Horror cinema goes back to the silent era. However most American horror cinema of the silent eschewed the supernatural, preferring its monsters to be the products of mad science, like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the crimes of maniacs like The Phantom of the Opera, and what may appear to be supernatural phenomenon turning out to be elaborate charades organized by criminals, or what I call the "Scooby Doo ending." European cinema didn't have that unspoken restriction making the occasional supernatural monster movie, like FW Murnau's Nosferatu, an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.
The restriction may not have arisen from any notion of censorship, but was most likely brought about, especially in the post-World War I era, by the trauma of a supposedly scientific and rational world gone mad. Look at the horror cinema of the silent era and you see grim and violent melodramas built on themes of murder, mutilation, amputation, isolation and insanity. This is because horror, whether intentional or not, reflects the fears and anxieties of their time, and after WWI the world had been scarred by the industrial sized slaughter of supposedly rational nations blasting the living hell out of each other.
The horror genre in Hollywood changed dramatically in the early 1930s and key to that was Universal Studios and its owners the Laemmle family. Carl Laemmle Jr. had been raised on a steady diet of central European folk tales larded heavily with ghosts, werewolves, witches, and most importantly vampires. He produced Dracula, the first American vampire movie where the vampire really was a vampire. Does that make any sense? Anyway, to explain my explanation, it was the first American film to feature a vampire that wasn't a criminal or madman in a toothy disguise, but an undead monster that fed on the blood of the living to stay alive, spreading death and madness wherever he went.
This sparked a revelation and a revolution in American horror cinema. Ghost were free to be ghosts, werewolves to werewolves, and mummies to be mummies. In a way this could be connected to the times. It was the Great Depression, people needed to vent their fears, but they needed it to be presented in the escapist fantasy of supernatural monstrosities in order to forget, even for only 90 minutes, the problems of the real world. Universal, soon under new management, recognized this, and sought to milk the phenomenon for all that it could.
Which leads to one of the inevitable truths of horror cinema.
Flog a monster, or sub-genre of horror too much, and it slips into self-parody, and sometimes real parody with the great Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but I digress.
During the 1950s the supernatural horror genre went into decline, killed by over-exposure, and declining quality. Also the end of World War 2 brought new prosperity, but also new anxieties. Science, inspired by the real terrors of aerial bombings, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, returned to the forefront of horror cinema. Gone was the fantastical world gone awry of spooky Gothic castles, dark dungeons, and strange labs reeking of formaldehyde, ozone, and decay. In its place was a world of quaint, all American small towns, of good looking teenagers, and handsome pipe smoking scientists capable of explaining what needs to be done.
The horror would then enter this picture perfect world, either created by that new fangled threat of atomic radiation, or coming from the mysterious depths of outer space. Supernatural horror still popped up once in a while, but Hammer Films of Great Britain was the only company doing it with the zeal of the old days at Universal when supernatural horror was king.
Madmen and maniacs made a comeback in the 1960s, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's classic Psycho, which spawned many imitators, but few, if any, that could equal it. This was most likely inspired by the post war boom in psychoanalysis and the increased interest of the general public in psychological issues. Europe, especially Italy, took to this new sub-genre with the notorious giallo cinema.
Giallo, which means yellow in Italian, were murder-psychodramas inspired by a popular line of thriller paperbacks marked by their bright yellow covers. These films had black-gloved madmen slicing up innocent victims, usually shapely Euro-babes, while a normally hapless hero struggled to stop the carnage. They were criticized widely for their purported misogyny, often bizaare plot twists, violence, and gore.
Remember that word: Gore. It will be coming back to bite you, like a hungry zombie.
Speaking of zombies, Americans were dipping their toe in the pool of gore with edgy independent films like George A. Romero's groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead. Once again horror filmmakers were tapping the unsettled zeitgeist, and thanks to a new ratings system for movies, which replaced the old Hayes censorship code, that zeitgeist could push the envelope in the realm of sex and violence.
Supernatural horror made a comeback as well in the 1970s with The Excorcist, which looked at society's spiritual ennui in the face of an ancient and unspeakable evil. Thanks to a loosening of public attitudes these ancient evils could swim in blood, organs, and occasionally pea soup. Fears about the environment also worked its way into the genre with a rash of "nature gone wild" films inspired by the success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws.
Maniacs, who had fallen out of favour in the face of demons and angry fish, made a comeback in the late 1970s, with John Carpenter's Halloween, and the Canadian film Black Christmas. Soon every movie company in the world had masked maniacs slicing up babysitters and camp counsellors with mad abandon all over the country. Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street blended the then familiar genre of the "slasher" with the supernatural, by having Freddy Kreuger hunting teens in the realm of dreams.
Like just about every subgenre before it, the satanic horror, the enviro-horror, and the slasher horror was pretty much killed by over-exposure. Sequels became cheaper and cheaper, as their killers became homicidal Wile E. Coyotes, getting killed again and again, only to rise again while their still profitable.
The late 90s saw a rise of the "self-aware" horror film like Scream, which weren't so much about the characters and their scary situations but were about casting an ironic eye on the genre itself. The irony didn't last, though it did spark an interest in a wave of remakes of old classic horror films, with bigger budgets, and prettier, more model-like casts.
Then along came Saw.
Many deride the Saw franchise, Hostel, and their imitators as torture porn, but like their predecessors were just tapping into that annoying zeitgeist again. These films deal with mysterious, sometimes foreign, killers, with seemingly unlimited resources, and a seemingly infinite inventiveness when it comes to dishing out the suffering. They aren't interested in just killing people, they seek to terrorize, debase, and degrade their victims, and they can't be reasoned with, bribed, or threatened, because the logic behind their campaigns make sense only to their own twisted minds.
If that's not a metaphor for living in the age of large scale terrorism, I don't know what is.
However, no matter how accurate the metaphor, even this genre is being destroyed by shoddy sequels and poor imitations. Thus leaving a door open for a new subgenre to creep out of the grave and make its mark.
That's all for now, later I will discuss the pros and cons of horror filmmaking. So be sure to check back.