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)
– 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).