Blog Feed

Top 10 of ’21

@craiggors @MelMoy

It’s been a fascinating year for the horror genre. In many ways, it felt like a continuation of 2020, not least of which in how many great offerings there were on streaming services and through VOD. The year also saw a return to traditional theater screenings, with many of last year’s major studio films like A Quiet Place Part II and The Forever Purge finally getting a release. By and large, horror held firm in the mainstream spotlight. There was a healthy mix of indie efforts and big-budget fare, crowd pleasers and niche oddities. As such, there was a lot to choose from when looking at our top films of the year. As Miss Mel notes, this is probably one of the more diverse lists, especially since there are a few films here that some will bemoan as being “not horror.” The genre is blurring and stretching and redefining itself before our eyes, with lots of experimentation and work being done outside the bounds of “traditional” horror.

Before we get into our respective Top 10 lists, a few honorable mentions for films that nearly made the cut. First, The Green Knight, a dark fantasy that was visually amazing, creepy, and tense throughout. The same can be said of The Empty Man, with its broody update on urban legend chills, and of Come True, a rich, dread-filled spectacle that delves into the world of nightmares. Some good laughs were also had with The Beta Test, a black comedy with some gnarly kills and great American Psycho callbacks, and Vicious Fun, a witty, retro subversion of the slasher genre. Finally, suspense thriller Katla had a number of freaky moments throughout, while The Advent Calendar took a kitschy premise and mined it for some genuine creeps.

Additionally, we wanted to note that there were a few films neither of us got to see before the year expired so folks aren’t scratching their heads by their absence here, either on the list or mentioned in passing. We both haven’t gotten around to Titane or Last Night in Soho, and Miss Mel has yet to see the film Mr. Craiggors ranked No. 1. Meanwhile, Mr. Craiggors is convinced that if he had seen The Night House before today, it would have a place somewhere on his own list. C’est la vie. There is always time next year! As for now, let’s dive into the Top 10 of 2021:

Boys From County Hell

10. Candyman (Mel) / Boys From County Hell (Craig)

MEL: This was a great follow-up to the original but lacked a lot of the textures in the screenplay in its predecessor. After the initial setup, the plot moves whip quick which serves to really drain the tension that could have been there and loses the thread of racial identity and the context of Cabrini-Greene that was so potent in the first film and that could have made it so powerful here. Still, it has some brutal kills, excellent direction and use of light, and great acting. 

CRAIG: This vampire horror comedy certainly has its flaws, but it was so charming and entertaining that it slid into my favorite films of the year regardless. It’s silly, bloody, and surprisingly heartfelt thanks to some likable characters and solid performances. Plus the effects are great, and the tweak on vampire mythology adds a fun wrinkle to the toothy sub-genre.

Candyman

9. The Humans (Mel) / Candyman (Craig)

MEL: While not a traditional horror film (and many people probably wouldn’t consider this horror, especially with the prestige label of this one so you might call it a psychological drama) it’s a very Shirley Jackson-esque piece filmed with tension from both space and atmosphere and what the characters aren’t saying to each other. The final sequence is what really cements this as a horror film for me and one down incredibly well and in an engaging way. It’s low on my list simply because I felt there was more “true” and traditional horror on the list. 

CRAIG: From a production standpoint, this film is a standout. Stunning visuals, bold colors, trick shots and deep framing with lots of mirrors and reflective surfaces that unnerve and mystify the viewer. It’s a very artful, thoughtful film, but like Miss Mel said it lacks a little in its narrative structure and rushed plotting. Still a treat for the eyes and a respectable addition to the canon of a horror legend.

Superhost

8. Superhost (Mel) / There’s Someone Inside Your House (Craig)

MEL: I definitely liked the first half of this film better than the second half. I felt it was trying to pull too many twists off of a tense first act. But Gracie Gillam as the titular superhost carries this film, if nothing else, with her unnerving presence and ease with which she slips between her different personas and phases of her character. I’m also pretty turned off on things that try to tack on umbrella criticisms of social media, which felt unnecessary in this one. But a very creepy scenario that pays off pretty well. 

CRAIG: A lean 90-minute slasher that evokes all the best of the post-Scream boom, this is simplicity at its best. This film reminded me that it’s not always about shocking and wowing the audience with the latest and wildest narrative devices. Sometimes it’s just about telling a good story, having some sick kills, and bare bones yet high quality production. As the slasher continues its renaissance, future efforts should look here for how to do the stalk-and-slash right.

The Power

7. V/H/S/94 (Mel) / The Power (Craig)

MEL: I loved the concept and execution of the first V/H/S and the franchise’s schtick feels a little tired at this point, especially with the weak frame story on this one. But it’s always fun to see some directors get a chance to showcase some creepy stories and my favorite from this bunch was “The Wake.”

CRAIG: What starts as a somewhat familiar period ghost story quickly evolves into a psychological horrorfest all about claustrophobia, dread, and darkness. Rose Williams’s astonishing performance as the vulnerable, earnest young nurse in 1973 London brings an emotional weight to the story that left me feeling gutted after the credits rolled.

Censor

6. Censor (Mel & Craig)

MEL: This was a very interesting concept set in a fun world for horror buffs, the age of the “video nasty,” where it takes an ironic look at the long-held moral panic over the effect of horror films on crime rates. It’s a little hard to follow at times and the pace can really slow but it has some effective scares and a good overall message for those who blame horror films for crime.

CRAIG: I quite enjoyed this nightmarish plunge into the realm of censorship and moral scrutiny during the 1980’s Video Nasty era in the U.K. It was very atmospheric, lots of neon color clashing with the drab, muted palette of reality as Enid (Niamh Algar) loses her sanity. It was an excellent performance in a gorgeous film that was both love letter to the genre and a warning to those who attempt to edit their pasts to better suit their presents.

The Djinn

5. The Djinn (Mel) / Caveat (Craig)

MEL: This is a good old-fashioned survive the night style haunted house story. It takes some cues from films like Insidious and It Follows, all to great effect, as it paints a sinister sort of Home Alone situation. Ezra Dewey is engaging which is the bare minimum to carry us through such a contained film. But, sometimes not even his charisma can work through the slower bits that were bound to come from a suspense horror film in such a closed space and timeline.

CRAIG: Nothing is what it seems in this atmospheric haunted house movie with vibes for days. One of the eerie and unique films I’ve seen in recent years, I did not know what to expect and was thoroughly surprised. The film is a masterclass is slow burn dread, and I had chills running down my spine from the opening scene on. Very ominous, very dark, and one of the few films to actually make me yelp out loud during one particular scene.

Werewolevs Within

4. In the Earth (Mel) / Werewolves Within (Craig)

MEL: Not what I expected when I went in (I went in expecting supernatural woodsy horror). This is a nice bit of isolationist horror meets a dash of splatter porn meets folk horror. It had a pretty interesting concept once the story opened up a bit and had some fun use of light and sound (important to the mythology of the story) that felt inspired by Annihilation. While the story was a clear metaphor for pandemic paranoia and that was effective, I could have done without the half-assed pandemic reference in the early parts of the film but it wasn’t enough to detract from the story.

CRAIG: A wacky, charming whodunnit with equal parts laughs and scares, this slight horror comedy has all the camp, gore, and suspense I wanted going into director Josh Ruben’s follow-up to last year’s Scare Me. It’s always entertaining and never takes itself too seriously while still managing to surprise and draw you in further. The ensemble cast is committed and excellent, hilarious over the top bunch that really sells the story in the third act. It’s Clue meets Fargo meets Knives Out with werewolves…how could I not love it?

The Boy Behind the Door

3. Seance (Mel) / The Boy Behind the Door (Craig)

MEL: This was an interesting one in that it mixes Mean Girls with a slasher with a ghost story which, for the most part, comes across as fun and effective, though it probably could have just picked one and ran with it. It also has a couple of late twists that come a little too late to really matter, but this was a fun ride.

CRAIG: A dark, unrelentingly exercise in suspense that flips the home invasion film on its head and left me clenching my bun-buns for the entirety of film’s runtime. Sound and scene work flawlessly together to create white knuckle tension that keeps the viewer glued to the screen despite a nagging desire to hide behind a pillow. Young lead Lonnie Chavis is marvelous, particularly given the bleak subject matter–the heart and the hope that shines through the darkness.

Halloween Kills

2. Halloween Kills (Mel) / The Vigil (Craig)

MEL: I think the Twitter user who said this film was a lower tier on the better sequels hit the nail on the head with this one. The direction, production design, and music were all incredible but the screenplay was a bit of a mess–strung together sequences and kills without a through-line. What it sets up for will be exciting though. 

CRAIG: A familiar tale of demonic possession that is brought fresh perspective by writer/director Keith Thomas. The atmosphere is ominous and seeps through the screen in this one, and there’s some truly chilling moments throughout. The film uses religion and folklore to explore concepts of grief, guilt, and generational trauma. I was equal parts mesmerized and frightened.

Malignant

1. Fear Street Part Two: 1978 (Mel) / Malignant (Craig)

MEL: I broke the Fear Street trilogy up because the only one I truly enjoyed on its own was 1978. I think it functions pretty well as a stand-alone film and is one of the few middle films in a trilogy that acts as the important cornerstone it needs to be. It’s slasher summer camp horror on steroids with fun characters, gruesome kills, and a fun mythology. The Fear Street trilogy as a whole is fine, good horror fun but this was the strong one for me and something I see myself returning to often as a summer horror staple. 

CRAIG: This polarizing effort from James Wan was bonkers in the best sense of the word. From that mad opening sequence through the wild ride that follows, I was captivated if confused at times. Relentless and outlandish, I found myself thinking about this film the most out of everything I watched in 2021, and that alone said something to me. The 90’s Dark House and giallo references alone made me giddy, but I think it’s the fact that this film did something I had never seen before that led to me giving it my number 1 spot. We’re gonna be talking about this one for a long time to come.

Well, that’s a wrap on 2021, Chatterers–and good riddance, we say! Drop your favorite genre offerings from this year in the comments below, or let us know what you’re looking forward to next year. Here’s to keeping up the creep in 2022!

[Horror History] Netflix & Kill (The 2010’s)

@craiggors

This is the 11th and Final Part of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 as well

If the 2000’s was the decade that planted the seeds to revitalize and adapt the horror genre, then the 2010’s certainly saw the fruits of that labor. Whether it was New French Extremity, the deliberate excess of torture porn, or the ever-evolving found footage sub-genre, horror was experiencing a renewed interest and priming itself to head in bold new directions. The 2010’s were packed with variety when it came to spooks and scares. The experimentation, range, and quality exhibited had not been seen on such a massive scale since horror’s Golden Age during the 1970’s. Whether the films of the 2010’s will become as seminal and influential as those of the 70’s remains to be seen, but it can’t be denied that the sheer number of offerings on hand made it a peak time to be a horror fan.

The 2010’s saw an abundance of young, visionary directors crafting interesting, thought-provoking work, and a hungry, willing audience growing by the day eager to consume their work. There was horror for everyone in the 2010’s, no matter what your favorite sub-genre was, and the amount of creative freedom for filmmakers was unparalleled. Thanks to affordable digital cameras, social media, and widespread high-speed internet, it was easier than ever for filmmakers to get their ideas onto screens big and small without having to rely on the traditional studio pipeline that would have hampered more offbeat efforts in the past. The rise of streaming platforms allowed for limitless options, and by the end of the decade, everyone wanted to get in on original horror content. It seemed the first decade of the 21st century whetted the world’s appetite for horror. Now it was time to feast.

Pictured: someone who appreciates going HAM

After the mostly financially successful remakes of classic properties in the 2000’s–chief among them The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), and Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2009), it was no surprise that studios stuck with the very easy model of outfitting the old guard for a new era. Old fans were drawn in out of curiosity, while new, younger fans came thanks to name recognition and marketing hype. As the decade began, the remake train was going full steam ahead, with many of the most formative and beloved horror films of the 70’s and 80’s getting made over with A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010), The Crazies (2010), Piranha (2010), I Spit On Your Grave (2010), Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010), Fright Night (2011), Maniac (2012), The Evil Dead (2013), Carrie (2013), with Poltergeist (2015), Suspiria (2018), and Child’s Play (2019), and Rabid (2019) sprinkled in later. If it wasn’t remakes, it there were still new entries. The Thing (2011) was a prequel that detailed what happened to the Norwegian base immediately prior to the events of Carpenter’s 1982 film, while Texas Chainsaw was given yet another reset/odd continuity scuttle with Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013). Aside from it’s remake at the end of the decade, the Child’s Play franchise first saw two new installments with Curse of Chucky (2013) and Cult of Chucky (2017), all priming people for the television series Chucky airing now on Syfy. Perhaps the most high profile sequel was Halloween (2018), David Gordon Green’s direct sequel to John Carpenter’s 1978 original and the start of a new trilogy that saw the return of Laurie Strode in a celebration of the film’s fortieth anniversary. On the other end of the spectrum, Hellraiser: Judgement (2018), the tenth entry in the Hellraiser series, gained little fanfare outside Cenobite loyalists.

Though the bankability of established properties was undeniable, critical reviews and audience reception were not always as kind. As such, the word “remake” came to carry a stain by the mid-2010’s, and later decade efforts to continue famous franchises started using words like “reboot” and “reimagining” and “alternate version” to dissociate from those clearly cash-grab prior efforts. The Halloween and Texas Chainsaw properties were particularly fond of this strategy. These efforts have their admirers, and there is certainly solid work in the bunch, but by and large even the best remakes of the 2010’s still bore the caveat “but we’ve seen it before.”

Yet outside of the redo-cycle, those aforementioned new creatives were experimenting with wild abandon, often to great success. James Wan, who had made a mark for himself with his inventive and low budget Saw (2004), was ready to make his comeback in partnership with Jason Blum and his production company, Blumhouse, which had struck gold thanks to Oren Peli’s Paranormal Activity (2009). The story of that success became the Blumhouse model: make relatively low budget films in which the writers and directors have complete creative control, get good actors, and distribute widely. The strategy is heavy on return on investment, meaning that while Blumhouse produced some of the best horror of the 2010’s, it also produced some of it’s most abysmal stinkers. But it was Blumhouse who invested in Wan’s return effort, a script written by his old friend and writing partner Leigh Whannell: Insidious (2010). The resulting film breathed new life into the haunted house sub-genre, drawing heavily on atmosphere, tension, direction, and expertly timed jump scares. While not as earth-shattering as Paranormal Activity, the film was still a hit commercially and critically, paving the way for Wan to take on an ambitious new project, The Conjuring (2013).

The sheet was uncredited, but man what a performance

Based on the real-life reports of paranormal investigators/demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren, played with serious chemistry by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring channeled new life into the possession/exorcism sub-genre, a massive feat considering the film is not particularly fresh when it comes to its scares or tactics, but Wan’s direction, the strong script, and the film’s deep understanding of horror as a genre crafted a perfectly tense film that appealed to a wide audience and became one of the most successful horror films of all time. That same year, wan released Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013), another box office success that led to Bumhouse’s growing stable of powerhouse franchises alongside Paranormal Activity, Sinister (2012), and The Purge (2013). Wan went on to helm The Conjuring 2 (2016) and consult on the expansion of the so-called Conjuring Universe, a series of interconnected spin-offs including Annabelle (2014), Annabelle: Creation (2017), The Nun (2018), The Curse of La Llorona (2019), Annabelle Comes Home (2019), and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It (2021).

Blumhouse was not confined to their super-franchises, however. They also produced lower budget efforts that proved to be some of the most effective horror of the 2010’s, including Mike Flanagan’s Oculus (2013), Hush (2016), and Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016), meta-sequel The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014), and Mark Duplass and Patrick Brice’s Creep (2014) and Creep 2 (2017). Flanagan quickly proved himself to be one of the most inventive directors of the new horror class, with a range that is hard to find in any filmmaker, let alone a horror filmmaker. His debut feature Absentia (2011), his Blumhouse productions, and his Stephen King adaptations Gerald’s Game (2017) and Doctor Sleep (2019) are all vastly different types of films that nonetheless brought fresh twists and dark angles to the tried templates of the ghost story, the home invasion, and the possession tale. Similarly, Creep was credited with breathing new life into the found footage parade with its unpredictability and intimate nature. The unease generated by the Creep films was an element not always found in other 2010’s found footage features, though a handful did stand out in the crowd, including The Last Exorcism (2010), V/H/S (2012), As Above, So Below (2014), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), The Houses October Built (2014), Hell House LLC (2015), and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit (2015), another Blumhouse effort that hit just the right notes of suspense and terror.

Blumhouse’s model of low budget, low risk, creative control filmmaking quickly caught on with studios large and small. As the decade wore on, a growing number of visionary talents emerged, backed by studios willing to let them steer their own ships. A discussion arose surrounding the lowly financed, highly creative outputs of these filmmakers, one of so-called “elevated horror.” For perhaps the first time, horror was regarded in the mainstream as a genre that could produce “high art” alongside the “low art” of the slasher and the gore fest. Studio A24 became the focal point for this discussion of respectability in the middle of their decade thanks to Robert Eggers’ Puritan panic, The Witch (2015), though their under-the-radar arthouse films Enemy (2013) and Under the Skin (2013) had quietly started the discussion a few years prior. “Elevated horror” was meant to distinguish films like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014) from more traditional horror, but its usage as a critical term immediately came under fire from longtime horror fans who found the language elitist and implying that non-arthouse horror had no intellectual value. They argued that smart, complex, creative horror has always existed and was only recently overshadowed by over-produced studio fare. The true growth of creative-led indie horror in the 2010’s is thanks in large part to technology. Hi-def video cameras became more affordable, impressive special effects could be completed on a laptop, and self-produced horror could thrive at festivals and stream online thanks to Netflix, Shudder, Hulu, Amazon Prime, or any of the other endless streaming platforms desperate for subscribers. Even Blumhouse was technically late to the game. Smart, original, and terrifying low-budget movies like The Battery (2012), Resolution (2012), Spring (2014), They Look Like People (2015), The Invitation (2015), and Southbound (2015) had already made their mark on the indie circuit well before studios realized there was a massive audience for creative-controlled storytelling.

Dost thou wish to have butter on thy popcorn?

Stephen King, whose works had been adapted in every decade since 1976’s Carrie, saw a number of his stories and novels get high profile screen translations in the 2010’s. CBS’s Under the Dome (2013-2015) kicked things off, followed by Hulu’s 11/22/63 miniseries (2016), both of which were more well received than the film adaptations in the early half of the decade. Carrie (2013), A Good Marriage (2014), Mercy (2014), and Cell (2016) were all considered lazy affairs. This was not unusual for King works that made it to screen, however. For every The Shawshank Redemption (1994) there was always a Dreamcatcher (2003). Then, in 2017, two major King properties with large fanbases made their theatrical debuts after toiling in production hell: The Dark Tower (2017) and IT (2017). Pennywise had previously graced small screens in the 1990 miniseries and had been workshopped for a studio film since 2009, while The Dark Tower was meant to kick off an entire franchise that combined television and film in an epic crossover, but poor reception of the film squashed that idea, at least temporarily. IT surpassed expectations critically and commercially, becoming the most successful horror film of all time. It didn’t take long for others to hop on the newly invigorated King train. Netflix dropped Gerald’s Game (2017) and 1922 (2017) within weeks of IT’s release while Hulu launched Castle Rock (2018-2019) as a means to play with old King stories while creating new ones in a familiar setting. Though Spike’s The Mist (2017) didn’t draw in the viewers or accolades that the 2007 film did, executives weren’t daunted. Audience adapted Mr. Mercedes (2017-2019) to decent reception, and Mike Flanagan took on his second King project with his chilling adaptation of Doctor Sleep (2019) and HBO enjoyed equal success with their miniseries of The Outsider (2020).

