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


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

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)


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

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)


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

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)


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

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)


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

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] Beastly Beginnings (1896-1929)


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

A bat flies into a haunted castle and transforms into the Devil. He is represented, as often on stage, as a nattily dressed gentleman with a beard. From a giant, black cauldron this Mephistopheles proceeds to conjure up and dispel imps, demons, ghosts, witches, and skeletons. A cavalier then bursts in and brandishes a crucifix and the Devil vanishes in a puff of smoke. All of this occurs in just about three minutes. It is, officially, the first horror film ever made, The Devil’s Castle (1896).

Playing off of centuries of imagery from books, legends, and stage plays (among those figures conjured up by the Devil is is an old man with a grimoire, presumably Faustus himself), The Devil’s Castle has been noted for the bat transformation and the power of the crucifix, leading the vignette to not only be labeled as the first horror film in history, but the first vampire film as well. It should be noted, however, that the trope of evil being associated with bats and shrinking from religious icons were not exclusively associated with vampires until the publication of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula the following year.

The director and star of The Devil’s Castle, Georges Méliès, is a man familiar to most film students and movie buffs. He is regarded as the father of the cinema fantastiqué, the successor to Auguste and Louis Lumière, the fathers of documentary realism cinema. Where the brothers thought there was little future in film beyond a passing experimental fad, Méliès was showman by nature, a trickster in an age where illusionists were top-of-the-bill attractions. He viewed trick photography as an aid to magic. As such, his films feature multiple exposures, dissolves, perspective tricks, elaborate props, and stage makeup to accomplish what were basically vaudeville acts on film. There is no grand story to The Devil’s Castle, it is simply a parade of tricks culminating in a flourishing exit.

Can’t you feel the flourishing?

Between 1896 and 1914, Méliès directed over five hundred movies. He did not confine himself to the fantastical, either, taking stabs at the animated “French postcard” genre with After the Ball (1897), historical epics with Joan of Arc (1899), religious spectacle with Christ Walking on Water (1899), topical political drama with The Dreyfus Affair (1899), literary adaptations with The Queen’s Musketeers (1903), and even parodist newsreels, like the one about the coronation of King Edward VII that even the monarch himself thought genuine. Before his own distinct style caught on, Méliès was among cinema’s first rip-off artists, capitalizing on the success of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896) by filming other trains at other stations.

But it is for the magic that we remember Méliès. After The Devil’s Castle, Méliès produced a number of films of the same dark persona, often building whole movies around a demonic figure and a single great illusion, as in The Man with the Indiarubber Head (1902), wherein Méliès inflates his own head to giant size until it bursts like a balloon. He took his act from stage to screen and lived up to the title of one of his many 1899 films, A Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist.

Over time, Méliès’s films grew longer and more ambitious. Among his literary adaptations–where were often highlights rather than the whole story–were the screen debuts of Rider Haggard’s She: The Pillar of Fire (1899), the charlatan of Cogliostro’s Mirror (1899), Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf in Le Petit Chaperon Rouge (1901), the grizzled pirate Bluebeard in Barbe-Bleu (1901), and the Wandering Jew in the eponymous film of 1904. Méliès often returned to Faust and Mephistopheles, but his filmography is littered with titles that suggest horror sub-genres in the making: The Bewitched Inn (1897), Cave of Demons (1898), Murder Will Out (1899), Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899), The Doctor and the Monkey (1900), The Dangerous Lunatic (1900), Beelzebub’s Daughters (1903), and The Witch (1906).

Georges, you tricksy little minx, you

His greatest success, and his most often seen/parodied work, was A Trip to the Moon (1901), whose loose plot concern a lunar trip of the type made popular by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells novels. Méliès was encouraged to make more of these “impossible voyage” films to locations such as the sun, under the sea and to the North Pole. He set out to amaze and chuckled as nervous patrons gasped in terror at dancing skeletons, phantoms, and devils. But Méliès was, at the end of the day, a trickster. He was not interested in cinema as a medium for telling stories, but for showcasing special effects. Despite not considering himself part of the “horror business,” Méliès’s scares and frightening imagery would come to define the genre and recur again and again in the coming decades.

By the beginning of the 20th century, movies had gripped people the world over, and there was already healthy international competition. In America, pioneers like Edwin S. Porter paved the way for cinema’s first iconoclasts, like D.W. Griffith, and in Italy there were regular feature-length epic spectacles by the second decade, like the tale of ancient muscle hero Maciste in Cabiria (1914). Meanwhile, in Germany the heirs of E.T.A. Hoffman began to play with shadows, and in Britain one-and-two-reel melodramas began to proliferate and become commercially successful. Activity was so hectic in this new field that oft-told tales would make their screen debuts and be done over again within a few months. William Selig’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908), a film of the stage play that had been touring during Robert Louis Stevenson’s lifetime, is largely considered the first American horror movie. It was rapidly followed by a British remake, The Duality of Man (1910), a Danish version starring Alwin Neuss, Den Skaebnesvangre Opfindelse (1910), and another American version starring James Cruze and Harry Benham in the title roles, an interesting approach that has been rarely reused. In 1913, a German version vied with two more American versions, one a primitive colorized version and the other produced by Carl Laemmle, who would later become the patriarch of Universal Pictures, where the horror film found its first true home.

Things went quiet until 1920, when three new versions of the Jekyll/Hyde story arrived simultaneously: John S. Robertson’s lavish star vehicle for John Barrymore (whose steeple-headed, spider-fingered Hyde pre-empts Max Shreck’s similar looking vampire by two years), a quickie imitation with Sheldon Lewis, and F.W. Murnau’s Dr. Jekyll, a tragically lost version with Conrad Veidt as the doctor who, in this version, transforms under the magical influence of a two-faced bust rather than mad science. Bela Lugosi also had an early role in this version as the doctor’s butler. Even the first parodies of Stevenson’s novel surfaced at this time, Horrible Hyde (1915) and Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (1925), starring Stan Laurel.

