While some of us object to the invasion of American Halloween and K-mart clad ghosts and goblins knocking at the door demanding treats, we would do well to recall that the holiday is rooted in the Druid Samhain – the last day of the ancient Celtic summer – a between-seasons day, when the dead walked among the living and the veils between past, present and future could be lifted in prophecy and divination. What better time to examine our deepest fears than how we’ve presented them on film for the last 110 years?
Horror is one of film’s oldest genres, with the first, George Méliès’ The Devil’s Manor made in 1896. Since then filmmakers have had a love affair with horror, though the genre is the most maligned amongst critics and move-goers alike. But scratch the surface of a Sandra Bullock fan and you’ll find someone who’s seen Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula over and over again; or an ageing hippie still quoting Charlton Heston from Soylent Green, “It’s people!”
Defining horror seems to be the problem. It ranges from pornographic violence (as anyone who’s sat through Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein can attest) to art-house (Shadow of the Vampire). People know what they like and pretty much hate everything else.
Folks who came of age in the fifties and early sixties tend to think of Hammer Horror monster movies, or Cold War paranoia and post A-bomb reality checks – when George Romero, Roger Corman, and Roman Polanski first made their mark. Even The Sound of Music director Robert Wise tried his hand at horror with The Haunting in 1963, an arty examination of a woman possessed by the spirit of a house. While still of interest as a psychological thriller, the film was dated even then, as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963) upped the ante with levels of graphic violence that had never been seen before. The sixties had an outpouring of B-grade horror flicks, most of which starred Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Boris Karloff – all attempting to shock – though in reality, the trailers were always far more frightening than the films themselves.
Then along came George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead in 1968, where the dead rise up and eat the living – lungs, livers, hearts and entrails, in glorious black and white – no one had ever seen anything like that before. The film opened a floodgate and horror reached new levels of bloodletting, violence and gore as budgets got bigger special effects got better. It was as if the entire genre was reinvented in living colour, monsters, murderers, demons, and genetically mutated wildlife. While there certainly was quality horror produced in that time (The Exorcist, Jaws, Wickerman, Eraserhead, etc. etc.), the volume of horror was incredible and no social issue or pathology went unaddressed. The ultimate in paranoia was It’s Alive (1972) about a killer newborn, apparently driven to a frenzy in the womb over its mother’s ambivalence over whether or not to abort. And the wildlife gone mad! Jaws (1975), Frogs (1972), and James Cameron’s debut behind the camera with the horrendously awful Piranha II: The Spawning. Tobe Hooper’s splatter ‘masterpiece’ The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (which I have never been able to sit through), set the standard for deranged killers and spawned a slew of copycat slayers, slashers, slicers and dicers – and gave birth to Michael Meyers in Halloween (1978), Jason in Friday the 13th (1980) and Freddie Krueger in Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) at which point the horror flick literally lost the plot and collapsed under it’s own gore and guts and reran these last in what seemed like endless sequels that evolved into parodies of themselves, played more for laughs than for terror.
By the end of the eighties there was an enormous drop in the number of horror flicks produced, with a return to the level of quality of the 50s and 60s, with greater emphasis on psychological horror and suspense, and little sign of the 70-80s fondness for vivisection. But audiences seemed repulsed by the very word ‘horror’, so studios and directors went to great lengths to describe their films otherwise. Kenneth Branagh insisted Dead Again was a mystery romance and Francis Ford Coppola declared Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a drama, not a horror film (though he surpassed Tobe Hooper when it came to amount of blood spilled.)
Until recently, much of what we’ve seen has been self-parodying teen comedy/horror. But the genre is alive and well. Hannibal Lecter continues to make friends; Nicole Kidman wasn’t exactly slumming in The Others; we adored The Sixth Sense and the Blair Witch Project scared us witless. Virtually every film mentioned on these pages is now available on DVD. In theatres right now we’ve got The Locals, 28 Days Later, Identity, Hypnotic, and the ultimate face off arriving soon – Freddy vs. Jason. Go get scared!
