Since we're coming up to Halloween here's a sample of my epic work in progress about show business, this is a brief history of horror films…
A LITTLE SCARY HISTORY
Horror cinema goes way back. Since the beginning of the medium over a century ago movie-makers have tried to frighten the bloomers off their audience, because deep down the audience loves to be scared.
However most American horror cinema of the silent era 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 at first appears to be supernatural phenomenon turning out to be elaborate hoaxes 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 post-World War I, 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, disfigurement, amputation, isolation and insanity. This is because horror, whether intentional on the part of the filmmakers 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 and civilized nations blasting the living hell out of each other. An entire generation had been scarred, both emotionally and physically by the immensity and brutality of that war that was wrought solely by the hand of man and his inventions, and that was reflected in its horror cinema.
The horror genre in Hollywood changed dramatically in the early 1930s mostly to the work of Universal Studios and its owners the Laemmle family. Universal was a relatively small studio at the time when compared to MGM and Paramount, and their cinematic bread and butter was providing "programmers" or low budget films for independent theatres, most of them in small towns. One of its biggest stars was the actor Lon Chaney, a master of disguise and pantomime, called "The Man of a Thousand Faces," who made dozens of low budget horror films and other genre programmers for Universal in the 1920s. His success led Universal to dip their toe into big budget "A-List" movies like the silent-era classics The Phantom of the Opera, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both starring Chaney in now iconic character make-up. Phantom was a lavishly produced thriller about a brilliant young singer stalked by a deranged and disfigured composer who will do anything to have her, even murder. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was the tale of a monstrous looking man, who was more human than the so-called "normal" people who spurned and abused him. The success of these films, and the all important emotional connection with the audience helped make Universal the home of the fantastic made into cinematic reality and inspired Carl Laemmle Jr., literally the boss' son, to go whole hog into horror with an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.
Carl Laemmle Jr. had been raised on a steady diet of central and eastern European folk tales larded heavily with ghosts, werewolves, witches, and most importantly vampires. He intended Dracula to be 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 didn’t Scooby-Doo the ending, and turn out to be a criminal or madman disguised as a vampire, like Chaney had done in the silent movie London After Midnight. Universal’s Dracula was portrayed solely as an undead supernatural monster that fed on the blood of the living, spreading death and madness wherever he went. Sadly Lon Chaney couldn't play the legendary count, having died of cancer before filming could begin, but the film did go on, starring Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi in the role that was a blessing and a curse for him. It made Lugosi a cultural icon, but it had also typecast him in horror roles, something he would never truly escape for the rest of his life.
Dracula sparked both a revelation and a revolution in American horror cinema. Ghost were free to be ghosts, werewolves to be werewolves, and mummies to be mummies. In a way this too could be connected to the feelings of the times. It was the Great Depression, at time of uncertainty and fear. In such times people needed to vent their fears, but they needed it contained in the wrapper of escapist fantasy and supernatural monstrosities in order to forget, even for a little while, the problems of the real world. And even that element of escapism tapped into the zeitgeist. Like the Great Depression, where ordinary people found themselves forced to face a world gone awry whether they like it or not. The normal people in the movies don't want to spend the night in the proverbial old dark house, but the weather's bad and the bridge is washed out. They have no choice but to face whatever's lurking in the shadows. This sense of disconnect from reality was felt by the reality bashed audience, helping these films connect emotionally with the audience, inspiring many sequels and imitators.
The Laemmle Family were gone by this time, their attempts to make prestigious "A" pictures had wracked up too much debt for the company to handle, so the creditors came in and the Laemmles were out. The new management of Universal saw the success of these horror films, and decided to use them to pave Universal's road back to profitability. And they milked the genre as hard as they could through the 1930s and 1940s.