The peak of hilarity, clearly

Though Jekyll and Hyde was the most frequently adapted story of the silent film era, other famous monsters also made their debut during this time. Edison’s Frankenstein (1910), with Charles Ogle as the wild-haired creature whipped up in a vat like instant soup, was followed by Life Without Soul (1915), in which Dr. Frankenstein becomes “William Frawley” and the Monster is “the Brute Man.” The Frankenstein Monster (1920), possibly the first Italian horror film, also tackled the story, while The Picture of Dorian Gray enjoyed great success in Denmark as Dorian Gray’s Portrait (1910), with other versions following in 1915 from Russia, 1916 from America (this version starred Henry Victor, future strongman from Tod Browning’s 1932 classic Freaks), 1917 from Germany, and 1918 from Hungary (Lugosi played Dorian’s mentor, Sir Henry, in this version). Sherlock Holmes, who made his screen debut battling an invisible man in 1900 with Sherlock Holmes Baffled, was part of one of the earliest crossover events in Sherlock Holmes in the Great Murder Mystery (1908), solving Edgar Allan Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue.” The sleuth’s creepiest adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) was first filmed in Denmark as The Grey Lady (1903) with a spectral woman instead of a Hound of Hell. Germany turned out a more faithful adaption of Baskervilles in 1914, followed by six sequels in which Holmes pursues the novel’s dog-training villain. This period also saw multiple early adaptations of genre staples like She, Trilby, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Sweeney Todd, Maria Marten, Faust or Dr. Faustus, “The Monkey’s Paw,” and Fu-Manchu.

Poe was a popular source in both France and America and it was D.W. Griffith who first took a frequently reused tactic by combining several Poe stories into one episodic narrative for The Avenging Conscience (1914). Meanwhile, the first feature-length British horror film, The Avenging Hand (1915), was an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903) with a revived ancient Egyptian princess and a severed hand. It was among a run of mummy-themed films popular at the time: The Mummy (1911), The Dust of Egypt (1915), The Eyes of the Mummy (1919). Other popular films included The Vampire (1913), about an East Indian snake woman and The Werewolf (1913), concerning a Native American shapeshifter. There were also a number of films about monkey gland transplants (a medical fad of the day) and Darwinian evolutionary theory best epitomized by the 1913 French adaption of Gaston Leroux’s novel Balaoo (1912) about a humanized gorilla. It was remade as The Wizard in 1927 and Dr. Renault’s Secret in 1942.

Already, some filmmakers were specializing in the macabre, and several actors were building reputations on the strength of their horror roles. Paul Wegener, a German actor/director, cut a hefty figure as Balduin in The Student of Prague (1913), adapted from H.H. Ewers’s Poe-like novel about a deal with the Devil and a deadly doppelgänger. He achieved massive fame, however, under a clay wig and built-up costume in and as The Golem (1915), the legendary living statue of the Prague ghetto, revived to rampage in modern times. The film was so successful it spawned both a parodic sequel, The Golem and the Dancing Girl (1917), and an elaborate prequel, The Golem: How He Came Into the World (1920). Wegener also took on several bizarre roles in his career, as when he played a warlock modeled after Aleister Crowley in Rex Ingram’s French-American film The Magician (1926), or the title role in Svengali (1927). Wegener’s last bow in horror was in the multi-episode The Living Dead (1932), written and directed by his rival Richard Oswald, who had first come to the genre with a number of Hound of the Baskervilles sequels and stuck around to deliver adaptations of Hoffman, including a talkie version of Alraune (1930) with Brigitte Holm recreating her silent role as the artificially fashioned femme fatale.

Alluring Alraune, alright?

Wegener and Oswald were principally adaptors of others’ work. Their films have pictorial virtues and an obvious feel for the material, but little sense of the developing potential for cinema. Others came at horror from a different direction, not just hoping to trade on well-known material but expanding the boundaries of film as art. Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) is the most influential and famous example. Weine’s direction, in conjunction with the sets of scenarists Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz, the art direction of Walter Rohrig and Hermann Warm (who devised the stylized sets, painted shadows, and designed other visual tricks for the film), and the input of Fritz Lang, who was signed up to direct but moved on to something else after devising the frame story that reveals the whole action to be taking place inside the mind of a lunatic, created lightning in a bottle. Lang’s narrative input turned what might have been a confounding arthouse picture into a gimmick picture. The revelation meant that patrons disturbed by the imagery could leave the theater thinking they now “understood” what they had seen, i.e. the visualized ravings of a distorted mind. Mayer and Janowitz despised this angle, having intended to depict a world that was cruel and insane rather than a protagonist having bad dreams.

Nevertheless, the film was a hit, especially for breakout performers Werner Krauss as the top-hatted mountebank and mesmerist Caligari, and Conrad Veidt as the leotard-clad, hollow-cheeked somnambulist/murderer Cesare. Both would join Wegener among the emerging group of proto-horror stars. Veidt, whom Universal considered casting as Dracula in 1930, played The Count of Cogliostro (1921), the rumored diabolist-violinist Paganini (1923), the pianist with a murderer’s hands in Hands of Orlac (1924), Ivan the Terrible in Waxworks (1924), and the titular characters in Rasputin (1930) and The Wandering Jew (1933). Krauss would later play Iago in Othello (1922), Jack the Ripper in Waxworks, and the Devil in The Student of Prague (1926).

F.W. Murnau also cast Veidt in The Head of Janus (1920), a rip-off Jekyll & Hyde film scripted by Caligari‘s Janowitz (this was the strange case of Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor). Murnau assumed that Bram Stoker’s widow would be as negligent as the Stevenson estate and so attempted another literary adaptation with a few plot alternations, turning Count Dracula in Count Orlok for Nosferatu (1922). Whereas The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari’s expressionist style was created entirely in-studio, Murnau took his vampire out on location, filming in Slovakian mountains and ruins. Nosferatu still stands as the only screen adaptation of Dracula to be primarily interested in terror. Max Shreck’s rat-faced, corseted, stick-insect of a monster possesses no undead glamor, nor even the melancholy brought to the character by Klaus Kinski and Willem Defoe in Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) and Shadow of the Vampire (2000). Just as Dracula can serve as the template for the horror novel, Nosferatu serves as the template for the horror film. Murnau added wrinkles to the Stoker story that have persisted, notably the vampire vanquished by the first light of day.