King-based TV wasn’t the only horror to soar on the small screen in the 2010’s, and it’s hard not to discuss the genre during the decade without acknowledging the renaissance horror television went through. The explosion of streaming services in the 2010’s changed the rules of both cinema and television. The general approach to horror TV pre-2010 was to take the fantasy and/or supernatural route. You could be frightening here and there, but it was best avoid real terror. Shows like Buffy (1997-2003) and Supernatural (2015-2020) filled that niche well, with Dexter (2006-2013; 2021) scratching the itch for serial killer enthusiasts. And while both True Blood (2008-2014) and The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017) capitalized on the post-Twilight vampire craze, it was really AMC’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s long running zombie comic series The Walking Dead (2010-present) that entered horror TV into the prestige category. The juggernaut series became AMC’s flagship, sparking dozens of imitators capitalizing on undead mania. With the stigma of low-quality television broken, other efforts came pouring in from networks, premium cable outfits, and streaming services alike. FX’s American Horror Story (2011-present) began as a well-crafted, genuinely scary exploration of themes, characters, and horror iconography not previously seen on the small screen, and it’s initial success opened the floodgates for hardcore horror on TV like Bryan Fuller’s multilayered arthouse Hannibal (2013-2015), moody Psycho (1960) prequel Bates Motel (2013-2017), the delectable Penny Dreadful (2014-2016), and anthology series like Into the Dark (2018-present), Channel Zero (2016-2018), Slasher (2016-present), Scream (2015-2019), and the Creepshow revival (2019-present).

The undisputed champion of 2010’s horror television, however, would turn out to be Netflix. They struck gold with their 80’s-set sci-fi/horror hybrid Stranger Things (2016-present), a nostalgic blast from the past that used incidental music in the style of and from the period to envelop audiences into the time entirely. The blend of coming-of-age drama with horror action proved a massively successful formula, breaking streaming records and setting the cultural tone for the latter half of the decade. Netflix continued to prosper thanks to their partnership with the decade’s rising star Mike Flanagan and his The Haunting of Hill House (2018), lauded as one of the most inventive and scary television shows ever. A masterclass in acting, storytelling, and atmosphere, the series weaved together aspects of the Shirley Jackson novel with a tale of grief and trauma. While other Netflix horror efforts like The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018-2020) didn’t quite reach these heights, they nonetheless kept horror fans continually checking in with the streaming service to see what horror offerings they would produce next.

Eight bedrooms, six baths, one Bent-Neck Lady

With Blumhouse and A24 paving the way for horror’s cinematic renaissance, and Netflix doing the same for television, options for genre creatives in the late 2010’s were vast. Thanks to their influx of subscribers, Netflix was now able to begin picking up distribution rights for films at festivals to avoid competing with production studios and thus provide an alternative route to market, and thus return on investment, for filmmakers uninterested or blocked by the traditional and often difficult cinematic release or derived straight-to-disc path. This helped lesser known indies like The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016), American Mary (2012), and Starry Eyes (2014) not get lose in the shuffle and find audiences that otherwise would have missed them. This indiscriminate model sometimes resulted in successes for Netflix like The Ritual (2017) and The Perfection (2018), but also opened the doors for a number of weaker, cheap efforts that felt rushed and incomplete.

Many of these lesser known indie films were able to rise to prominence outside of both the major Hollywood studio system and the ever expanding streaming market. Frozen (2010) had skiers questioning if they’d ever take to the mountains again. The Innkeepers (2011) reminded us that it’s best to leave some ghosts alone, while Mama (2013) demonstrated that family can be deadly. Cyber horror exploited the very technology that integrated itself so completely into daily life in the 2010’s: Followers (2017) used found footage to examine social media, while Megan is Missing (2011) and Share.Like.Follow (2017) took online stalking to frightening new levels and The Den (2013), Cam (2017), and Girl House (2014) revealed just how dangerous spy cams and voyeur culture were getting. Cyberbullying was the subject of a number of films, most notably Don’t Hang Up (2016) and Unfriended (2014). It was an eclectic decade, where everything from salacious slashers like You’re Next (2011) and meta-horror comedies like The Cabin in the Woods (2012) enjoyed as much success as extreme exploitation flicks like The Green Inferno (2015) and home invasion inversions like Don’t Breathe (2016). It was also the decade book-ended by award-recognized horror. Black Swan (2010) and Get Out (2017) drew critical acclaim from the highest halls of film criticism, earning Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards, but it was Jordan Peele’s Get Out in particular that sparked important conversations about contemporary and historical traumas surrounding racism in and outside horror. The allegorical film was quickly recognized as a watershed moment for horror, and though Peele’s Us (2019) didn’t garner quite as much praise, Peele was nonetheless solidified as one of the elite class of working horror filmmakers whose projects would be followed as closely as Flanagan, Wan, Eggers, and Ari Aster, whose back-to-back gut punches Hereditary (2018) and Midsommar (2019) made it impossible for anyone to deny that horror had the potential to be as respectable and philosophical as any other genre.

Crying over all the Oscar snubs, obviously

With genre-focused services like Shudder providing new and original films and programming alongside classic horror too, and major studios, indie outlets, and streaming services all wanting a pie of the spooky pie, the options for horror fans going into the 2020’s are leaps and bounds ahead of where the genre was even at the beginning of the 2010’s. The rise of independent production companies working closely with streaming has changed the game for horror. Creatives have more avenues than ever to produce the work they want unencumbered by hindering oversight. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put theater-going into a dangerous limbo space, horror as a genre has already proven itself adaptable and capable of not just surviving but thriving in the current state of content consumption, much as it always had been since the days of bats on strings and camera tricks in the days of Edison and Méliès.

It’s unclear what the 2020’s will bring for horror, but it’s certain to be interesting, engaging work reflective of the times. As we await what the next decade will bring, genre fans can rest easy knowing that, like the monsters and slashers and killers that populate the films we love, horror will always be back bigger, stronger, and smarter than ever. Here’s to the next decade, and beyond, of all things horror.

Keep up the creep, Chatterers.

This concludes the Horror History series of posts tackling the history of horror films decade by decade. Share your thoughts in the comments and thanks for reading!

WORKS CONSULTED:
Armitage, Matt. “Horror Movies in the 2010s.” Horror Obsessive, 18 July, 2020. https://horrorobsessive.com/2020/07/18/horror-in-the-2010s-part1-the-house-that-wan-built/amp/

Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Terror Time (The 2000’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 10 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 9 as well

The new decade/century/millennium forced horror to adapt practically from jump. After so many dire predictions, January 1, 2000 came and went without much mishap. Nevertheless, a seismic shift was on the way: the events of September 11, 2001, which many argue is when the 21st century truly began. 9/11 changed the global understanding of what it means to be afraid, and it set the cultural agenda for the following decade, if not longer, and horror movies of the time quickly began to reflect this new cruelty.

Hollywood, already facing a recession, was hit hard as filmmakers struggled to connect with audiences amid the collective trauma. Anyone trying to sell a horror film in the autumn of 2001 (as George Romero did with Land of the Dead) got rebuffed. Everybody wanted to make warm, fuzzy movies with uplifting, encouraging messages. There were even calls to ban horror movies in the name of world peace. But, by 2005 the horror genre was as popular as it had ever been. Horror films routinely topped the box office, yielding, as they always had, above-average gross on below-average costs. It seemed that audiences wanted a good scare as a form of escape from stories of war, suicide bombers, and devastating natural disasters, just as their great-grandparents had turned to the Universal monsters to gain a reprieve from the miseries of the Great Depression.

Those monsters had to change, however. Gone were the lone psychopaths of the 1990’s, too reminiscent of Osama bin Laden hiding in his cave. As the shock and awe of 21st century warfare spread across TV and computer screens, cinematic horror had to offer an alternative while still tapping into the prevailing cultural mood. The result was a mix of terminal terror, soldiers of misfortune, and the rise and fall of torture porn all competing against a wave of Asian-inspired horror and direct-to-DVD shlock.

Had it been released in 2002 as opposed to 2005, Land of the Dead would have been a very, very different film

The first mini-boom of the 21st century were knockoffs of The Blair Witch Project (1999). It was a particularly easy trend to hop on because it required the least in the way of budget and resources. There were no solid rules to follow here, aside from eschewing Hollywood gloss in the name of getting down and dirty with whatever tools you had on hand. First came parodies like The Bogus Witch Project (2000) and The Blair Underwood Project (2000), most of which had higher budgets than the film they were imitating. Soon after came copycats like The St. Francisville Experiment (2000) and Blood Reaper (2003), turned out by amateurs with camcorders walking around the woods wondering why their films didn’t reach the box office bonanza proportions of Blair Witch. The official sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000) was a conventionally scripted affair that made little impression on audiences and strangled the franchise in its infancy. But there were a few zero budget, shot-on-digital-video efforts that showed imagination and ingenuity, most notably the Internet-themed The Collingswood Story (2002), the chilling Session 9 (2001), infection/zombie flick [REC] (2007), giant monster creature feature Cloverfield (2008), and the breakout hit of the decade, Paranormal Activity (2009).

Psychopathy continued to be a major theme even as the psychos themselves took on new form. Mary Harron filmed Bret Easton Ellis’s “unfilmable” novel American Psycho (2000), introducing filmgoers to Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale), a high maintenance Wall Street yuppie from the 80’s obsessed with pop music, designer clothes, and obsessive grooming. The film consigned the fearsome figure of the serial killer to the dead past, but other filmmakers failed to take the hint. The serial killer sub-genre now began to incorporate the famous faces of true crime with films like Ed Gein (2000), Ted Bundy (2002), and The Manson Family (2003). American Psycho was also an entry in the increasingly crowded “rubber reality” twist films following in the footsteps of The Sixth Sense (1999) and Fight Club (1999), and the bendy rug-pulling of The Matrix (1999). These sorts of twists, which relied on a warped mind or sense of reality, became commonplace in the early years of the 21st century. On some level, they may have been a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11; in many films, there is an attempt to turn away from, revoke, or rewrite a reality that has become too much to bear. Into this category fall ghost stories like The Others (2001), Session 9 (2001), and The Orphanage (2007); time/memory gameplay like Memento (2000) and The Butterfly Effect (2004); psychotic subjective realities such as The Cell (2000), The Attic Expeditions (2002), Frailty (2002), and Identity (2003); murderous imaginary friends/ doppelgängers in The Machinist (2003), Secret Window (2004), High Tension (2004), and Hide and Seek (2005); and bizarre combos of the above themes with The I Inside (2003), A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), The Jacket (2004), Trauma (2004), and Shutter Island (2009).

The rise of the Internet meant 2000s horror fans could more easily access and explore international horror, and there was a particular fascination with Asian horror. In contrast to Western horror, which has fluctuated with various trends and cycles within the horror, Eastern horror has maintained a consistent focus on the psychological and the supernatural with only a few rare exceptions. Asian horror draws heavily on the spirit, perhaps because predominant Asian belief systems like Buddhism, Shintoism, and Islam are more open to the concept of the dearly departed leaving some trace of themselves behind, hence the predominance of ancestor worship. The struggle to cope with the massive and senseless loss of life in the name of terror may have had a factor in the increased fascination with Eastern-inspired horror. Whatever the reason, a flood of ghost stories in the pattern of Ringu (1998) from Japan, Thailand, China, and South Korea flooded the market in the early 2000s. Lank-haired, big-eyed, malevolent girl ghosts were everywhere, as were curses spread through viral means and investigative female protagonists learning secrets that would eventually destroy them. And almost all of them had downbeat endings. The most successful of the bunch included The Eye (2002), Unborn But Forgotten (2002), Dark Water (2002), The Grudge (2004), Pulse (2001), Phone (2002), and Into the Mirror (2003). Western cinema soon began to not only import these types of films, but try their own hand at them as well. First the conventions were paralleled in What Lies Beneath (2000) and The Mothman Prophecies (2001), then they were outright imitated in Feardotcom (2002), They (2002), and Gothika (2003). Eventually, Hollywood figured out they could remake the original Asian films for an American audience that had never seen them. With The Ring (2002) and Dark Water (2005) succeeding at the box office, Hideo Nakata (director of the original Japanese versions) was brought in to helm The Ring Two (2005), a direct sequel to the American film and in no way a remake of his Japanese Ringu 2 (1999). Other prominent Asian movies of the decade that didn’t fit the ghost mold included the puzzlebox Spiral (2000), schoolgirl zombie bash Stacy (2001), Chan-wook Park’s vengeance trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, 2002; Oldboy, 2003; Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, 2004), and Takeshi Miike’s controlled and chilling Audition (1999).

The ultimate slow burn with the ultimate reward

British horror also enjoyed a renewed international interest in the early 2000’s. Rob Green’s The Bunker (2000), in which Nazis are plagued by guilt-induced phantoms, paved the way for a number of horror stories with wartime settings. They all led up to the World War I-set Deathwatch (2002) and Neil Marhsall’s werewolves-ate-my-platoon feature Dog Soldiers (2002). Additionally, fans of war-horror could also get their fill with haunted submarine flick Below (2002) and the Korean Vietnam spooker R-point (2004). British horror mimicked the the teen-centric Dimension movies with a few efforts like Long Time Dead (2001) and Nine Lives (2002) but mostly they took old themes and revamped them for the modern age with The Hole (2001), The Last Horror Movie (2003), Lie Still (2004), Severance (2006), Wishbaby (2008), and Black Death (2009). Breakout hits from the U.K. were Marc Evan’s reality TV slasher My Little Eye (2002), Danny Boy’s fast zombie/apocalypse shocker 28 Days Later (2002), Edgar Wright’s surprisingly pertinent Romero nod Shaun of the Dead (2004), and Neil Marshall’s cave terror film The Descent (2005).

Meanwhile, Stephen Sommers’s The Mummy (1999) kick-started a new trend for action-oriented horror/fantasy films that brought the monster movie into the new millennium. Playing with the tradition of dark superhero films that began with The Crow (1994), Sommers followed up his successful first outing with Imhotep with The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004), which resurrected many of the classic Universal monsters by pitting Hugh Jackman against Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and involving Frankenstein’s Monster (Shuler Hensley) and the Wolf Man (Will Kemp). The action-horror boom continued with efforts like From Hell (2001), Queen of the Damned (2002), Underworld (2003), The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), Constantine (2004), The Brothers Grimm (2005), and a remake of The Wolf Man (2010), as well as a number of Blade sequels. These are slick, glossy films that do their best to imitate the effectiveness of the Spider-Man and X-men films they were going up against, with varying degrees of success. Perhaps the strongest result from this trend was Guillermo del Toro’s Hellboy (2003) and Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008), though far more interesting are his pure horror creations from the decade: The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2007). Reviving classic monsters with odd, self-reflexive efforts didn’t last long, however, though Tim Burton and Johnny Depp managed a respectable result with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). The monster/fantasy hybrid films were designed to work in an era dominated by the Lord of the Rings films. This is perhaps most evident in two foreign superproductions from abroad: France’s Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001) and Russia’s Night Watch (2004). The best variant on the classic mode of the werewolf, however, was the small, cleverly written Canadian teen-centric Ginger Snaps (2000), which even managed a few interesting sequels.

But the dominant force was still mainstream, studio-backed teen horror. Interesting, self-aware variations like Cherry Falls (2000) and psycho stalkers like The Watcher (2000) soon found themselves edged out by spoofs like Shriek If You Know What I Did Last Friday the 13th (2000), Club Dread (2004), and the Scary Movie franchise. Despite this, the fairly ingenious Final Destination (2000) managed to found its own franchise centered around contrived death sequences given metaphysical weight. It was the rare 2000’s horror film to birth a series and not immediately die in infancy. Countless franchise wannabes stalled after their inaugural installment–Bones (2001), Soul Survivors (2001), Darkness Falls (2003). Others eeked out sequels that went direct-to-DVD–Boogeyman (2004), Reeker (2005), and Vacancy (2007) being just a few examples.

An interesting outing, Cherry Falls remains both forgotten and relevant 20+ years later

The decent reception of the remake of William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill in 1999 triggered a frenzy for raiding the back catalogue of past middling efforts and giving them a makeover for a second chance, namely Thirteen Ghosts (2001), Willard (2003), House of Wax (2005), 2001 Maniacs (2005), and The Wizard of Gore (2008). Into this category we might also put Ghost Ship (2002), which was not a remake but for some reason was designed to seem like one. These remakes weren’t the only old properties given new life in the 2000’s. The surprising critical and commercial success of Bride of Chucky (1998) got the powers-that-be behind the major slasher franchises thinking, resulting in such films as Jason X (2001), Freddy vs. Jason (2003), Beyond Re-Animator (2003), AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004), and The Exorcist: The Beginning (2004). At some point, someone realized that halting the sequels and straight-up remaking the original entries to franchises that still garnered public interest would be far more profitable, as the remakes could be marketed as events. From this mindset came the remakes for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), The Amityville Horror (2005), The Fog (2005), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Halloween (2007), Prom Night (2008), My Bloody Valentine (2009), The Last House on the Left (2009), Halloween II (2009), and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). Though some of these remakes succeed in their own right, many of them are just good lucking, slick productions lacking what made their namesakes interesting in the first place. While his masterpiece was being retooled, Tobe Hooper also got in on the remake game with a little remembered update of The Toolbox Murders (2004). George Romero, meanwhile, used the clout from the Dawn of the Dead remake to get financing for his comeback, Land of the Dead (2005). It wasn’t quite on the level of his first three Living Dead films, but it still had something to say. He kept it indie for the remaining entries in the series as well, Diary of the Dead (2007) and Survival of the Dead (2009). These, combined with Dawn and Shaun of the Dead, brought about a zombie apocalypse boom that saw several Resident Evil sequels, I Am Legend (2007), Dance of the Dead (2008), Dead Snow (2009), and Zombieland (2009) gain mainstream success while smaller, creative takes like The Signal (2007) and Pontypool (2009) enjoyed rave reviews among genre enthusiasts of all sorts.

Those enthusiasts were now getting in on the game themselves. Raised on 70’s and 80’s horror, the new generation of horror filmmakers moved into the filed in earnest in the 2000’s, each of them trying their own variations on established themes and igniting a debate about whether paying homage was enough to make a film stand on its own. This trend began with a little cluster of horror/road movies that rediscovered the unease of the flyover country that exists between America’s cities. Urban teens found themselves subjected to rural horrors and going up against the terrors of the sticks. The creature feature Jeepers Creepers (2001), psycho stalker Joy Ride (2001), vampire flick Forsaken (2001), and the ghostly Dead End (2003) were among the pulpier, lower-budgeted efforts, while bigger budget outings like Cold Creek Manor (2003) and The Skeleton Key (2005) updated 70’s plots about unwary townies moving into creaky old mansions for the modern, skeptical audience. Wrong Turn (2004) and Dead & Breakfast (2004) were combo efforts that used larger budgets to capitalize on “hick fear,” though both paled in comparison to Rob Zombie’s House of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its sequel, The Devil’s Rejects (2005).

The most pervasive movement within horror during the 2000’s, however, was the so-called “torture porn.” Featuring grindhouse levels of violence and mutilation, the seeds of the sub-genre were planted with Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever (2002), but were brought to fruition with James Wan’s Saw (2004) and solidified by Roth’s Hostel (2005). These are cynical, bleak films that force the audience to endure every minute of their numerous tied-to-a-chair-and-tortured sequences. Evoking the images of suspected terrorists imprisoned and “interrogated” at Guantanamo Bay, torture porn at once became horror’s hottest trend and its more derived deviation. Saw spawned the most successful horror franchise of the decade, with annually-released sequels developing the original idea into a serial-like story of labyrinthine complexity and increasingly elaborate set-piece kills. More life, intelligence, and interesting film-making tends to be found in foreign torture porn, however, particularly French films of the New Extremity movement like High Tension (2003), Them (2006), Frontier(s) (2007), Inside (2007), and Martyrs (2008). These are films made by grown-ups for grown-ups, and immediately earned sinister reputations for their frequent bans and limited availability.

I totally SAW that ending coming…not

Perhaps the last great boom of 2000’s horror was the vampire resurgence made popular by the Twilight series of novels and subsequent films (2008-2012), the outstanding Swedish film Let the Right One In (2008), and TV shows like True Blood (2008-2014) and Being Human (2008-2013). Though the vampire had an annoyingly sparkly day in the sun, it was the zombie who reigned supreme as the second decade of the 21st century dawned. Within that decade, horror would thrive thanks to increased attention to international efforts, generous budgets from major studios, a plethora of indie auteurs creating dynamic, challenging work, and a scarier, more complicated world that demanded scarier, more complicated horror films.

