While horror has been around in one form or another for centuries, once the genre reached the theater America became the undisputed master of terror and chills. Where did this great legacy come from? And why has America lost its touch? Can we get it back? The history of American horror from its humble beginnings to disheveled present will be discussed.
Like much of American culture, the horror classics come primarily from England. Before film was books, all the classics of horror we know today were all from there. The two biggest horror novels ever were certainly Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (1818) and Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” (1897, with “Dracula’s Guest” following in 1914). Even those of us today who have never read these novels have at least a general knowledge of the plot contained within. Both of these would later become giants in the film world, as well.
The First Horror Films
The first horror films, like films of other genres, were of poor quality, black and white and with little or no sound. Many people today, besides hardcore horror buffs and film historians, might find it very difficult to sit through an entire film.
The most famous of this time period was “Nosferatu” (1922), a version of the Dracula legend created by Bram Stoker (with certain elements changed). While this film was German rather than American, it was the film that set the bar for the American horror film industry and probably the horror movie industry worldwide. As of November 2005, the movie was ranked as the 219th film of all time on the Internet Movie Database (which is a lot more respectable than it might sound). Nosferatu’s cultural significance to America was proven after the success of “Shadow of the Vampire” (2000), a film that was a fictional telling of the making of Nosferatu. What says success more than millions of people seeing another film about a film?
Another classic was “White Zombie” (1932) featuring Bela Lugosi, perhaps the first zombie film (decades before George A. Romero became the man to see about the living dead). Lugosi would become a legend in the horror industry as Dracula (a role he filled a year before White Zombie), although he had already appeared in numerous horror films and would show up again in many more. White Zombie also achieved a cult effect after horror-rock band White Zombie chose the film as the moniker for their quartet and struck it big on MTV. The film, in my opinion, would have become a much greater cult hit had the footage not been lost. This lost film was not rediscovered until the 1960s when other films had already taken their place in horror history.
The Golden Age of Horror
The Golden Age of Horror came from 1931-1941 when Hollywood took the classics of horror literature and transformed them into classics of cinema. Dracula, Frankenstein, Wolfman and the mummy became permanently infused into the minds of Americans and entered American culture for the general population regardless of their interest (or lack thereof) in the monster movies of the day. Strangely enough the films were made during a time when the production companies could barely afford to produce them due to the Great Depression and have been considered masterpieces just the same (which might make us question if a bigger budget really matters).
“Dracula” (1931) featured Bela Lugosi (as mentioned above) in the title role, and unlike “Nosferatu” set the standard for what a Count Dracula is supposed to look like. No longer was he the wretched, wrinkled monster portrayed by Max Schreck, but a suave and handsome creature of the night. There were five direct sequels (something that was less common in the early days of film), and scores of remakes and alternate versions that used this Dracula as their inspiration. An interesting note is that this was the only film version of Dracula to receive the blessing of Bram Stoker’s widow, who came to know Bela Lugosi while he performed the stage version of the story in 1927.
“Frankenstein” (also 1931) probably rivals Dracula for its timelessness and place in popular culture, no doubt to the success of the books both were based on. Frankenstein brought Boris Karloff fame, just as much as it secured “Frankenstein” as the name of the creature (who was never really named officially). Another first is the use of electricity (lightning) to bring the monster to life. The book actually never mentions how the creature was brought back. Likewise, the book never mentions the monster’s flat head or bolts in the neck or clothing – this popular conception is from the film only.
“The Mummy” (1932) is another Boris Karloff feature (co-starring Edward VanSloan, who was also in Frankenstein). While not very remarkable in general, this film likely established the mummy as a part of horror history. To my knowledge, no mummy movie appeared prior to this. Four sequels and three remakes followed this film, as well as numerous (countless?) other movies with mummy themes.
“The Wolf Man” (1941) was a relative latecomer, but still managed to match the legendary status of the three other Golden Age films. Lon Chaney played the wolfman, and was joined by horror masters Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and Claude Rains (The Invisible Man). The film was inspired by the events of Nazi Germany (in a very loose way), as writer Curt Siodmak had fled Germany years before and saw the turmoil of the situation inside himself. The film also introduces the now classic wolfman “Gypsy saying”: “Even a man who is pure at heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” This quotation was featured in not only this film, but four sequels and even the horror movie homage “Van Helsing” in 2004.