Or a competent dentist

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu might be the most cited examples of Expressionism, but they’re not the whole story. Throughout the 1920’s, as German society spiraled out of control, German cinema became shadowed with figures as sinister as Cesare, Caligari, and Orlok. Fritz Lang turned out the epic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (1922) in which Rudolf Klein-Rogge incarnates superhuman evil as a master criminal in the mold of Fu-Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Mabuse is a founding text for all manner of far-fetched thrillers, including the Hitchcock japes of the 1930’s, the film noir of the 1940’s, the super-spy pictures of the 1960’s, and the paranoid conspiracy dramas of the 1970’s. Lang brought Mabuse back to exact malign influence from an asylum cell and beyond the grave in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933), but his most influential early talkie is the layered and haunting M (1931), the first great serial-murder film. Peter Lorre stars as a pedophile killer stalked by cops (including Mabuse’s nemesis, Inspector Lohmann) and criminals. Paul Keni, another German director, put Jack the Ripper on the screen in 1924 in Waxworks, but his presence was muted. The missing link between Werner Krauss’s tubby, trench-coated Ripper and Lorre’s whistling, whining Franz Beckert is the mild-mannered, pathetic Jack the Ripper as played by Gustav Diessl in G.W. Pabst’s masterful Pandora’s Box (1928), who kills the innocent heroine Lulu (Louise Brooks) under the mistletoe. Alfred Hitchcock, who served an apprenticeship in Germany, took note of what was going on both in politics and filmmaking and used this for his own British Expressionist Ripper story with The Lodger (1927).

Meanwhile, in Hollywood, horror as a solidified film genre was still somewhat murky, but the first true horror star was on the rise in the form of Lon Chaney. A master character actor and makeup artist, Chaney played full-on monster roles as the ape-man in A Blind Bargain (1921), Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), and the skull-faced Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), plus a comedic mad scientist in The Monster (1925) and a fake vampire in London After Midnight (1927). His most distinct work, however, is found in melodramas, usually those directed by Tod Browning. Their joint masterpiece is The Unknown (1927), in which Chaney plays a murderer hiding his giveaway double-thumbs by binding his arms and posing as an amputee, performing a knife-throwing act with his feet. The heroine (a young Joan Crawford) affects to abhor a man’s embrace, so “Alonzo the Armless” has his arms surgically removed to become her ideal lover–only to learn she’s changed her position on hugging and is now canoodling with the circus strong-man, prompting Alonzo to plot bloody revenge. The difference between Chaney’s grotesques and the creatures of German expressionism is that most of Chaney’s brilliantly mimed, remarkably made-up freaks are just grump guys who don’t get the girl (a theme that Chaney raised to obsessive levels), rather than the incarnation of evil or insanity in semi-human form. Perhaps this is why his most horrific films, though illuminated by moments of masterful acting, wear less well. Arguably his best work, in Browning’s The Unholy Three (1925) and Victor Sjostrom’s He Who Gets Slapped (1924) fall on the outskirts of the genre.

When Universal Pictures, the backers behind Hunchback and Phantom, lost Chaney to MGM they replaced him with Conrad Veidt as the Joker-grinning freak of The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni, who also helmed perhaps the most important American horror film of the 20’s, The Cat and the Canary (1927). Based on John Willard’s 1922 Broadway play, the film was a semi-spoof of already well-established Old Dark House mystery in which a group of people gather for a reading of a will in an isolated, spooky locale and are menaced by a monstrous figure who turns out to be the most cheerful, helpful suspect. Think lots of clutching hands, secret passageways, and bodies tumbling from wardrobes. Similar titles included The Bat (1925), directed by Roland West and remade as a talkie, The Bat Whispers (1929); Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen, who also helmed the striking Danish semi-documentary Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1921); multiple versions of Seven Keys to Baldpate (1917, 1925, 1929), a property rehashed as late as House of the Long Shadows (1983). Others in this arena included The Ghost Breaker (1922), The Gorilla (1927), The Thirteenth Hour (1927), The Haunted House (1928), and the first all-talkie, The Terror (1928).

The Man Who Laughs…his way into your nightmares

As talking pictures caught on, Murnau and Leni were perfectly positioned within Hollywood to direct horror films. Dracula had been running on stage in Britain and the U.S. since the mid-1920’s, and the rights had been legitimately bought by Universal Pictures in the hope that Chaney would star. However, within a few years, Murnau, Chaney, and Leni were all dead through freak accidents or illnesses. The future of Dracula, and by extension the entire horror genre, was up for grabs…

Read on for Part 3, which will tackle fear of the “exotic” throughout the 1930’s

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] Early Evil


This is Part 1 of a series of posts on the history of horror cinema tackled decade by decade

If there’s one thing that almost every major horror franchise has fallen prey to it’s the origin story. So from what dark corners of the world did horror cinema spring from? Well, those who study film know that “the movies” essentially began in 1891 when Thomas Edison, assisted by his colleague William Dickson, took the celluloid film roll invented by George Eastman and used it to create the Kinetograph, a camera capable of exposing images in rapid succession. Developed in a strip and viewed inside a turn-the-crank device called the Kinetoscope, the ribbon of pictures would give the illusion of movement to the viewer.

The Kinetoscope became a fairground novelty, operated by a coin in a slot and was designed for a rapid turnover of single spectators. Slideshows, magic lanterns, praxinoscopes, and several other pre-cinema spectacles had been popular attractions for decades, but the idea of showing movies to an audience gathered as if for a lecture or a play did not immediately appeal to Edison.

