Posted by Greg Ferrara on October 17, 2012
I have always had a fascination with how much can change in such a short span of time in one era, yet remained unchanged for years in another. In 1973, American Graffiti presented a nostalgic past that no longer existed, a world from another time and place. It took place a mere 11 years prior to its release. 11 years. A movie taking place in 2001 or 02 wouldn’t look or feel that much different to what’s around us now. Watching a sitcom from early in the 2000s, like Arrested Development, doesn’t look or feel a whole lot different than watching one from right now, like Parks and Recreation. But watching Leave it to Beaver, from the early sixties, alongside All in the Family, from the early seventies, feels like two different universes. How much has horror changed from one decade to the next? Let’s examine horror’s powers of ten.*
Let’s go back a hundred years and pick up the trail there. Yes, horror existed in cinema before 1912 and, no, this exercise isn’t intended to cover, in detail, every change to the genre in the last hundred years. It is, instead, intended to highlight the changes that are, for me, a horror fan, the most noticeable. To another horror fan, there may be different benchmarks and I would invite such a fan to list their own. So now, let’s go back to 1912 and begin the journey forward, ten years by ten, until we reach the present.
In 1912, we were two years removed from Edison Studios’ filmed adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It was a lackluster affair (seen here). A new horror film, also adapted from literature, Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde (seen here), wasn’t much better. The cinema was having a tough time of it. The necessary technologies were there to show transformations and horrible creatures but many of the people making the movies had little to no feel for the real nature of horror. Both adaptations above felt like ways to cash in on the fantastical elements that might lure in audiences to spend money, not spiritual forays into the soul of horror. In just ten years, that would change dramatically.
By 1922, we had Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) a great and formidable leap over what came before, and Nosferatu, F.W. Murnau’s beautiful and eerie reworking of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Neither of these films had a soulless feel to them and both (but especially, for my money, Nosferatu) felt different from the rest of cinema around them. Caligari had the incredible set design but Nosferatu had a feel, something hard to pin down, but a feel nonetheless of a stillness, a disquiet, that few films after it have been able to achieve.
In 1932, we were one year removed from the greatest one-two punch the world of horror cinema had ever or would ever receive. Universal released both Dracula, directed by Tod Browning and starring Bela Lugosi, in February, and Frankenstein, directed by James Whale and starring Boris Karloff, in November. It was a defining moment for the genre and from that moment forward, the genre was on its own. Before 1931, horror was a vague mix of the pseudo-supernatural and mystery, such as The Cat and the Canary. Real horror, like Nosferatu, popped in and out of existence, never affecting wholesale change. Universal made real horror – vampires, monsters, and other paranormal beasts – the bread and butter of the genre. Paramount lent a hand with Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde that same year and the newly formed Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences helped out, too, by awarding Best Actor to Fredric March, legitimizing the genre ever so slightly. The Mummy, Werewolf of London and The Wolf Man would follow.
In 1942, real world horror had taken center stage with World War II and just a few years out from their heyday, the characters of Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy were feeling a bit fatigued. A new film, The Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur and produced by Val Lewton, didn’t bother to show the monster but made the horror all the more real, and frightening, through suggestion and mood. This was a seminal moment. It confirmed that horror could rely on mood and atmosphere instead of special effects and makeup. And what that confirmed was that, if done properly, a filmmaker could rely on the audience to do all the heavy lifting because rarely can anything a director shows on the screen match what the viewers have conjured up in their minds.
By 1952, the old Universal monsters were enjoying a nostalgic icon status. Going back to the late forties, the great comedy team of Abbott and Costello used Universal’s horror icons as parody material in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Gothic was now old-school and movies like The Thing from Another World brought in both monsters from outer space and snappy dialogue that proved horror could be as witty and sharp, and scary, as anything out there. Alongside aliens from outer space, mutants of all shapes and sizes (but especially sizes) became the new face of horror. Movies like Godzilla and Them! exploited the horrors of the new atomic age by having creatures grow to enormous and destructive sizes. And the cause wasn’t left up to anyone’s imagination. Witness the closing lines of Them!:
Robert: Pat, if these monsters got started as a result of the first atomic bomb in 1945, what about all the others that have been exploded since then?
Dr. Pat Medford: I don’t know.
Dr. Harold Medford: Nobody knows, Robert. When Man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict.
In 1962, Gothic had returned in a nostalgic fit of will by Hammer Studios and Roger Corman, both doing their level best to take the genre back to its roots and succeeding mightily. Hammer, in particular, would produce some of the best horror movies ever made, including Terence Fisher’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958) and Brides of Dracula (1962). Of course, two years earlier Alfred Hitchcock had eviscerated his leading lady less than halfway through the film in a bloody spasm of bathroom violence in Psycho. Horror would change again as mad killers took center stage. Less than fifty years out from that crude rendition of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, horror was showing bloody murder in the shower and the lifeless body of its naked victim lying on the bathroom floor.