Read about all that and more in the final Horror History post that will examine the spooks and scares of the 2010’s…

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Death, Rebirth, Redeath (The 1990’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 9 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 as well

Can you ever have too much of a good thing? Absolutely, and horror films are no exception to this rule. In the 1990’s, the grotesque masks, buckets of blood, and half-naked co-eds that had defined the genre during the preceding decade wore thin. The overindulgence of the Age of Excess was leading to a cultural tummy ache, and it nearly killed horror altogether. As in the 1940’s, repetition and over-sequelization meant that the original monsters introduced in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s were now relics of their former selves. Once terrifying, they now elicited laughs either through ham-fisted wisecracking or their relentless returning from the dead to stab and slash again and again. Moving through the same old plot points ad nauseum, Freddy, Jason, Michael, Pinhead, Chucky, and all the rest had become as dry as a mummified corpse. It was time for horror to slink back into the shadows from whence it was born to uncover something new.

As in all of the previous decades, horror in the 1990’s drew on real contemporary fears to create compelling fiction. The first Gulf War and the recession of 1990 set the cultural tone at the opening of the decade. The negative consequences of regulation and unchecked capitalism were beginning to show their effects. Though a small elite profited from the “greed is good” mantra of the 80’s, many were left worse off, and it would take some time before people realized just how badly. Major news events like the L.A. riots in 1992, the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal were reported globally on the emerging 24/7 news cycle, making the apparent doom of a cracked society inescapable to the everyday person. With the L.A. riots, conflict was brought right to Hollywood’s front yard, causing shockwaves through the entire movie business. Even though the Cold War was finally over, people were still being fed plenty of reasons to fear, and increasingly, harm the Other: skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disease, addiction, political ideology.

The decade also saw its horror movies reflecting fears about the approaching end of the millennium. Would there be truth to ancient, cryptic prophecies foretelling the end times? Would the year 2000 trigger a deadly sequence of global catastrophes resulting in the Apocalypse? Followers of the Branch Davidians and Heaven’s Gate died en masse for their beliefs in 1993 and 1997, respectively. The intense coverage of both events centered around the simple but daunting question: were they right? Did they achieve early salvation? Were the rest of, left behind, damned for years of pain and suffering? As the world fretted about the future, many horror filmmakers looked to the past for answers, reinterpreting old narratives through a postmodern lens. A simpler, more authentic entertainment took the place of the comic excess of the 80’s. “Raw” and “real” were the monikers of the day, but that didn’t always allow room for fun. Horror films of the 90’s lean towards brown palettes and muted, earthy tones. New sorts of monsters were thus needed to match this somber mood.

Or at least, new versions of the old ones

At the beginning of the decade, Tim Burton was the most high profile filmmaker in the genre business, but his one true pure horror film of the 90’s didn’t come out until they were almost over, 1999’s Sleepy Hollow. All of his films still tended to deal with freakish outsiders, however, and were certainly heavy on dark, Expressionist imagery and atmosphere, whether it was the fairy tale-like Edward Scissorhands (1990) or the gothic dreamscape Batman Returns (1992) or even his very sincere biopic Ed Wood (1994). But it didn’t pay to do true horror, anyway. Franchises were floundering left and right, as demonstrated by The Exorcist III (1990), Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III (1990), Bride of Re-Animator (1991), Amityville 1992: It’s About Time (1992), and constant returns to Elm Street, Crystal Lake, and Haddonfield. All these series petered out in the 90’s, later to be revived, remade, or re-envisioned in the new century.

And yet, it was in the early days of the decade that horror made one of its strongest, most stylish impacts of all time in the form of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991), adapted from the bestselling novel by Thomas Harris. The book is a sequel to Red Dragon, which Michael Mann had filmed as Manhunter (1986) without anyone really noticing, but Silence feels much like a standalone. It became the first horror movie not only to win Best Picture, but to sweep all of the Big Five categories at the Academy Awards. The topic of serial killing was not new to horror–characters like Dracula and Mr. Hyde are technically serial murderers, and Jack the Ripper was mimicked heavily in 1940’s efforts like The Lodger (1944) and The Spiral Staircase (1946). And that’s not even mentioning Norman Bates, Michael Myers, and the copious black-gloved slashers of Dario Argento’s gialli films. Through the 80’s, however, as the term “serial killer” became more widespread, more films began to tackle the subject in a clinical, realistic manner, notably John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986), which wasn’t widely seen until the 90’s. Silence was the first film to co-opt the serial killer as found in police procedurals with the inside-the-mind-of-a-madman drama and produce a horror film. In the process, Demme proved that the horror movie could be a matter of treatment as much as subject.

Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), who combines elements of both Dracula and Renfield, became the boogeyman of the 90’s. A cultured cannibal psychiatrist, words away from any real life serial killer, he is witty, sensitive, charismatic, and very, very dangerous. Hopkins reprised the role in Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2001), from Harris’s sequel novel, and Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon (2002), a remake of Manhunter done in imitation of Demme’s style. As the cycle progressed, Lecter became less an uncontrollable psychotic and more a refined vigilante, dining on “the free-range rude.” There were, inevitably, imitations with increasingly bizarre genius murderers and neurotic profilers, from the aptly named Copycat (1995) to Kiss the Girls (1997) to The Bone Collector (1999). David Fincher’s Seven (1995) came from the Silence tradition, but it held water on its own strengths. The killer’s gimmick–grisly deaths themed to the Seven Deadly Sins–would have been right on point for Vincent Price in Dr. Phibes mode, but the film’s distinctive noir, rainy, twisted intensity helped it stand out, and has been copied copiously. Equally mimicked is the five-minute credit sequence of Seven, directed by Kyle Cooper–a montage of diary entries, classical paintings, crime scene photos, and other strange artifacts cleverly edited together that has been imitated in everything from Buffy to Mindhunter.

You’ve definitely seen this style more than seven times

Hopkins moved from Lecter to Van Helsing for Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), one of the most significant gothic revivals. The film promoted itself on its faithfulness to Stoker’s text right in the title, but reworked the story in ways that its author would have found ridiculous. With the slogan “Love Never Dies” hanging over the film, our beloved Count (Gary Oldman) seeks not to bring a vampire plague down upon Victorian Britain, but to reunite with the reincarnation of his lost love (Winona Ryder). Though it didn’t quite blow anyone out of the water, the film opened the way for a number of big budget gothic horror romances: Anne’s Rice long-in-development Interview with the Vampire finally made it to the big screen in 1994, with Neil Jordan directing a pouty Brad Pitt and a hissy Tom Cruise as the louche vampires Louis and Lestat; Kenneth Branagh tried to wrestle Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994) into a tale of passion rather than rejection, with Robert De Niro giving an especially disappointing performance as the Monster; Mike Nichols’s Wolf (1994) saw Jack Nicholson as a meek publisher who becomes an alpha male werewolf in pursuit of Michelle Pfeiffer; and Stephen Frears ended the cycle with the much maligned Jekyll and Hyde variant Mary Reilly (1996), adapted from Valerie Martin’s novel where Stevenson’s story is seen from the point of view of a maid (Julia Roberts) in the household of Dr. Jekyll (John Malkovich). As is often the case, the most reviled of the cycle is also the most interesting–Frears takes Stevenson and Martin seriously rather than paying lip service in an effort to churn out a gothic date movie.

Auteurs committed to the genre were struggling. George Romero and Dario Argento collaborated on a Poe project, Two Evil Eyes (1990) before Romero made a decent Stephen King adaptation with The Dark Half (1992) and went silent for over a decade. Argento made a string of disappointments mostly starring his daughter Asia. Larry Cohen directed a Hitchcockian thriller, The Ambulance (1990) then reverted to peddling spec scripts, one of which became Phone Booth (2002). Sam Raimi did well with Darkman (1990), a superhero monster movie, and Army of Darkness (1992), the third Evil Dead movie. He then tried his hand at a Western (The Quick and the Dead, 1995), a sports movie (For the Love of the Game, 1999), and a thriller (A Simple Plan, 1998). David Cronenberg dabbled in literary adaption with Naked Lunch (1991) and M. Butterfly (1993). Clive Barker let the Hellraiser franchise slip away from him and followed it up with the very interesting if botched Nightbreed (1990) and the makeshift Lord of Illusions (1995). He did maintain a strong presence in the genre as the original author of Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992), which became a minor franchise of its own and a turning point for Black horror. John Carpenter had steady work with In the Mouth of Madness (1994), Village of the Damned (1995), and Vampires (1998). Though they are on the weaker side of Carpenter’s resume, all of them are better than Tobe Hooper’s Spontaneous Combustion (1990), Night Terrors (1993), and The Mangler (1995). Brian De Palma had found his way into mainstream affairs like Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Carlito’s Way (1993), and Mission: Impossible (1995), but he still found time for one underrated, very personal horror feature, Raising Cain (1992).

David Lynch, meanwhile, had an iffy decade commercially, but continued to maintain a reputation of being at the cutting edge of…well, everything. Twin Peaks (1990-92), an ambitious TV series Lynch co-created with Mark Frost, began as a mix of small town melodrama, quirky comedy, murder mystery, and psycho-horror, morphed into quasi-Lovecraftian terror thanks to its nightmare-inducing boogeyman “BOB” and the constant bleeding of the supernatural into the lives of a peculiar, isolated community. Twin Peaks drew on Stephen King, A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Thomas Harris, and was itself a massive inspiration for The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018), Lars von Trier’s Danish haunted hospital TV soap The Kingdom (1994-97), and a surprising number of mainstream horror films. Lynch’s big screen prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), wasn’t as beloved by fans at the time, but is arguably the scariest movie of the decade. Lynch went on to do Lost Highway (1997), another mixed genre affair with some truly terrifying material, then pivoted to The Straight Story (1999), which showed he could tell a softer kind of tale. All of Lynch’s films have proven more rewarding with multiple viewings. Mulholland Drive (2001) is another touchstone, a film that countless horror films of the new century look to for ideas in casting, stone, and subject matter.

And all the lesbian undertones

Wes Craven borrowed a Twin Peaks couple (Everett McGill and Wendy Robie) for his monstrous landlords in The People Under the Stairs (1991), an underrated social cartoon that mixed Scooby-Doo chases with a horrific rumination on class and race in contemporary America. He then moved on to Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1992), a meta-meditation on the Elm Street films which takes place in “our world” and is an ingenious, postmodern think piece that still remembers to be quite scary. And yet, neither of this reflective pieces worked with audiences at the time. They much preferred Craven’s Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an Eddie Murphy vehicle that was severely lacking soul. After this, Craven signed with Dimension, Miramax’s genre outfit, to direct a script called Scary Movie, written by horror enthusiast Kevin Williamson. During production, it was retitled Scream (1996) and the resulting film clicked in a way Craven’s other 90’s films–and really, anyone else’s 90’s films–hadn’t. Scream revived not only Craven’s career but the slasher sub-genre as a whole. It was postmodern, yes, but far more approachable than New Nightmare, and it has a feel for the callous hipness of 90’s American teens that gives it an uneasy undercurrent. Craven spent the rest of the decade on for Scream 2 (1997) and Scream 3 (2000), making sure that Williamson’s clever concepts and smart dialogue paired well with perfectly calibrated stalk-and-scare sequences. The Scream trilogy displays Craven’s penchant for timing and his knack for turning potentially hackneyed scenes of people menaced by masked killers into textbook exercises in shock and shiver.

Williamson went on to script I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), which kept the slasher renaissance alive and earned its own disappointing sequels. He also wrote The Faculty (1998), a high school take on the body snatching sub-genre, then directed Teaching Mrs. Tingle (1999). The runaway success of Scream encouraged both new gimmick, meta slashers like Urban Legends (1998) and Cherry Falls (2000) and also helped old properties get better funding. Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998), which Williamson contributed to, achieved a much higher profile than the sequels between Halloween II (1981) and Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995), aided of course by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis to the franchise. Williamson’s writing style was catchy and smart, similar to his contemporary Joss Whedon, who had written the run-of-the-mill teen horror comedy Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992). Whedon was still able to somehow relaunch the story as a long-running, successful TV series starring Sarah Michelle Gellar–a victim in both Scream 2 and I Know What You Did Last Summer. Buffy (1997-2003) spun off a vampire detective series, Angel (1999-2004), and encouraged a slew of similar shows like Charmed (1998-2006) and Smallville (2001-2011). Many of the stars and supporting actors from these shows soon found themselves in quickie, teen-themed horror that all sought to capitalize on the success of Scream.

The Faculty was directed by Robert Rodriguez, who handled another script from a 90’s hot name in From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), a road movie/vampire story from Quentin Tarantino, originally planned to be an entry in the Tales From the Crypt film series, as was Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners (1996). The 90’s saw an influx of video-store-clerk horror filmmakers, many who imitated Tarantino’s style and wanted to honor the exploitation films they had grown up with. Jackson, who had come on the scene with Bad Taste (1987), honored the splatter style with Braindead/Dead Alive (1992), a zombie comedy with a sweat streak and a willingness to go for the extreme which seems odd in light of Jackson’s later Tolkien-powered enthronement as an Oscar winning A-lister. Meanwhile, Guillermo del Toro went from Cronos (1993), an unusual Spanish-language vampire film, to Mimic (1997), a New York-set giant insect picture. As with Sam Raimi, these directors waffled between big budget studio fare and down and dirty projects, but solidified their reputations as being handle hundred million dollar spectacles with an eye on box office records and/or Academy gold.

Don’t you make that face at me, Quents

The countdown to the millennium brought with it thoughts of the end of all things and, eventually, religion. The potential apocalypse included a revival of the alien invasion/disaster genre thanks to Roland Emmerich’s blockbuster Independence Day (1996) and Tim Burton’s retro Mars Attacks! (1996). Michael Tolkin had produced a quieter, creepier effort several years earlier with The Rapture (1992), which at once depicts and criticizes the fundamentalist Christian vision of the End Times. Later, the direct-to-video market became swarmed with character actors like Mr. T, Caspar Van Dien, and Gary Busey doing battle against the Antichrist in films like Apocalypse (1998), The Omega Code (1999), and Left Behind (2000). The tone of these Protestant films isn’t all that different from the run their Exorcist-style Catholic counterparts from the same era: Stigmata (1999), End of Days (1999), Bless the Child (2000), and Lost Souls (2000). The Devil was back in business, but audiences were by and large attracted to more tangible menaces. A more sustained, unusual kind of apocalypse was keyed to a prescient finale in David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999), a canny rethink of Jekyll and Hyde for changing times that reflects on masculinity, identity, and unrestrained impulses.

In the closing days of the century, three horror films became global, cultural phenomena. From Japan, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) was the breakout entry in a run of Asian ghost stories that had quietly begun with the Korean haunted school effort Whispering Corridors (1998). Drawing from classical Eastern ghost stories of melancholy, lank-haired, girl specters, Ringu brought a fresh angle to urban legends with its cursed videotape that brings doom within a week to anyone who watches it. A box office hit, Ringu took a minute to connect internationally but became hugely influential, spawning several sequels and an effective American version in 2002. Meanwhile, another ghost story took the States by storm. M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (1999) was a subtle, affecting, genuinely scary peek beyond the veil. Along with Fight Club, The Sixth Sense made an instant cliché out of its twist ending. Shyamalan made films on the same pattern in the new century with varying degrees of success, but none resonated with filmgoers the way The Sixth Sense did. The third hit of the millennium’s finale year was even more unexpected: Edward Myrick and Daniel Sanchez’s micro-budgeted, ingeniously marketed The Blair Witch Project (1999), a mockumentary with a keen sense of the unappealing way people actually behave in dire situations. The film’s atmosphere oozes dread, accomplishing a great deal of terror while showing next to nothing. The Blair Witch Project launched the found footage sub-genre into a nigh unstoppable beast in the new millennium, a symbol of the shifting nature of the horror film and a harbinger of the innovation and change that was to come.

Potentially the single scariest frame in all of horror

Next up, found footage and J-horror help usher the genre into a new era, while teen slashers and new gothics mingle with emerging creatives

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Bodies–Declothed, Deformed, Dead (The 1980’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 8 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 as well

Horror movies of the 1980’s exist at the glorious, opportune nexus when special effects finally caught up with the gory, fantastical imaginations of moviemakers and genre fans. Technical advances in the field of animatronics, along with liquid and foam latex, meant that the human frame could be distorted in an entirely new dimension onscreen. These steps forward ended up coinciding with the materialistic ethos of the decade, known as the Age of Excess. Having it all was important–but to be appear to be having it all was paramount. Tangible tokens of material success equated to a verification of one’s value in society. The more bigger, shinier, faster things you had, the more important you were.

In the same way, horror movies of the 1980’s were all about getting up close and personal and showing off with splashy, in-your-face special effects that previous practitioners of the art could only dream about. What had once lurked in the shadows of the horror movies of yesteryear was now dragged out into the garish light of day. Once exposed to that light, the monsters of the day proved be as familiar as ever: ghosts and supernatural entities, slimy things, and werecreatures of all shapes and sizes. Additionally, what once was quaint now became bastardized. For instance, the cuddly aliens seen in Star Wars (1977) and E.T. (1982) were counterbalanced by the grotesque extraterrestrials of Aliens (1986) and The Thing (1982). Werewolves also made a strong showing with The Howling (1981) and An American Werewolf in London (1981) leading the way and the latter becoming the impetus for the creation of a new Academy Awards category–Best Makeup. This time around, the wolves appeared to represent a fear of being stalked, hunted, and watched under the aegis of the intelligence-heavy and seemingly never-ending Cold War.

Zombie films made their comeback as well, bridging the gap between the slick satire on shopping malls in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the gory chaos fest of Brain Dead (1990). Horror was the box office’s best friend in the 80’s, in part because there were a number of big-budget family-oriented pictures that purposefully restrained themselves to earn a PG or PG-13 rating. Poltergeist (1982) began the trend, but it really kicked into high gear with Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984) and Ghostbusters (1984), which were massive hits that fared well with kids, parents, and childless genre fans alike. As in the 1950’s, horror saw itself tilted towards a 15-24 audience, primarily male. The increasing grossness and gore factor of 80’s horror movies made seeing the latest fright flick a sort of rite of passage for teens wanting to prove their toughness as much as they wanted to gawk at youthful, nubile bodies. Sex and nudity were casual in 80’s horror, and since almost all horror films at the time were directed by men for a male audience, the male gaze is both palpable and obvious, a source of much critique and parody in the years since. But it wasn’t all about the body in lustful life; 80’s horror was equally obsessed with the body in death, and often, the body in transition between life and death, whether it be stabbed, splattered, hacked, chopped, or somehow misshapen, deformed, or warped in whatever Cronenbergian nightmare was showing.

Above: the aforementioned Cronenbergian nightmare

The other major noticeable change in horror during the 80’s was that it was noticeably dumber than the preceding decade. This is not to say that the intelligent, innovative creators weren’t making smart films, but that audiences were changing, and the genre was forced to change with it. For instance, most horror moviegoers of 1985 preferred Dan O’Bannon’s aggressive, comical, relatively one note Return of the Living Dead to George Romero’s more thoughtful and disturbing Day of the Dead. The shift was evident in the popular success of the decade’s first mega horror hit, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th (1980). Cunningham, who produced Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left (1972) and received Craven’s editing assistance on Friday, modeled his film on Mario Bava’s Bay of Blood (1971) and John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), mixing in campfire tales of murdered counselors and body-count plotting popularized by Alien (1979) for good measure. Another ingredient of the film’s success was certainly the gory effects work of one Tom Savini, who arrived at Crystal Lake fresh from the Monroeville Mall where he had worked on Dawn of the Dead (1978). If anyone became a star off of Friday the 13th, it was Savini. Horror-themed publications furthered the trend by dedicating pages and pages to special effects make-up, focusing less on writing and direction. By the end of the decade, the genre would be bled dry of meaningful content but overflowing with effects.

The 80’s also saw the slow coming together of a loosely organized community of horror fans who enjoyed swapping titles, initiating watch parties, and arguing about the way their favorite movies were going. They read the growing library of books that dissected the genre as well as the industry magazines like Fangoria and Cinefantastique. They flocked to horror-film festivals like Shock Around the Clock, Dead by Dawn, and Black Sunday where they traded their merchandise and promoted their own fanzines like Gore Gazette and Sleazoid Express. There was a deep sense of camaraderies at these events and among the community as it was a fandom born of adversity, especially in the United Kingdom where horror movies came under concerted attack. The so-called “video nasties” tabloid scandal in the wake of the introduction of the widespread video player–which itself greatly affected the production and consumption of horror films–led to a massive increase in censorship. Anyone eager to watch The Driller Killer (1979), Cannibal Ferox (1980), or The Evil Dead (1981) would find themselves hard-pressed to get a copy. Some people were even sent to jail for owning or selling horror films, or had their video collections seized by the police. In the grand scheme of things, this was was a minor oppression, certainly, but it was undoubtedly a symptom of the way things were going. Horror comics had suffered similar attacks in the 1950’s, being blamed for real-life violence, and were essentially wiped out by the industry. Horror films carried on through the barrage, but their response was to become more lightweight, not necessarily in toning down the gore or violence but in becoming more disposable, less personal work.

