Horror is in many ways the purest genre, whilst it may overlap with other genres and have many sub-genres, some dig into your subconscious, whilst others are happy to just make you jump or disgust you with gore all horror movies have the same purpose and addenda, to scare the shit out of you!
Like many other art forms movies and particular horror movies often follow trends that change over time. The great thing is the way movies can use or ignore what has gone before to follow their own path. In this article I have attempted to chart the evolution of trends in horror movies and my favourite movies that go with them.
The Silent Era
Nosferatu (1922): Directed by F.W. Murnau, this silent German movie set the benchmark for vampire movies. The names are changed to protect the innocent filmmakers from breach of copyright, but the movie otherwise follows the basic story of Dracula. Max Schreck plays Graf Orlok aka Nosferatu is Dracula in all but name. Interestingly it is the first time vampires were killed by sunlight, a characteristic that has appeared in most vampire movies since. Not to be confused with the 1979 remake directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski. Also check out Shadow of the Vampire (2000) for a great fictionalised account of the making of the movie, with a twist.
King Kong (1933): For me there are two classic monster movies: Ishiro Honda’s Gojira aka Godzilla (1954) uses a man in a rubber suit and a subtext warning against the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. Over a decade earlier King Kong utilised stop motion animation to create the most memorable monster. Famed for its Empire State Building finale and the presence of “scream queen” Fay Wray. Even at an early age the thing that struck me about the movie is the way the boundaries between heroes and villains easily blur. Copied and remade but never equalled.
Bride of Frankenstein (1935): Frankenstein (1931) was a great movie, but Bride of Frankenstein was even better, answering the age old question “what is the best sequel ever made”. Both movies were directed by English filmmaker James Whale who took the idea of a masterpiece to heart, having taken the genre as far as he could, he didn’t make another horror movie. The movie is a perfect blend of horror, action and comedy that isn’t afraid to make its monster the hero and not the villain. Horror movies don’t get much better than this, movies don’t get much better than this!
Les diaboliques (1955): Kubrick and Hitchcock both made supremely good examples of psychological thrillers but Henri-Georges Clouzot’s French thriller Les diaboliques is probably the best example. A meek wife conspires to kill her husband with an unlikely accomplice, her husbands mistress. After the murder is committed things take a strange turn. A much copied movie (including a terrible remake) and imitated movie is capped by a wonderfully ambiguous ending.
Post War/Cold War Paranoia
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956): Directed by Don Siegel (yes Dirty Harry Don Siegel) Invasion of the Body Snatchers tells the story of a small-town whose population is being replaced by emotionless alien duplicates. With a subtext full of cold war paranoia the movie is genuinely frightening, not through cheep scares but through a sense of inevitability, dread and helplessness that is created. The movie has been remade numerous times, only 1978 version starring Donald Sutherland (and featuring a cameo from Kevin McCarthy, the star of the original movie) lives up to the original.
Dracula (1958): Hammer were the mainstay of British cinema for many years and possibly the greatest name in horror, they created a unique moment in film history that has had a lasting effect on horror. My personal favourite of their movies were the Dracula series. They were not the most faithful to Bram Stokers novel instead taking aspects of the novel, previous movies and stage plays as well as some of its own ideas. It was directed by Hammers best director Terence Fisher but the real victory of the movie is its star, the greatest actor to take on the cape and fangs of Dracula: Christopher Lee. There were numerous sequels, although they all have some merit, only the first sequels Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966) (also directed by Fisher) comes close to the original.
The Modern Horror
Psycho (1960): When did the modern age of Horror begin? Possibly with George A. Romero’s reinvention of zombie in Night of the Living Dead (1968) or John Carpenter’s reinvention of the slasher movie, Halloween (1978), for me the first modern horror was also the first slasher films, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). As much a thriller as a horror, the scariest thing about the movie is how down to earth and realistic it is, unlike monster movies this could really happen. And only Hitchcock has the balls to kill his star half way through the movie.
The Exorcist (1973): The perfect horror movie, I can think of mo way this movie could be improved upon. William Friedkin’s movie is compelling and terrifying in equal measure. The photography is atmospheric and sublime. The acting economic and believable. Copied many but no film in the genre has come close.
