The Horror, The Horror

A brief overview of 20th century horror films by Tony Chester.
This article is one of three marking the first World Horror Convention in Britain (2010) and the first outside of N. America


Horror, of course, has been with humankind since our earliest history, and the likes of ghosts, monsters, demons, witches and madmen have long since set up home in our collective psyches. Even the cautionary tales we call fairy stories were, in their original incarnations, much more horrific than those we read to our children today - most people will be familiar with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, but I would imagine that few are aware that originally her seven allies were not dwarves, but the re-animated corpses of seven soldiers, with whom she had sex to ensure their loyalty. That's right, Snow White was both a necromancer and a necrophiliac! Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to bed we go... All this is worth mentioning since horror as a distinct genre in itself is usually dated to the late-18th and early-19th centuries, but it is clear that the urge towards horror is much older; indeed, it is about as old as it can possibly get. During that history horror (in its many forms) has always been attacked, usually by the ignorant and misinformed, many of whom seem to radically misunderstand what horror is for. When even the humble (modern) fairy tale came under criticism (for introducing impressionable children to the occult), G.K.Chesterton wrote, "The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children that there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed." Or, as Terry Pratchett once put it, "If you are told about vampires, it's a good thing to be told about stakes at the same time." The irony here is that the well-meaning more often than not shoot themselves in the foot and end up having quite the opposite effect of that intended; for instance, Bloodsucking Freaks (1976) - a truly rubbish film - would have long since faded into the dustbin of cinema history had not an American group, Women Against Pornography, campaigned against it, thereby ensuring it a level of publicity it could never have afforded. Now it's a 'cult classic'! Not that this type of thing is exclusive to horror - just look at the history of Jerry Springer - The Opera... The reason I mention this at some length is that, for many, all horror seems to fall into the category of 'video nasty', a term which came to prominence in the 1970s and '80s, but which could be equally applicable to films throughout the century (indeed, upon the release of many films, such labels were applied, long before there were actual videos). The answer to these critics is the same as, and as simple as, it has always been: If you do not like horror, do not watch it, but do not tell me that I cannot watch it - I might not like your church, so I do not go there, but I do not tell you that you cannot go there.

Not that it's always religious groups that object to horror, I hasten to add; there is no shortage of self-appointed 'moral guardians' in society of all types (e.g.. the women's group mentioned above). But what I find laughable about most of these people is that it is they, rather than the horror fans, who seem to have trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. They seem to be so convinced of horror's influence on society that they fail to recognise that the horror genre is a reflection of society. In modern terms one might point to the fact that fear of crime is out of all proportion to the actual levels of crime. Or take that contentious issue of children watching horror films (leaving aside the completely made up stories of the media: contrary to popular belief, the murderers of Jamie Bulger never saw Child's Play 3) - surveys of children's viewing habits in this regard often conclude that they see a great deal of horror, but surveys which include questions relating to completely fictitious films frequently find that the same children claim to have seen these films too! Films that do not even exist! Be that as it may, the fact remains that real life is a damn sight more horrific than a mere film could ever be, whether it be the blood-soaked evening news, or documentaries, or even the humble traffic safety advertisement. Gone are the days when the Green Cross Code Man (Dave Prowse) or a pop star like Alvin Stardust were enough to get children to cross the road safely. Now, while you eat your dinner, you see the broken corpse of a young girl re-animate itself while her voiceover explains that you wouldn't have killed her, had you been travelling 10 miles per hour more slowly. What is this if not the functional equivalent of the cautionary (fairy) tale?

Never forget that on a film set, no matter how gruesome the carnage, when the director calls 'cut' the actors get up, dust themselves off, remove their make-up and get on with their lives. Civilians bombed in an illegal war, on the other hand, do not have the same advantage... "It's only a film" may be a cliché these days, but that doesn't stop it being true. And for those of us who have been privileged to hang around film sets, I have to say that horror film sets are among the most amusing to be on (perhaps as a release from the intensity the filmmakers portray). Just as the experience of watching a horror film involves as much laughter as it does screaming. The analogy to a roller-coaster ride has been made before, but that is because it is so very apposite (indeed, more than that, it's practically formulaic) - you climb an incline, build the tension, then there's the terrifying plunge, the terror and shock, then the hysterical relief, the audience laughs... Until the next incline, that is. The point being that the writers, directors, actors and others that make horror films are not (as it seems some believe) twisted individuals out to corrupt impressionable minds. Most of them, should you be fortunate enough to meet them, are among the nicest, sweetest people you can imagine. Some of them are even squeamish - the amount of actors who cannot bring themselves to look at their own severed (special effects) heads is legendary; David Warner, Michael Gough and Michael Gambon all spring instantly to mind. If horror films are for anything in particular (beyond mere entertainment), it is the safe expression of a collective fear, often enjoyed best when viewed collectively - there's nothing a horror film maker likes better than seeing a whole audience scream at the same time.