Which leads us 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 as with the Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but that's for later. The closest competitor to Universal was producer Val Lewton at RKO. His films, though highly profitable, were literate dreamlike thrillers which dealt more with the suggestion of the supernatural than actually showing a full on rubber monster, which he couldn’t afford. Lewton had one simple rule for his films, he wanted them to be scary whether or not the film’s supernatural elements were real, or existed solely in the minds of a delusional character. Lewton’s films opened doors for several successful directors like Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but Lewton himself remained exiled to “B Movies” for the rest of his sadly brief career.
During the 1950s the supernatural horror genre went out of fashion for a while, badly wounded by over-exposure, and declining quality. The end of World War 2 also brought new prosperity, easing some anxieties, but birthing a batch of all new ones. Science, inspired by the real terrors of total aerial bombardment, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, returned to the forefront of horror cinema. The fantastical world of ancient and spooky old-world Gothic castles, dark cemeteries blanketed in waist high fog, and supernatural happenings was out. 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's happening and what needs to be done. The horror would then enter this picture perfect world, either created by the new threat of atomic radiation, the older threat of mad science, or come from the mysterious depths of outer space. Many of these threats were basically acceptable facades for the then real fear of attack or subversion by the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union. For those unfamiliar with history, the end of World War 2 pretty well marked the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and its allies against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and its subject nations in the Warsaw Pact.
The Cold War wasn't a shooting war, at least not directly. Both sides had atomic weapons and the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" to keep them from pressing the proverbial launch button, so it was a war of Third World proxy campaigns, industrial and military espionage and political subversion. It was only natural that the films would feature attacks by giant critters and varmints, created caused by atomic radiation, a mad scientist, or both. Or they involved people that seemed normal, seemed nice, but were, in fact, creatures from beyond reality in human disguise looking to overthrow democracy with their soulless drone society.
Supernatural horror still existed, but it wasn’t until the late fifties that Hammer Films of Great Britain and later Roger Corman at American International started doing it with the same loving zeal of the old days at Universal when supernatural horror was king. The secret of their success was where Universal’s classic era monsters dwelled in grim realms of black & white, Hammer and friends dished out the horror in brilliant technicolor. Since most of these films were set in the past, usually the 1800s, and made on relatively tiny budgets, the filmmakers deliberately gave them a borderline abstract dreamlike quality to make up for their shortcomings in the spectacle department.
Madmen and maniacs made a comeback in the 1960s, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho, which spawned many imitators, but few, if any, that could come close to equalling it. This development 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 bloody gusto in their notorious giallo movies.
Giallo, which means "yellow" in Italian, were murder-mystery thrillers inspired by a popular line of paperback novels known 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 bizarre 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 huge comeback as well in the 1970s with The Exorcist, The Omen, and legions of imitators which looked at the age's spiritual ennui by making it face 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 mainstream comeback in the late 1970s, with the massive success of John Carpenter's Halloween, following the tropes established by the earlier Canadian film Black Christmas, and the psycho redneck nightmare of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Soon every movie company in the world had masked maniacs slicing up babysitters, camp counsellors, and anyone else who just had illicit sex, 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 serial killer and sex offender Freddy Kreuger hunting teens in the surrealistic 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 and imitations became cheaper and cheaper, as their killers became homicidal Wile E. Coyotes, getting killed again and again, only to rise again while their repetitive formula remained profitable. By the 80s the horror genre had become the realm of cheap self-parody.
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 meta-fictional eye on the genre itself. The irony didn't last, though it did inspire the studios to start a wave of remakes of old 80s slasher horror films, with bigger budgets, and prettier, more model-like casts.
Then along came Saw and Hostel.
Many deride the Saw franchise, Hostel, and their imitators as nothing more than disgusting 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, the sub-genre was had the life sucked out of it 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. The latest thing is the "found footage" style, where a horror story is told through the point of view of home video cameras, and covers subjects as varied as zombies, psycho killers, ghosts, and demonic possession.
What will come after it once it's been flogged to death is unknown, and I guess that's fitting since the unknown is the scariest thing of all.