More Notes on Horror

Here’s a potted history of horror film, cobbled together from the opinions of academics and my own observations, acoompanied by a few examples, All imaginable disclaimers apply.

UPDATE: The most damning of these is that this list is extremely U.S.-Anglo-centric, with other cinemas only entering the list when they were officially recognized as ‘influences’ on the U.S.-Anglo dominated ‘mainstream.’ Sorry.


– Georges Méliès’ cinema of fantasy. J. Stuart Blackton’s The Haunted Hotel (1907) is perhaps most topical if not most relevant.

– German expressionism – especially The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), Nosferatu (1922), Metropolis (1927), Faust (1926), M. (1931), but also deviations and offshoots like The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Vampyr (1932)

Horror proper:

– the Universal Studios period – from the silents: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), The Man Who Laughs (1928), to the Golden Age: Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), to the generally weak sequels of the 40s like i.e. Son of Dracula (1943) (though don’t forget the exception of The Wolf-Man (1941)),  to the minor ’50s revival led by the sci-fi-tinged Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) — in 3-D — and capped by the ‘canonization’ of the ’30s classics with their move to syndicated TV.

– the Val Lewton/RKO phase – Cat People (1942), I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Body Snatchers (1945) — largely exists as a distinct stylistic type because of later auteur criticism.

– 1950s Sci-Fi monster thrillers- Thing From Another World (1951), Them! (1954), Gojira (1954), largely aimed at adolescents in drive-thrus; more traditional Gothic elements sneak back in with I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957)

– Hammer Horror – with the exception of the first, The Quatermass Experiment (1955), this was a (more lurid) return to the Gothic, with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), The Mummy (1959), and the various sequels and spin-offs that went on until around 1974.

– Roger Corman and the ‘B-movie’ – started in the ’50s working in the sci-fi monster genre, but did his best work in the ’60s, including House of Usher (1960), Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Mask of the Red Death (1964) — also notable for the number of careers he helped launch (Jack Nicholson, Martin Scorsese, etc.). Notable non-Corman B’s include Herschell Gordon Lewis’s Blood Feast (1964), the first “splatter” film.

Horror’s ‘new wave:’

– ‘psychological’ horror – Psycho (1960), Peeping Tom (1960), The Birds (1963), The Twilight Zone (1959-64) – received and still receives disproportionate attention by critics; the first application of auteur theory to the horror genre, though mostly just Hitchcock.

The highbrow respect garnered for such harrowing fare during this period (beyond middlebrow, which the Universal pictures catered to) initiates what may be horror’s longest-running subgenre, the ‘classy’ horror movie, typically High Gothic in style and produced by A-listers (I also include the ‘demon movies’ subgenre here, in its highbrow form of course). The Innocents (1961), The Haunting (1963), The Exorcist (1973), The Shining (1980), Poltergeist (1982), The Sixth Sense (1999), The Others (2001)

– Italian and Mexican independents of the ’60s-’80s – led by Mario Bava, Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Jess Franco – Black Sunday(1960), Blood and Black Lace (1964), Planet of the Vampires (1965), Kill, Baby, Kill! (1966), Suspiria (1977), Tenebre (1982), The Beyond (1981), Justine (1969), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), Alucarda (1978)

– Golden Age of auteurist horror (late 60s-70s) – might as well just list names: George Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, Brian DePalma — thought to have ‘sold out’ with John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and the rise of slasher films. Also establishes what remains the ‘official history’ of the horror genre.

– Body-horror (late 70s-80s) – the major auteur here is David Cronenberg. Shivers (1975), Alien (1979), The Thing (1982),Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) — full of references to the ’50s SF monster movies.

Horror’s ‘decadent’ era:

– Teen slasher movies – Friday the 13th (1980), Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), the dozens of sequels, rip-offs, and contemporaenous parodies (i.e. Slumber Party Massacre (1982)

– Suburban horror – frequently based on parodic references to earlier subgenres and pop culture more generally. Like the slashers, aimed at suburban teens, but usually far less intense/nihilistic. Contemporaneous both with the rise of video rental and Stephen King-led paperback bestsellers. When not out-and-out absurd tend to be heavy on family values: American Werewolf in London (1981), Cujo (1983), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Fright Night (1985), Evil Dead 2 (1987), Lost Boys (1987), Pet Sematary (1989)

– mainstream horror becomes ‘respectable’ again by assimilating the intensity and gore levels of the previous few decades with the pedigree of subjects derived either from the ‘classic’ ’30s (and consequently literature), or psychological, ‘Hitchcockian’ thrillers  – Silence of the Lambs (1991), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), Wolf (1994), Seven (1997). Interview with the Vampire (1994) probably belongs here as well.