The Sci-Fi Era
The 1950s were a heavy blow to the horror industry. While many people will categorize a variety of alien movies as “horror”, there is definitely a blurry line between the horror and science fiction genres during this time period. So much of a blurry line, we would have to call many of these films more science fiction than horror simply based on their space themes.
Such horror films included “Plan 9 From Outer Space” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” – films where the menace was foreign rather than native. As mentioned, this space theme would today classify these films as science fiction. In a grander sense, this metaphor of foreign menaces was reflected in the Cold War of the time with McCarthyism and anti-communist propaganda. But is it horror? In my opinion, no.
Hammer Films, a Beacon of Hope in a Sea of Hopelessness
While the 1950s and 1960s were wastelands for horror films, towards the end of this time a few films did manage to slip through.
Two great actors came together to make Hammer Films a horror movie giant: Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as Dracula. Cushing might be better known today as Grand Moff Tarkin from Star Wars. Lee went on to portray Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies and Darth Tyranus in the Star Wars films. Lee has also done numerous other “evil” roles over the years. Cushing and Lee made more than 17 horror films together. Eight of the Hammer Films were Dracula stories, made between 1958 and 1974.
And Who Can Forget Vincent Price?
The other duo to watch were Vincent Price (actor) and Roger Corman (director). Price has made such an impact on horror, it is hard for most people to picture him in a role that does not involve blood or terror of some sort. Corman is much the same, making such classics as “Little Shop of Horrors” (the non-musical version) with Jack Nicholson and a variety of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations with Price. Corman and Price made eight films together between 1961 and 1965. By himself, Price made 130 films – mostly horror. In fact, his first horror role was as far back as 1939 (“Tower of London” with Boris Karloff) and his last before his death was in 1990 (Tim Burton’s “Edward Scissorhands” with Johnny Depp). While some might consider Scissorhands a stretch, the typical Frankensteinesque horror themes exist – making Price notable as probably the actor with the longest spanning horror career.
The Silver Age of Horror
The Silver Age of Horror came between the late 1970s and the late 1980s when, like the 1930s before it, another group of iconic characters was introduced to the American public. Names like Jason, Freddy, Michael Myers, Chucky, and to a lesser degree the Leprechaun became household names. The Silver Age also introduced a new horror concept: the degradation of horror into a new form of comedy.
With these characters came big names in horror: Wes Craven, John Carpenter, Clive Barker. These writers and directors are synonymous with American horror today, and while they have lost their touch (Wes Craven is washed-up, John Carpenter failed with “Vampires” and Clive Barker has dragged the Hellraiser series out too far) we still anticipate their upcoming projects.
Certain actors became stamped as horror icons, too. Robert Englund cannot escape the Freddy Krueger persona. Kane Hodder, a stunt man in the movie business for decades, is best known as Jason Voorhees. Jamie Lee Curtis has escaped her Halloween past, but still knows her roots (her mother, Janet Leigh, was the shower woman in Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, after all). Even Warwick Davis, the lovable Willow, has had more success as the Leprechaun than anywhere else.
But all good things must come to an end. Freddy has slowed his killing. Jason is wearing thin (we can only watch the same plot eleven times). And in comes the comedy. The new trend is to move from dark comedy to regular comedy. Child’s Play, which started out as a very disturbing movie of a toy against his owner (more disturbing than “Puppetmaster” but not as disturbing as “Dolls”), has become a series of humorous jokes and even caricatures of itself. We have the actress Jennifer Tilly in “Seed of Chucky” insulting her role in said film? And Leprechaun passed the pint of no return with “Leprechaun in Da Hood” (not to mention “Back 2 Da Hood”). Only Halloween seems to be remaining true to the series, but that will also have to wear thin eventually; isn’t Michael Myers more or less the same villain as Jason Voorhees, with a William Shatner mask?
The Rise of PG-13 and Horror Mediocrity
One of the worst things that happened to horror films was the increase in films produced with a PG-13 rating, most noticeably in the late 1990s and so far into the twenty-first century. This rating takes great movie ideas and dulls them into bland, forgettable waste. Such films as “Darkness Falls” are now considered good enough. But without an adult rating, the defining attributes of modern horror have been removed: excess blood, teenage sex and drug use, and completely crude language. What is the point of leading up to a grisly death scene and suddenly panning away at the last moment? While the no-show technique is wonderful for psychological horror, in straight slasher films the concept is stupid.
