From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
- "Fear is the most powerful emotion in the human race and fear of the unknown is probably the most ancient. You're dealing with stuff that everybody has felt; from being little babies we're frightened of the dark, we're frightened of the unknown. If you're making a horror film you get to play with the audiences feelings" -- John Carpenter
Horror films are movies that strive to elicit the emotions of fear, horror and terror from viewers. Their plots frequently involve themes of death, the supernatural or mental illness. Many horror movies also include a central villain.
In horror film plots, evil forces, events, or characters, sometimes of supernatural origin, intrude into the everyday world. Horror film characters include vampires, zombies, monsters, serial killers, and a range of other fear-inspiring characters. Early horror films often drew inspiration from characters and stories from classic literature, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Later horror films, in contrast, often drew inspiration from the insecurities of life since World War Two, giving rise to the three distinct, but related, subgenres of the horror-of-personality film, the horror-of-Armageddon film, and the horror-of-the-demonic film. The last subgenre may be seen as a modernized transition from the earlier horror films, expanding on the earlier emphasis on supernatural agents that bring horror to the world.
Horror films have been criticized for their graphic violence and dismissed as low budget B-movies and exploitation films. Nonetheless, some major studios and respected directors have made forays into the genre, and more serious critics have analyzed horror films through the prisms of genre theory and the auteur theory. Some horror films incorporate elements of other genres such as science fiction, fantasy, black comedy, and thrillers.
History and milestones
The horror genre is nearly as old as film itself. The first "monster movies" were silent shorts created by film pioneer Georges Melies in the late 1890s. The earliest horror-themed feature films were created by German filmmakers in the early 1900s; the most enduring of these is probably F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu 1922, the first vampire-themed feature. Early Hollywood dramas dabbled in horror themes including versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Monster (1925) (both starring Lon Chaney, the first American horror-film movie star).
1930s: The gothic subgenre
It was in the early 1930s that American movie studios, particularly Universal Studios, created the modern horror film genre, bringing to the screen a series of successful gothic-steeped features including Dracula, Frankenstein (both 1931), and The Mummy (1932) (all of which spawned numerous sequels). These films, while designed to thrill, also incorporated more serious elements, and were influenced by the Freudian concepts that were gaining currency at the time. Actors, notably Boris Karloff, began to build careers around the genre.
1950s: Cold War terror and the pull of science fiction
In the nuclear-charged atmosphere of the 1950s the tone of horror films shifted away from the gothic and towards the modern. A seemingly endless parade of low-budget productions featured humanity overcoming threats from Outside: alien invasions, and deadly mutations to people, plants, and insects. During this time the horror and sci-fi genres were often interchangeable. These films provided ample opportunity for audience exploitation, with gimmicks such as 3-D and "Percepto" (producer William Castle's electric-shock technique used for 1959's The Tingler) drawing audiences in week after week for bigger and better scares. The better horror films of this period, including The Thing From Another World (1951; attributed on screen to Christian Nyby but widely considered to be the work of Howard Hawks) and Don Siegel's Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) managed to channel the paranoia of the Cold War into atmospheric creepiness without resorting to exploitation. Filmmakers would continue to merge elements of science fiction and horror, notably in Ridley Scott's Alien (1979).
The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the rise of studios centered specifically around horror. Notable were British production company Hammer Films, which specialized in bloody remakes of classic horror stories often starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, and American International Pictures (AIP), which made a series of Edgar Allan Poe themed films starring Vincent Price. These sometimes-controversial productions paved the way for more explicit violence in both horror and mainstream films.
1960s: Psychological horror and the Hitchcock legacy
Later in the 1960s the genre moved towards non-supernatural psychological horror, with thrillers such as Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) using all-too-human monsters rather than supernatural ones to scare the audience. Michael Powell's Peeping Tom was a notable example of this genre. Psychological horror films would continue to appear sporadically with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs a later highlight of the subgenre.
1970s-80s: Disasters, the occult and the walking dead
In the late 1960s and 1970s a public fascination with the occult fed and was fed by a series of serious, supernatural-themed, often explicitly gory horror movies. Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) was a critical and popular success and laid the groundwork for the seminal horror film The Exorcist (1973) (directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the novel). Far from exploitation, these films incorporated subtext and symbolism, and had production values equal to any serious film of the time. The Exorcist spawned sequels and imitators, notably The Omen (1976) and its sequels.