Horror is about a great many things, of course. Death, fear, terror, phobias (as distinct from general fear), the confrontation of taboos (incest, necrophilia, cannibalism), insanity (either the fear of being driven insane, or the fear of the madman stalking you who is insane) and the supernatural, to name but a few. All of these have been dealt with by horror films throughout the 20th century, as a brief overview easily demonstrates.

Films started in the year 1895 with the pioneering work of the Lumiere brothers, and they were soon joined by the likes of George Melies. It was he who made what is generally considered to be the first horror film, Le Manoir du Diable (1896), a two-minute film in which a bat flies into a castle, transforms itself into Mephistopheles, conjures a girl, ghosts, skeletons and witches from a cauldron, then vanishes at the sight of a crucifix. But, notwithstanding this early start, horror took the better part of two decades to get up to speed. In the years up to 1919 the horror film was as like to be mystery and suspense as it was horror, with the adaptation of many a Sherlock Holmes story (not least The Hound of the Baskervilles), or an Edgar Allan Poe story (even today, he is still the most adapted writer in horror films, followed by HP Lovecraft, though Stephen King is closing in fast), or tales that depict 'simple' murders or experiences that turn out to be dreams. Nonetheless the first werewolf film was made in 1913, simply called The Werewolf, directed by Henry McRae; 1914 saw the first adaptation of the Golem myth, Der Golem directed by Heinrich Galeen; and Richard Oswald gave us Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray in 1917, based on Wilde's novel. But it was in 1919 that the genre really took off with four particularly memorable films, perhaps the best known of which is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, directed by Robert Wiene, starring Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss. That year Otto Rippert treated us to two films scripted by Fritz Lang, The Plague in Florence loosely based on Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" and the now-lost Totentanz, while Oswald contributed an early portmanteau film Tales of the Uncanny. As an aside here I should just mention that films that feature more than one story are referred to in a variety of ways - omnibus films, anthology films, etc - but I prefer the term 'portmanteau' and have used it throughout.

Europeans would continue to dominate the 1920s, certainly in the earlier part of the decade, though Hollywood would catch up fast as the decade wore on. There were even more adaptations of The Hound of the Baskervilles, to be joined by other 'classic' horror tales such as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but the '20s also gave us the definitive Der Golem (1920) dir. Paul Wegener and Carl Boese, FW Murnau's masterpiece Nosferatu (1921), Benjamin Christensen's playful Haxan (1922), Tod Browning's The Unholy Three (1925) starring Lon Chaney sr, Galeen's The Student of Prague (1926), Paul Leni's excellent silent version of The Cat and the Canary (1927), and Browning's The Unknown (1927) continuing his successful collaboration with Chaney.

The thirties, of course, one most associates with the Universal monster films, Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Werewolf of London, etc., and there were a lot of remakes of silent films for the new 'talkies'. But the '30s also brought forth oddities like Browning's Freaks (1932) (for MGM, not Universal), the first ever zombie film White Zombie (1932), ghouls, The Old Dark House (1932), apes(!) including the gigantic King Kong (1933), the first out-and-out exploitation film Maniac (1934), the rise of the endless sequel and more besides. However perhaps the real significance of the 1930s is that they gave rise to the idea of horror film 'stars' (a trend started (perhaps) by the audiences' view of the likes of Lon Chaney in the '20s) such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Basil Rathbone and Peter Lorre; but also the idea that it is the monsters themselves that are the real stars - everyone remembers who (or rather what) they are, but would have a hard time naming their victims! This is no more than art imitating life, of course; many people know who Ed Gein or Peter Sutcliffe or similar human monsters are, but the same people would have a harder time remembering the names of even one of their victims.