– (re-)ironizing of the genre, TV-centric but also auteurist in a weird way – The X-Files (1993-2002), Scream (1996), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

– ‘new authenticity’ – includes (though maybe these should be distinguished) non-traditional, ‘underground’ sources (Blair Witch Project (1999), low-budget ‘world cinema’ imports like Ringu (1998)) and ostensibly straight-faced reproductions, mostly of the ’70s or ’80s (Saw (2003), Hostel (2005), the innumerable remakes and reboots, etc.) and with increased gore.

What interests me the most about this are the ‘ironizing’ moments, where the history of the genre is (re) established, and alternately portrayed as dumb, naive, reactionary, misogynist, authentic, etc. Seems to coincide both with auteurist phases and when critics identify ‘radical potential’ and/or subversiveness. Should be distinguished from its comedy and pastiche-oriented counterparts (the late ’80s and ’00s, respectively).

18 Responses to “More Notes on Horror”

  1. lecolonelchabert Says:

    I know so little about this stuff, it’s very intriguing; is there a a stephen king subcategory? they were so profitable through the 80s starting with the most respectable of these films, The Shining, which you have in the classy category, then there was a spate, Cujo, the Dead Zone, Christine, Children of the Corn, Fire Starter, Pet Semetery. All from successful books or stories. Those things, books and film, belong I think it a kind of stage one of postmodern irony; they seem winky winky compared to 70s things like tom tryon The Other and Harvest Home, or shirley jackson, while covering that territory, but then they seem more earnest than much of what came after.

  2. traxus4420 Says:

    it’s interesting, i’m not an expert in the scholarship, but i don’t think i’ve ever seen the king movies included separately in genre histories. i’ve only seen them set off in order to discuss stephen king. my wild guess is it’s because he’s widely considered the auteur of these films but as a novelist, and film theory people hate that.

    the respectable king horror adaptations would be carrie in 1976 and the shining in 1980, which are then followed by the movies you list. king hated kubrick’s version (don’t know how he felt about depalma) and once he had clout actively pushed for bland filmmakers to adapt his work (mick garris owes his career to king). it’s also interesting that, unlike the other supermarket horror writers (Peter Straub, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker), there’s been an intimate synergy with film from the very beginning of his career (carrie was his first published novel).

    as for where you’d put them in the list. they’d have to go with the ‘horror comedy’ grouping, though they’re not exactly comedies. true to the novels they’re basically R-rated family movies. come to think of it, what i have as ‘horror comedy’ is probably better understood as part of a larger group that would include the king movies, gremlins, child’s play, chopping mall, lost boys, near dark, ghoulies, etc. middlebrow grotesque, you could call it.

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    though TV has a minimal presence on this list because of its stylistic effect on the films, i left off novels, comics, and direct-to-video, which i admit is problematic. the king/horror comedy phenomenon and the rise of video are pretty closely tied, and not only chronologically.

    also you could arrange an ‘exploitation’ genre out of several of the films i kept in separate groupings (the italian/mexican stuff, the slashers, some of the body-horror, etc.), which would still leave out non-auteur low-budget tihngs like i spit on your grave.

  4. traxus4420 Says:

    there – updated

  5. lecolonelchabert Says:

    it’s a big sprawling genre this is for sure. even without the other media.

  6. lecolonelchabert Says:

    Now you know I am going to ask about Polanski and where he goes.

  7. lecolonelchabert Says:

    the old reviews are fun and interesting, here’s Roger Ebert in 1976 on the Omen:

  8. lecolonelchabert Says:

    even more fun Ebert’s take on the Exorcist in 73.

    He concludes:

    “I am not sure exactly what reasons people will have for seeing this movie; surely enjoyment won’t be one, because what we get here aren’t the delicious chills of a Vincent Price thriller, but raw and painful experience. Are people so numb they need movies of this intensity in order to feel anything at all? It’s hard to say.”

  9. traxus4420 Says:

    polanski’s easy, he goes back and forth between psychological (repulsion, the tenant) and classy (rosemary’s baby). with the occasional comedic detour through central europe (fearless vampire killers).

    i like this one from his review of the 2003 texas chainsaw:

    “I like good horror movies. They can exorcise our demons. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” doesn’t want to exorcise anything. It wants to tramp crap through our imaginations and wipe its feet on our dreams. I think of filmgoers on a date, seeing this movie and then — what? I guess they’ll have to laugh at it, irony being a fashionable response to the experience of being had.”

  10. Just reading this list it struck me how much the movies you classify as highbrow-auteurist rely on the presence of undead, possessed or otherwise scary children. Almost as much of a constant as dead teens in ironic-absurd slashers. (Ive lost count of the creepy Spanish orphanage movies I’ve seen recently).

