A Hundred Years of Horror

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I remember when I used to travel with my family to go to my sister’s volleyball tournaments. Fatty concession food, Gatorade, and the smell of sweaty shoes hung over the gymnasium like a fog. After a particular tournament, we drove home and popped in a DVD: 2002s The Ring. Samara’s scaly, rotted face still haunts my nightmares. I was twelve years old, and I already knew what personified evil looked like. Ever since I’ve never been a fan of horror films. Life is scary enough, you know?

For an extra spooky blog post, I thought it would be fun to go through the history and influences of horror films. We’ll go through the inspiration from Gothic literature to modern day scares. Boo!

The Roots of Evil
If you grew up in the American school system, undoubtedly you read 19th-century Gothic literature. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Edgar Allen Poe’s, well, everything eked through the readership like a zombie virus. That, in turn, inspired the earliest filmmakers to incorporate the macabre into their art. Audiences were titillated at the Lumiere Brothers’ “A Spook Tale,” while Georges Méliés made what is considered the first horror film: The Manor of the Devil.

It was from the heart of a ravaged Germany after World War I that the Grandfather of horror films emerged.

German Expressionism
After The Great War, Germany was under a strict monetary bind, and there wasn’t much in the way of funding the UFA: their version of Hollywood. In the kiln of Germany, creators and collaborators explored the use of chiaroscuro, heavy shadows to convey emotion. In 1919, a film written by Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz and directed by Robert Wiene would come to be the great grandfather of all horror films: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

The heavy shadows and sharp angles were commercially and artistically successful. That success continued with one of the most famous vampire movies in cinema: F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. As hordes of German filmmakers flooded the Hollywood system, German Expressionism ran rampantly throughout mainstream films.

The Screams… The Screams!
With the advent of sound in 1927, horror films took on the artistic endeavor of incorporating screams and dialogue. As Hollywood became more inundated with Expressionist filmmakers, Universal, one of the Little Three studios, caused the first cycle of horror films: the monsters. In the 30s they produced classics such as Dracula, The Mummy, The Invisible Man, and Werewolf in London.  

RKO, a small studio in the 1940s, contracted Val Lewton to churn out horror films for small budgets. He used leftover sets, shadows, and moodiness to convey horror, and it led to the psychological horror films that we still enjoy today. Lewton’s Cat People cost only $134,000 to make but made $4 million at the domestic box office. The low-budget horror flick was an economic giant; a trend that still continues today.

During the harsh censorship of the 50s (as well as the competition between TV), horror films were regulated to B-movie status because all of the A-list talents were spent on the epics. It was also because of the fear of nuclear annihilation that horror films turned to creature features and alien flicks that heavily influenced the Pulp Science Fiction cycle. Horror came to new heights in the 1960s thanks to a certain British filmmaker: Alfred Hitchcock.

The Monsters Within
In 1960, Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological masterpiece took audiences on a journey through the mind of a madman. Norman Bates proved that monsters could dwell within us and that perhaps the greatest source of fear could come from an unseemly person. He worked audiences like puppets with his distinctive cinematic style: precision camera angles and editing conveyed the purest form of thrills.

In the late 60s, there was an obsession with the occult and the emergence of the Shark cycle combined with the new blockbuster model: Jaws by Steven Spielberg. Jaws combined the horror of the natural world with gore and psychology. It’s thrilling editing style and masterful storytelling gave way to a whole new genre of horror films while innovating a blockbuster model of the film business. Teens, especially, were entranced by the sun and blood-soaked flick.

Resurrecting Independent Horrors
In the mid-70s, production costs and new technology gave new filmmakers unique access to create their own horror stories. Heavily inspired by Hitchcock’s signature style, Halloween took the box office by storm, making over 250 times its budget. The film used incredible filmmaking instead of gratuitous gore and violence to convey frights.

The horrors in your neighborhood were a huge hook. Alongside Michael Myers came Jason in Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th and Freddie in Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. How many sequels of these films have we seen over the years? These films prove that the closer to our neighborhoods get, the more frightening they become.

Modern Horror and Zombies
Scream defined the 90s with its meta-commentary on the slasher film and the appeal of teen horror films. Even still, psychological horrors remained popular with both audiences and critics with such films as Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Se7en, The Others, and The Ring.

However, there are several horror film cycles that emerged from the 90s and 2000s: the Torture Porn, Found Footage, and the new Zombie craze. Films such as Saw and Eli Roth’s Hostel pushed the boundaries when it came to how much blood and gore could be used to frighten and terrify audiences. They spoke to how much horror humanity can do to itself.

The found footage phenomenon erupted when The Blair Witch Project hit theaters; it was also the first film to be almost entirely marketed on the internet. The visceral, nauseating camera style worked to its advantage to put the viewer in the story of the characters. Everyone remembers that haunting ending…

Now, the zombie apocalypse is in full swing. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later ushered in the resurrection of the zombie cycle with its character-driven, masterfully crafted story. The 2000s have been plagued by fears of society crumbling events or viruses, and it is most fitting that our greatest fears would be our people eating our flesh. TV has also adopted the zombie virus with hit shows such as The Walking Dead and its imitators.

 

I’m glad I did all of that homework for you. You all would have been so spooked and terrified. It wasn’t easy exploring the many-faceted beast that is the horror genre, but I discovered the reason why the genre is so popular. It’s so varied! The different filmmaking styles that can be incorporated are vast, and it’s a genre in which the filmmaker’s flourishes can be stretched and challenged. It’s difficult to elicit any emotion, especially terror. When creating, you must know where the roots of a certain genre come from, and it’s an amazing education to witness master filmmakers through the decades try and terrify their audience. Happy Halloween from everyone here at Revolution Pictures. Now, go out there and scare someone!

 

by Benton Olivares