Why do people enjoy horror films so much? The filmmakers responsible for these movies try to scare us, pure and simple. Their goal is to invoke the very powerful emotions of terror, horror and most of all, fear. As one of the finest Drive-In Theater Operator/Owners on the planet, D. Vogel of the Bengies Drive-In would simply say...
(and I've always loved him for that...)
So just how are horror films supposed to inspire these raw emotions? The vast majority of filmmakers employ very unpleasant themes such as mental illness, the supernatural or even grim death. They also tend to focus on one central (and usually quite nasty) villain.
Gothic Monster Literature
Many scary movies, especially the early ones, focused on the characters of gothic literature. This helped to create classic films like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. These "monsters of literature" were the inspiration for terror, as well as the everyday fears of modern living at the time.
Boris Karloff as Frankenstein
Despite the huge popularity of horror films, they never seem to achieve much critical success, especially when compared to other film genres. Some films in this genre can even be described as exploitation films, virtually assuring little or no critical acclaim.
Despite their disadvantage at the critic's table, many top film directors as well as major film studios rushed to produce these types of movies. You've undoubtedly heard of such folks as Martin Scorcese, Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick (a HUGE favorite of mine...), Francis Ford Coppola, and mystery-horror-suspense giant, Alfred Hitchcock. (the King, and at least for right now I ain't talkin' 'bout Elvis...)
Pretty much every major film genre has spawned its share of sub-genres, or even sub-hybrid-genres, as I like to call them. The horror films genre, being no stranger to this phenomenon, has created such sub-hybrids as science-fiction-horror, fantasy-horror, mockumentary-horror, black-comedy-horror, and thriller-horror. If you'll allow yourself, I'm sure you'll see how many of your favorite scary movies fit well into these sub-hybrid film categories.
First Horror Film Ever
During the period of time from 1820-1920 Georges Melies was credited with producing the very first horror film. The film was an 1896 supernatural thriller called Le Manoir du diable (The House of the Devil in English). Georges also created La Caverne Maudite (The Cave of the Unholy One) in 1898. (Are we seeing a trend here with Georges and his films?)
The first film version of Frankenstein was created by Edison Studios. This version was actually recovered by a film collector named Alex Felix Dettloff Sr. after being lost for many years. It was subsequently re-released in 1993.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Of all the characters in horror films, Quasimodo is certainly one of the top "plank owners" of them all. The Hunchback also has the honor of being the first movie monster to appear in a feature length film. Personally, I dislike even referring to Quasimodo as a "monster" as I find the character quite sympathetic in nature. It's also very interesting to note that the story of the Hunchback is so popular and beloved that it was even made into an animated feature by none other than Walt Disney Pictures. But technically and historically, Quasimodo is indeed considered a "movie monster."
Quasimodo, the Hunchback of Notre Dame
German filmmakers were certainly busy during this period. Not only were they busy, but they're responsible for embracing an expressionistic style of horror filmmaking. These German expressionist creations inspired many future filmmakers in both Germany and Abroad. The expressionist style they utilized so well can be characterized as a movie style using lots of symbolism, moody atmosphere and the portrayal of dark human conditions as well as the use of crazy and non-realistic set design. Thematically the expressionist filmmaker would often turn to themes like insanity, betrayal or madness. Some classic horror films in this genre would be Metropolis and Fritz Lang's "M".
American Film Directors Robert Wiene, Orson Welles and Tim Burton are said to have been greatly influenced by German Expressionism. Films like Paul Wegener's The Golem (1915), The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922) were greatly responsible for this inspiration. In the case of Nosferatu, this was non only an un-authorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, but credited as the first feature length vampire film.
Two early horror films were The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Monster (1925), both starring Lon Chaney, Sr. Lon Chaney, Sr. is generally regarded as America's first Horror Star. His ultimate work of course is his portrayal of Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Of all the major film studios producing scary movies during the period, of particular note is Universal Pictures Co., Inc. Focusing mainly on Gothic Literature adaptations such as Dracula (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), they quickly established themselves as a leader in this very "spoookey" genre. Some big careers were conceived as a result of Universal's success, namely, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Boris is most known for his epic portrayal of Frankenstein, while Bela was of course, Count Dracula.
Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula
Creating these Gothic Monsters on the screen required newly innovative make-up techniques. Jack Pierce was the artist responsible for creating and implementing these new cosmetic techniques.
In 1931, Paramount Pictures gave us Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The 1931 version starred Fredric March and was directed by Rouben Mamoulian. At the time the film was known for it's strong sexual content. The dual role was originally supposed to go to John Barrymore, but his demand for too much money caused Paramount to offer the role to Fredric March instead.