Pictured: a rollicking good time

Enter Auguste and Louis Lumiere, two French brothers who, in 1895, developed the Cinematographe. This device could take moving pictures (like the Kinetograph) and project them onto a screen. On December 28, 1895, the brothers conducted the first film show for a paying audience in history. Held in the basement of the Grand Café in Paris, they screened brief snippets taken during the year that have since become famous amongst film students and scholars. Most of the short films were accounts of everyday activities, such as Exiting the Factory (1895), which depicted workers at the Lumiere factory clocking out for the day. Other films were staged, like The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895), in which a boy plays a trick on a gardener–possibly the first action film–but the hit of the evening was the first true sensation of the power of cinema: a couple-second film titled The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895). Having never seen a motion picture before that night, many Parisian patrons could not quite tell the difference between a silent, black-and-white image of a locomotive steaming towards the camera and a real train crashing through the basement wall and threatening to plough them down.

For about ten years, the Kinetoscope and the Cinematographe coexisted, seemingly not in competition, but it was the Lumiere vision of cinema as a theatrical attraction that caught on around the world, drawing masses of people and inspiring film’s earliest pioneers. Edison’s gadget, meanwhile, was primarily used for “what the butler saw” type peepshows. By the beginning days of the 20th century, Edison had moved to the projected-on-a-screen variety of cinema as well. Among his best known productions from this time was the very first film version of Frankenstein (1910). Ironically, by then, the Lumiere brothers were out of business and Edison was raking in the cash thanks to a near stronghold on American film production. Edison had patented the sprocket holes, the perforations that allowed film to run through the projector. This vicegrip would only be broken by film enthusiasts who fled the Edison-dominated New York film scene to found a new movie stronghold in California–Hollywood.

Thomas Edison: climbing in yo windows and snatching yo ideas up since 1847

Well that covers the birth of cinema, but where was horror? Formats that would become movie genres were fairly well defined in other media well before Edison and the Lumiere brothers came to prominence. Adventure and detective stories were universally developed in prose. The musical was the staple of the theater. Cheap novels were the homes of Westerns, while the love story seeped into nearly every form of narrative art. The religious spectacular was familiar in painting, and the great epic had been around since antiquity. Even science fiction had coalesced into something recognizable by the late 19th century thanks to Jules Verne and H.G. Wells.

Yet for all these distinct genre arenas, no one alive in 1890 would have any idea what you meant if you called something a “horror story.” This is not to say that such stories did not exist but just that horror was only now starting to come together into its own classification through the efforts of a disparate bunch of creative minds, much like cinema itself.

Horror as a genre had been a long time coming by this point, folks. The earliest known narrative in human history, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is rife with gruesome and fantastical elements. Heroes fight monsters in Graeco-Roman and Norse mythology with astonishing regularity, a trend that continued up through the eighth century Old English epic poem Beowulf. In typical horror fashion, some dark and strange force is raiding the hall of King Hrothgar every night, leaving dead and mutilated corpses behind. The hero traces the trail of trouble to the monster Grendel, whom he kills in battle. The epic even contains its own sequel (the staple of the horror genre), as Beowulf must then confront the dead beast’s vengeful mother almost like a weird, backwards version of Friday the 13th (1980).

Of monsters, men, and mommies–the horror trifecta

Countless other myths, folk tales, legends, and epic cycles conform to the structure of the horror story. With the right slant, they could all be made or remade as horror films with ease, and many of them have. Working from the Bible alone, you have the horrors of the ten plagues of Egypt, which were the inspiration behind the influential The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971); the trials and tribulations of Job, which was perhaps the first “conte cruel” or “cruel tale,” in history; and the apocalyptic vision of the Revelation to John as the source of such Antichrist yarns as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Omen (1976), and numerous other “Christian” horror tales. Even classical drama is full of blood and guts; Oedipus blinds himself when he realizes how dreadfully he has transgressed into a world of hate, murder, and revenge.

Theater had a long history of peddling the macabre and helped give rise to horror’s many sub-genres. During the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, English audiences flocked to theaters to see “revenge tragedies,” productions that drew on classical models but played up ghosts, grim, and gore. Hamlet (1611) features its vengeful specter in the night, an exhumed skull, multiple stabbings, poisonings, and Ophelia’s mad scene. The doom-haunted tone of Macbeth (1606) is set in the very first scene by the three witches chanting their wicked prophecy, but Shakespeare really went balls to the wall for the kind of shock value that Italian filmmakers would later relish with his blood-soaked tragedy Titus Andronicus (1594), the source for the lengthy sequence in Theater of Blood (1971) in which rape victim Lavinia has her hands cut off and her tongue cut out so she can’t identify her attackers but foils them by writing down their names with her bloody stumps.

Even still, Shakespeare is tame compared to his contemporary Christopher Marlowe, particularly his Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (1592, the archetypical deal-with-the-Devil story) or even Cyril Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606), which opens with the stage direction “Enter VINDICE, holding a skull.” These plays and others would demand increasingly elaborate stage effects, such as hidden bladders of pig’s blood pricked by daggers for John Webster’s The White Devil (1612), fake heads branded about after onstage decapitations for The Duchess of Malfi (1623), or the Duke of Gloucester’s bloodied eye-sockets in Shakespeare’s King Lear (1606).

Do you see where I’m going?

It wasn’t all just on stage, however. In 1764, English novelist Horace Walpole published what he claimed was a rediscovered manuscript, The Count of Otranto. It was a saga of ghostly and criminal doings set in an old Italian castle. It was the first in a series of increasingly lurid “gothic” novels, but it was Mrs. Ann Radcliffe, author of The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797), among others, who became the most successful of the gothic novelists. She wrote of imperiled heroines facing magnetic yet repulsive villains, often in old Italian palaces with contested inheritances and secret passageways a-plenty. Any and all supernatural business was explained away with Scooby-Doo-like deduction and the ghost riders unmasked as bandits in disguise. By the time that Jane Austen paid homage to Radcliffe and her many imitators, while simultaneously parodying them, in Northanger Abbey (1817), the gothic form was an established strain of popular culture. Parents were said to be concerned of the effect that gothic novels might have on their children, while the rise in mock-medieval architecture indicated how pervasive the gothic influence really was.