The runaway success of Friday the 13th led to horror becoming packed with psychopaths murdering teenagers. Well over a hundred different slashers were produced by the end of the 80’s, including the inevitable Friday and Halloween sequels, which solidified the conventions of the sub-genre as formulaic. In 1980 alone, you had Bloody Birthday, The Boogeyman, The Burning, Don’t Answer the Phone, Don’t Go in the House, Dressed to Kill, Fade to Black, Happy Birthday to Me, He Knows You’re Alone, Home Sweet Home, Just Before Dawn, Madman, Maniac, Motel Hell, Night School, New Year’s Evil, Phobia, Prom Night, Silent Scream, and Christmas Evil. Even within this one year, the slasher sub-categories were forming: psychos on campus (high school or college), psychos in the woods, holiday-themed psychos, psychos in attics, comedy cannibal psychos, supernatural psychos, psychos with gimmicks, masked but identified psychos, classy psychos, whodunit psychos, and depraved psychos. Despite this range of approaches, the upshot was that at last horror movie production achieved the levels of conveyor-belt, cookie-cutter sameness hitherto achieved only by the B-Westerns of the 1930’s and 40’s. If anything, traces of originality were stamped out as the cycle continued. Any new wrinkles added were likely to be novelty weapons such as the miner’s pick in in My Bloody Valentine (1981) or gimmicks like Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D (1982).

It’s coming right at you!! Ahhhh!!

Auteur-driven horror wasn’t completely absent, however. Efforts like John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), George Romero’s Creepshow (1982), Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) stood out among the largely interchangeable slashers. But these filmmakers saw their careers see-saw throughout the decade. All of them would, at some point, “play it safe” with a Stephen King adaptation or two and find themselves torn between independence and major studio work. Often, their important films proved less popular at the box office than the paint-by-numbers competition, which may have led to the periods of creative downturn many of them experienced. Carpenter and Cronenberg directed now-beloved remakes of ’50’s properties, The Thing and The Fly (1986), respectively. Tobe Hooper made one freak psycho movie, The Funhouse (1981), and was the credited director of smash hit Poltergeist, though producer Steven Spielberg was widely seen to be the film’s true auteur. Hooper then fell in with Cannon Films to make the botched, messy Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986) and a pair of big budget sci-fi flops before sliding back into TV pilots and direct-to-video schlock. Carpenter never fell quite so far, but after dissatisfaction with studio politicking (The Thing was no the success it deserved to be) he chose smaller scale projects that produced modest and likable results for the rest of the decade (Prince of Darkness, 1987, and They Live, 1988). After The Fly, Cronenberg made a niche for himself and delivered Dead Ringers (1989), one of his most disturbing films, then became interested in adaptations of unusual literary source material. Cohen was prolific in the 80’s, being among the first filmmakers to realize the potential of direct-to-video as the realm of the new B-movie. He made both gems (Special Effects, 1986) and stinkers (Wicked Stepmother, 1989) while Romero, criminally, struggled to get anything made.

Although Wes Craven began the decade on somewhat shaky ground with the demonic slasher film Deadly Blessing (1981) and the comic book monster mash Swamp Thing (1982), he lost his footing entirely with The Hills Have Eyes Part II (1985). Objectively, Craven fared the best from the crop of horror directors that first emerged in the 70’s, though he was not without his own major low points (looking at you, Deadly Friend [1986] and Cursed [2004]). But when he went high, he truly soared. He twice revived the played-out slasher film formula with franchise-founding, genuine revisionary break-out hits. A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), like Scream (1996) would do a decade later, arrived when folks were tired of rote sequels. The film welded an original idea (a ghost psycho stalking his victims in their dreams) with an American small town milieu out of Stephen King (interestingly, alone of his generation, Craven never made a King film) to depict American ills writ large. In contrast to the vapid teenagers of most slashers, the Elm Street kids are smart and catch on early, while their parents and other authority figures are drunken, foolish, arrogant, and dangerous. Sequels to Elm Street were inevitable, and diminishing returns quickly set in, but Robert Englund’s Freddy, a shadowy and perverse specter in the first film, joined the ranks of the new iconic faces of horror alongside Leatherface, Michael Myers, and Jason Voorhees–the new Universal monsters of the 80’s.

Those original creatures did manage to stay in the game, however, thanks to a fortuitous collision of interests and aptitudes. Directors like Joe Dante (The Howling, 1980), John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, 1981), Neil Jordan (The Company of Wolves, 1984), Tom Holland (Fright Night, 1986), and Fred Dekker (The Monster Squad, 1987) hooked up with special effects make-up artists Rob Bottin, Rick Baker, Christopher Tucker, Steve Johnson, and Stan Winston. New technologies in makeup could be used for more than just gore, and in the early 80’s the screens were awash with shapeshifters, werewolves, cat people, and other morphing, tentacle-sprouting beasts like the Thing and the mind-mutants from Videodrome. The best of these efforts were more than just effects showcases and made their transformations scary as well as amazing. Vampire variants also continued, keyed to passing trends and mostly stressing Anne Rice’s vision of vampirism as a lifestyle choice rather than a plague or a curse. Pop singers like David Bowie and Grace Jones tended to show up in these sorts of films, resulting in the gloomy New Romantics of Tony Scott’s The Hunger (1983), the teenager party animals of Joel Schumacher’s The Lost Boys (1986), and the grungy Western drifters of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987).

Here’s the thing, teenagers that DON’T look like this are horrifying

Meanwhile, new creatives were popping up in odd corners, often beginning their careers in the indies before becoming fast-tracked to Hollywood for see-saw careers. The main crop of this new class were Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981), Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator, 1985), and Clive Barker (Hellraiser, 1987). All of their debuts showed a black sense of humor, a commitment to physical shock, and a tendency to use sexual situations as a trigger for gross-out set-pieces (tree rape, cunnilingus delivered by a living severed head, skinless makeout sessions, etc.). They created dangerous, risky material, yet each one carried it off masterfully, though Raimi has admitted that the tree scene in The Evil Dead works less well than the film’s other assaults.

Barker, the most extreme of these filmmakers, shows the most delicacy, preferring odd physical juxtapositions rather than go-for-gore violence. Barker was matched in this skill perhaps only by Lucio Fulci, who managed to whip gore and gothic into shambling, suspenseful films like City of the Living Dead (1980) and The Beyond (1981). These made for fascinating films, but their day in the sun was short lived. Other filmmakers attempted to replicate this style of transgressive gore-comedy and failed, though Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) is a valiant attempt. What really killed off this trend, however, were the films of Lloyd Kaufman’s Troma Entertainment, an independent studio that churned out films that didn’t even try to be good on any level. Yet even these have their admirers and defenders, and The Toxic Avenger (1985) and Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986) have become cult classics. Troma films burst with a juvenile, misogynist, homophobic smugness that begs the audience to feel only contempt for what they’re watching. But even the “quality” gore films had a limited audience. The Evil Dead, Re-Animator, and Hellraiser thrived at festivals and on video, but they lost big theater dollars to more family friendly films like Witchboard (1985), House (1986), The Gate (1986), and Child’s Play (1988).

The 80’s also saw the first wave of films directed specifically to bypass a theatrical release and be distributed solely on video. This was in part a workaround to the “video nasties” brouhaha in the U.K. and the ban on certain “extreme” horror films like Blood Feast (1963), The Last House on the Left (1977), and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Now, any old horror film could get a direct-to-video release. In 1985-86, Christopher Lewis, son of 1940’s screen star Loretta Young, directed three films which seem to be the first horror movies intended from the outset of their production to never grace a theater screen. They were The Ripper, with a cameo by Tom Savini as Jack the Ripper, Blood Cult, and Blood Cult 2: Revenge. After that, the deluge continued, and it has continued uninterrupted into the new millennium, as digi-beta, filmlook video, Hi-Def, camcorders, iMovie, and every other smart device in the world have made it possible for anyone to make a movie. Troma, Empire/Full Moon, and Roger Corman’s various production companies pivoted to the DTV market while small groups of people across the Midwest got together in barns, filmed a quickie, then sold their amateur endeavor to real distributors. There have been, and continue to be, important and interesting DTV horror films, but the wealth of dreadful bores and shlock makes it harder for new Herk Harveys and George Romeros to get noticed alongside the slush pile. John McNaughton’s Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) was one such film that suffered from this trend, not being widely seen until well into the 90’s.

King of the D-Listand that’s being generous

On the other end of the creative spectrum, the 80’s also saw the first true arthouse horror efforts in both America and Europe. These works, now regarded as resonant and memorable, struggled to gain traction at the time of their release. Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983) and Manhunter (1986) flopped at the box office and wouldn’t be reconsidered as influential for some years. Pedro Almodovar’s Matador (1986) raised eyebrows when it opened with an obsessive masturbating to Mario Bava and Jesus Franco films. Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) is a mix of Poe and Jacobean revenge tragedy whose undertones were underappreciated at the time. Perhaps the one exception was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), a surreal, terrifying small town film which became an instant, much imitated classic. This didn’t much change the minds of the big studios, however. To them, profitable horror equated almost solely to Stephen King adaptations. Brian De Palma continued to work his own vein with blow Blow Out (1981) and Body Double (1984), but increasingly moved out of self-penned psycho horror into crime projects scripted by other people.

Still, aboveground horror sometimes put a frog in America’s throat. Robert Harmon’s The Hitcher (1986) is a stripped-down road movie about a teenage driver (C. Thomas Howell) and the inexplicable, mass-murdering psychopath he picks up (Rutger Hauer), a capitalization on the growing consciousness surrounding the violent crimes perpetuated against hitchhikers that seemed rampant in the 70’s and 80’s, twisting the tale to put the motorist in danger instead. Joseph Ruben’s The Stepfather (1986), a meditation on “family values” came smack dab in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, with Terry O’Quinn as the decade’s most resonant psycho, a troubled middle class husband and father who snaps when his new families can’t live up to his impossible Norman Rockwell ideal. Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988) also flips the script with a reverse ghost story in which nice spooks employ a “bio-exorcist” (Michael Keaton) to drive nasty living folk out of their haunted house.

Other subversive and accessible efforts included Joe Dante’s The ‘Burbs (1988), which suggests that suburbanites are scarier than outright gothic maniacs; Bob Balaban’s Parents (1988), which reveals that 50’s parentals who conform to the Cleaver clan vision of how family life should be are secretly cannibals; Michael Lehmann’s Heathers (1988), about a murder spree triggered by class divisions in high school; and Brian Yuzna’s Society (1989), which alleges that rich people are not human. The late 80’s also saw a clutch of films about voodoo–most notably Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1987) and John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987)–and the Devil–of which the best efforts were The Unholy (1987) and The Seventh Sign (1988)–suggesting that evil was “out there” and that it was “other.” Interestingly, the most commercially successful film with horror elements of the late 80’s was Adrian Lynn’s Fatal Attraction (1987), a conservative social drama with a healthy dose of paranoid misogyny that captured the fraying, desperate mood of society and portended the downward turn horror would take in the early 1990’s as the thriller came to prominence and the genre nearly ate itself alive before its meta-based revival unleashing a new wave of self-referential terror.

Sexy zombie Bill Pullman is my favorite Bill Pullman

In Part 9, we’ll further explore the ups and downs of horror as the millennium came to a close and the genre took a long hard look at itself

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Hail, Satan! (The 1970’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 7 of a series of posts on the history of horror films tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 as well

In Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), there’s a scene where Rosemary (Mia Farrow) picks up an issue of Time magazine that bears the incendiary headline “Is God Dead?” This question came to inform many of the horror films of the 1970’s, which represent the grim social developments and cultural downturn of the decade following the revolutionary optimism of the 1960’s. By 1970, that optimism had been cut down with a cold dose of reality. The sexual liberation and civil rights movements had taken major leaps forward, then faltered. The Manson Family killed the California hippie dream during their night of Helter Skelter. The Beatles split. Janis and Jimi were dead. And as the decade wore on, it seemed as though things were going steadily, and rapidly, downhill. Watergate. The never-ending Vietnam conflict and all its horrific imagery shared on endless loop on the nightly news. Oil strikes and angry protests. Skyrocketing divorce rates and exponential increase in violent crime committed by strangers. And there in the midst of it all, the rise of “daytime sedatives” to cope with it all.

But when the world gets bad, horror gets good. In the 1970’s, horror made its way back into the cultural spotlight. Horror movies dealing with contemporary societal issues and addressing genuine psychological fears that hit close to home were massive hits during the decade. Religion, and the question of its place in modern America, became a major theme, threaded into other throughlines like the rise of second wave feminism and gender equality, the fear of children and domesticity, and environmental horror, wherein animals rose up and sought revenge against mankind for their inadequate shepherding of the Earth. All the while, the slasher was slowly coalescing into a recognizable sub-genre thanks to brave, burgeoning new directors, the Davids against big name Goliath directors who also lined up to produce horror properties with big studio budgets that would have made Herschell Gordon Lewis’s head explode. The decade’s early years saw The Exorcist (1973) nominated for ten Academy Awards–the first horror film nominated for Best Picture–winning two for Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay, and closed with the birth of horror’s first female action hero in Alien (1979).

The true Alien Queen of that franchise

In terms of output, the horror film was at its zenith in the 70’s. Arguably, it also reached an artistic peak unscaled since the early 1930’s. Though there were still a number of formulaic genre pieces and copycat efforts, the 70’s horror film by and large attracted ambitious and interesting filmmakers as well as play-it-safe schlockmeisters. As such, it was possible for work as unusual and diverse as Harry Kumel’s Daughters of Darkness (1971), John Hancock’s Let’s Scare Jessica to Death (1971), Gary Sherman’s Death Line/Raw Meat (1972), Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973) to find their places in cinemas, exciting both critics and fans, perplexing and perhaps shocking those who’d turned up expecting something more traditional.

Night of the Living Dead‘s influence would eventually be all-pervasive, but at first it was more of a slow burn. AIP passed on distributing George A. Romero’s film, opting to make a hit out of another indie pick-up, Robert Kelljan’s Count Yorga, Vampire (1970). Originally planned as a “skinflick” (a horror/porno combo that became very common in the 70’s), Count Yorga was the first of a cycle of films which reintroduced classic monsters in contemporary settings. The Count (Robert Quarry), a waspish Dracula imitator, is air-freighted into California in his coffin and awakens to drain the life and blood of the local hippie students. The film draws on the edgy, up-to-the-moment feel that characterizes Romero’s film, including sudden bursts of shocking gore and a downer, ironic ending. A number of sequels and variations followed. Oddly feminist The Velvet Vampire (1971), blaxploitation cult classic Blacula (1972), Hammer’s desperately trendy Dracula AD 1972 (1972), gritty Grave of the Vampire (1972), and comedic Love at First Bite (1979) all follow Count Yorga to some extent, not to mention TV’s The Night Stalker (1974-1975) and the Stephen King-derived miniseries Salem’s Lot (1979), which find a way to bring horror’s first, most familiar icon into a recognizable world.

Traditional monsters were quite busy in the 70’s, in fact. They could often be found in self-aware efforts like Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974) or Paul Morrissey’s Flesh for Frankenstein (1973) and Blood for Dracula (1974). There were even competing attempts to “go back to the original” such as Jesus Franco’s Count Dracula (1970), where Christopher Lee sports a white mustache, and the epic TV film Frankenstein: The True Story (1974). There was a whole slew of TV takes on Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley, Oscar Wilde, and Henry James, in fact, many of them the projects of legendary TV producer Dan Curtis. Elsewhere, John Badham’s Dracula (1979) was a lush, romantic film starring Frank Langella that walks the line between revisionist and classicist yet is really just a more expensive Hammer film, sporting an eccentric Donald Pleasance performance. It’s not nearly as interested in sticking to Stoker as much as the BBC’s Count Dracula (1977) with Louis Jourdan, regarded as one of the most outstanding adaptations of the novel overall.

More like Count Sexula

In time, there were many direct imitations of Night of the Living Dead, but only a few had meat of their own, like Jorge Grau’s The Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue (1974). Night‘s true and most lasting influence was in encouraging other distinctive filmmakers to make horror films that were at once unprecedentedly gruesome and ferociously intelligent. Romero, who eventually followed up with his own vampire variant Martin (1977) and a Living Dead sequel which was equally, if not more, influential, Dawn of the Dead (1978), was the first of the genre auteurs. James Whale, Terence Fisher, Mario Bava, and even Val Lewton had worked within the studio system, lobbying for assignments and taking what came their way. After Romero, there would be many more writer-directors and director-producers in the field. Among the names to make first impressions in the 70’s were Dario Argento with The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970) and Suspiria (1977), Wes Craven with The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977), John Waters with Pink Flamingoes (1973) and Female Trouble (1974), Paul Bartel with Private Parts (1972) and Death Race 2000 (1974), Tobe Hooper with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and Death Trap (1976), Bob Clark with Deathdream/Dead of Night (1974), Black Christmas (1974), and Murder By Decree (1979), David Cronenberg with Shivers (1975), Rabid (1976), and The Brood (1979), Peter Weir with The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Brian De Palma with Sisters (1973) and Carrie (1976), Larry Cohen with It’s Alive (1974) and God Told Me To (1976), David Lynch with Eraserhead (1977), and John Carpenter with Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Halloween (1978).

Not all of these filmmakers stayed in horror for the long haul, and most had or are having dry spells and/or drastic career slides, but back in the 70’s they made the genre exciting, overlaying familiar stories with their own personalities and interests. An astonishingly high proportion of these films and directors founded franchises, sub-genres, and mappable cycles in film. Many have also been treated to largely inferior remakes after the turn-of-the-century, a strange accolade in its own right. The message of Night of the Living Dead and the auteur films was that there was something very wrong with America. Earlier horror movies tended to be normative, with monsters who represented an alien threat and would be banished (until the sequel) by a happy ending. Psycho (1960) cracked this convention– a psychiatrist “explains” Norman Bates but the film has no idea what to do with him. The bullet that takes down Duane Jones at the end of NOTLD suggested that in an era of Attica and Kent State, it was time to worry more about Dr. Van Helsing than Dracula. America was being eaten away from within. Canada too, in the case of most of Cronenberg’s work. This monstrousness that was consuming us tended to rise from strife in the family (evil children, murderous parents, monster babies), society (lingering injustices, economically dispossessed backwoods, mutagenic plagues, bigotries, war-mongering), or a world of the familiar turned threatening (suddenly sentient and malign wildlife, possessed motor vehicles). While Romero, Hooper, and Craven explored the rusting, bone-littered, overlooked corners of America, two films from an Englishman in America (John Boorman) and an American in England (Sam Peckinpah) had much to say about inbred, strife-ridden communities, murderous families, and heroes who find themselves with a disturbing capacity for violence. Both Deliverance (1972, Boorman) and Straw Dogs (1971, Peckinpah) were perceived as horror films at the time, likely due to their strong Western influences, but both have come to be regarded as stealth terror films that show a deep awareness of what was going on in the genre and have each had a lasting influence.

At this time, interesting horror films were being made all over the world. Italy had a boom thanks to Argento and Mario Bava’s late-career masterpieces Lisa and the Devil (1973) and Shock (1978). The U.K. produced both gory, grim features like Pete Walker’s House of Whipcord (1974) and Frightmare (1974) and despairing Hammer efforts like Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (1970), Demons of the Mind (1972), and Terence Fisher’s Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1973). As small-scale British horror began to collapse in on itself, a few gems still shone. Freddie Francis directed Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny, and Girly (1970) and The Creeping Flesh (1972), while Don Sharp released both Psychomania (1970) and The Corpse (1971), a rip-off of Les Diaboliques (1955) that featured a nasty, nightmarish performance from Michael Gough. Meanwhile, Norman J. Warren’s Prey (1978) featured a lesbian couple that takes in a vagabond only to discover that he’s a werewolf from outer space. But the best-known product of the British collapse is Robin Hardy’s folk horror masterpiece The Wicker Man (1973), which remains one of the most studied and written about films of the genre to this day.

But is there a conspiracy around that hair?

