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

@craiggors

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

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

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

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

Above: the aforementioned Cronenbergian nightmare

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

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

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

It’s coming right at you!! Ahhhh!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King of the D-Listand that’s being generous

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

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

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

Sexy zombie Bill Pullman is my favorite Bill Pullman

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

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

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

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

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

@craiggors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chucky ain’t got nothing on Hugo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

@craiggors

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