Mrs. Radcliffe’s works were relatively genteel, however. Parental caution most likely stemmed from Matthew Gregory Lewis’s 1796 bestseller The Monk, which unashamedly plunges into the supernatural with an enthusiastic catalogue of depravity thrown in for good measure. It is virulently anti-Catholic, as are most British gothic novels, and is, boiled down, a variant on the Faustus story. The Monk follows the saintly Ambrosio, who is visited by a demon in the form of a young girl that tempts him into a succession of fleshly pleasures and crimes that escalate into matricide, incestuous rape, and worse. In the end, Ambrosio is torn to shreds by the Devil himself. If there was any contemporary writer more extreme than Lewis, it was the French aristocrat Donatien Alphonse Francois, better known by his title, Marquis de Sade. In 1800, the marquis wrote that the gothic novel was the “necessary fruit of the revolutionary tremors felt by the whole of Europe,” and thus became one of the first critics to perceive a connection between the upheavals in society and fantastical fiction, a connection still widely examined today.

The latter gothic period produced a number of masterpieces, like Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) and the style lasted well into the 19th century before it began to peter out with the longer novels of J. Sheridan LeFanu: Uncle Silas (1864), The House by the Churchyard (1863), and the much-filmed vampire tale and precursor to Dracula, Carmilla (1872). It was also at this time that the gothic began to somewhat evolve into the serialized penny dreadfuls that chronicled the exploits of such brooding figures as Dick Turpin, Varney the Vampyre, and Sweeney Todd.

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd!that means read

But of course, the most famous and lasting horror novel of the gothic period is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published anonymously in 1818. At the time, Mary was not the respectable Mrs. Shelley, but the scandalous Mary Godwin, a teenage runaway adulteress and Romantic poetry groupie. The novel is supposedly the result of a tale-telling competition between famed poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary, as depicted on film in the prologue to Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and in other features like Gothic (1986), Haunted Summer (1988), and Rowing with the Wind (1988). Frankenstein owes its convoluted structure of stories within stories to the gothic, but it does break new ground in its tale of the callous scientist Victor Frankenstein and the tragic yet maligned Monster that he creates. The novel is a cornerstone not only of horror but of science fiction, and utilizes a complex moral framework. What is interesting about the novel is that Victor’s true crime is not making the Monster, but in being a bad parent–everything would have been alright if he’d taken care of his creature rather than rejecting it simply because it looked hideous.

Before the supposed contest that birthed horror’s first true milestone, Dr. John Polidori, a member of the Shelley-Byron troupe as well, had published an influential if somewhat whiny short story entitled “The Vampyre.” The titular vampire was a caricature of Byron and the tale itself was the first vampire story written in English. The troupe had all been collectively researching folk and horror tales translated from German and likely encountered the works of E.T.A. Hoffman, whose story “The Sand Man” is about a doll that comes to life and is spiritual precedent to Frankenstein.

Edgar Allan Poe also acknowledged the influence of the Germanic gothic in his own work. His distinct horror tales, written during the 1830’s and 40’s, started playing with the mechanics of the genre, often breaking away from traditional story structure to creep into the minds of his deranged protagonists, presenting torments that were more physical and more spiritual than the conflicts in their typical gothic predecessors.

Edgar Allan Poe–Master of the Macabre, Sexy Ass Mo-Fo

It should be noted, however, that Poe was essentially too awesome to limit himself to one form. Besides horror, he more or less invented the detective story as we know it today. He also wrote important early science fiction, bizarre humor, journalistic hoaxes, puzzle stories, vicious and toadying reviews, and begging letters. It is his horror and mystery stories, however, that reveal his true imagination and that have seen countless adaptations over the years. These core Poe tales include “The Black Cat” (1843), “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1842), “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839), “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846), “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1843), and “The Masque of the Red Death” (1842).

Whereas gothics tended to revolve around a virtuous but imperiled heroine who would be saved at the end of the day (or night), Poe’s stories present women who were dead, dying, or spectral. His tales concentrated on the kinds of male protagonists who are on the verge of madness or transcendent wisdom. They obsess on details to the exclusion of all else and think in a frenzy, made evident by dash-ridden sentences that spill from the author’s pen like the ramblings of a drunken lunatic. As such, it would be easy to write Poe off as a neurotic who put his own failings into his writing. Just as his poems use complex meter and rhyme schemes, his prose is finely wrought to seem like the ramblings of an insane person while the author remains in complete control of the effect.

By the late 19th century, though, the gothics seemed quaint and bordering on comical. Trace elements did still remain in a few works, namely the labyrinthine constructions of Charles Dickens (Bleak House, 1852) and Wilkie Collins (The Woman in White, 1859). Poe was now remembered as much for his messy life as for his stories, which were more popular in France than in England or America. However, the decades immediately preceding and following the birth of cinema saw an unparalleled burst of horror fiction. More key texts were written in this comparatively short time than in all the centuries before and arguably, the time since. In about twenty years, the world was given Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Sir H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), George du Maurier’s Trilby (1894), Robert Chambers’s The King in Yellow (1895), H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and The Jewel of the Seven Stars (1903), Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), M.R. James’s Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), Algernon Blackwood’s The Empty House (1904), Arthur Machen’s House of Souls (1906), William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland (1908), and Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera (1911). And those are, quite frankly, just the titles that have held firm in the public eye. Heaps of other lesser known horror titles were published in the same era.

Gothic Fiction Bundle! Dreary moors and brooding aristocrats not included

As these novels hit shelves and found their way into personal collections, cinema was advancing from experimental flickering snapshots to feature-length stories that could compete with the grandest stage productions of the time. Most of the titles listed above began to be filmed over and over again and have, to this day, spun off so many sequels, prequels, imitations, homages, revisions, reworkings, reboots, and other variants that it’s entirely possible a full 50% of all horror films ever made are, in some fashion or another, drawn from this brief two-and-a-half decades of literary production. Toss in Frankenstein and the works of Poe and that’s a comfortable 3/4.