As for Hollywood, they turned their attention and their pocketbooks back to horror after the success of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, based on the semi-factual novel by William Peter Blatty. The number of taboo-breaking moments in the film was truly shocking for the time, something that until then never would have been found in a Warner Brothers film. The Exorcist was “New Hollywood,” a movement of cinema that combined the grim and realism of French New Wave from the 60’s with classic American film and featuring nuanced performances from no-name players who were more “authentic” than megastars of the era like Robert Redford or Shirley MacLaine. New Hollywood films played fast and low, unconcerned with spelling out every story beat. The Exorcist is at once timeless and of its time, a film that straddles competing styles of horror in a way that few, if any, other films have been able to do, especially the film’s own sequels. It kickstarted a massive wave of imitators, from a Black version (Abby, 1974) to a slew of Italian versions, but none could compare. Its most notable successor was Richard Donner’s solemn The Omen (1976), which combines the bizarre body count format of Price vehicles like The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) and Theater of Blood (1973) with the seeping paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby to bring the Antichrist into a terrifying post-Watergate corridors of power rather than a cozy coven.

The Exorcist was the first horror film to break into the elite upper tier of box office champs, hitherto reserved for the likes of grand epic spectacles like Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Sound of Music (1965) and soon to be the province of Star Wars (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1981). Friedkin’s film was followed by another throwback cleverly disguised in contemporary gear, Steven Spielberg’s runaway hit and inaugural blockbuster Jaws (1975), based on Peter Benchley’s bestseller about a great white shark terrorizing a coastal community. Spielberg had done well with his TV horror movie Duel (1972), written by Richard Matheson, in which a lone motorist (Dennis Weaver) is persecuted by a grimy truck, but Jaws was a straight-for-the-throat pared-to-the-bone monster movie. If Nosferatu enjoys the subtitle “a symphony of shadows,” then Jaws must be given “a concerto for shocks.” The film is keyed precisely with its memorable and iconic musical theme, much like Carpenter’s Halloween was a few years later, and prunes away any significance that distracts from the suspense. Earlier eco-horror films, from The Birds (1963) to the rat/revenge gothic Willard (1970) to the goofy Frogs (1972) suggest the animal attacks are our fault for being complacent, twisted, cruel, or ecologically unsound. In Jaws, the shark bites because that is what sharks do, and the conflict of the film revolves around what the heroes can and can’t do about that. The shark is the Creature From the Black Lagoon without libidinal urges–it chomps a naked swimmer without lingering to leer as the Gill-Man did–or Godzilla stripped of any stature as a punishment for man’s hubris. This idea of a nigh-unstoppable, inherently dangerous vessel of terror would carry on to Halloween, another masterpiece of pure horror in which a masked, mad killer isn’t the product of a family or society that has warped him like Norman Bates or the Sawyer clan, but is a shark who happens to have been born in human skin.

The re-emergence of horror into the mainstream was helped along by a slew of show and made-for-TV films in the early years of the decade in both American and Britain. Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape (1972) drew huge numbers for the BBC, as did anthology series like Night Gallery (1970-1973), Thriller (1973-1976), and Dead of Night (1972). A number of these titles created such a cultural impression they remain cult classics to this day, often referred to as the “What was the One Where…?” movies. Whether it was Karen Black being terrorized by a fetish doll in Trilogy of Terror (1975), imps invading Kim Darby’s basement in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), Salem witches in the Old West in Black Noon (1971), or the incessantly creepy crying child in Crowhaven Farm (1970), pop culture took notice, and so did regular television. Starsky and Hutch tracked down a real vampire (John Saxon) in an episode directed by Robert Kelljan of the Yorga films. Ironside investigated a twelve-year old witch played by Jodie Foster. Doctor Who took on Frankenstein, Dracula, and the mummy’s curse while McMillan & Wife (1971-1977) tangled with a Satanic cult and The Snoop Sisters (1973-1974) solved mysteries involving a horror movie star played by Vincent Price.

A total stretch, we know

Meanwhile, more horror novelists were following Ira Levin and William Peter Blatty into the ranks of brand-name authors. Former actor Thomas Tryon wrote The Other (1971) and Harvest Home (1973), adapted for film and TV. Both were notable and early instances of the emerging “imaginary friend” and “sinister community” sub-genres of horror. Englishman James Herbert turned out a run of what became known as “paperback nasties,” titles like The Rats (1974), Lair (1979), and The Fog (1975, completely unrelated to Carpenter’s film). These paperbacks became an underground phenomenon and right of passage for many budding horror fans, passed around the playground like the literary equivalent of contemporary films like Night of the Lepus (1972) and The Giant Spider Invasion (1974). The most important new writer on the scene, however, was Stephen King, whose debut novel Carrie (1974) became an instant bestseller and invented an entire new sub-genre of high school horror.

King’s smash first novel was then spectacularly filmed by Brian De Palma in his own breakthrough film. Carrie (1976) the film was a mainstream hit, an all-over horror show featuring a delicate, heartbreaking performance from Sissy Spacek as the abused, telekinetic teen. The film is at times gratuitous, shocking, endearing, and earnest, and features one of the greatest and well-executed jumps scares in movie history. Carrie also began a wave of psychic/telekinetic horror, including De Palma’s own follow-up The Fury (1978) as well as Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981), Patrick (1978), The Sender (1982), the Carpenter-scripted The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and another King adaptation, Firestarter (1984). With Halloween following Carrie, American teenagers increasingly became lead characters in horror films, often marked for death. De Palma’s catch-all approach, typical of the “movie brat” generation, was more often used by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, but something of the dream logic of Carrie can be found in both of Dario Argento’s masterpieces, Suspiria (1977) and Inferno (1980). Like De Palma, Argento had come up making Hitchcockian suspense thrillers, gradually adding supernatural overtones until he was liberated in the late 70’s to be fully fantastical. His “Three Mothers” films tend to lack narrative cohesion but deliver on effect through imagery, music, editing, high style, beautiful faces, surreal lighting, monumental architecture, and a king of elegant nastiness. Argento himself has never quite matched the potency of these films, and few others have dared to try.

King followed Carrie with Salem’s Lot (1975), a vampire novel, and The Shining (1977), a ghost story. Both were quickly adapted, with Salem’s Lot (1979) being the first King project mounted for television and directed by Tobe Hooper, who was attempting to “go straight” after the backlash surrounding The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Meanwhile, The Shining (1980) adaptation opened the 80’s with a vision from controversial visitor to the genre Stanley Kubrick. King had lots left in the pipeline, and by the end of the 80’s it seemed everyone with a track record in horror had filmed one of his stories. In the meantime, there were plenty of other literary fish to fry. Richard Matheson’s novel Hell House (1971) became John Hough’s The Legend of Hell House (1973). Robert Marasco’s Burnt Offerings (1973), a King-acknowledged influence on The Shining), was adpated by Dan Curtis in 1976, while Peter Straub’s Julia (1975) became Richard Loncraine’s Full Circle (1976). Dean Koontz’s Demon Seed (1973) was overhauled by Donald Cammell for the 1977 film, a rare adaptation that improves on the source material. Frank DeFelitta’s Audrey Rose (1975) became Robert Wise’s horror swansong in 1977 and Jeffrey Kovitz’s The Sentinel (1974) found its way to the big screen in Michael Winner’s 1977 film. The Amityville Horror (1977), a supposedly true account of a haunting ascribed to Jay Anson (who may or may not have written it) became a middling but commercially successful 1979 film and launched its own mini-franchise of entirely made-up sequels and prequels.

The true horror is that there’s eighteen billon films in this franchise now

Just as the 70’s began with a boom triggered by Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), so it ended with another boom triggered by Romero’s sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978). If Night was informed by Vietnam and the counterculture, Dawn was about conformism, consumerism, and American selfishness. It was so gripping, Lucio Fulci even tried to position his film Zombi 2 (1979) as a sequel to Dawn (which was released in Italy as Zombi), but its more a mix-up of 30’s style voodoo island shenanigans and splatter film tactics. Dawn was all about disenchantment with urban life, and it was only the beginning of such films. Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) turned the ennui up a notch, with inhuman duplicates pointing and shrieking at the few surviving individuals, while Coma (1978), directed and paid for by technological paranoid Michael Crichton, was Frankenstein mad science in an era of corporate profit and the industrialization of health care. All this led to the last big horror hit of the decade, perhaps the ultimate co-option of B-movie ideas by A-movie makers. Not far off from a Roger Corman feature, Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) became so much more in the telling. Scott’s direction, combined with a cannily assembled cast of British and American semi-names and the fully-realized creature designs of artist H.R. Giger, created instant movie magic. And chills. Alien is a simple film, the story of astronauts killed one by one by a constantly evolving creature. But, like Jaws and Halloween before it, it’s a relentless suspense machine with a high degree of visual sophistication. It also benefited, as wold more and more successful Hollywood horrors, from an outstanding ad campaign, coining the phrase on everyone’s lips at the turn of the decade: “in space, no one can hear you scream.” Those screams would eventually wither to whimpers by the end of the 80’s, but not without a few good scares first…

Next up, body horror, sequels, and more dead teenagers than you can count take the genre on a rollercoaster during the 1980’s

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] We All Go a Little Mad Sometimes (The 1960’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 6 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 as well.

The Beat Generation. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Acid. Thalidomide. JFK. The sexual revolution. Bookended by Psycho (1960) and the Manson Family Murders, the 1960’s saw an enormous shift in what the public perceived as true horror. Change, revolt, and upheaval were the buzz words of the day as the social stability of the post-war years crumbled and everything from hemlines to homosexuality was re-examined for a new age. As the concept of the Cold War began to lost heat, so too did the oppressing fear of nuclear holocaust and mass-death by radiation. The mutant monsters of the 1950’s now looked a little silly, and since no aliens had shown up, the counterculture thinking shifted from external threats to reevaluating the social psyche. Tradition and prohibition were all put under the microscope as stereotypes across the board were questioned.

Horror films, usually made for cheap outside the major studio system, offered the world a means to debunk old taboos and explore new ways of perceiving sex and violence. In the sixties, they became vehicles for processing and interpreting the rapid changes of the decade, sometimes serving as cautionary tales about the dangers of discarding long-established practices willy-nilly, and other times stripping bare long held cultural stereotypes and asking the viewer to rethink their view of the world. The drive-in teen audiences of the 50’s were growing up, immune to the rubber suits and low-level scare factors of films with once lurid titles and tantalizing posters. A demand for horror that was more grounded in reality, more believable, more sophisticated, and more open to challenging social mores became predominant. Underground horror was able to dodge scrutiny, and therefore censorship, and genre lovers of the 1960’s got their wish for a new monster: themselves. Horror was now holding up a mirror to cinema-goers, and the reflection wasn’t always pretty. Sometimes, it was downright terrifying.

Come take a look…if you dare

Among the first to make their voice heard in this new ear was American International Pictures b-horror maven Roger Corman. He had begun his career in the 1950’s and at the turn of the decade convinced producers James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff to grant him a massive budget for two black-and-white creature features. He then took all that money and made something else entirely, House of Usher (1960). The film, an adaptation of the famous Edgar Allan Poe story, was made in color like the horror films of British studio Hammer but more significantly, it was filmed in windshield-shaped widescreen to better accommodate drive-in viewings. With a careful, imaginative script from novelist Richard Matheson and respectable acting from Vincent Price to make up for the woodenness of the rest of the cast, House of Usher kicked off a new cycle of Corman-Poe-Price-AIP films that included The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Raven (1963). Based off their success, AIP invested in finding work for other mature horror stars as well, including Ray Milland, Peter Lorre, Basil Rathbone, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. Bela Lugosi had, unfortunately, died in 1956. The old elite worked alongside youth-appeal faces like Frankie Avalon, Jack Nicholson, Barbara Steele, and Hazel Court. Originally conceived as an answer to the British horror films of the late fifties, Corman’s Poe parade eventually crossed the Atlantic for the last, most lavish entries: The Masque of the Red Death (1964) and The Tomb of Ligeia (1964). AIP and Price then stuck around in the UK as things began to change, most notably working on Michael Reeves’s historical horror film Witchfinder General (1968), marketed in the U.S. as a Poe narrative, The Conqueror Worm.

Hammer stayed in the game, producing a number of strong Frankenstein sequels between 1958 and 1974, most directed by Terence Fisher and starring Peter Cushing. There was also strong work from Don Sharp (Kiss of the Vampire, 1964) and John Gilling (The Reptile, 1966; Plague of the Zombies, 1966). Christopher Lee donned the cloak once more for Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), then strode through sequels that ran from bland (Scars of Dracula, 1970) to excellent (Taste of the Blood of Dracula, 1970). By the mid-1960’s, Milton Subotsky, who had started Hammer’s ball rolling, was offering serious competition with his Amicus outfit, known for omnibus horrors on the Dead of Night (1945) pattern like Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1964). Amicus used Cushing and Christopher Lee the most, as well as other noted horror types like Michael Gough and director Freddie Francis, but Subotsky was more prone to draw on contemporary sources like the stories of Robert Bloch (The Skull, 1965; Torture Garden, 1967) or EC horror comics like Tales From the Crypt (1972). Hammer answered by adapting novels by stuffy British author Dennis Wheatley, notably The Devil Rides Out (1968) and Lost Continent (1968), both of which have an almost nostalgic edge to them, though there are still threads of dissent common in almost all 60’s horror. The ambitious and short-lived Reeves came of note directing Barbara Steele in an Italian quickie, Revenge of the Blood Beast (1965), then made two outstanding films in the UK: The Sorcerers (1967), a sci-fi/generation gap picture in which Boris Karloff and Catherine Lacey mind-meld with Ian Ogilvy, and Witchfinder General, the English answer to the Grand Guignol starring Vincent Price. His next intended project, The Oblong Box (1969), also starring Price, was passed to Gordon Hessler after his death. Hessler brought in Christopher Wicking for rewrites and the two fell into an easy partnership. They followed up Box with several interesting, somewhat experimental films, most notably Scream and Scream Again (1969), a complex, clever, almost kinetic horror-conspiracy film. Whereas Hammer was still clinging to their traditional bodice-ripper fare, Reeves and his contemporaries were peppering their films with splashes of American thrillers, classic Westerns, and mod TV shows like The Avengers (1961-1969) that captured the hip vibe of Swinging London.

But it was at the very start of the decade, in 1960, that horror changed forever and radically. The change did not come about in the old house on the hill, as might have been expected. It didn’t happen in the cold, dank fruit cellar (though the shriveled discovery the film’s conclusion certainly helped). No, it happened in the pristine, tiled bathroom of a nondescript room at the Bates Motel. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, adapted from Bloch’s novel, was the director’s attempt at reclaiming his “Master of Suspense” moniker back from Henri-Georges Clouzot, who had staged his own bathroom atrocity in the masterful Les Diaboliques (1955). A sustained exercise in misdirection, Psycho elevated the multiple-personality serial killer into a major figure in the horror film. Previously, this archetype was usually found in foggy melodramas like Hangover Square (1945) or in film noir like While the City Sleeps (1955). But Hitch, it should be recalled, had been intrigued by Jack the Ripper as early as The Lodger (1928), and gave American cinema its first great serial killer with the character of Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). Anthony Perkins’s iconic performance as ultimate mama’s boy Norman Bates, who dresses up as his murdered mother to slaughter Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), set the tone for many, many madmen to come. Hitchcock dabbled in straight horror one more time with The Birds (1963), an apocalyptic exploration of the unnatural natural. The Birds would provide inspiration for the under-siege element of Night of the Living Dead (1968) as well as countless 70’s horror films in which hitherto-subservient animals decide to prey on human beings.

A boy’s best friend is his mother…and an owl’s best friend is clearly not that boy

It was Psycho that made the bigger splash, however, directly and indirectly becoming a source of inspiration for decades to come, and its influence began immediately. Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), a melodramatic tale of psychosis involving fading Hollywood icons whose festering relationship descends into madness in a crumbling California mansion, starring actual aging Golden Age legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, is all the more believable given that Mrs. Bates is believed to be a real character until the very end of Psycho. Crawford also starred in the Lizzie Borden-esque Strait-Jacket (1964), produced by William Castle, who was also responsible for the first great Psycho imitator, Homicidal (1961), complete with gender-bending and theater gimmicks. Meanwhile, Davis reteamed with Aldrich for a Southern gothic twist on Les Diaboliques with Olivia de Havilland, Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Hammer also took note of Psycho’s success and ran a series of Hitchcock-lite efforts that mixed in the who’s-killing-who of Clouzot’s film: Taste of Fear (1961), The Nanny (1964, starring a subdued Davis), Paranoiac (1962), and Nightmare (1963). Psycho‘s pattern was mimicked well into the 1970’s, and is arguably still being drawn on and played with today. Interestingly, the first major attempt to bend Psycho‘s DNA also starred Anthony Perkins: Noel Black’s Pretty Poison (1968). Perkins plays another unstable, perhaps-homicidal young chap, but it turns out that the blonde, all-American girl next door (Tuesday Weld) he draws into his mad fantasies is a far more dangerous character.

Over in Italy, meanwhile, Hammer and Psycho influence ran rampant. Riccardo Freda was one of the first to put his own spin on what the Brits were doing with The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) wherein Robert Flemyng played an obsessive necrophile in the 1880s and Barbara Steele played his doomed second wife. Steele was a British starlet who had become an Italian horror icon thanks to Black Sunday (1960), a vampire film directed by Freda’s former cinematographer and uncredited co-director Mario Bava. Looking east to Russian literature and Moldavian lore, Black Sunday is a dreamlike, intricate, and unconventional gothic that became the foundation for Bava’s subsequent, inventive catalogue. He moved from Expressionist black-and-white to delirious color for the three-story gothic Black Sabbath (1963), the sado-romance The Whip and the Flesh (1963), and the first of many masked slasher pictures, Blood and Black Lace (1964). Steele also worked with Antonio Margheriti in La Danza Macabra (1964). Margheriti was a prolific player in whatever genre was hot in Italian cinema at the time. His film The Virgin of Nuremberg (1964) is one of several “masked gimmick criminal” films inspired by German director Edgar Wallace and the revival of franchises like Dr. Mabuse and Fantomas. Bava also got in on this trend with Diabolik (1968), after which it was considered to have peaked.

In Spain, horror was dominated by Jesus Franco. He combined the plot of Eyes Without a Face (1960) with Freda’s aesthetic to produce The Awful Dr. Orloff (1962), the first of many, many titles that often reshuffled characters, tricks, and story elements. Occasionally, Franco churned out great work, including his widely regarded masterpiece Necronomicon/Succcubus (1967), but mostly his oeuvre is considered quite dull. Franco was the whole of Spanish horror, however, until screenwriter Jacinto Molina wrote and starred (under the name Paul Naschy) in Hell’s Creatures (1968), an homage to Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). Naschy reprised his medallion-wearing werewolf role several times and beefed up his star status by playing as many famous monsters as Karloff, Lugosi, and both Chaneys combined. In France, Jean Rollin also weaved together the inspired and the makeshift like Franco and Naschy. He dealt in pulp influences and serial-style pictures, often blending horror into nudie picture, as with Rape of the Vampire (1967). Sam Sherman and Al Adamson, an American producer/director team most equivalent to Rollin and Franco, used relics of Universal (old lab equipment, aged Chaney, Jr. and Carradine) alongside Hell’s Angels and cobbled footage from stalled projects. Their films lack the inspiration of their European counterparts, however, and their punchy titles (Blood of Dracula’s Castle, 1969; Dracula vs. Frankenstein, 1970; etc.) often tried to mask that they were the same film done over and over again.

I’m thinking blood’s not the only bodily fluid flowing in ole Drac’s castle…

Federico Fellini reportedly spent his whole life and career trying to reimagine the film that first excited him as a child, Maciste in Hell (1927), which Riccardo Freda actually remade in 1962. Franco, Naschy, Rollin, and Adamson-Sherman were essentially creating some of film’s earliest fan fiction. At their best, they enthusiastically play with monsters in a childish, amusing, and even endearing manner. At their worst, they churn out slow-paced stinkers with a few dollops of gore and sex and don’t even try to hide that they’re working the same angles of decades prior (Dr. Orloff, Franco’s recurrent villain, is a carbon copy of the Bela Lugosi character from Dark Eyes of London, 1939).

