As our digital culture bites at clickbait listicles like never before, there’s something refreshing about thumbing through a copy of 101 Horror Movies You Must See Before You Die. Standing only six inches tall but packing surprising heft, the book dedicates four glossy pages to each horror film it chronologically lists, splashing two pages with movie posters and stills while reserving the other two for text. Starting with 1919’s expressionist The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and ending with 2014’s Carpenter-esque It Follows, this book was curated by film critic and scholar Steven Jay Schneider and acts as an in-depth and insightful compendium of nearly a century’s worth of horror cinema, one that’s far more satisfying to explore than any number of similar Top 100 online lists.

Socio-cultural context looms large in this book, an often wise decision on Schneider’s part, especially with many of the early 20th century films differing so drastically from the kind of cinema that legitimately frightens audiences today. The rising specter of the Third Reich clearly impacted German expressionist films, and the tension of the Vietnam era influenced American horror in the ‘70s. This book deftly handles mention of these types of societal factors without getting bogged down in history lessons. 101 Horror Movies also delves deeply into elements of craft while inserting relevant tidbits about production budgets, special effects and intriguing dynamics between members of cast and crew.

Going in, readers should understand that 101 Horror Movies does take a largely academic approach to its analysis, one that’s custom-made for those interested in film criticism but otherwise isn’t especially accessible to the average horror fan—it’s difficult to imagine, for instance, that the typical fan of “splatstick” pioneer Evil Dead 2 is hoping to read about how the film embodies French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s thoughts on the interplay between irony and obscenity. That same scholarly tone also makes some pictures feel shoehorned into the list, as the book is quick to point out what aspects of these flicks haven’t aged well or are otherwise formulaic (it’s particularly, and justifiably, hard on Friday the 13th).

As a result, the inclusion of schlockier films makes this book less about essential horror movies than about culturally significant ones. (Case in point, it’s impossible to discuss the significance 1959’s The Tingler without heavy emphasis on director William Castle’s sensationalist promotional methods that included outfitting theater seats with vibrating buzzers to startle moviegoers.) And what’s most problematic for readers simply looking for horror flick recommendations is that the book is full of spoilers, with many entries detailing key plot twists out of varying degrees of necessity. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen many of these movies already (Bruce Willis was a ghost the whole time!), what are you doing reading a book on horror criticism?

The chronological structure not only allows these short essays to organically bunch together particular movements—such as the classic Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi horror monsters of the ‘30s, their reincarnation through Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing in the Hammer films of the ‘50s and ‘60s or the rise of the slashers the ‘70s and ‘80s—but also draws some interesting parallels across cultures. Both released in 1960, Peeping Tom and Psycho are presented side-by-side for direct comparison, with the book giving a slight edge to the humanity of Mike Powell’s voyeuristic serial killer over Hitchcock’s walking diagnosis Norman Bates.

While it may be nitpicking to chide a list of 101 horror movies for the handful of quality movies it leaves out, the omissions become more glaring considering that some of the films Schneider chose to include fall more accurately under the “thriller” umbrella. In this light, it seems strange to leave out 1980’s atmospheric The Changeling and downright preposterous to exclude The Thing (though the latter does appear in Schneider’s companion tome 101 Sci-Fi Movies…) when Fritz Lang’s M and De Palma’s Dressed to Kill make the cut, despite rarely being classified as horror. But these are fussy arguments for cinephiles, a group who, on the whole, will be more than pleased by this attractive and insightful rundown of the shocking touchstones that have made the horror genre so enduring.

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