In 1933, Warner Brothers brought us Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), directed by Michael Curtiz and starring Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. In 1941 it was Universal Pictures again with The Wolfman (1941), directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney, Jr.
A 1940's producer of "B" horror movies was producer/screenwriter Val Lewton. He produced a collection of very moody and atmospheric horror films for RKO Pictures. Some of the most well known and now highly regarded movies are Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Body Snatcher (1945).
The 1950's and 1960's brought some very interesting changes to the horror film genre. One of the new ideas was incorporating "fear-of-outside-dangers" to new horror plots. These outside fears were represented on screen by aliens invading from outer space as well as crazy mutations of everyday living things such as insects, plants and even people themselves. During this period there was also a major change from Gothic Literature to more personal everyday fears. This shift brought about three new sub-genres - "horror-of-personality", "horror-of-armageddon" and "horror-of-the-demonic".
Psycho and What Ever Happened to Baby Jane are classic examples of the "horror-of-personality" sub-genre. The "horror-of-armageddon" sub-genre inspired films like The Birds (1963) and the original War of the Worlds (1953). "Horror-of-the-demonic" inspired such films as Rosemary's Baby (1968), The Sentinel (1977) and of course, The Omen (1976).
The terrifying "machine" from War of the Worlds (1953)
Another important issue during the 50's/60's was the cold war with Russia, a sovereign stalemate between nations where many of us had to go to bed worried about possible nuclear holocaust.
This very real "fear-of-armageddon" revealed itself through horror films of the period. The stories attempted to indirectly inspire the same fear and paranoia folks were actually experiencing in real life. Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World (1951) (Christian Nyby was also known as Howard Hawks) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), directed by Don Siegel, were examples of this.
Movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), adapted from the Richard Matheson novel, brought out our "horror-of-the-Atomic-Age" fears. A film like this also raised "horror-of-social-alienation" worries as well.
Britain's "Hammer Film Productions" quickly established themselves as a horror movie mill during this period. They achieved great international success producing Gothic Horror Films (referred to as "Hammer Horror") using experienced English actors and high quality set design. Many careers were set into motion by the Hammer Horror reign. Director Terence Fisher and actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee owe much of their fame and success to their work with Hammer. Considered true pioneers of today's horror films, they produced movies like The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959) as well as many sequels.
Tigon British and Amicus Productions
Other successful film companies producing horror films were Tigon British and Amicus Productions which produced such films as Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). Also, American International Pictures (AIP) were responsible for producing adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe, produced by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. These films are credited as opening the door to more violence in future horror movies.
Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by Freudian Psychology as well as repressed sexual desires as themes for his films. These made for excellent "horror-of-personality" sub-genre movies. Other examples of this sub-hybrid-genre would be Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960), William Castle's Homicidal (1961), Robert Aldrich's What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Noel Black's Pretty Poison (1968), and William Wyler's The Collector (1965).
Alfred Hitchcock directing Psycho (1960)
I sort of hate to admit this, but the "horror-of-the-demonic" sub-hybrid-genre is a huge favorite of mine. It's most definitely a guilty pleasure. At the same time I feel guilty about the general subject matter of these films, they always seem to fascinate the hell out of me. (pun somewhat intended, sorry...)
Of course, when we're discussing the horror-of-the-demonic sub-genre, one of the primary themes would be the devil, Satan himself, or just plain old "pedestrian" (yeah, right...) demons. There's also supernatural beings such as ghosts and goblins, but the devil is really the "head-honcho" of this wicked little sub-genre.
Some very well done and absolutely classic participants of this style would be The Innocents (1961), directed by Jack Clayton, The Haunting (1963), directed by Robert Wise and Rosemary's Baby (1968), directed by Roman Polanski. In this last film the devil is literally born and made flesh qualifying this Polanski classic as a consummate example of the horror-of-the-demonic sub-genre.
Nature Gone Mad and Armageddon
Again we arrive at the Master, Alfred Hitchcock. Another unforgettable Hitchcock classic is The Birds (1963). This movie is a perfect example of both "nature-gone-mad" and the "horror-of-armageddon" sub-genre.
Another very influential horror-of-armageddon" film is George Romero's 1968 definitive zombie classic, Night of the Living Dead. (I'm actually bowing...excuse me a sec...) As huge as this movie was it only cost $114,000 to produce while it grossed over twelve million dollars here and thirty million abroad.
The 1960's is known for introducing us to low-budget shock/gore films like Herschell Gordon Lewis's Blood Feast (1963). Another classic film in this category would be Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), where a very frightening town is inhabited by violent and sadistic ghosts.
