Bloomsbury, £30, 640pp. £27 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Nightmare Movies, By Kim Newman

Why would anyone want to watch a film in which a character is bloodily eviscerated? Or undergoes a gruesome metamorphosis into something unspeakable? Or returns from the grave in a state of decay? Kim Newman has the answers to all these questions, and in Nightmare Movies does his damndest to persuade the reader that not only is the horror film an Aristotelian catharsis but also the hi-tech end product of a respectable literary trend that stretches back for centuries. It is inevitable, perhaps, that the book will be consumed by the converted. That's a shame, as it's hard to think of a more persuasive advocate for this much-despised art form - always a safe target when politicians realise that column inches are always guaranteed by an attempt to locate the ills of society in violent movies.

Of course, the art of chilling the blood is hardly a new pursuit. Many have shared Dickens's fat boy's desire to make our flesh creep. Edgar Allan Poe is the poster boy for the celebrated artist of the macabre, though centuries before him, Homer had lovingly described sliced-off faces flying through the air in the Iliad. But literary respectability is one thing, and horror cinema will always have a struggle to rise above its hucksterish image.

The cover of Newman's book has an image of a shower curtain - instantly recognizable as being from Psycho (1960), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. His work is unerringly analysed here, as is Hitchcock's closest rival for the title of this country's most talented director, Michael Powell. The latter produced in the same year a masterpiece that was initially deplored, Peeping Tom. A typical critical response was to suggest "flushing it down the nearest sewer". The film is now very highly regarded.

Newman is perceptive on the subversive aspects of Hitchcock's and Powell's films: the contrast between the interior world of their murderous protagonists and the supposed normality around them. But he is no apologist for the slew of second-rate spin-offs which grafted parasitically onto such masterpieces. The knife-wielding progeny of Norman Bates are, we are reminded, totally under-characterised, with no other purpose than to bloodily dispatch disposable characters - usually teenagers who have just had, or are about to have, sex. The Old Testament chastisement for such immoral behaviour is something that should please moral guardians.

This is a much-expanded version of a book which has previously appeared twice. Its continuing popularity suggests that our appetite for the horrific remains unslaked. The new edition includes such healthy (if that's the word) franchises as the numerous Saw and Hostel films. Newman has little time for the former, but points out that Hostel 2 is really all about US isolationism: the two American tourist-killers reveal a stunning ignorance of the countries they visit. Social commentary as added value even as we jump out of our seats - what more could the intelligent film-goer want?

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