own all the copies to the films you review? Do studios send you copies? Do you need to obtain any permissions to use images in your books and on the cover?”

“Do you watch a film individually, then write out the review individually, and then repeat process?”

“And lastly, how do you choose your films for the review? For instance, in your most recent volume, I was surprised, not disappointed, to see what I would think of as a psychological thriller (Pacific Heights) reviewed. However, it seemed like an omission not to have a review for a far superior psychological thriller in Fincher's Fight Club.

That is a great series of questions, Trent.  Thanks for sending it in.

In terms of researching books like Horror Films of the 1970s, Horror Films of the 1980s and Horror Films of the 1990s, I generally commence the work by attempting to understand the nature or Zeitgeist of the decade in question.  I do this by reading books about the politicians, the movies, the television series, and other aspects of that ten year period. 

Sometimes the history books I read are biographies or autobiographies (All the Best: George Bush: My Life in Letters, for instance) and sometimes they concern economics (“Clintonomics” for example.)  I was looking a lot at teen violence for my book on horror films of the 1990s because of productions such as Scream, Carrie 2 and Apt Pupil, so I read David Cullen’s Columbine and Bernard Lefkowitz’s Our Guys: The Glen Ridge Rape and the Secret Life of the Perfect Suburb.    

 When I undertake these big decade books, I also need to understand what was happening specifically in film culture, so I read texts like We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies and Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes.  These books help me understand better filmmakers such as James Bond III (Def by Temptation) or even an entire movement, like the 1990s independent film trend.

After I get a solid idea of all the things happening culturally in any given decade, I begin compiling a list of the horror films I need to review.  I pull this together through the Internet and my own extensive film book collection, generally.  I usually come up with a list consisting of between 250 and 350 films.  I endeavor to be inclusive, but I also endeavor to be reasonable.  I would rather write well and thoroughly about 300 films than give important films less coverage and write about 500 films…one hundred of which nobody ever heard of. And this is, indeed, why some critics complain.  I can write a nine hundred page book and cover adequately hundreds of films and instead of commenting on all that I included, these critics report that I missed a certain title.  C'est la vie.

I don’t own all the horror films I watch and review.  Many I do own, some I purchase, and some I rent from services like Blockbuster or Netflix.  

Finding copies of rare films was a lot more difficult when I began writing these books in 1999 than it is today (which explains the capsules -- which I kinda hate -- in Horror Films of the 1970s) though some movies still remain unavailable in home release format.  I really had to hunt down a copy of Begotten (1991), for instance.  After some critics knocked me (probably legitimately...) for writing those capsules and reviews from memory for Horror Films of the 1970s, I resolved always to see a film fresh when writing a review in future books.  I live by that edict today. If I don't see it for the review period of the book, I don't include it.

I then watch all the films (over the period of about a year) and take extensive notes on each in college-lined notebooks. I had several notebooks for Horror Films of the 1990s.  Those notes guide me when I write the reviews. I note in each review things like typical horror conventions (“the car won’t start,” “the cell phone doesn’t work,” “the cat jump”), the horror hall of fame (actors who appear in more than three films in a decade), visual techniques, and connections to major themes of the decade.

Then, I try to group the movies together by my own classification system, like "Grimm Fairy Tales" (Leprechaun, The Runestone, The Ice Cream Man, Rumpelstiltskin) or "The Interloper" (Pacific Heights, Cape Fear, Single White Female, The Temp, The Crush, etc.).  This categorization helps me, because when I’m writing a lot about one sub-type of horror film, I can compare and contrast films, and get a good understanding of the themes and ideas involved. I learn more when I write about "like" film in a short span.

In terms of images, I possess a vast film photograph archive that I have collected over the years, and I mostly use illustrations from that personal archive.  As long as I am writing critically, or for purposes of scholarship and history, the fair use doctrine pretty much covers the use of one or two photos per movie. 

You make a good point about Fight Club.  I love Fight Club and feel it is an important film, culturally-speaking (and one that could not have been made after 9/11).  I screened it and took notes on it for Horror Films of the 1990s, but ultimately decided not to include it, as I had originally intended. 


Well, I determined that though Fight Club is a psychological thriller, it is not actually a horror movie, one whose lineage I can trace straight back to horror genre ancestry.  It features the splintered psyche aspect of Psycho, it’s true (and which is why I originally intended to include it…), but the purpose of the film is not to terrify or scare.  

Contrarily, almost all of those “Interloper” films of the 1990s such as Pacific Heights are developed as clear extensions of the popular 1980s slasher films.  The venue has changed from summer camp to the 1990s work place, but as Roger Ebert astutely wrote, Michael Keaton’s villain in Pacific Heights is essentially the same as Freddy Krueger, an almost all-powerful bogeyman who wrecks, ruins and jeopardizes the lives of his victims.  

The distinction here is a nuanced one and many horror authors and bloggers grapple with it.  Psycho, Halloween and Friday the 13th all feature no overt supernatural aspects, and yet we agree that they are horror films. 

For the same reason, Pacific Heights -- which utilizes the same techniques for the same ends as those films -- is thus, similarly, a horror film.  Fight Club doesn't really have the same mission, I found.  It's not designed to scare us.  

That was my thinking about the subject.  I don’t know if it’s right or wrong, but that was my thinking at the time I wrote the book.  Sometimes it comes down to a judgment call, and you hope you make the right one! 

But I’ll tell you what, I plan to review Fight Club here soon.  It's one of my favorite films, and I haven't watched it in about two years.

I hope that answers your questions!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks alot on the response John.
    I referenced the film 'Pacific Heights' in my query because it was on that review in which the "Interloper" finally struck cerebral matter and I understood why films such as that, 'Blue Steel', 'Single White Female' etc, were considered horror and not purely thrillers as I initially thought.

    I would like to read your reviews of Fincher films such as 'The Game', 'Fight Club', & 'Panic Room' have you posted these reviews here yet?