It may be that this outpouring of what would soon definitively be labeled as “horror” was linked to the contemporary accelerated development of cinema and other technologies of the time (think the telephone, automobiles, and airplanes). When the world changes rapidly people are often both scared and excited. That collective societal thrill encourages storytellers to play on those emotions and can be found as an underlying theme in many of the above-mentioned masterpieces.

The gothic novels all looked back, their settings either in the past or in a fantasized foreign country portrayed as somehow less advanced. Though we now view them through a London fog of gaslit nostalgia, the late-19th century horror cornerstones were up-to-the-moment. Stevenson, Stoker, and Leroux all included newspaper clippings in their works to add weight to their fantastical tales. Wells and Haggard traipsed off to the far corners of the globe only to bring terrifying stories home to oak-paneled drawing rooms. Hodgson, James, and Blackwood found ancient ghosts, curses, and sorceries nestling into an uncertain modern world.

Titillating yet ghastly

Interestingly, in some of the early gothic novels now considered horror classics, the horror elements aren’t even primary. Jekyll and Hyde is a twist-at-the-end crime thriller whose last chapters, published serially in 1886, would have been a jaw-dropper that made Mr. Hyde look like the Tyler Durden or Keyser Soze of his day. The Picture of Dorian Gray is a black satire. Wells’s novels are often considered as scientific romances, yet he wrote better monsters than anyone else of his day–cannibal Morlocks, beast-people, invisible maniacs, vampires from Mars. Heart of Darkness is considered “serious literature,” but, you know, with severed heads stuck on poles. And then, Hound of the Baskervilles is a whodunnit concerning the rationalized supernatural.

But what is remembered, what lingers in pop culture through the years, are the set-pieces that have made them cinema staples: Dorian’s portrait in the blue frame, aging to a withered corpse; Jekyll taking the potion and transforming into the “somehow deformed” Hyde; the Martians devastating everything from village to skyscraper; creepily angelic kids under malign, perhaps spectral influence; James’s nastily physical little ghosts; and then, most of all, Dracula in his Transylvanian castle, climbing down the walls, creeping into the bedrooms of English ladies to drink blood and defy an array of heroes only to decay into nothing once his blackened heart is pierced.

If modern horror starts somewhere, Dracula is as good a place as any. It deploys exactly the strategies, learned from Collins and Stevenson, that still serve for Stephen King, Carmen Maria Machado, and Stephen Graham Jones, not to mention almost every horror film being made today. And yet Dracula has a plot that isn’t far removed from Beowulf. A credible, realistic setting–unlike those of the early gothic novels or Dorian Gray–is established, which allows for suspension of disbelief when the monster is introduced. There is a mystery element as the human characters, aided by the scholarly Dr. Van Helsing, puzzle over strange phenomenon and work out who and what the villain is; discovering the monster’s powers, limitations, and weaknesses. In the climax, the hero and his heroine overcome the monster through applied knowledge and moral superiority and destroy it, though not without cost.

And yet, a full year before the infamous Count came to the printed page, it was the Devil who made his big screen debut…

The King of Vampires. And maybe also arthritis

Click here for Part 2, covering horror cinema’s beastly beginnings through the roaring 20’s

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/.

Top 20 of ’20 – Miss Mel


Read on for Miss Mel’s favorite 20 films of 2020, and here to take a look at Mr. Craiggors’.

Don’t forget to share your top films of the year with us in the comments, or on Twitter! Lots of overlap? Things we missed? Let’s chat!

20. Underwater

A group of researchers in the Mariana Trench are hunted by an unknown creature. I love me some alien creature feature even if this was an average entry into the canon.

19. The Rental

A pair of couples rent a home for a few days and feel something is watching them. This was a pretty confused tone and genre and ultimately fell a little flat but was interesting along the way.

18. Amulet

A homeless veteran is welcomed into a decrepit mansion by a woman and her aging mother. This one gets wild and a little weird but was fun with a fair bit of lingering dread.

17. The Lodge

A woman becomes snowbound in a mountain lodge with her husband’s children. This is some good atmospheric horror with some great actors and I love some isolation horror.

16. Blood Quantum

A group of First Nations people are immune to a zombie apocalypse. I enjoyed the concept but ultimately I don’t think zombie films, even socially conscious zombie films, are really my thing.

15. The Babysitter: Killer Queen

Two years after the first movie, Cole goes on a weekend vacation where the bloodbath starts again. This was fan service and much less charming and surprising than the original but it was fun to be back.

14. The Dark and the Wicked

A pair of siblings visit their childhood home to visit their ailing father. This feels like a couple other films I’ve seen before but it was a genuinely creepy ride through domestic hauntings.

13. Black Box

A single dad undergoes an experimental cognitive treatment for memory loss and finds himself questioning his identity and reality. Flatliners meets Jacob’s Ladder meets Get Out that’s a bit overstuffed and emotionally confusing at times but its characters really bring home the humanity of a fantastical story.

12. Relic

A woman suffering from dementia is taken care of by her daughter and granddaughter. This functioned both as a spooky psych thriller and creepy house story as well as a tale of the existential dread we have of losing our parents and our own eventual deaths.

11. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

A woman on the brink of breaking up with her boyfriend goes on a road trip to meet his parents. This is trippy and confusing as shit but is engaging and entertaining and makes me wish I had read the book first to experience it fully.

10. Vampires vs. the Bronx

A group of teenagers must protect their Bronx neighborhood from a gang of vampires. I love teen stories and I love vampires. This was a fun comedy horror film with a bit of commentary on gentrification.

9. The Invisible Man

A woman believes she is being stalked by her abusive ex-boyfriend who faked his suicide. An uncomfortable ride through the horrors of an abusive and toxic relationship that does a great job updating its premise.

8. Impetigore

A pair of woman travel to a rural village where one of them may have a dark past. International films have been killing it this year. This is creepy, shocking and unique and who doesn’t love skin puppets?