The year 1968 signaled a very significant change for filmmakers of the time. The Motion Picture Code of America (the MPPDA) ends, ultimately clearing the way for the Motion Picture Association of America (the MPAA). Between the two there was the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association (the MPPDA). These organizations were concerned with censorship of films made in the U.S., or self-censorship as it were. The original MPPDA was actually referred to as "the Hays Code" in reference to it's creator, Will H. Hays.
The 1970's were a wonderful time for movies about the Occult - classic "horror-of-the-demonic" films at their best. These films were often gory but they were still produced as "A" movies with capable actors as well as respected directors and producers. The plots of these films were often peppered with sexual overtones as well.
Movies produced in the occult style during the 70's were Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), starring Mia Farrow. Arguably the most famous and effective occult movie ever made was The Exorcist (1973), directed by William Friedkin and adapted from William Peter Blatty's novel of the same name. Many other devil focused movies, such as the devil impregnating women, or possessing children, were produced during this period.
William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist
(This has to be one of the scariest horror films ever made!)
Speaking of children, movies involving children and reincarnation were also in style. One such popular film was Audrey Rose (1977), directed by Robert Wise. Religiously themed stories, particularly of the Catholic persuasion, often depicted evil children as well as the act of reincarnation.
Films like Alice, Sweet Alice (1977) and The Omen (1976) were quick to cast Satan as villain while portraying a dystopian world view. (opposite, or a perversion of Utopia - a lack of freedom) Another Catholic slasher-horror film would be The Sentinel (1977) starring Ava Gardner and Burgess Meredith.
One of the memorable features of the 1960's was the youth counterculture movement. Again, movies made many attempts to harness this anti-social energy with films such as Wes Craven's The Hills Have Eyes (1977), Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), which satirized the consumer society of the period, and David Cronenburg's Shivers (1975) which sought out to harness body-horror as well as the-mad-scientist sub-genre.
Stephen King Emerges
It was during this time period that the first of Stephen King's novels was adapted for the screen. Carrie (1976), directed by Brian DePalma, was not only a box office success, but was actually nominated for two Academy Awards. (best actresses, both leading and supporting for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, respectively)
Even More Violence
Horror films started to become even more violent during this time period. Films like John Carpenter's Halloween (1978), Sean Cunningham's Friday the 13th (1980) as well as Bob Clark's Black Christmas (1974) are examples of this increased movie violence.
Jaws (1975), Orca (1977) and Up From The Depths (1979) inaugurated the "killer-animals" sub-hybrid-genre. I'm such a huge lover of animals in general (particularly the fuzzy ones...) but I can't say I'm a big fan of "killer-animals".
Killer-Animals Classic, Jaws (1975)
Science Fiction Horror
One of my personal favorite genre mixtures is the "science-fiction-horror" sub-hybrid-genre that sprouted up during this period. Typified by the "flagship" film Alien (1979), this sub-hybrid genre was on its way to super stardom. Part of what created Alien's success were its naturalistic performances, gritty and realistic set design as well as very typical graphic violence and suspense. Referred to simply as "Jaws in Space," this was absolutely a landmark science fiction horror film.
The Foreign Horror Front
A slew of foreign movie producers threw their hats into the ring with filmmakers like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci and Mario Bava from Italy, Jess Franco and Jacinto Molina (also known as Paul Naschy) from Spain. Their horror offerings were dubbed into English and absolutely filled American Drive-In Movie Theaters. Many Drive-Ins couldn't afford the high print rental fees of the Major Studios, so these foreign produced films were an exciting bargain. They usually featured classic monsters and themes such as demons, werewolves, zombies, vampires and psycho murderers. Their distinct European styling's were filled with generous gore and aggressive sexuality, something American filmmakers were still afraid to produce.
Also on the foreign front were exploitive horror films courtesy of Hong Kong. Taking their cues from Hammer Films, they produced Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973) and Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1981), a "Kung-Fu-Comedy-Horror" complete with hopping corpses and sexy female ghosts. They also created Mr. Vampire (1985) as well as A Chinese Ghost Story (1987).
Hammer Films Goes Dark
As the demand for horror-slasher films increased in the 70's, Hammer Films shuts down its horror film operation. This was partly due to the success of movies like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978) and other horror-slasher films of the period.
One of my all time favorite horror films would be Don Coscarelli's Phantasm (1979). This may or may not be one of the great mentionable's of the 70's, but the film simply has a hold on me. Maybe it's the rough (and I'm trying to be nice here...) acting performances, maybe it's the ultra weird "death sphere" that patrols a morgue's well lighted corridors, maybe it's the tall man, one of the coolest villains ever conceived, or maybe it's simply Reggie Banister. ('nuff said...) Who knows...maybe it's actually the very moody and experimental music used in the film. In any case, I love the movie and that's all there is to it.