The genre fractured somewhat in the late 1970s, with mainstream Hollywood focusing on disaster movies such as The Towering Inferno and blockbuster thrillers such as Jaws while independent filmmakers upped the ante with disturbing and explicit gore-fests such as Wes Craven's Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).
It was during the seventies that horror author Stephen King first came on the film scene. Adaptations of virtually all of his books have made the screen, beginning with Brian DePalma's adaptation of King's first published novel, Carrie 1976). The 1980s got off with a bang when Stanley Kubrick, one of the most highly-regarded film directors of all time, released The Shining, another Stephen King adaptation combining elements of art film, psychological thriller, and splatter movie.
Reincarnation was also a subject of horror films, such as Robert Wise's 1977 United Artists film Audrey Rose, which dealt with a man who claims his daughter is the reincarnation of another dead person.
In 1978, the prototypical slasher movie, John Carpenter's Halloween, debuted to great popular success. An effective and atmospheric shocker, Halloween introduced the teens-threatened-by-superhuman-evil theme that would be copied in dozens of lesser, increasingly violent movies throughout the 1980s including the long-running Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street series, as well as Fatal Attraction, and several, often far-flung, sequels to Halloween itself.
George Romero's groundbreaking zombie series spawned three decades: Romero introduced the modern zombie drama in 1968 with the low-budget shocker Night of the Living Dead; he later took advantage of the '70s horror-film boom to create a sequel, Dawn of the Dead (1978) and revisited the formula in 1985 with Day of the Dead. The themes of mass conformity and racism were staples of each film.
A key example of the supernatural in 1980s movies is 1982's Poltergeist (directed by Tobe Hooper, who previously directed Texas Chainsaw Massacre), dealing with a family who live in a house that unknown to them is on the site of a former cemetery, thereby causing evil forces to kidnap youngest daughter Carol Anne. Many sequels and a television series followed.
1990s: Was the genre dead, or just sleeping?
With seemingly nowhere left to go in the realm of explicit violence, English language horror movies turned to self-mocking irony and outright parody in the 1990s. Wes Craven's Scream movies featured teenagers who were fully aware of and often made reference the history of horror movies, and mixed ironic humor with the shocks. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead films both parodied and advanced the zombie genre. The form of comedy that uses gruesome horror elements has been dubbed by some as "splatterstick".
However, the international success of Hideo Nakata's Ringu in 1997 launched a revival of serious horror filmmaking in Japan leading to such films as Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse and Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on. Other advances in horror have been made through Japanese animation (for example gruesome 'hentai' animation).
Early horror entries in the 2000s have been a mixed bag of teen exploitation (such as the Final Destination movies) and more serious attempts at mainstream horror, notably the horror-suspense films of M. Night Shyamalan and Gore Verbinski's remake of Ringu, The Ring. Also, there was a revival of classic horror characters from previous decades. Some notable box office revivals, include the main villains of Freddy vs. Jason, Chucky from the "Child's Play" series in "Seed of Chucky", the monsters in Van Helsing, Michael Myers from the "Halloween" series in "Halloween: Resurrection", and the prequel to the "The Exorcist", called Exorcist: The Beginning. In addition, there were some remakes of previous successes such as Dawn of the Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Notable horror film directors include:
- Dario Argento
- Mario Bava
- John Carpenter
- Roger Corman
- Wes Craven
- David Cronenberg
- Terence Fisher (directed for Hammer Films)
- Lucio Fulci
- Alfred Hitchcock
- Tobe Hooper
- F. W. Murnau
- Hideo Nakata
- George A. Romero
- Leslie Stevens
- James Whale
Notable horror film actors include:
- Lon Chaney, Jr.
- Jamie Lee Curtis
- Peter Cushing
- Robert Englund
- Boris Karloff
- Christopher Lee
- Peter Lorre
- Bela Lugosi
- Donald Pleasance
- Vincent Price
- Barbara Steele
Notable horror films include:
- Angel Heart
- The Blair Witch Project
- Bride of Frankenstein
- The Creature from the Black Lagoon
- Dawn of the Dead
- Day of the Dead
- Evil Dead
- The Exorcist
- Fatal Attraction
- The Fly
- Friday the 13th
- The Haunting
- Last House on the Left
- The Mummy
- Night of the Living Dead
- A Nightmare On Elm Street
- The Omen
- The Ring/Ringu
- The Silence of the Lambs
- The Snake Pit
- The Thing (1951 & 1982)
- The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
- The Wolf Man
- Fear Dot Com