Suspiria (1977): I don’t think the phrase spaghetti horror was ever used but I like it so I am claiming it for European horror movies of the 70s and 80s! After a successful career making influential thrillers, Italian director Dario Argento turned his attention to violent supernatural horror/thrillers like Suspiria. Often criticised for style over substance Suspiria and Argento films on the whole are bloody, violent and frightening, what more could you ask for in a horror movie. Whatever you thoughts its hard to argue with Argento’s credentials as the master of European horror.
The End Of The World As We Know It.
Dawn of the Dead (1978): As the world is overrun by a zombie outbreak four people turn to what they know in order to hang on and try to survive. With a subtext about the evils of modern consumerism not only is it a terrifying display of desperation but a damming indictment on society. I suggest that Bride of Frankenstein is one of the best movies ever made and the best sequel ever made, Dawn of the dead gives it a run for its money on both counts.
The Slasher Movie
Halloween (1978): coming nearly two decades after Psycho the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween led to many more slasher movies including the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. They are amongst the most enduring horror movies with sequels and remakes still in cinemas more than thirty years later. With a seemingly relentless killer that can come at you at any time from anywhere and who just won’t die the slasher movie isn’t for the faint hearted. In many ways the essence of horror is captured in these movies.
Alien (1979): The Quatermass movies of the 50’s and 60’s are classics of the genre but Alien is a whole different level. When you strip away the setting the movie is basically a haunted house horror but supreme direction, an iconic monster make as much a horror as any other movie in the list. There have been other great examples such as Lifeforce (1985) and Event Horizon (1997) but one thing they don’t have is Ripley, cinemas greatest heroine.
An American Werewolf in London (1981): as mentioned above James Whale incorporated comedy ionto his horror movies in the 30’s but the true master of the genre is John Landis. With An American Werewolf in London he created not only the greatest comedy horoor of all time but also possibly the best Werewolf movie ever. A decade later he did it all again with vampires with (the less successful but also great) Innocent Blood (1992).
Scream (1996): Halloween reinvented the slasher movie, a subgenre of movies that went on to eat itself with numerous remakes, sequels and rip-offs. Scream came to the table with a satirical approach and a knowing nod to what had gone before, a clever blend of irony and social commentary that doesn’t forget it’s a horror movie. The film has a certain credibility lent to it by director Wes Craven, the man behind A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of the aforementioned slasher movies. A third sequel on its way next year, its will be interesting to see how relevant it is today.
The Asian Invasion
Ringu aka The Ring (1999): The plot is simple, there is little in the way of special effects but Hideo Nakata’s Ringu changed the world of horror cinema. Based on a novel that in turn was based on a Japanese folk tale it has been remade and copied by Hollywood countless times in the past decade. The story surrounds a videotape that kills whomever views it a week later. I am rarely scared by a movie but with its spooky atmosphere and disturbing visuals this one really got to me.
The Blair Witch Project (1999): Italian horror Cannibal Holocaust (1980) predates The Blair Witch Project by nearly two decades but the later movie found its way to the mainstream. Presented as a documentary pieced together from “recovered footage” the movie tells the story of three young student filmmakers who go missing whilst shooting a documentary about a local legend known as The Blair Witch. After an inical lull the genre is taking off with movies like [Rec] (2007), Paranormal Activity (2007) and Cloverfield (2008).
The Devil’s Rejects (2005): “Torture porn” is basically a reinvention of the splatter movie. As censorship relaxes sadism combined with nudity, torture and sometimes mutilation come together to create this new subgenre. Although Saw and Hostel (and their sequels) better represent the genre, The Devil’s Rejects is a more compelling movie. Directed by Rob Zombie, it is a sequel that is considerably better than the original movie (2003’s House of 1000 Corpses). Like other movies of the genre it replaces genuine scares with gore resulting a film that isn’t as scary as classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
Eden Lake (2008): The hoodie is a is a sweatshirt with a hood but certain right wing newspapers in the UK will have you believe they will be the downfall of society. This paranoia has led to a series of nasty little movies, most famously last years Harry Brown and most recently F, but the best of them is Eden Lake, the story of a young couple whose romantic weekend camping at an Idyllic remote lake is ruined by a group of “hoodie” kids.
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