  11. traxus4420 Says:

    children are the future, innocence is hope. or anyway i gather that’s what the world looks like when you’re middle-aged.

    whereas it’s a sort of agreed-upon convention in the genre that teens have it coming.

  12. colonel howcome you never tell traxus that de palma was a misogynist and a vile male scauvinist because he sliced up Spacek’s body in that scene, surely this must be a violation of the comradess’s body especially vis-a-vis the Serbian Communist party’s patriarchal morals.

    Roger Ebert: the reload of OMEN put this aspect of the Apocalypse as the coming of the New Roman Empire, which the Bible simultaneously prophesizes in its original text, at the center, and so in a way extremely unusual for such a mainstream Halliwud venture, suggested that the time of the New Roman Empire has already come.

    Traxus your designation of horror as dramatizing or problematizing the Oedipal scene, the cutting, the splitting and the blood gushes, is accurate in my mind although I don’t buy into the concept of ”gender difference” it being kind of hokey New Agey emptyish.

  13. traxus4420 Says:

    i thought the new age was about deconstructing boring old gender categories?

    anyway keeping ‘gender difference’ in scare quotes ought to take care of all your concerns.

  14. thought the new age was about deconstructing boring old gender categories?

    that’s precisely it, the new age only seemingly deconstructs them but they remain very much present

    speaking of horror i saw this rather singular and exciting Brazlian thing at the Amsterdam fantastic film festival, by now one of the more interesting in the world, called THE EMBODIMENT OF EVIL. Made me think it’s still quite possible to make good art movies, only not in America.

  15. Great list, comprehensive and insightful. It’d be interesting if the course could draw connections between the eras/subgenres by accounting for the development of the film industry, its relationship to other media, and, my personal obsession, horror’s relation to the history of affects. On the latter, I’d go back to Ebert’s review of The Exorcist and emphasize that he both gets and misses the point: viewing the movie isn’t (always) about narrative pleasure but about reveling in “raw and painful experience.” The so-called nihilism you work through in the previous post is better thought of in relation to audiences, sensations, and the “rawness” of the spectatorial experience rather than some generic (that is, narrative-oriented) analysis of the films themselves.

    This approach might be most fruitful in thinking about what you call the “decadent” era of horror. There are too many generic and material differences between the films listed under this category to understand them coherently as being part of a decadent period in horror’s development. My own list would distinguish, period-wise, between the slashers [“decadent”], the mainstreamers [“new suspense”], and the torture-fests [“post-horror”]. I would then try to parse what it is these different films “do” to audiences in terms of the affects and sensations they elicit. All of this, of course, in relation to developments in the film industry (and culture more generally) which make these affects/sensations intelligible for spectators (the influence of blockbusters [Jaws] on the ’80s horror formula; the ’60s auteurs getting old and making more mainstream suspense fare; the rise of the torture film in a post-9/11 world, etc.).

    I know we diverge in terms of how we approach the question of genre. I should say, though, that this list does a tremendous amount of structural/theoretical work on which any serious student of horror can build.

  16. traxus4420 Says:

    thanks, kinohi — yeah that ‘decadent’ label (always in scare quotes) applies really strongly to i would say the first three categories that follow, but once we get into the mid-90s i’m not really sure anymore. things open up too much globally and the american style seems to close down around canon necrophilia. it’s still happening so hard to tell how to define it, other than as a reaction to ‘decadence’ and increased foreign competition.

    with you about looking beyond narrative with this genre especially but don’t think ebert’s not doing that. ebert contrasts exorcist with cries and whispers, not in terms of narrative pleasure but bergman’s ‘honest’ theological humanism vs. the exorcist’s obscene ‘special effects’-driven parody of faith and its own extreme seriousness. the latter doesn’t play fair, it treats its audience like machines, which somehow makes it both less honest and more (excessively) real. it seems pedestrian at first, a criticism common to all ‘body genres,’ and a debate you probably know more about than me.

    the comparison with vincent price is more straightforwardly useful – especially for a history of affects. because i think it’s true that Corman/Price and Blatty/Friedkin are close enough that the difference between them is primarily intensity. that’s what separates “delicious chills” from “raw and painful experience.” and then it’s interesting that a film in this debased genre, purely (?) on the basis of extreme intensity, can be put in the same sentence with bergman and High Cinematic Art.

  17. Ryan, this is great. I didn’t pay enough attention to the Price comparison. Your reading of it introduces me to another dimension of this, which I hadn’t thought of before: “delicious chills.” We’ll continue the conversation on and offline, I’m sure.

  18. […] while ago I posted a few things on horror. On my old blogspot (since deleted), I had a few posts on zombies as well as ‘torture […]

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