These efforts, combined with the controversy surrounding Psycho, made horror disreputable again. It was the genre degenerates and perverts once more, and yet the crowds still flocked, drawn to these strange films that helped unravel the enigmas of a shifting world. Yet not everything in horror was scoffed by highbrow enthusiasts. The 60’s also saw a minor revival in stately, tasteful shudders that began with Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw (1898), and Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Both are careful, creepy ghost stories, impressively shot in widescreen black-and-white, dealing with complex psychological themes yet still finding time to harbor real, bone-deep chills. James was among the classic canon, but Jackson’s novel was new to the horror library. The success of the film adaptation of Haunting led other filmmakers to finally start paying attention to the wealth of great horror material written since the Edwardian era. Psycho also made Robert Bloch a name worth evoking in a somewhat different manner. Forever after he was known as “Robert ‘Psycho’ Bloch,” a dubious distinction at best. A loose group of writers who come to the fore in the 1950’s started getting more attention in the 60’s, many while working on television for Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-1962), The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), and other anthology shows. Through doing script work, many of them were able to then have their own novels and stories filmed, among them Richard Matheson, Jack Finney, Stanley Ellin, Charles Beaumont, Harlan Ellison, Ray Russell, and Ray Bradbury. These were ambitious, well-read authors familiar in what came before in the genre and eager to influence what came next. They scripted adaptations of writers who had yet to achieve the acclaim they deserved; Matheson and Beaumont turned Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife (1943), which had been botched by Inner Sanctum as Weird Woman (1944), into Night of the Eagle/Burn, Witch, Burn (1961). Beumont also did wrote the first screen adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft, although AIP turned “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” into one of their Poe/Price/Corman movies, The Haunted Palace (1963).

The top horror bestseller of the 60’s was, unquestionably, Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, published in 1967 and filmed and released in 1968 for Paramount by director Roman Polanski. Polanski had already made an important psychological horror picture with Repulsion (1965) as well as the charming Hammer spoof Dance of the Vampires/The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967). Rosemary’s Baby became the first “event” horror film since Psycho. Though its vision of a Manhattan coven isn’t far removed from Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), Rosemary’s Baby works as much on its pregnant heroine’s Repulsion-style nervous breakdown as it does the coming of the Antichrist. This was the sort of horror film that could, and did, get serious Oscar buzz–Ruth Gordon took home the Best Supporting Actress statuette–and was embraced by audiences who wouldn’t have been caught dead at an AIP double bill or an all-night Jesus Franco marathon. Its influence was swift, but wouldn’t truly be felt until the 70’s when writers like Stephen King and Peter Straub became established and films like The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen (1976) made waves by getting back in bed with the Devil.

“Oh shit, he looks like the mailman”

At the other end of the budget range was a very different approach to horror. After running out of ways to film topless women for so-called “nudie-cuties,” Herschell Gordon Lewis turned out Blood Feast (1963). This has been labelled the first “splatter” movie, though the term wasn’t coined until Lewis’s career was long over. The film strings together ketchupy atrocities through a minimal plot about a mad caterer preparing an Ancient Egyptian cannibal feast. Lewis followed this up with Two Thousand Maniacs (1964), in which Confederate ghosts dismember Yankee tourists. Important but not very good, Lewis has his place in horror history, and he helped make room for other auteurs of dementia like Andy Milligan (The Ghastly Ones, 1968; Torture Dungeon, 1969) and Ted V. Mikels (The Corpse Grinder, 1971). This was d-list Hollywood at best, thrown together in unfashionable parts of the U.S. in the certain knowledge that anything can scrape few grindhouse playdates. Other efforts from far outside the studio system began to pop up, sought out by the curious crowds who’d seen enigmatic references in magazines. Among the most popular were Curtis Harrington’s underground Lewton homage Night Tide (1961), Herk Harvey’s artistic chiller Carnival of Souls (1962), Ray Dennis Steckler’s carnival gimmick musical The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies??! (1963), Jack Curtis’s gruesome The Flesh Eaters (1964), Jack Hill’s endearingly demented Spider Baby (1964), and William Grefe’s sleepy Death Curse of Tartu (1966). The important aspect of these films is that you weren’t safe from them. There were no studio executives intent on securing a uniformity of product, no unkillable stars, no submission to the industry’s codes and practices.

The true breakthrough of the decade, commercially and artistically, was George A. Romero’s Pittsburgh-shot Night of the Living Dead (1968), assembled by filmmakers who had worked in advertising and industrial movies. Inspired by Richard Matheson’s novel I Am Legend (1954), NOTLD depicts modern America overrun by the newly risen dead, who have an insatiable hunger for human flesh. A group of fractious, panicky survivors hole up in an isolated farmhouse, besieged by the living dead, while a posse of tooled-up sheriff’s deputies comb the countryside in a Vietnam-style search-and-destroy mission. Besides inventing a new monster–combining zombie, vampire, cannibal, and pod person–NOTLD strikes a new set of 1968 attitudes: suspicious of authority, disenchanted with regular folk, willing to break taboos (namely the little girl ghoul killing her mother with a trowel), slyly satirical between suspense scenes, terrified as much by the fact that nobody knows what’s going on as by the rampaging monsters, and ultimately pessimistic. Ambiguous and unhappy endings had started creeping into horror in the 60’s with the likes of The Birds and The Fearless Vampire Killers, but NOTLD goes for the throat. The hero, a Black man played by Duane Jones, fails to save any of the others and only survives by hiding in the cellar, a strategy he has argued against. When he shows himself in the morning as the monster-killing posse turns up, he is mistaken for one of the living dead and shot in the head (“kill the brain and you kill the ghoul”) and hauled out by men with meathooks to be tossed onto a bonfire of corpses. It was a devastating ending, then and now.

And so, after that Night, things really changed…

Though the word “zombie” is never used, the modern conception of the monster began here

See just exactly how that change manifested in Part 7, and how that led to the 1970’s being termed horror’s golden age

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Creature Features (The 1950’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 5 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. Be sure to read Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 as well.

If cinema of the late 1940’s, was typified by the high contrast black-and-white of film noir, with shadows like pools of ink and protagonists slipping into insanity, the dominant tone of the early 1950’s was semi-documentary gray, with heroes so relentlessly everyday and average that contemporary audiences tend to take them for seed-pods from outer space (and as most films would later reveal, some of them were).

As in the case of the devilish handsome Metaluna Monster from This Island Earth. Total hunk.

The 1950’s presented an image of back-to-business normality. Finned cars stocked suburban garages. New labor-saving devices were being fitted to every gleaming home. And yet, this was also the decade of the Cold War’s birth, Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, rampant fear of nuclear warfare, “juvenile delinquency,” and rock’n’roll. When the decade began, horror was most certainly out of fashion, and it’s not hard to imagine why. The Nazis and the Soviets had altered the public perception of what a true monster really was. Gone were the days when Lon Chaney, Jr. could don a bit of yak’s hair and pass as a reputable envoy of the dark side. No, now there were human faces attached to evil. Faces who had fought on both sides in a disastrous and brutal global conflict. Faces who had developed things like the atom bomb and the death camp, mad scientists whose atrocities against humankind would have unnerved even Victor Frankenstein and Dr. Moreau. A lone count from Transylvania did not pose much of a threat now.

Military action alone left 40 million dead at the conclusion of World War II, and millions more exposed to the full, sickening spectrum of man’s inhumanity towards man. Homecoming heroes and bereaved widows had too many horror stories of their own to desire or appreciate big screen fantasies. The world would not and could not ever be the same again. And with the dawning of postwar posterity in the United States, a new breed of monsters, dressed to suit the new era and adapted specifically for survival in the second half of the twentieth century, emerged.

You can gauge how influential The Thing From Another World (1951) was based on subsequent science-fiction monster movies by looking at Edgar C. Ulmer’s The Man From Planet X (1951), produced as a “spoiler” for the higher profile film and rushed to beat it into the cinemas. This means that, uniquely, Ulmer’s movie is a 50’s alien invasion film not made in imitation of Christian Nyby’s soon-to-be-classic The Thing From Another World. Without any pre-existing model for a tale of a helmeted dwarf from outer space, Ulmer’s film opts to look like an old Universal classic. The setting is an isolated, fogbound island inhabited by an odd-looking scientist, played by William Schallert, who makes first contact with an imp-like alien. When things get out of hand, obviously, the villagers pick up their various agricultural implements and flaming torches and harry the monster in exactly the same way earlier and more convincing mobs pursued the Frankenstein Monster, the Wolf Man, and the Mummy. Ulmer, who also directed The Black Cat (1943), was a diehard Poverty Row Expressionist. His films from the 50’s look like something from decades prior.

He may have been from Planet X, but he was hoping that Earth was Planet XXX

The Thing From Another World knows it’s in the line of noble descent from Universal’s classic monsters. It’s alien-vegetable biped resembles a balding Frankenstein Monster in some sort of strange boiler suit and has the Dracula-like habit of drinking human blood for sustenance. The film also invented a number of soon-to-be-clichés, much as its Universal predecessors did. In place of an angry mob, we have a coalition of quick-thinking, good-humored, professional men and one token, spunky woman by the name of Nikki (Margaret Sheridan). Together, they show only sensible fear and treat the monster as a problem to be solved. As in The Man From Planet X, a weirdo scientist with a beard (Robert Carrington) wants to communicate with the implacable enemy from the stars rather than exterminate it–but even he isn’t a madman in the purist sense, just a “fellow traveler.” For five years after The Thing From Another World, almost every alien, dinosaur, or radioactive mutant on the rampage would be dealt with by the kind of straight-arrowed characters found in that darkened Arctic basement. Kenneth Tobey, the lead, would go on to join the oh-so-exclusive ranks of 1950’s monster fighters with John Agar and Richard Carlson. All this, and the matter-of-fact semi-documentary tone of the film, would be copied, often less aptly, by many, many B movie quickies.

Space ships alone were not enough to carry the 1950’s sci-fi/horror hybrid. Almost every major motion picture at the time included a monster that threatened the peace and stability of earth, whether it was the tall, enormously powerful robot Gort from the intelligent and elegant The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) or giant squid from the adventurous 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Most of the monsters were otherworldly terrors, like the bug-eyed, exposed-brain Metaluna Monster from space opera This Island Earth (1955) or the roaring, invisible Monster From the Id from the philosophical Forbidden Planet (1956), but even films like The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) remembered to have its miniature hero menaced by a gigantic cat and a ferocious spider.

In terms of monster creation, one can look at the era as a time of great innovation and creativity, or a period constrained by the shift in studio support, a time when the horror film was relegated well and truly to the B-movie category. This was in large part due to the fact that the major studios were attempting widespread technological overhauls like universal color production, Cinemascope, Stereoptic sound, and 3-D to keep audiences going to the movies rather than sitting at home and watching TV, a habit that was now on the rise. Big stars became reserved for epic dramas and musicals, films sure to draw big, sophisticated, middle-class crowds. As such, the main audience for horror films became teenagers. They flocked to the drive-in, not caring all that much for production value, plot integrity, or character development. They just wanted to see two movies for the price of one in “double creature features.” And they always got their wish.

“Gee golly this movie is scary! Let’s make out to keep safe”

Radiation played a part in almost every major sci-fi/horror film of the decade, either enlarging lifeforms as in Them! (1954), Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956), or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), or shrinking them as in The Fly (1958) and The Incredible Shrinking Man. Existing life forms made better monsters, as they could be photographed using bluescreen techniques, or recreated in model form and brought to life with stop-motion animation. Otherwise, the tried and true method of a man in a suit–which was still used by James Cameron for Aliens (1986)–worked well enough if seen from a distance. Though schlocky by today’s standards, these onscreen monsters were viewed as the cutting edge of movie technology at the time and their novelty was seen as a viable strategy from drawing audiences away from their TV sets. Newcomer and star practitioner Ray Harryhausen was the superior animator of the time. For The Beast From 40,000 Fathoms (1953), he crafted a radioactive dinosaur that gets thawed out by a bomb test in the North Pole. Gojira (1954), the Japanese semi-remake of the film, founded an entire genre of daikaiju (giant monsters) that lasted decades before falling out of favor and recently being resurrected thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) and Legendary’s MonsterVerse series of films.

Lone troublemakers like the Thing, the Beast, and Godzilla were also quite common in the 50’s, as in Phantom From Space (1953) and Devil Girl From Mars (1955). This was primarily due to budgetary constraints, though every once in awhile mass invasions would occur, as when H.G. Wells’ Martians arrive in sleek, aerodynamic murder machines to terrorize Earth in War of the Worlds (1953) or when giant ants descended from the first ants irradiated by the initial atomic bomb wreck havoc in Them! But soon enough, in the spirit of Jekyll and Hyde, human mutations were resulting from atomic-era mad science, as in The Neanderthal Man (1953), The Fly, Monster on the Campus (1958), and The Hideous Sun Demon (1959). This helped mask-makers and stuntmen get back into the business, including Lon Chaney, Jr., who goes on a rampage in The Indestructible Man (1956).

Universal, now Universal-International, once again found themselves at the forefront of the horror genre. With producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold teamed together the studio made an alien-visitor spectacle, It Came From Outer Space (1953) and a giant bug movie, Tarantula (1955), that enjoyed respectable success. Alland also produced Jack Sherwood’s The Monolith Monsters (1957), one of several disaster movies that inflate natural phenomena into threats worthy of the “monster” tag. The Alland-Arnold team’s most significant collaboration, however, was The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), which features a fish-human hybrid described as a “living fossil.” The Gill Man became the final addition to Universal’s pantheon of copyrighted and franchised monsters. The Creature returned in two sequels (because how could it not?), Arnold’s Revenge of the Creature (1955) and Sherwood’s The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), and its gill-filled visage can be found on merchandise to this day. Arnold’s best films depict a tension between the clipped, grey flannel, matter-of-fact style of science fiction and the poetic, lurid, sexualized, perverse feel of a classic monster movie. This is epitomized best in the masterful sequence in which the sinuous Creature swims just underneath the alluring heroine (Julia Adams) as she does the backstroke on the surface of the Black Lagoon, whose depths represent the unconscious mind as much as they do prehistory.

The shape of this water is…sexy!

Then, a noticeable shift hit horror films in the middle of the decade. This occurred right around the time genre films were almost exclusively being churned out by smaller, grindhouse studios like American International Pictures (whom, fun fact, Stephen King credits the survival of horror as a genre to), and targeting a completely teenage audience. To kids, heroes in uniforms like Kenneth Tobey seemed square. As such, you start to see films like Invasion of the Saucer Men (1958) and The Blob (1958) in which grown-ups are useless and only misunderstood teens know how to combat the menace of bug-eyed monsters and all-consuming red jelly, respectively. While the rare Universal effort like The Deadly Mantis (1957) concerned itself with some sort of plausibility, AIP took the opposite path, unleashing the imagination of young producer-director Roger Corman onto the big screen with unabashedly lurid, unashamedly entertaining and surprisingly quick-witted projects like It Conquered the World (1956), Not of This Earth (1957), and Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957). And while Corman’s early films often had trouble living up to the promise of their posters, they were far better paced and more engaging than almost all of their contemporaries int he latter half of the 1950’s.

The shift from military men and scientific experts to the home front in the second half of the decade helped pave the way for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), one of the most influential films in the history of horror cinema. Both Invaders From Mars (1953) and It Came From Outer Space had played with the nightmare potential of parents and authority figures mind-controlled by Martians or replaced by malign xenomorphs, but it took Body Snatchers to lift this concept to the status of sub-genre. Set in a small town where people come down with an epidemic of unusual delusion–that their friends and relations have somehow “changed”–the film has been read as both a vision of Senator McCarthy’s ravings of Communist infiltration into the heartland and an allegory of the way witch-hunting Red-baiters turned America against itself. Both are valid readings, and there are deep psychological waves emanating from the film. The Body Snatchers, grown from seed, owe a little to old stories of doppelgängers and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “William Wilson” and the film adaptations The Student of Prague (1913, 1926, 1935). There are also undertones to the Snatchers that code as vampirism or demonic possession. Regardless, the film set a modern myth, which has proved indispensable to the horror genre ever since. The depiction of a small American town, ripe for a real estate ad, harboring nasty secrets, that is simultaneously penetrated from without and eaten alive from within by the monstrous is a trope that has surfaced time and again in horror from Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to Twin Peaks, Washington to Midnight Mass’s (2021) Crockett Island.

Certain viewpoints hold that traditional gothic horror was dead after House of Dracula (1945), and that it was not resurrected until The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), having been obliterated by Abbott and Costello and the creature feature. And yet, there is a tentative return to the gothic as early as 1951 with Son of Dr. Jekyll. Universal also signed Boris Karloff back on their payroll for minion roles in The Strange Door (1951) and The Black Castle (1951), which was a rerun of The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Andre de Toth’s House of Wax (1953), a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), also played with the gothic by pushing the contemporary setting of the original back to the 1890’s. The film set a new style using full color, stereoptic sound, and eye-popping 3D. But its can-can girls and starchy colors were all just window dressing for star Vincent Price, who had flirted with horror as early as The Invisible Man Returns (1940). Price soon found himself elevated to full genre stardom after his role as the mad sculptor. In House of Wax, he comes off charming and benign in his wheelchair, handing out flowers to a terrified patron, a slightly more deliberate self-mocking comedy than Karloff or Lugosi would have liked.

You’re looking a little stiff there, my dear

There were other 3D horrors, of course. Price returned as The Mad Magician (1954), another old war horse was trotted out for Phantom of the Rue Morgue (1954), and William Cameron Menzies’s The Maze (1953) is considered remarkable even by modern standards. But the craze came and went quickly. Much like when the genre leaned towards specifically supernatural horror after the nine-days wonder that was the Bridey Murphy case, in which a hypnotist claimed he could regress an American housewife to her previous life as an Irish servant girl. The story was directly adapted as The Search for Bridey Murphy (1956), but also inspired pulpier efforts like The She-Creature (1957), Corman’s The Undead (1956), and The Bride and the Beast (1958).

Universal started to add some old-style monsters to their roster, as well. The snake-woman picture Cult of the Cobra (1955) reminded audiences that a creature didn’t have to be atomic to be worth making a movie about. Faith Domergue’s avenging Cobra Woman pioneered a minor trend of pin-up mutants, followed by Maria English as the modern incarnation of the She-Creature and middle-aged matrons desperate for a return to youth (and damn all the side effects) in The Leech Woman (1958) and The Wasp Woman (1959). But relics of earlier decades still needed work, as Edward D. Wood found when he signed Bela Lugosi for his own odd science-fiction/horror/melodrama/autobiography films. Their partnership would result in what is considered the worst movie ever made, Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), though Lugosi died at the start of production and his presence in the film suggested by a Dracula-look-alike. The last grasp at the gothic style, which was about to get a shot in the arm from England, were a series of quickies showcasing old stars (Lugosi, Chaney Jr., Carradine, Karloff) and using the old throughlines (19th century mad science, voodoo, mummies). They were either directed by Reginald LeBorg or produced by Howard W. Koch, who helmed The Black Sleep (1956), Voodoo Island (1957), Frankenstein 1970 (1958), and Pharaoh’s Curse (1958).

Across the pond, Britain’s small-scale studio Hammer Films had made forays into horror as early as the Lugosi vehicle Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1936) and the Jack the Ripper drama Room to Let (1949). Hammer became the first British studio to essay American-style sci-fi/horror with Terence Fisher’s Spaceways (1953) and Four-Sided Triangle (1953). Their breakout hit, however, was Val Guest’s The Quartermass Xperiment (1955), adapted from a BBC TV series and featuring Richard Wordsworth dragging himself over London waste grounds as an astronaut painfully transforming into a cactus-tripe-squid creature which threatens to absorb all life on Earth, now considered a bonafide horror classic. The film was successful enough to produce both sequels (Quartermass 2, 1957) and imitations (X: The Unknown, 1958; The Abominable Snowman, 1959). Other U.K. producers got in on the act by adapting ITV serials made in competition with the BBC’s Quartermass franchise, The Trollenberg Terror (1958) and Strange World of Planet X (1958) being the most well known.

My God, he’s being pickled alive!