By 1972, horror had become an interesting mix of every possible style. Gothic had been reinvented by Hammer to be more graphic and employ nudity. Modern tales had taken Psycho‘s cue and let loose crazed killers with chainsaws. Classic horror icons like Vincent Price had gone from Gothic tales to graphic tales like Theatre of Blood. And four years earlier, two movies were released that would unleash new sub-genres into the mix, though not immediately. First, George Romero introduced a new spin on zombies, no longer the sleeping slaves of horror’s yesteryear, but the dead, risen from the grave and hungry for human flesh. Its influence was not immediately felt. Over forty years later, it is unavoidable. The other movie, Rosemary’s Baby, brought the devil into focus as a viable villain for a new age. Demons had long made their way into horror (including, of course, the superb Night of the Demon) but the devil was relegated to fantasy stories (The Devil and Daniel Webster, Heaven Can Wait) or the influence he had over witches who cursed entire towns in his name (City of the Dead). Rosemary’s Baby turned the devil into Satan and used him for what he had always been: The personification of pure evil. Five years later, The Exorcist would bring the Satanic sub-genre into full-swing with The Omen bringing up the rear in 1976.
In 1982, horror was moving into new territory yet again but territory that felt like the old territory made bigger. Poltergeist gave us the haunted house but added lots of splashy effects. Halloween, four years prior, kept the mad killer sub-genre alive but with less exposition (Psycho, Black Christmas) and more killing. But Halloween also furthered the theme of the helpless and hapless group of young people, gathered together for love and fun, being picked off one by one. Friday the 13th and The Evil Dead would move the group to the woods and pump new life into the corn syrup based fake blood industry. But something else came from Halloween and Friday the 13th: the return of the iconic horror character. For a long time, that was just the gothic monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, et al) but now, with Michael Myers and Jason, a new cult was built around the evil characters themselves who would appear in movie after movie. The eighties also gave us Freddie (A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984), Pinhead (Hellraiser, 1987) and Chucky (Child’s Play, 1988), characters that start out as the evil villain but quickly became the characters the audience “rooted” for, so to speak.
By 1992, horror had settled into a rather dull state of affairs. The eighties formulas continued unabated until about halfway through the decade when, in reaction to it, a new form of self-aware or meta-horror, took the stage, with Wes Craven leading the way. His New Nightmare made the actors from previous Nightmare films into real-life characters in the new film making a new Nightmare film. A couple of years later, Craven directed the Kevin Williamson penned Scream and brought the teen slasher into the meta-sub-genre family.
In 2002, the effects of international horror cinema were finally being felt. In the past, non-English language horror enjoyed minor success (Kwaidan, Eyes without a Face) but now international horror, in particular Asian horror, was enjoying success on a regular basis (Ringu, Ju-on, The Host) and being remade for American audiences. Later in the decade, the Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In would also enjoy success as an import and, later, as a remake.
At the same time, The Blair Witch Project single-handedly created a whole new “found-footage” sub-genre that has produced an uneven assortment of hits and misses. The first Paranormal Activity had some great moments and Cloverfield found a way to cleverly combine found-footage with the rebirth of the monster movie, which had resurfaced (no pun intended) with a vengeance two years earlier with South Korea’s The Host.
Which brings us to now and the fact that horror seems to be a conglomeration of everything that came before. Everything is ripe for reinvention, no one sub-genre dominates (though vampires and zombies have led the reinvention bandwagon) and meta-horror is becoming more meta than ever (Cabin in the Woods). So where does that leave us?
Well, in just a little over a hundred years, horror has gone from a simplistic series of static literary adaptations to a complex assortment of impassioned productions the world over. In only a hundred years it has begun to reinvent everything that came before in what could almost be seen as a reboot of the whole genre. Horror has changed and developed dramatically in these hundred years but, somehow, feels as familiar as ever. Modern classics like Ringu, Let the Right One In and The Host are just retellings of stories involving vengeful spirits, vampires and sea monsters. Political commentary and self-awareness have crept into the picture but from the atomic mutation movies to the Abbott and Costello proto-meta outings, that’s been there a long time, too. The next ten years could bring about nothing much but more of the same, like the eighties to the nineties transition, or it could bring about a sea-change, like the twenties to thirties transformation. Whatever happens, one thing is for certain: Horror will continue to thrive as long as people live in a world where fear and dread and heartbreak exist. In such a world, where audiences need a release from the tensions of the workaday world, horror will continue to deliver the goods – times ten.
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