Another unfortunate event is the increase in computerized special effects. People seem to think if the technology is available to them they should use it. And certainly I’m not opposed to this if some effect is necessary and capable of being achieved effectively. But why add effects for no reason? Horror has used other means to get better results since the first film was shown. Make-up and pumped blood can go a long way. Ask Tom Savini – he has made a living of makeup and props for decades. Few other people in Hollywood can do what he does, and his specialty is horror. There is no need to rely on advanced technology that cannot be skillfully presented.
Asian Horror Takes Center Stage
As the title suggests, there has been a decline in American horror over the past decade. We have seen slumps before and have overcome them. But this time a new and more powerful menace has moved in: the Asian horror film. Both China and Japan have created some of the best horror films of the past five years. We have seen “The Eye”, “The Grudge”, “The Ring”, “The Untold Story” and others. The American versions have fallen flat compared to the originals (though many prefer the American Ring). We have films like “Uzumaki” that soar in their Asian counterpart and we can only hope the American film makers do not try to tarnish their beauty by re-creating them.
Do not get me wrong. I love Asian horror and gladly welcome more of it. But at the same time, it is sad to see a genre America has held on to for the past century suddenly fall like a rotten apple from the tree. Horror fans can go on with their lives, but can they maintain their national pride?
A Chance For Revival: The Splat Pack
Again, we have seen slumps before. And as before, we might come back. A few films show promise: the “Saw” series is as good as any of the Silver Age stories. While these are likely to water down as they go, they also show us that new and innovative ideas still exist in America.
In an October 2006 issue of Time, Rebecca Winters Keegan identifies a group of horror directors called “the Splat Pack” (which is a horrible moniker any way you look at it). She names them as: Leigh Whannell and James Wan, Rob Zombie, Eli Roth, Alexandre Aja, Neil Marshall and Darren Lynn Bousman. Let us examine each one.
Whannell and Wan were the geniuses behind “Saw”, a horror film that was gory, intelligent… and profitable (making $103 million). In some respects, the popularity of other horror films in the past few years owes much to “Saw”.
Rob Zombie is perhaps the most promising American director in the horror genre today. Zombie is well known in the horror subculture, having a massive collection of films and memorabilia. His other career, a rock musician, had him sampling countless horror films into his songs, songs that were i nturn based on other horror films. While “House of 1000 Corpses” can be seen as derivative of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, Zombie really shined with “The Devil’s Rejects”, a project that took the spirit of Wes Craven’s “Last House on the Left” and cranked it up a notch.
Eli Roth is another promising young man, growing up in the shadow of David Lynch. His first film, “Cabin Fever” exceeded all expectations. His sophomore effort, “Hostel”, was considered overhyped my many (myself included) but earned him praise from many mainstream outlets. His upcoming projects – especially an adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “The Box” – could be some of the most fresh and unique horror films in a generation.
Alexandre Aja came on the scene with “High Tension” and followed this up with the incredible remake of Wes Craven’s “The Hills Have Eyes”. The original was a classic many felt ought not to be tampered with, but Aja found a way to improve upon the original to such a degree that few would consider the Craven version the superior movie. Aja also adds a new dimension to the horror genre: he’s French. Picking up the slack of America’s directors is not just for Asians anymore.
Neil Marshall, the director of the cult hit “Dog Soldiers” (one of the better werewolf films ever made, which I would put alongside “Ginger Snaps”) made a name for himself with “The Descent”… giving us six girls trapped in the dark. What more would you want? Blood, you say? Oh, there will be blood.
Darren Lynn Bousman is the man behind “Saw 3”, a worthy followup to the first two “Saw” films. Actually, he not only directed the third film but wrote and directed the second. If a fourth and fifth film are made (and they likely will be), they can thank the success of Bousman, who has kept this franchise afloat.
What other films will come about? Who knows? But surely some American can face the challenge brought on by China, Japan and France.
While it remains to be seen if American horror films are dead or merely in a coma, this recession should hopefully spark interest in the classics of the horror scene. Let us never forget our history and the lost classics. In almost a contradictory way, it seems that the most likely way to inspire new greatness is through the greatness of the past. What did we do right? Take what we did right and push that limit. What did we do wrong? Scrap it. The Bronze Age might yet be to come.
Keegan, Rebecca Winters. “The Splat Pack” Time. October 30, 2006.