There seemed to be something of a drawing back from this headlong rush into horror during the 1940s. At least from supernatural horror. Like some perverse premonition of Scooby Doo, many a forties picture portrayed a supernatural situation, only to have it turn out that it was really Nazis or smugglers or robbers that were responsible for the phenomena. Either that or 'it was all a dream'. The other significant development was the rise of the 'psychological' horror film, perhaps best typified by the wonderful Jacques Tourneur's films for Val Lewton. The emphasis had switched from the (often fairly laughable) monsters to the unseen things that lurk forever just out of the corner of the viewer's eye. And in the fifties, it could be argued, science fiction films sort of 'took over' where the horror film had 'left off'. At least until 1957... But it should be pointed out here that, for all the horror 'classics' of the early cinema, around 75% of all the horror films ever made in the 20th century were filmed in the last four decades (compared to around 60% of all SF films). While William Castle's films wallowed in a kind of nostalgia, Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957) was handing on the baton (or, perhaps, handing it back to the Europeans) to the Hammer films of Terence Fisher and the Italian cinema of Riccardo Freda, or even the French director Georges Franju (who may have single-handedly started the trend of 'medical' horror films, developed by Spain's Jesus Franco). Under the circumstances, even if one disagrees, one can understand an argument that says horror films only really came of age in the 1960s.

And what a 'belle epoch' it was! Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (both 1960) prompted Hammer to add psychological thrillers to their gothic horror output, pretty much starting up the whole 'women in peril' cycle of films, themselves to be changed in the '70s by films such as Black Christmas (1974) and Halloween (1978), evolving steadily into the 'teenage cannon fodder' film still popular today. Roger Corman's Poe adaptations began with (The Fall of the) House of Usher (1960), Amicus launched a successful series of portmanteau films, Mario Bava moved from cinematography to direction, Jesus Franco did his best work, France threw up Jean Rollin, and Herschell Gordon Lewis invented the gore film. The new horror 'stars' were Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Barbara Steele. From the mid-sixties on we were treated to Japanese films such as Kwaidan and Onibaba (both 1964); Roman Polanski gave us Repulsion (1965) and Rosemary's Baby (1968), and George Romero changed the zombie film forever with Night of the Living Dead (1968). This explosion of talent and inventiveness and sheer quality has not yet been equalled.

The seventies was by no means a 'bad' decade for horror films, though it would be true to say that after about 1976 things started to slide downhill - Hammer ceased production and horror would lose ground to science fiction, though the real problems wouldn't surface until the early eighties... But it started well enough, with the success of Rosemary's Baby leading to films like Ken Russell's The Devils (1971), Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now (1973), William Friedkin's The Exorcist (1973), Robin Hardy's The Wicker Man (1973) and Richard Donner's The Omen (1976). Dario Argento burst onto the scene and Mario Bava was still doing excellent work. The Americans were by no means out of it, and we had the pleasure of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), while Wes Craven gave us The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The old-fashioned monsters had given way on the one hand to the Devil himself and on the other to the serial killer. But the 'problems' referred to above pretty much stemmed from the introduction of the home video and, with it, the straight to video market, particularly in relation to the so-called women-in-peril film. The (rather stupid) objections were two-fold. Firstly that these films promoted violence against women in and of themselves; secondly that the ability of the home viewing audience to watch the 'good bits' (i.e. the gory killings) over and over again would also promote violence. The problem with the first objection is that it assumes that life imitates art, and not the other way round. But you do not have to look hard at real life serial killers to realise that (a) most of them are men and (b) most of their victims are women and, more to the point, they always have been! The serial killer films simply reflected real life. The second objection is even more laughable for a couple of reasons. While it is true that from the mid-seventies on horror films were increasingly watched by teenaged boys, their reaction to the gore they saw was, more often than not, outright laughter - the cheaper the film, the more cheesy the special effects - and all they really wanted was to see if the likes of Tom Savini had managed to pull off a better beheading or whatever. The more fundamental objection to the criticism(s) is that for every psychoanalyst who could be trotted out to say "watching violence leads to doing violence" (which argument was then paraded for video games and home computer games), there would be another psychologist who would point out that "watching violence can be cathartic", i.e. watching violence actually suppressed people's urges to do violence by giving them an outlet for it. Also, anyone who might be 'set off' by a horror film is just as likely to be set off by, say, the colour of your tie or a hard day at work or a bad commuting experience. The simple fact is that there are a lot of self-appointed moral guardians out there, and they're always looking for something to blame for society's ills. If it's not horror films, then it must be pornography; if not porn, then drugs; if not drugs, then it must be that rock and roll, that punk music, that rap music... Anything so long as it's not poor parenting, or poverty, or abuse - why, it cannot be those things, or else they themselves might actually be the ones to blame! Be that as it may, the debate (if such it can be called) would spill over into the eighties and poison the cinematic well, so to speak, which is probably why horror films started to be so poor in the eighties.