Don Coscarelli's 1979 Classic, Phantasm
The 1980's brought with it lots of sequels. Horror movie "franchises" such as Poltergeist (1922), Halloween (1978), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Friday the 13th (1980), Psycho (1960), Creepshow (1982) and The Evil Dead (1981) all spawned at least one if not many more sequels. Some films, such as Psycho, even inspired a television series, failed or otherwise.
Something common to horror as well as other film genres (for example, the action genre) is the very coy "one-liner" employed in quite a few 80's horror films, they certainly added an obvious dose of comedy to the horror mix. Some of the biggest proponents would be An American Werewolf in London (1985), Humanoids From the Deep (1980), Fright Night (1985), Night of the Demons (1988) and Return of the Living Dead (1985).
The 1990's continue in the horror franchise business. Child's Play (1988), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Friday the 13th (1980), Leprechaun (1993) and Halloween (1978) are all members in good standing of the sequel club. Despite the many sequels being produced, most of these films were not critical successes. (Wes Craven's New Nightmare excepted...) Their box office receipts varied as well.
A new concept in plot design emerged during the 90's. By juxtaposing fictional and actual real life horror, the new plots became self-reflective in nature. Some examples of this would be films like Candyman (1992), where an urban legend (fiction) is combined with the real world issue of racism (reality). In a film like In The Mouth of Madness (1994), the real world itself (reality) is juxtaposed with the idea of being trapped in a novel written by a madman (fiction). In a movie like Scream (1996) this reflective quality becomes so ironic and overt that it borders on the fringes of the ridiculous.
At a time when filmmakers were desperate to re-invigorate the genre, self-mockery as well as self-parody were employed (with great intent) in an attempt to breathe life into stale plot ideas. Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992), Wes Craven's Scream (1996) and Urban Legend (1998) are terrific examples of this.
One 1990's film deserves special recognition, believe it or not. It's kind of funny because when you hear which movie it is many of you may gasp in horror (to use a very "pun-esque" phrase as we're discussing horror films...) The film I'm talking about is none other than...
The Haunting Marketing Campaign for The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Yes I know. Even I, as a huge fan of this creepy little movie, must admit that with the possible exception of Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), this movie is a strong contender as the worst made film ever!
That being very true, The Blair Witch Project (1999) created a marketing phenomenon not seen since The Exorcist in 1973. Because of how Blair Witch was produced, and especially because of how they cleverly marketed this film, Blair Witch has distinguished itself in the annals of "surprise-hit" history. In any case, a comprehensive discussion of this genre would not be complete without mentioning the absolute phenomenon that is The Blair Witch Project.
In general, the 2000's opened on the quiet side in terms of horror films. Sequel franchises marched on, this time with interesting character fusions like Freddy vs. Jason, the mixture of Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th. Two horror giants collide!
Zombies seemed to get some love during the 2000's with films like 28 Days Later (2002), Zack Snyder's re-make of Dawn of the Dead (2004), the 2002 film adaptation of the Resident Evil video game as well as 2004's Shawn of the Dead, a comedy-horror self-parody of the Zombie-Genre itself. Also noteworthy are George Romero's 3 zombie contributions, Land of the Dead (2005), Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009).
2000's Extreme Violence
I have to be honest with you now. I'm actually not that big a fan of the 2000's trend we're about to describe, but it's part of recent horror history so I have a responsibility to cover it (even if I don't like it...)
The trend I'm speaking of is that of the super extreme portrayal of violence in today's modern horror films. The violence I'm speaking of is so graphic, realistic and otherwise overt that one of the phrases used to describe the sub-genre is actually "torture-porn".
Films engaging in this extreme sub-genre would be Wolf Creek (2005), Wrong Turn (2003), Saw (2004), Hostel (2005) and Audition (1999). At least in the case of Audition (for better or worse) the perpetrator of the "torture" is female. (or maybe it's perpetratress in this case...) This is characteristically uncommon across the board in horror films. As I said, I'm not much of a fan of this new sub-genre. I find these films to be more upsetting than entertaining, but hey...that's just me.
This latest decade has been a boon for horror film remakes. Many of the now "classic" horror films of the 70's were re-visited during this time period. Examples of this would be Dawn of the Dead (2004), 2001 Maniacs (2005), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Halloween (2007), Friday the 13th (2009), A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), Hellraiser (2011), Children of the Corn (2009), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), The Last House on the Left (2009) and The Wolfman (2010).
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