American producer and monster fan Milton Subotsky pitched Hammer Films the idea of remaking Frankenstein (1931) in color, preferably with Boris Karloff in the lead. Hammer paid him off then took the project in another direction. Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein, scripted by Jimmy Sangster, is constructed, probably on legal advice, to be as little like Universal’s original classic as possible. The film established its own approach to familiar material and devised a look and feel that would soon become a style all its own. At the time, most attention was paid to the colorful gore, a new ingredient of the genre. Severed limbs and brains in tanks had been seen before, but the blood spurts had not looked as red or the gray matter so pink as it did now. Curse also stressed quality in art direction, costumes, cinematography, supporting cast, and music. Perhaps most importantly, though, the film produced two new horror stars: Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Cushing carried the film with his incisive, amoral, chilly yet charming performance as Victor Frankenstein, an aristocratic bastard who lets nothing get in his way. Lee, cast as the Monster mainly because other actors demanded more money, brought a remarkably wounded animal presence to the character. Both men would come to be indispensable in the future of horror cinema.

With Frankenstein’s Monster practically coining money, it was inevitably the Count would return as well. Horror of Dracula (1958) saw all of the creatives come back, with Cushing again in the lead as a businesslike Van Helsing and Lee with eight minutes of screen time and no dialogue after his first scene as the black-cloaked, hissing king of the vampires. Lee used his performance to redefine Dracula as a far more dynamic, sexual being than the stolid Lugosi. Lust was almost as important with Hammer as gore, and so there were plenty of plunging necklines and women awaiting the Count with open negligees to be found. Bosomy continental starlets and ex-models recur in British horror, the competition of the tight-sweatered rock’n’rollers and white-swimsuited lady scientists of the American creature feature. After the Monster and Dracula soared on their comebacks, Hammer went on a remake craze that soon felt like jet lag: Hound of the Baskervilles (1959), The Man Who Could Cheat Death (1959), The Mummy (1959), The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960), The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), The Phantom of the Opera (1962), and Kiss of the Vampire (1964), a film peddled as an original but that is actually a rewrite of The Black Cat (1934) with vampires instead of Satanists.

Hammer’s gothic revival was quickly imitated by filmmakers who hadn’t taken the time to study the style and so resorted to earlier models or their own creativity. Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster dashed off Blood of the Vampire (1958) and Jack the Ripper (1959) for producers Monty Baker and Robert Berman, but these blood-bolstered, theatrical melodramas rang more of Tod Slaughter than Peter Cushing. When Baker and Berman signed Cushing for John Gilling’s The Flesh and the Fiends (1958), Gilling remade a script he had written for a Slaughter movie, The Greed of William Hart (1948). Producer Richard Gordon, who had come to Britain to make mock-American sci-fi films like Fiend Without a Face (1958) and the Quartermass knock-off The First Man in Space (1959), also looked to the Slaughter style. Gordon signed Boris Karloff for a few Victorian horror melodramas, namely Grip of the Strangler (1958) and Corridors of Blood (1958). He also found room for rising star Lee to play a body snatcher in the latter film. Meanwhile, Jacques Tourneur was in the U.K. after his post-Val Lewton career had fizzled and ended up directing Night of the Demon (1957), a busy yet massively influential film for the genre.

Time to send Gandalf to stake this fool

Over at AIP, producer Herman Cohen saw potential for combining the teen-focused atomic age horrors with the classic monster revival and managed two respectable efforts, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) and I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1958). Cohen then hopped over to Anglo-Amalgamated in Britain. They were a new outfit wanting to get in on the horror genre, so Cohen hired Michael Gough, a dreary hero from Hammer’s Horror of Dracula, and cast him in Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). Gough’s character, a limping, impotent misogynist who is meant to be read as slightly gay and sadistic, is a megalomaniac crime writer who happens to have Dr. Jekyll’s old potion lying around his house for whatever reason. Black Museum was one of the first true extreme horrors. The opening scene features a girl receiving a pair of trick binoculars that sprout eye-gouging spikes when the focus is adjusted. Cohen and Gough would continue their depredations in Konga (1961) and Black Zoo (1963) while Anglo developed more mutilation with Anton Diffring wielding a scalpel in Circus of Horrors (1960). They also backed Michael Powell’s jolting and still unnerving essay in psychosis, Peeping Tom (1960).

Stateside, the teenage-monster boom continued in full force. Edgar C. Ulmer made Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), Richard Culna contributed Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), Herman Cohen bowed to the inevitable and did a teenage vampire in Blood of Dracula (1958) and the low-rent Jerry Warren cobbled together Teenage Zombies (1960). Universal noticed that their properties were back in business and cashed in with the low-key, contemporary-set Return of Dracula (1958), starring Francis Lederer as a vampire with a cloak-like coat thrown over his shoulders. Essentially a remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Return of Dracula was the first film to bring Transylvania to small town America, but certainly not the last. Universal even tried a vampire Western, Curse of the Undead (1958), but the trend didn’t catch on. Much more distinctive were the films of producer-director William Castle, famed for cementing Vincent Price’s status as a genre star and capturing the cynical, blackly comic tone of EC horror comics in House on Haunted Hill (1958) and The Tingler (1959). Castle would stick with the genre but arguably never trumped the centipede creature from The Tingler, one of the strangest beasts in the genre.

The return of Dracula & co. was noted both in Hollywood and abroad. After the 1920’s, “foreign” horror had been a matter of occasional one-offs like Dane Carl Dryer’s artsy Vampyr (1932) or Frenchman Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diabolique (1955), a phenomenal film that helped inspire Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Now, horror was truly becoming an international field. In Mexico, Germane Robles played a Dracula lookalike in The Vampire (1957), which seemed a south-of-the-border Son of Dracula (1943) in its monochrome Universal style. Robles’s film led to far wilder Mexican efforts featuring Aztec mummies, brain-sucking alchemists, and masked, monster-fighting wrestlers like El Santo and Blue Demon. In Italy, Riccardo Freda helmed I Vampiri (1956), which features another matron who kills to enjoy renewed youth, and Caltiki, the Immortal Monster (1959), in which an all-consuming blob crawls out of a Mayan temple. In France, Georges Franju, perhaps influenced by I Vampiri (which is set in Paris), directed Eyes Without a Face (1959), a mix of pulp and poetry featuring a mad plastic surgeon trying to give his daughter a new face. In the Philippines, Wells’s Dr. Moreau inspired Gerardo de Leon’s Terror is a Man (1959), which would trigger the “Blood Island” cycle a decade later. In Germany, mad science and cheesecake met with The Head (1959) and Horrors of Spider Island (1960), and Dr. Mabuse was on the brink of a major comeback. Much like the genre itself.

Because at the end of the 1950’s, horror was everywhere.

And you ain’t SEEN nothing yet

Next we move into the 1960’s, where the eye of horror turned from external threats to internal during a decade of rapid change and revolution

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Man vs. Animal, a Looming Terror (The 1940’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 4 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. Be sure to check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 as well

While the horror films of the 1930’s dealt in well-established fictional monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, werewolves, mummies, etc.), those of the 1940’s reflected the internationalization of the horror market. Americans looked at themselves a “safe,” separate from Europe, where everything was gradually descending into a frightening and uncontrollable chaotic mess. Banned in Britain, wartime horror movies became solely an American product. Of course, the U.S. did not remain separate and “pure.” A sense of duty and heritage regarding Europe keep creeping through the American shield. The pull of that link to the land of the nation’s ancestors eventually catapulted the States not only into war with Japan, but Germany as well. In the same way, many horror films of this decade deal with roots cracking through the ground–men and women becoming subject to the emergence of a primal, animal identity. You can even see this device used in Disney’s Pinocchio (1940), when the bad boys of Pleasure Island turn into donkeys.

You wanna hear something truly horrific? Listen to “Dominic the Donkey”

But it wasn’t donkeys posing a global threat at the outset of the 40’s. It was wolves. Adolf Hitler, though one could easily call him a jackass, identified strongly with legends and symbolism associated with wolves. His first name means “noble wolf” in the Old German tongue, and he was known to use “Herr Wolf” as a pseudonym for himself during his early political days. Various headquarters for the Nazi party were given names like Wolf’s Gulch (France), Manwolf (Ukraine), and Wolf’s Lair (Eastern Prussia). Hitler often referred to the SS as his “pack of wolves” and several sources, among those his favorite secretary Johanna Wolf (whom he called the “she-wolf”) report that he would absentmindedly whistle the tune of “Who’s Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf?” It should be recalled, of course, that the Big Bag Wolf is a character who whose desire is to consume people and destroy their homes.

Propagandists of the time were fond of depicting Hitler as the Big Bad Wolf of various fairy tales and fables. It seemed that the figure of the marauding wolf typified the predators that were lurking in the corners of the public consciousness. It is therefore no surprise that Universal, home of those now-iconic monsters of the 1930’s, picked the Wolf as the go-to specter of menace for their horror films of the early 1940’s.

After Son of Frankenstein (1939), Universal looked to their backlist for properties that could have sequels. The result was Vincent Price disappearing in The Invisible Man Returns (1940) and Tom Tyler bandaged up in The Mummy’s Hand (1941). But this wasn’t enough, so the new studio regime developed a fresh horror star in Creighton Chaney, son of their famous silent Quasimodo and better known under his working name, Lon Chaney, Jr. He had scored critical success for his portrayal of Lenny in Of Mice and Men (1939), so Universal decided to use a leftover script from their Karloff-Lugosi heyday to introduce Chaney, Jr. into their repertoire. The result, Man-Made Monster (1941), prompted director George Waggner to take on a more elaborate project to showcase the character talents of the new, burly Chaney.

“Blitz Wolf” was a short Disney cartoon from 1942 that featured the Three Little Pigs and Hitler in the role of the Big Bad Wolf

And so Chaney Jr. was cast as Larry Talbot in The Wolf Man (1941), a film about an American schlub bitten by a Romani man in wolf form (Lugosi, symbolically passing on the “curse” and status of a horror star) while staying in Wales. He is eventually battered to death with a silver cane by his father (Claude Rains) at the conclusion of the well-mounted and ambitious script by Curt Siodmak, who had fled the Nazi wolves himself in 1937. The Wolf Man proved that Universal could still found horror franchises. Chaney Jr. was then shuffled around to play all of the greats. He took on the role of the Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), the Mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), and the vampiric count in Son of Dracula (1943). It’s hard to imagine he wasn’t burned when Waggner produced a lavish, Technicolor Phantom of the Opera (1943) and passed over Chaney Jr. to assume his father’s old role. The part of the Phantom was deemed too important to mess up, and so was given to Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man father figure, Claude Rains.

This new version of the masked theater dweller’s tale was as much musical melodrama as it was horror and is surprisingly mild compared to the silent version. The film was also unusually large scale for Universal in the 1940’s. They mostly stuck to making low-effort series horror the way other studios were making series westerns. There were ongoing sagas chronicling the eerie adventures of the Invisible Man and the Mummy and a three-picture series about Paula the Ape Woman kickstarted with Captive Wild Woman (1943), again pinpointing the cultural fear of man (and woman) overcome by baser, primal instincts that lead to disaster. Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, signed over from Fox, played Holmes and Watson respectively in a series of twelve modern-day mysteries all directed by Roy William Neill (except Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942), directed by John Rawlins). Many of these featured supernatural elements, particularly The Scarlet Claw (1944) and The House of Fear (1945). These films soon led to spin-offs starring the monsters that Holmes defeated. Real life acromegalic Rondo Hatton, the “Creeper” from The Pearl of Death (1944) became a regular mad lab assistant in an Ape Woman sequel and got vehicles for success in House of Horrors (1946) and The Brute Man (1946). Gale Sondergaard, the black widow of The Spider Woman (1944), returned as a similar villainess, with Hatton as her minion, in The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1945). Chaney, Jr. starred in six Inner Sanctum mysteries, often in unsuitably intellectual roles, as when he plays a college professor in Weird Woman (1944). There were also a few standalones whose familiar sets, players (Karloff, Atwill, Lugosi, etc.), and storylines makes it seem like they were series efforts that never took flight, namely Black Friday (1940), Night Monster (1942), The Mad Ghoul (1943), and She-Wolf of London (1946).

The most significant Universal horror in terms of franchise was Neill’s Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), a dual sequel to Ghost of Frankenstein and The Wolf Man in which Lugosi (whose brain–spoiler alert–was put in Chaney’s skull at the end of Ghost) plays the Monster and Chaney, Jr. returns as the cursed Talbot. In House of Frankenstein (1944), Dracula (John Carradine) joined up, Lugosi was ditched in favor of bulky Glenn Strange, and Karloff returned to play a distinguished mad scientist. House of Dracula (1945) lost Karloff, but is otherwise the same deal. These monster rallies remain endearing to fans of the classics, not least for the strange twists of plotting that get around the monsters’ seemingly permanent deaths and contrive to bring them together for yet another rumble. They don’t, however, make much of an effort at being terrifying, and were screened mostly at children’s matinees. The end result, however, was one of the first truly great horror-comedies, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948), in which Universal’s premier vaudeville comics run into Chaney, Jr.’s Wolf Man, Strange’s Monster, and in what was to be his last turn in the role, Lugosi’s Dracula. The pair’s later run-in movies with the Invisible Man, the Mummy, and Jekyll and Hyde aren’t as funny as they should be, but the comedians are spot on in earlier haunted house flick Hold That Ghost (1941).

Who’s on First? F**king Frankenstein’s Monster!

At this point, the days of the lovingly crafted Bride of Frankenstein (1935) were over. The horror genre had devoured itself like the feral creatures it played up so much in the early 1940’s. The series of Abbott and Costello parodies put the final nails in the coffin for this era of horror films, forever resigning Dracula, the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and the Monster to sequel fodder. Those monsters who had been so terrifying on their debuts the prior decade would not be frightening again for a long time to come. Meanwhile, the B studios were cashing in on Universal’s comedy-horror act with lookalike efforts. Columbia signed Karloff to a run of “mad doctor” movies like The Man They Could Not Hang (1939) before landing Lugosi and his werewolf minion (Matt Willis) in their own monster mash-up picture, Return of the Vampire (1943). Fox and Paramount felt obliged to produce a white slavery/gorilla brain transplant story with The Monster and the Girl (1941) and a foggy werewolf whodunnit, The Undying Monster (1942). It seemed that if it wasn’t werewolves, it was brains being switched or tampered with, a person made into something they are not, something twisted, devilish, cruel…wolf-like. Then, down on Poverty Row, Monogram kept Lugosi on retainer for The Invisible Ghost (1941) and its eight sequels, and inadvertently addressed subversive societal issues of the times surrounding race and class with King of the Zombies (1941) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943). Studios loved having their comedians mix with ghouls and spooky specters in old dark houses with secret passageways, and that alone became the premise of a whole slew of horror-comedies like You’ll Find Out (1940), Whistling in the Dark (1941), The Smiling Ghost (1941), Topper Returns (1941), One Body Too Many (1944), Ghost Catchers (1944), and Genius at Work (1946).

In contrast to all of this cheap bustle, RKO hired Val Lewton to produce their own small-scale horror pictures and got a clutch of polished, doom-haunted, poetic little masterpieces in Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), Isle of the Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Directed by Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, or Robert Wise, the Lewton films are literate, adult, and sophisticated, especially when set beside their competition. But the main reason they worked for the audiences of the 1940’s is that they are also serious about being scary in a way that Universal had given up on. The stalking scenes in Central Park and the basement pool sequence in Cat People are models of a style of horror cinema that Lewton would perfect, a style that would become the basis of the stalk-and-slash films of the 1970’s and beyond. The Lewton films also spill more gore than their average counterparts–the trickle of blood under the door in The Leopard Man was an especial shock at the time. They also emphasize extreme emotional states, like the neglected daughter driven nearly to murder in The Curse of the Cat People. Almost all of Lewton’s films had to do with vicious animal urges taking over the human form, though some of his later films that were produced as war grew imminent were measured exercises in psychological terror that revealed the true monsters of the world to be human beings who had lost their moral compass. That Lewton had hit on a style and formula that worked is proved by the way others tried to imitate his art. After Cat People, Columbia managed its own effects-free “subtle” horror with Cry of the Werewolf (1943), and Lewtonesque tricks could be seen in The Soul of a Monster (1944) and The Woman Who Came Back (1945) as well.

As far as intelligent, well produced, carriage-trade horror goes, Lewton wasn’t alone. MGM had Victor Fleming, a hero on the strength of his acclaimed direction of both Gone with the Wind (1939) and The Wizard of Oz (1939). He mounted a big budget remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) as a showcase for Spencer Tracy’s dual performance and received the full Metro glamor treatment for co-stars Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, playing an abused Soho waitress and Jekyll’s fiancée, respectively. This was followed by other fogbound literary properties with bravura acting and careful production values: The Lodger (1944), starring Laird Cregar as Jack the Ripper, Gaslight (1944), with Bergman persecuted again, and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945). During the war and its aftermath, there was a run of near-benevolent supernatural films like A Guy Named Joe (1943), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). But sometimes the specters were anything but friendly. Lewis Allen’s The Uninvited (1944) feels like an homage to Lewton, particularly in the casting of Elizabeth Russell, Lewton’s favorite, as the wispy, malevolent spirit (who happens to be a “nasty” lesbian, to boot). The Uninvited was groundbreaking and incredibly influential, still standing as the model for many, many tales in which nice folks buy a picturesque, remote house and are pestered by ghosts, which then prompts an investigation into the cause of the haunting and a climactic exorcism. From Britain, mostly neglectful of the horror film while fighting against real life monsters, came Ealing Studio’s multi-directed Dead of Night (1945), the grandfather of the horror anthology, best remembered for its haunted mirror and mad ventriloquist sequences. It was highly influential in its use of the frame narrative with twists and mixes of moods from supernatural anecdote to clubroom comedy to all-out psychological terror.

Chucky ain’t got nothing on Hugo

Some horror scholars say that the greatest mystery of the genre is that in the late 1940’s, just as in the late 30’s, the horror film completely died out seemingly without warning. In the 30’s, the decline is almost entirely down to the unique circumstances of the British horror censorship. For the 40’s, some have suggested that after Abbott and Costello it became impossible for moviegoers to take the monsters seriously, but this glosses over that the comedians didn’t “meet” Frankenstein and co. until 1948 when the genre was already withering away. It could equally be argued that after the third or fourth sequel, it was difficult to surprise or startle audiences with the same creatures over and over again, only to seem them “vanquished” and resurrected within the year for another outing. Whatever the reason, between 1947 and 1951, Hollywood produced almost no true horror films. The Creeper (1948), Jean Yarbrough’s weird mélange of Lewton shadows and mad science, is perhaps the only notable exception. Maybe overproduction killed the genre, but hollow copycat Westerns were being churned out in even greater numbers without shaking the appetite of cowboy fans. Comparatively, there are 5 films in Universal’s original Kharis the Mummy series, which most fans describe as repetitive and formulaic; there are 51 completely interchangeable Three Musketeers pictures from the same era. Mind-boggling. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that after World War II, gothic horror was upstaged by real-life genocides and atrocities. And yet, the First World War had proved a potent inspiration for the Expressionist horrors of the 1920’s and 30’s, lingering subliminally in the films of F.W. Murnau (a fighter pilot) and James Whale (a P.O.W.).

The irony is that, in the late 1940’s, American screens were as shadowed and haunted as they had ever been, but not in actual horror movies. Film noir entered the public consciousness at this time, a genre that was diagnosed rather than invented. French critics had looked at the stream of American films, mostly thrillers and melodramas, and labelled them as noir, in reference to their overwhelming darkness in both imagery and subject matter. Lewton’s horror films could also double as early noir templates, and Jacques Tourneur went from Cat People to what is widely regarded as his film noir masterpiece, Out of the Past (1948). Other personnel made similar shifts. Robert Siodmark, Curt’s brother, helmed the gloomy and unusual Son of Dracula, in which a woman wants to be bitten by the count, as well as the early psycho-suspense horror The Spiral Staircase (1946). He also produced a number of noir films with heavy, heavy horror elements: The Phantom Lady (1943), The Killers (1946), The Dark Mirror (1946), etc. Edward Dymtryk moved from Captive Wild Woman to Murder, My Sweet (1944), the first major adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s work. While Karloff and Lugosi were tied too closely to castles and laboratories, Peter Lorre segued easily from horror to noir roles, reprising his M (1931) act as a sorrowful, psychotic killer in what might be the first truly proper noir, Stranger on the Third Floor (1940).