7. His House

Sudanese refugees believe something may be lurking in their new home. I was excited for this since I first saw trailers for it. This was a great combination of haunted house horror and real life tragedy.

6. Color Out of Space

An asteroid disturbs an otherwise peaceful New England farm and brings with it an alien terror. This is a wild ride of a classic Lovecraft that manages to hit on all cylinders when it comes to psychological horror, body horror, and Annihilation levels of alien-based science fiction.

5. The Platform

 A man wakes up in a social experiment known as “the hole,” where food distribution is heavily stratified. This dystopian, social horror film feels like something out of a Saramago novel and is at times hard to watch for its gore and brutality but it makes interesting political statements–if confusing ones–and manages an incredibly depressing tone.

4. Possessor

A corporate assassin infiltrates bodies to carry out hits and finds herself in a combative host. This concept might have made for a C grade thriller film in other hands, but Cronenberg delivers a psychedelic trip through the psychology of the body, identity, and how they interact to rival the works of his father.

3. Sputnik

A cosmonaut, who returned from a mission with a alien parasite, is held prisoner by the Soviet military. This film doesn’t do anything new in the genre or make any larger social or historical statements about its Cold War setting, but it’s an incredibly entertaining sci-fi horror film with charismatic humans at its core.

2. La Llorona

A genocidal former dictator is haunted by the ghosts of the Ixil people he murdered while confined to his house. Foreign language films are the future of horror. While domestic art house horror tells gripping social stories, this film–reminiscent of Beloved in the best ways–uses the tension of human tragedy to propel its horror forward.

  1. Host

A group of friends host a seance over Zoom during the pandemic and things take a turn. This was a delightful little project that utilized its context without relying or milking it. It’s not unique in either plot or medium conceit, but it was incredibly fresh and effectively entertaining.

Top 20 of ’20 – Mr. Craiggors


No question that 2020 will be remembered as being absolutely horrifying. It deserves nothing less than an excruciating, fiery death while the rest of us dance on its corpse in post-traumatic delirium/glee/drunken abandon. But the year will also, hopefully, be remembered as being horror-ful.

Sure, the COVID-19 pandemic derailed a number of major studio sequels like Candyman, Halloween Kills, and The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It, as well as bumping back a number of highly anticipated original fare such as Saint Maud, Antlers, Last Night in Soho, and Malignant; but horror as a genre was far from deterred. Debut directors dropped movies that blew our minds and broke our hearts, streaming services filled the theatrical release gap in spades, and film festivals opened their doors to at-home audiences in hitherto unknown fashion. The result was that, against all odds, 2020 was one of the strongest years for horror in recent memory.

As such, narrowing this year’s offerings down to a best-of list proved extra difficult for both myself and Miss Mel. As such, we’ve forgone the traditional top 10 in favor of a Top 20…each! I suppose we could have been more savage and cut the lower ten, but come on, hasn’t this year been brutal enough?

Read on for my Top 20 Horror Films of 2020, and find Miss Mel’s list here.

20. Spiral

A somewhat familiar narrative that’s well acted, nicely shot, and offers a satisfying conclusion for those who are patient with it, Spiral was a commendable treat. I also loved seeing a same-sex male couple as the central characters, and even though I wish Malik’s backstory had been more fleshed out, it still resonated with me.

19. Freaky

Fun and flighty with plenty of giggly moments and a few that actually made me guffaw, but not quite as much substance as in Christopher Landon’s other playful slasher send-up Happy Death Day. The “clam jam” line makes up for absolutely everything, though.

18. The Hunt

An ultra-violent satire with an over-the-top premise that puts an interesting twist on The Most Dangerous Game. By casting “redneck deplorables” fighting for their lives against vegan NPR neoliberals, the film challenges and holds a mirror to us-vs.-them mentality. Thought-provoking if not always profound, and Betty Gilpin is absolutely delicious in the lead.

17. VFW

A futuristic dystopian low-budget siege film that features Stephen Lang kicking ass in a neon-soaked, grindhouse hellscape all set to a score that would make Carpenter jealous. Come ON, in what world would I not love this?

16. The Cleansing Hour

A chilling update to the possession sub-genre that plays out on the set of a vlogger-exorcist’s fake YouTube show. Cynical, creative, and quite shocking at parts, plus the much underused Kyle Gallner make this a win for me.

15. The Mortuary Collection

2020 was the Year of the Horror Anthology. Two of the three major ones are on this list (Scare Package just missed the cut). The Mortuary Collection is a creepy, atmospheric, gory blast. I was completely in love with the production design, and I firmly believe Clancy Brown needs to play The Tall Man in a Phantasm reboot.

14. Sea Fever

Great films are often those that understand exactly what they are and don’t try to be anything more, they just focus at excelling as themselves. Sea Fever is one such film. It’s icky and disturbing and doesn’t hold back. Alien meets The Thing meets Cabin Fever set on an Irish trawler. I mean, YO!

13. The Wolf of Snow Hollow

A darkly amusing genre mashup exploring toxic masculinity, fatherhood, and internal demons. I’m an admitted sucker for werewolf stories and this movie reminds me why. There’s some great comedic and horror beats, and the camera work is bursting with style and personality. It’s no Thunder Road, but Jim Cummings proves he’s still one fearless fucking filmmaker.

12. The Lodge

Paralyzing, agonizing, and very mean-spirited yet full of gorgeous cinematography and outstanding performances. Probably the most nightmarish film of the year as you really, really, really don’t want to see what happens next, but you can’t find a way out. Also? Fuck dem kids.

11. La Llorona

A quiet and tantalizing film that has less to do with the Latin American legend of the Weeping Woman and more to do with the inherited cultural trauma of the Guatemalan Civil War, La Llorona has stuck in my mind for months, and will continue to do so for many more.

10. Gretel & Hansel

An impressive update of the age-old Grimm fairy tale. It’s moody and heavy and packed to the gills with dread. It’s also aesthetically stunning and gorgeous and one of my new favorite Films-That-Use-Color-Expertly. Patient, meditative, and rich from start to finish.