One major feature of the decade was the creation of film franchises around the likes of Michael Myers from Halloween, Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th and Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street - the latter launching Robert Englund as the new 'star' of horror, which has certainly served him well as he is still appearing in such horror offerings as Tim Sullivan's 2001 Maniacs (2004) and Bob Keen's Heart Stopper (2006). This, coupled with the ongoing commotion over gore, led directly to the production of more films for the 15-18 audience (e.g.. Lost Boys, Teen Wolf, Fright Night and the like), as well as more comedy-based horrors (e.g.. Ghostbusters, Ghoulies and Gremlins, just to grab a few from the 'G's). Certainly Hollywood producers started to see more money in properties that (a) would not be included in the 'video nasty' debate, and (b) could be spun-off into action figures, toys and lunch-pail stickers. Even so, there were still more than a few very good films made such as Joe Dante's The Howling (1980), Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980), John Landis's An American Werewolf in London (1981), Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1982), Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator (1985) - launching Jeffrey Combs to horror film stardom, Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987), John McNaughton's Henry... Portrait of a Serial Killer (1987), Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark (1987) and so on. A lot of the gore being objected to seemed mostly to be in imported videos of (the seemingly endless) cannibal and zombie films of Italian film directors while, at the same time, mainstream films were getting more nasty themselves (but getting away with it), for example Brian de Palma's Dressed to Kill (1980) and Body Double (1984), Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986), Adrian Lyne's Fatal Attraction (1987), and even Peter Greenaway's The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989). This trend spilled over into the nineties with such films as Jonathan Demme's Silence of the Lambs (1991), Martin Scorcese's remake of Cape Fear (1991) and Paul Verhoeven's Basic Instinct (1992)... You get the point.

Even if I were to be kind (and I am not), it would have to be admitted that the 1990s were a dog's breakfast of a decade for horror films. Vampires came back in a big way, along with other 'traditional' monsters: Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992) (soon followed by the inevitable re-make of Frankenstein (1994)), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Cronos (1992, launching Guillermo del Toro's wonderful career), From Dusk 'Till Dawn (1995), Vampires (1998) and Blade (1998) to name but a few. The Mummy (1999) was revamped (very well, it has to be said). A lot of good directors from the Far East made their way onto horror shelves: Takashi Miike, Toshiharu Ikeda, Hisayasu Sato, Hideo Nakata, Ah Lun and Ryuhei Kitamura among them. Along with Blade other comics' properties found their way onto the big screen, e.g.. Spawn (1997), taking advantage of the new CGI effects. Europeans were well represented, e.g. Alex Chandon (Brit), Anders Jacobson (Swede) and Michael Haneke (German). Peter Jackson found respectability with The Frighteners (1996) and, at the end of the decade, the teen cannon fodder film went into overdrive, producing much of variable quality, from the awful (I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Urban Legend (1998)) to the slightly above average (Scream (1996)) to the very good (Final Destination (2000)) to the very funny (Scary Movie (2000)). The best film of the decade came very near its end, Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow (1999).

As I write this, it does not seem that the first decade of the 21st century is any more coherent, which is not to say that there haven't been any good films - there have been many, and a hell of a lot of zombie films - just that there seems nowadays to be little in the way of a collective fear that filmmakers are trying to exploit. But, then, it is been a turbulent decade so far, with pointless and unnecessary wars and terrorism besides, so perhaps the real world is quite frightening enough without fictional nastiness needing to be added into the mix. We (who love horror films) can only hope that this situation doesn't continue; after all, the darkness inside the human mind is unlikely to go away anytime soon, and it must be fed... (cue echoing, mad laughter).

Tony Chester


Concatenation's seasonal science fiction news page has a film news subsection.   There is also an annual British science fiction films box office chart for top films for each year up to Easter.

Tony has also written an article on the Top 10 (and worst 10) SF Films. Meanwhile Adrian James has written a a couple of film articles: Science Fiction in Film Serials and The Masked Villains of Cinematic Serials.

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