All of these were films about a looming evil. Scenes steeped in gloom, scores that pulsed with foreboding atmosphere and dread. Many viewed them as the embodiment of the last decade, dark forays into the atrocities that had gripped the globe and unleashed those feral, wolf-like creatures in the early 1940’s who were responsible for so much cruelty and damage. The noir films worked hard to do horror’s job in a less direct but still compelling manner while the genre was on hiatus. Because as any student of the supernatural will tell you, if a thing looks dead, that’s the time to be most afraid, as you never know what might come shooting out from beneath the tombstone…

Next up, Part 5 examines the fear of nuclear fallout and beasts beyond measure in the creature features of the 1950’s

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.

[Horror History] Exotic Monsters (The 1930’s)

@craiggors

This is Part 3 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Once again, we begin with Dracula.

When Bela Lugosi was interviewed about his stage performance as the Count, journalists would often ask if he was worried about being typecast in “mystery plays.” After Lugosi starred in Tod Browning’s 1931 film adaptation of Dracula and Frankenstein (1931) entered pre-production at Universal, competing studios began rooting about for similar properties to chase the Dracula dollars and the term “horror film” slipped into general usage.

When the British Film Board instituted a special rating for these “distasteful” items, they labeled them as “H” for “Horrific”–which seems to have sealed the deal insofar as naming the genre went. It wasn’t a linguistic inevitability, though. Terms like “macabre,” “gothic,” “weird,” “terror,” “monster,” and “shudder” were also available. And though Dracula signaled the birth of a cinematic genre, there’s a sense that neither the studio nor the director had their heart in the film. Both were involved with the project because of Lon Chaney. With his death in 1930, it may have even seemed like a contractual obligation to see it through. Universal dilly-dallied with casting choices before resorting, essentially because he was cheap, to Lugosi. It may be that they didn’t go with Conrad Veidt because they didn’t see Dracula as a super-spectacular like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), which was then in re-release as a semi-talkie film, or even The Man Who Laughs (1928).

Browning also hardly gave Dracula his best work. Though stunningly designed and photographed by Karl Freund, who had done The Golem (1920) and Metropolis (1926), the picture is basic filmmaking, certainly not on par with The Unknown (1927) or other Chaney-Browning films. Some have argued that the simultaneous Spanish version of Dracula, shot on the same sets from a translation of the John L. Balderson script is more excitingly directed by George Melford. There’s no denying that Browning’s version is more succinct, however; he tore out redundant pages that Melford faithfully plods through. With the better pacing of the English version, and Lugosi’s iconic performance in a role Carlos Villarias cannot claim to own in the way that the Hungarian did (and does), the English-language Dracula stands strong on its own. Browning’s film also has the definitive fly-eating Renfield played by Dwight Frye, whose cracked laugh is also as imitable as Lugosi’s haunting “I…am…Dracula” accent.

Plus that winning smile

There was some enthusiasm for Dracula on Universal’s side, though. It came from studio head Carl Laemmle Jr., newly promoted by his doting father. But even he didn’t consider how radical the material truly was. To the Laemmles, Dracula was a solid, proven property: a novel everyone knew and a play that was still running. The studio that had made their mark with The Phantom of the Opera and The Cat and the Canary (1927) thought they knew what they were getting into. Dracula was even, technically, a remake: Nosferatu (1922) might have been officially suppressed at the time, but it certainly wasn’t forgotten. Clips of the film turn up in a Universal short called Boo! (1932), so there was likely a print on the lot for easy reference. And F.W. Murnau was well known around town as one of the first Oscar winners for his film Sunrise (1928).

The different between what had come before in Hollywood and Dracula was underlined by the play’s epilogue, in which Dr. Van Helsing (played by Edward Van Sloan in the film) comes out from behind the curtain to assure the audience that “there are such things.” Before, the Phantom was malformed at birth. The Cat was just a secondary heir in a fright mask. Even Chaney’s pointy-fanged vampire in London After Midnight (1927) turned out to be a sleuth playing dress up to catch a killer. But Lugosi’s Dracula was a real-life, honest-to-Bram-Stoker bloodsucking reanimated corpse. Hollywood had been leery of “such things” and practical Yankee reviewers often sneered about their appearance in European films. Browning didn’t much care either way. He remade London After Midnight as Mark of the Vampire (1935), with Lugosi in the cloak again, and tried to get away with a Scooby-Doo ending as though he hadn’t founded a whole new cinematic genre with Dracula.

Laemmle Jr. took note of the unexpected box office bonanza of Dracula (reportedly a $700,000 profit on a $340,000 budget), which hit theaters in February 1931. He immediately began to develop Frankenstein, managing to get it out before the end of the year despite a change in both director and star during pre-production. Originally, Robert Florey was set to direct Lugosi as the creature, but Englishman James Whale, whom Laemmle valued as one of Universal’s top assets, was given the pick of all the studio’s properties and chose Mary Shelley’s “man who made a monster.” Lugosi (who, forever after, claimed to have turned down the Monster role rather than being unceremoniously dumped by a Brit who didn’t take him seriously) and Florey were shunted off to make Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), a Poe adaptation that’s also a lightly disguised remake of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Whale cast his London stage associate Colin Clive as Dr. Frankenstein, bumping out Leslie Howard, and scuppered Lugosi’s future career by selecting Anglo-Indian bit player Boris Karloff (born William Pratt) to wear Jack P. Pierce’s make-up as the Monster.

And he really does wear it well

In the opening credits of Frankenstein, Karloff is billed as “?” His name, not familiar to the public despite decades of playing secondary villains and one-scene psychotics, was not revealed until the “a good cast is worth repeating” closing crawl. If Dracula is a thrown-together piece that somehow works, Frankenstein is the result of considered thought by the director, make-up man (a great deal of the film’s lasting strength is that unbeatable, copyrighted Monster) and cast. The script is even more makeshift than Dracula‘s, with too many irreconcilable ideas thrown in. Quite a lot of fuss is made about the plot point that the hunchback minion Fritz (Dwight Frye again playing a sycophantic lackey) has snatched an “abnormal brain” for use in the Monster’s skull, but this “explanation” for why the experiment turns out badly is at odds with Whale’s (and Shelley’s) depiction of the creature as an innocent who only reacts viciously when abused or neglected and whose worst crime (drowning a little girl) is simply a tragic misunderstanding.

The early stirrings of censoring grumblers (especially in Britain, the spiritual home of Dracula and Frankenstein) did more to excite than depress box office figures. With two proven hits, Universal realized they had a new-made genre on their hands–complete with iconic stars, supporting actors, standing sets, behind-the-camera talent like Whale, Pierce, and Freund, and a shelf load of suitable material–and that their horror monopoly would not last long. Lugosi, though he signed on for a Poverty Row quickie (shot on a Universal lot, ironically), White Zombie (1932), retained some of his Dracula magic in the troubled Murders in the Rue Morgue and would remain, resentfully, the studio’s number-two bet for any horror role. But Whale and Karloff were the treasured pair, and were both cannier and more ambitious than Lugosi in parlaying their breakout success into whole careers. The duo reunited for The Old Dark House (1932), adapted from a J.B. Priestly novel, which summed up the entire genre of pre-Dracula “old dark house” horror comedies. Whale even recreates some of Paul Leni’s compositions from The Cat and the Canary. The gloomy drawing room is filled with clipped, soon-to-be-familiar British players like Raymond Massey, Ernest Thesiger, and Charles Laughton. They sprout sardonic dialogue while Karloff grunts about as the below-stairs brute Morgan, the drunken Welsh butler. Whale was a working class lad who reinvented himself as a West End gentleman, whereas Karloff was the public-educated black sheep of a distinguished diplomatic family who’d oddly served decades as a manual laborer before becoming an actor. Whale disparagingly referred to Karloff as “the truck driver.”

Perhaps sensing that he was being “kept in his place,” Karloff passed on Whale’s offer for The Invisible Man (1933), in which his voice would finally be heard but only on the condition that his face was kept off screen. Claude Rains, another well-spoken Englishman of humble origins, landed the role instead. His silky voice quickly established him as a character star. Meanwhile, Lugosi moaned that if only he had played the Monster he would have gotten all the career breaks which came to Karloff. Karloff, for his part, never insisted that if had played the Invisible Man he would have landed Rains’s stand-out roles in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1943), and Notorious (1945).

Do you know how many children the Invisible Man has? None, he’s not apparent!

Karloff was at last allowed to talk, revealing an educated lisp, in The Mummy (1932), a swift rewrite of Dracula mingled with She and contemporary tabloid stories about the “Curse of King Tut.” With Karl Freund promoted to director and a streamlined script with little eccentricity, The Mummy can comfortably be called Hollywood’s first conveyor-belt horror film, i.e. commissioned by a studio that knew what they were getting, modeled after what had worked before, and showcasing a star that was both a proven talent and a box office draw. The Mummy is informed by a small whiff of graveyard poetry in the form of another memorable Jack Pierce makeup job and the melancholy tunes of Swan Lake playing over the credits, as in Dracula and many other Universal movies of the time.

By now, the competition was on the rise. Every studio in Hollywood had their onw would-be Dracula or Frankenstein on the starting blocks. Paramount, the most elegant and sophisticated of the major studios, looked to classic novels which nevertheless offered an opportunity for lurid, sexualized violence. First, they greenlit Robert Mamoulian to direct Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), with Fredric March trumping John Barrymore’s silent performance by playing the handsome doctor as a parody of matinee idol Barrymore and the ape-like mister as a shaggy thug in evening dress with a nasty streak of sadistic humor. Paramount’s second-string monster flick was Erle C. Kenton’s Island of Lost Souls (1933) with Charles Laughton as a flabby, whip-wielding incarnation of H.G. Wells’ Dr. Moreau. An unrecognizable Lugosi hides under face-fur as a beast man added in post-production to beef up the film’s horror status. March won Best Actor at the Oscars that year for his Jekyll/Hyde and his victory started to silence prudes who thought the film was too explicit about the double-man’s relationship with with Soho tart Ivy (Miriam Hopkins). Meanwhile, Island of Lost Souls was banned in the U.K. for its vivisection and implied bestiality.

Warner Brothers, who specialized in rattling, contemporary, torn-from-the-headline dramas (even their musicals are realistic) had Michael Curtiz direct a pair of twisted whodunnits in lovely new Technicolor, Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). These introduced Lionel Atwill as another British horror face, voice, and leer. Paramount snapped him up for their nasty Murders in the Zoo (1933) but then lost him to Universal. These films also introduced Fay Wray as a leggy beauty, though she’s upstaged by Glenda Farrell’s wisecracking proto-Lois Lane in Wax Museum. The two films mixed disfigured fiends, mad geniuses, “moon murders,” and “synthetic flesh” with snappy reporters doing self-aware gags (“he makes Frankenstein look like a lily”) and complaining about Prohibition. Warner Bros. never really committed to horror, but Curtiz did land Karloff his role in The Walking Dead (1935), which sees gangsters stalked by a vengeful zombie in one of the first body-count movies. The studio also put their contract player Humphrey Bogart in an unlikely “scientific vampire” role for The Return of Dr. X (1939).

Humphrey Bo-gey man?

RKO had their own monster in the works with King Kong (1933), though the giant ape doesn’t seem to be as much an attempt to mimic Dracula and Frankenstein as it does the 1926 film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, which had proved that Willis H. O’Brien’s hand-animated prehistoric creatures could carry a picture. While producer-directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper were toiling Kong, they had time to use the same sets and lead actress Fay Wray in a quickie classic, The Most Dangerous Game (1932). Here, Leslie Banks was cast in the Karloff-Atwill-Rains mold as Count Zaroff, a Russian huntsman with perfect Shaftesbury Avenue tones and a distinctive way of holding a cigarette. Zaroff’s passion is stalking “the most dangerous game,” man. The Richard Connell story would be remade often and Zaroff is an early archetype of the sadistic mad genius who would feature in many horror melodramas before mutating into the role model for classic James Bond villains (Christopher Lee’s Man With the Golden Gun in particular has many Zaroff traits). After the awe-inspiring debut of King Kong, RKO rushed out Son of Kong (1933), the genre’s first disappointing sequel. The poor reception led to the studio quitting horror altogether until the 1940’s.

MGM, which liked to think themselves the most prestigious studio on the row, obviously now had to get in on the horror fanfare. Chaney and Browning had worked there through the 1920’s under the aegis of supposed living genius Irving Thalberg. Browning returned to the studio for Freaks (1932) with Chaney replaced by real sideshow oddities. The result is regarded as Browning’s masterpiece, though it is wildly inconsistent in tone. The film was then hastily sold off by the studio to grindhouse exhibitors who touted it as a roadshow shocker alongside Dwain Esper’s astounding Poe-derived Maniac (1934). Since Freaks didn’t work at the time (though it’s fondly looked on as a genre classic now), the studio played it safe by hiring Karloff and adapting a proven property with The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). But once again, MGM vacillated, switching directors and failing to settle on a proper tone. Despite this, Fu Manchu was the film where Karloff really broke out and showed that he could more than a dutiful studio employee, relishing sadistic camp in a manner even Whale wouldn’t dare. Myrna Loy, playing the devil doctor’s daughter, played her character as a sadistic nymphomaniac and puritanical, moralistic studio boss Louis B. Mayer, in a perpetual power struggle with Thalberg, was duly horrified. Browning, though regarded as burn out now, was still welcome on the studio lot. After Mark of the Vampire, he managed one other quirky effort, the grotesque science-fiction tale of miniaturized assassins, The Devil-Doll (1936). Perhaps MGM’s best horror film of the decade, however, was another attempt to fit the Universal template, Mad Love (1935). Freund was hired to direct from a script based on Maurice Renard’s novel The Hands of Orlac (1920). The story had previously come to screen as a German silent film and the new version starred established second-rank horror players Colin Clive and Peter Lorre, who was well on his way to the first-rank after his performance in Fritz Lang’s M (1931) impressed all the Hollywood executives too scared to greenlight a film about child murder.

Finally, the independent Halperin organization gave Lugosi one of his better roles in White Zombie, drawing on the then-hot topic of Caribbean voodoo. The film introduced the apparatus of wax dolls and walking corpses and exploited the genre’s simultaneous fascination with and denial of ethnic cultures (the implication of the title is that a “Black Zombie” wouldn’t be news). Never a major force, even on Poverty Row, the Halperins managed to produce a semi-sophisticated tale of possession with Supernatural (1933) and a near-unwatchable follow-up, Return of the Zombies (1936). Other quickie outfits were ready to sign Lugosi and Atwill and borrow Universal sets. Majestic produced The Vampire Bat (1933) with Atwill and Fay Wray, along with Condemned to Live (1935). The success of White Zombie inspired Drums o’Voodoo (1934), Black Moon (1934), and Ouanga (1935). If things dried up in Hollywood, there were always jobs abroad. Karloff returned home in triumph for The Ghoul (1933) and The Man Who Changed His Mind (1933), while Lugosi was made welcome in England for The Phantom Ship (1935), one of the first features from newly founded studio Hammer Films, along with The Dark Eyes of London (1939), directed by Edgar Wallace. But if horror had a true home, it was still on the Universal lot.

Nice day for a…white zombie

Laemmle Jr. wanted to spend 1934 teaming up Karloff and Lugosi with another big horror name he didn’t have to pay for: Edgar Allan Poe. The Black Cat (1934), directed by the ambitious Edgar C. Ulmer, owes more to The Most Dangerous Game than the Poe story that shares its name but nevertheless gives the actors lots of material worth chewing over. Karloff plays a perverted diabolist who lives in a modern castle built over the battlefield where all the men he betrayed in the war were killed. Lugosi is a vengeance-seeking obsessive who plans on skinning Karloff alive for his treason. It worked so well that the gang was back together, with Ulmer replaced by the less artsy Louis Friedlander for The Raven (1935), in which Lugosi’s Poe-obsessed mad plastic surgeon gives Karloff’s gangster a new, hideous face. In this pair of films, the stars are evenly matched, alternating lead villain and vengeful stooge. By The Invisible Ray (1936), Karloff was the undisputed lead as a glowing mutant and Lugosi is just along for the name value. Meanwhile, Universal, wary of Whale’s increasing demands, tried to boost other directors to “horror men” status. Stuart Walker handed a couple of gothic Dickens films, getting good mad work from Claude Rains in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1935), and was given The WereWolf of London (1935), in which Henry Hull subs for Karloff as a botanist infected with lycanthropy by Warner Oland in the Himalayas. As the first talkie werewolf movie, London ended up less as a mainstay and more as a rough draft for a sub-genre that didn’t quite come together until The Wolf Man in 1941.

What Universal really wanted weren’t just follow-ups, but proper sequels. James Whale was given carte blanche along with a dream cast including Ernest Thesiger and Elsa Lanchester to make Bride of Frankenstein (1935), which is at once a genuine expansion of his original and a deconstructive parody of it. Waspish, sly, charming, pervasive, and emotionally devastating, Bride of Frankenstein shows how far Hollywood had come in only four years; already, the 1931 film, with its lack of music and dull, drawing-room chats, seemed antique. The sequel, meanwhile, as a full score by Franz Waxman, no patience for boring characters (Valerie Hobson barely gets a look-in, though she officially has the title role), and enormous visual sophistication paired with bare-faced, blasphemous cheek. If it had been up to Whale, the horror cycle would have ended with Bride. He certainly had no more to say on the subject. Like Browning, he didn’t really work after the mid-1930’s. Universal, of course, saw things differently. They had Dracula’s Daughter (1936) in production with Gloria Holden in the title role and Lugosi nowhere to be found. The sequel films of the latter half of the decade were brisk, efficient entertainments but most lacked in real chills and gothic charm of the originals.

Interestingly, around the time that the first cycle of sequels dominated the production schedule, the horror film fell out of Hollywood favor. Pressure from British censors and moralists mounted due to the rising tension in Europe. Whispers of war and atrocious Nazi crimes were abundant. This brought about a horror hiatus that was somewhat bizarre given that the voice of Hollywood horror had a distinctly British accent. Much of horror’s subject matter came from British authors and the remarkable Tod Slaughter was in constant employment in tiny studios around London outdoing any depravity Karloff or Lugosi could imagine, particularly in Sweeney Todd, or the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (1936) and The Crimes of Stephen Hawke (1936). Meanwhile, Karloff spent the end of the thirties playing a Charlie Chan knock-off Chinese sleuth for the low-grade Monogram studio and Lugosi was on welfare. Yet as the decade came to a close, it seemed the horror express would be back on the rails.

Of course when I think of “horror express” I’m reminded of this terrifying Hey, Arnold! episode

Hailed as “the greatest year for film,” 1939 was certainly the year of super productions. Besides mammoth Southern drama Gone with the Wind and ultimate children’s tale The Wizard of Oz, there were several epic-scale, all-star, A-picture revivals of genres that had fallen to programmer status, notably the Western drama Stagecoach and gangster flick The Roaring Twenties. Horror also made a triumphant return thanks to a successful double-feature re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein that prompted Universal to produce Son of Frankenstein (1939)–inevitably casting Karloff in his final go-around as the Monster and Lugosi as the broken-necked Ygor, arguably his finest screen role. The incisive Basil Rathbone and clipped Lionel Atwill rounded out the principle cast and made up for the absence of dry, British Whale, who was replaced by Rowland V. Lee.

Rathbone also donned the deerstalker that year for the first time to star in Fox’s Hound of the Baskervilles while Paramount polished off an old Universal property and cast Bob Hope and Paulette Goddard in a remake of The Cat and the Canary alongside perennial supporting suspects George Zucco and Gale Sondergaard. RKO mounted a lavish version of another silent Universal hit with The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton. There was even time within the year for follow-ups: Universal had Lee, Karloff, and Rathbone get together to make historical horror Tower of London, Fox pinched Rathbone back for a macabre duel against Moriarty (Zucco) in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and RKO got another Broadway mystery remake in the can with The Gorilla starring the Ritz brothers, Atwill, and Lugosi.

Like the classic monsters themselves, horror was back.

Boris Karloff climbin’ in yo windows in The Ghoul (1933)

Next, Part 4 looks at the looming, animalistic terror of the 1940’s

WORKS CONSULTED:
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films FAQ: All That’s Left to Know about Slashers, Vampires, Zombies, Aliens, and More. Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, An Imprint of Hal Leonard Corporation, 2013.

Newman, Kim, and James Marriott. Horror!: The Definitive Companion to the Most Terrifying Movies Ever Made. Carlton Books, 2013.

Wilson, Karina. “Horror Movies: Our Shared Nightmares.” Horror Film History, WordPress, 7 Jan. 2020, https://horrorfilmhistory.com/wp/.