Amy Pay looks at the history of the horror genre and lines up the best of what horror has to offer, from the 1890s to the 2000s.
Halloween is probably the best time to release a horror movie if you want it to have a captive audience. On October 31st every year, the average multiplex cinema houses at least three horror movies, some of which reach the top of the ‘highest grossing’ charts (no pun intended). Viewing horror movies needn’t be reserved for this time of year, though. Despite having a reputation for flimsy plotlines, poor acting and ketchup-smothered sets, the genre has a long history. For nearly a century, people have found watching appalling fictitious events unfolding on screen to be somewhat appealing.
The early roots of horror are embedded in real life events and popular literary works. Some of the first cinema-goers experienced extreme fear when they watched footage of a train arriving at a station; they thought that the train was going to pierce through the screen and drive into the auditorium. By experimenting with emerging techniques, such as overlaying audio onto moving visual shots and backlighting actors, directors made the everyday seem unknown, causing audiences to experience thrills from seemingly benign happenings.
Gothic fiction and romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth century were influences for early directors. Works by Edgar Allen Poe (‘The Raven’), Bram Stoker (‘Dracula’) and Mary Shelley (‘Frankenstein’) provided monstrous creatures that transformed well into frightening screen fiends. Another literary influence, the style of classical storytelling, gave filmmakers a nod in the right direction for creating compelling narratives.
As horror films became increasingly available and realistic, government officials around the world grew nervous over the effect that their content would have on viewers. Some countries banned releases from being shown on the grounds of them being harmful and destructive to society. Regardless of this, companies continued to develop the genre and its cinematographic quality.
Britain’s Hammer Film Productions advanced monster films. Hammer Horrors were longer, some lasting over an hour, and featured well-regarded actors (including Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) in lead roles. They sexed-up established tales and introduced bloody gore, tapping into the psyche of the viewer. Other filmmakers bridged horror, nature and science fiction via alien invasions, crossbreed creatures and dystopian worlds.
Notable films: ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ (1956), ‘The Curse of Frankenstein’ (1957), ‘The Fly’ (1958)
The fascination with science and reality carried into the sixties. A boom in special effects complimented attempts at making powerful supernatural and psychological movies. Hitchcock became a landmark figure for generating suspense, while Polanski’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ put the fear of the devil into expectant mothers. Fantastical monster-centric movies died down in popularity, overtaken by films that spoke of abnormal human experiences. Their absence was filled with some of the most prolific zombie movies of all time, courtesy of the director George Romero.Notable films: ‘Psycho’ (1960), ‘The Haunting’ (1963), ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968)
Larger budgets allowed the production of elaborately crafted films. They facilitated the creation of violent scenes and haunting supernatural visuals, both of which drew in greater audiences and respect from critics. Some of the most famous and unnerving psycho-thrillers came from this era. There were also plenty of thrillers propelled by underlying political statements and social anxieties, a sign of unrest across nations.
The eighties brought a new level of dangerous repression and gore to the scene. Fake blood was splattered all over the sets for video nasties, grizzly films loaded with extreme graphic violence that went beyond censorship and regulation. Slasher films featured genre-defining serial killers that ripped neighbourhoods to shreds. In many cases, the serial killers managed to make it into movie sequels for a second score of bloodshed. Wes Craven, the master behind some of today’s best-known slashers (such as ‘Scream’ (1996)) unleashed multiple nightmare-inducing characters onto his audiences. One of them was Freddy Krueger. This infamous baddie, with hands like knife racks, killed off Johnny Depp in his first major role.
Notable films: ‘My Bloody Valentine’ (1981), ‘Driller Killer’ (1982), ‘Nightmare On Elm Street’ (1984)
College became the new location for on-screen killing sprees, latching onto the younger end of the genre’s audience. Though rather predictable and occasionally self-mocking, they pulled earlier trends into the modern times. Society’s materialistic infatuation with personal technology made it into plots; ‘The Blair Witch Project’ utilised handicams for jagged self-shot footage in the sequences. A trend for metafictional works turned films inside-out, making movies aware of their own construction and fictitious existence. Other films used existing social structures, misconceptions, myths and fears as sources, while some used a combination of these to forge complicated plots that connected with an increasingly technologically adept audience living in a world of seemingly limitless possibilities.
The start of this century prompted a reflection on the previous one. Classics were digitally remastered for DVD release. Films like ‘The Exorcist’ (1973) were given a second lease of life and thousands of new fans. A similar exposure was given to foreign horror films thanks to American remakes into the English language. Zombies took over cinemas yet again, this time sharing the bill with complicated and revengeful torture movies. On the other end of the spectrum, psychology was implemented in less-is-more films. Viewers were left to their own devices and imagination to understand gaps in plots and decipher the paranormal within camera trickery. Cinemas provided a kick-start for the nerves, but the mind became the home of horror.