9. Hunter Hunter

On the surface, the film appears to be any other run-of-the-mill survival story of a scrappy family living in the remote wilderness facing a roaming wolf on their land. But slowly it becomes clear that this film is…so much more. Horrifying, gripping, and unforgettable. And that ending is BRUTAL.

8. Relic

Haunting and heart-wrenching, this very slow burn mounts to a truly terrifying third act. Dynamite performances from Emily Mortimer and Robyn Nevin elevate a metaphorical story that mediates on grief and parental loss. Debut director Natalie Erika James doesn’t hold back or hold hands, and I’m very curious to see what she does next.

7. Anything for Jackson

Has there ever been a more sympathetic or likable pair of villains than the elderly couple at the center of Anything for Jackson? The answer is no, so props must be given not only to Julian Richings and Sheila McCarthy but also director Justin G. Dyck for bringing to life one of the unnerving, dark, and strangely humorous films of the year.

6. His House

Another outstanding 2020 debut feature. Director Remi Weekes effortlessly blends existential terror with the supernatural to craft a new sort of haunted house film that sticks in the mind and soul thanks to twisty, striking visuals and bravura performances.

5. Scare Me

Delightful. So freaking delightful. Easily the film that most surprised me this year, and one that genuinely stands out in a crowd. It’s minimalism done to a T, relying on sound, dialogue, and performance to frighten and entertain–and it works! Cozy, witty, and razor-sharp on its dissection of writing culture, an A+ for debut director/writer/star Josh Ruben and co-star Aya Cash.

4. The Invisible Man

A relentlessly uncomfortable viewing experience in the best possible way, Leigh Whannell updates the time-tested tale into a suspenseful exploration of domestic abuse, toxic masculinity, and resilience. A gut-punch of a film that weaponizes space and pushes psychological terror to the max to profound effect.

3. Host

Unquestionably the hottest horror film of 2020, Host will also be a perfect time capsule of its time. Made entirely in quarantine, it’s a brief, nail-biting little film-that-could that had everyone, myself included, jumping at shadows and small noises in the night. Not only will this be the film we all remember as the pinnacle of what it meant to live the horror of 2020, but its techniques will be imitated by filmmakers for years to come.

2. The Dark and the Wicked

Easily the most terrifying film of the year. A perfectly executed masterpiece of insidious sound design, shadow play, and suffocating dread all wrapped around some supremely disturbing visuals. It’s incredibly bleak, a different yet equally unsettling sort of nihilism perfected in director Bryan Bertino’s earlier creep-fest The Strangers.

  1. Possessor

Mind-bending, unflinching, and bizarre. Brandon Cronenberg follows up Antiviral with a film that is both homage to his father’s work and a showcase of his own sensibilities as a filmmaker. Everything about the film is slick and sleek, from the gory violence to the glorious aesthetic to the spellbinding performances. Cerebral and evocative and stunning, it takes the top spot for me this year for how unique and (you guessed it) possessive the viewing experience was.

Well, that does it for 2020–a truly solid slate of horror. Here’s to keeping up the creep in 2021! See you there, Chatterers!

31 by 31 Challenge #14: BAD MOON (1996)


There’s a fascinating movement that’s been happening in the horror community in recent years wherein fright freaks are reevaluating movies from the early to mid-1990’s, long considered horror’s bleakest period in terms of quality film, and finding things to love in once universally panned films. Bad Moon is one such film for me, though I always loved it back in the day. I’m thrilled to see it find more cheerleaders now, not because it’s a game-changing revolutionary werewolf film, but because it’s heaps of fun and with the right audience, can be absolute viewing perfection.

Globe-trotting photographer Ted (Michael Pare) is romping around in the steeped forests of Nepal when he’s attacked by a werewolf. Upon returning home, Ted secludes himself in a trailer near the mountain home of his sister Janet (Mariel Hemingway) and nephew Brett (Mason Gamble). As Ted and Janet begin to reconnect, mutilated bodies begin appearing in the woods and Thor, the family dog, takes an instant dislike to Ted, attempting to warn the family that something is very, very wrong.

The werewolf is one of the most complex and layered monsters in horror, yet the werewolf film has proven an elusive beast to tame. Bad Moon is by no means the gold standard for the sub-genre, but it understands that at their core, werewolf stories are about tragedy. This movie gives that tragedy an interesting spin in that Ted, the victim-turned-monster, isn’t our tragic figure–he embraces his newfound violent tendencies all too easy and eagerly–but the family unit threatened by forces supernatural and as close to home, or kennel, as could be. The inherent sadness of the film is not Ted’s transformation from man to beast, but that of a family just on the brink of reconciliation and happiness being torn apart and subjected to grief and trauma at the hands of one of their own.

The true standing power of Bad Moon is in the creature effects, however. Being that it was the 90’s, all the effects are practical, of course, and it’s truly stellar costuming and makeup, courtesy of Steve Johnson. The werewolf is hulking, feral, and gnarly. It’s a pure reflection of the earliest, most brutal werewolf myths that emphasized the savage nature of the monster. The werewolf is the ultimate killer, and each attack and mauling is appropriately gory, none more so than the opening scene, an in-your-face juxtaposition of sex and violence that was rare to see in 90’s horror flicks after the MPAA came down hard on that sort of the thing in the late 80’s. The film is all the better for it, however; a bold promise on what the rest of the movie has in store.

Bad Moon is not an everyman’s horror film, but just because it was overlooked and undervalued in 1996 doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie. There’s plenty to love here for those that appreciate top notch practical gore and creature effects, an assured sense of story, and gorgeous scenery all packed into a neat runtime. A victim of an era when werewolf and monster films, hell even horror in general, were struggling to find an audience, this onetime runt is perfectly primed to lead the pack.

Bad Moon

  • 5 – Totally Terrifying
  • 4 – Crazy Creepy
  • 3 – Fairly Frightening
  • 2 – Slightly Scary
  • 1 – Hardly Horror