Directors who’ve Dabbled in horror
- Kenneth Branagh – Dead Again (1991), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994)
- Francis Ford Coppola – Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
- Stanley Kubrick – Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980)
- Adrian Lyne – Jacob’s Ladder (1990)
- Robert Rodriguez – From Dusk Until Dawn (1996) – co-written with Quentin Tarantino)
- Ridley Scott – Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982)
- Stephen Soderberg – Kafka (1991)
- Robert Wise – The Haunting of Hill House (1963)
Directors who specialise in horror
- John Carpenter
- Roger Corman
- Wes Craven
- David Cronenberg
- Tobe Hooper
- David Lynch
- Sam Raimi
- George Romero
Directors who cut their teeth on horror
- Peter Bogdonavich – Targets (1968)
- James Cameron – PiranhaII: the Spawning (1981)
- Francis Ford Coppola – Dementia 13 (1963)
- Brian de Palma – Sisters (1973), Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and the strange Phantom of the Paradise musical.
- Peter Jackson (see Director’s Cut, this issue)
- John Landis – Schlock (1971), American Werewolf in London (1981)
- Roman Polanski – Repulsion (1965), The Fearless Vampire Killers or: Pardon Me, But Your Teeth are in My Neck (1967), Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
- Barry Sonnenfeld – Addams Family (1991)
- Boris Karloff – silent star who broke into talkies in 1931, forever defining the look and feel of Frankenstein. Went on to make nearly 100 mostly horror flicks – some ultra cheesy.
- Bela Lugosi – Dracula – 1931 – followed by a career as other monsters, mad scientists and megalomaniacs. Those made for Universal were high quality, but drug addiction and a disastrous personal life lead to ridiculous choices in later life – including the legendary worst movie of all time – Plan 9 From Outer Space, for director Ed Wood (the subject of Tim Burton’s biopic of the same name, starring Johnny Depp – in a cashmere sweater.)
- Vincent Price – Classically trained stage actor who turned to horror in 1953, and spent the next 40 years as the Master of Menace, often working with director Roger Corman.
- Christopher Lee – Hammer Horror’s perennial leading man, starred as Count Dooku in Star Wars Episodes 1-3 and as Saruman the White in Lord of the Rings.
- Jamie Lee Curtis – Probably the only woman who ever launched her career as a horror star – playing Michael Myers’ sister in Halloween, by managing to survive. Daughter of Janet Leigh, who played Norman Bates unfortunate victim in Psycho, she earned the nick ‘Queen of the Creepies’ with The Fog, Prom Night, Terror Train (all 1980) and Halloween II (1981). Once she broke out, she refused to do another horror flick until Halloween H20: 20 Years Later in1998. Having made her peace, she returned in H8 in 2002 and will most likely star in H9.
Makers & shapers
- Alfred Hitchcock – directed over fifty films, virtually inventing the psychological thriller. Upped the ante in the horror genre with nudity and violence in Psycho in 1960. Followed by The Birds in 1963.
- Stephen King – The Source. Has had 25 of his novels made into films, Made for TV movies or television series.
- Terence Fisher – single-handedly created the Hammer Horror franchise with his 1957 remake of Frankenstein with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and followed it with 24 low-budget classics more over the next 17 years.
- George A. Romero – broke the boundaries for gore in 1968 with Night of the Living Dead and then topped that with Dawn of the Dead in 1978.
- John Carpenter – was paid $10,000 for directing the original Halloween.
- The Mummy
- Night of the Living Dead
- Nightmare Before Christmas
- Any Hammer Horror
- The Fly both the 1958 version with Vincent Price and the 1986 remake with Jeff Goldblum.
- Blade Runner – 1982
- Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
- The Day the Earth Stood Still
- Soylent Green
- 28 Days Later
- It’s Alive
- The Possession of Joel Delaney
- Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- Friday the 13th and all their offspring
- Bram Stoker’s Dracula
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
- Shadow of the Vampire
- Repulsion (Roman Polanski)
And many many more…
Have a horrific Halloween!