More Than a Century of Scares

March 07, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli

When it comes to movies, what do we find frightening? And how have our tastes changed over the years regarding the genre we now label as “horror”?

To be sure, audiences in 2017 don’t react the same way they did in 1917. The reasons have as much to do with evolving mores and tastes as they do with cinema becoming commonplace. Plus, the more we become aware of real-world atrocities and ugliness, the less capability simple stories have to shock us. A worldwide loss of innocence over the last 100 years has contributed as much as any other factor to our requiring increasingly gruesome images to quench our bloodthirstiness.

The way I react to James Whale’s Frankenstein is vastly different from the way my grandfather would have reacted to it if he saw it projected theatrically in 1931. (He would have been 19 years old at the time.) I don’t know if he saw it – it never occurred to me to ask him. My impressions of Frankenstein are that it’s well-crafted, wonderfully atmospheric, and an impressive piece of filmmaking for its age and time. But words like “frightening”, “scary”, or even the relatively mild “spooky” aren’t in my lexicon where that production is concerned…but they likely would have been for a 1931 viewer. Theaters were relatively new back then. Talkies were even newer. And the experience of sitting in a darkened auditorium, surrounded by other people, watching those images unfold... It’s easy to see how something like Frankenstein could be unsettling.

Horror has been around for as long as movies have existed. The great French filmmaker Georges Melies loved horror – many of his late 19th century shorts fell into the genre: A Terrible Night, The House of the Devil, The Monster, etc. By the time the first film adaptation of Frankenstein arrived in 1910, nickelodeons and bijous had spread across the entire country. “Going to the movies” was still a new phrase but it was an immensely popular pastime both before, during, and after the first World War. And “going to the movies” sometimes meant seeing something creepy.

During the silent era, a film’s country of origin wasn’t relevant because there was no language-specific barrier. Many of the great pre-talkies were produced in Germany, beginning with 1915’s The Golem, 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, 1922’s Nosferatu, and 1924’s The Hands of Orlac. The U.S. made its bid for immortality with the likes of 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (with John Barrymore), 1923’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame (with Lon Chaney), and 1925’s The Phantom of the Opera (also with Lon Chaney). For all of the silent horror films, no quality was more important than atmosphere – something enhanced in this genre by the starkness of black-and-white. It may no longer be scary but it’s certainly eerie. The German films in particular had their roots in expressionism but even some of the American works showed inclinations in that direction, especially The Phantom of the Opera.

The arrival of sound didn’t change styles appreciably but 1930s brought the first great horror boom with Universal Pictures at the forefront. Universal’s reign in the horror genre began in 1931 with the twin releases of Frankenstein and Dracula and continued all the way through 1948’s Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, the movie that put a nail in the Golden Era of Monster Movies. Most of the films we think of as the “greats” of this period came early – the aforementioned Frankenstein and Dracula (the latter of which is grossly overrated – it’s not a very good movie by any standard), The Bride of Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, The Mummy, and The Raven. After 1935, the only true “classic” to arrive was The Wolf Man in 1941.

As popular as the Universal monster movies were during the early 1930s, they quickly lost “steam” as viewers became desensitized to the tropes of the genre. That led to the mixing and matching of monsters in a series of ever-more-preposterous tales, team-ups, and takedowns. The Ghost of Frankenstein and Son of Dracula were among the final stand-alones. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) paired not only two of Universal’s most popular monsters but two of its most famous stars: Lon Chaney Jr. (as the Wolf Man, his signature role) and Bela Lugosi (as the Frankenstein monster!). This movie’s success begat two sequels: House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula. 1944’s House of Frankenstein added Dracula (John Carradine) to the Frankenstein (Glenn Strange) and Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr.) mix, with Boris Karloff in a supporting role. Those three returned in 1945’s House of Dracula.

By the time House of Dracula left theaters, the monsters were played out. The chills they had once inspired had turned to a combination of laughter and boredom. Audiences in the early 1930s might have found Frankenstein scary but, 14 years later, the monster had lost his power to frighten. Some of that was because of changing world conditions. In 1931, no one in American knew the name of “Hitler.” By 1945, the whole world had seen what a real monster could do. Oversaturation was another issue as was the inevitable decline in script quality as each movie faced the unenviable task of topping its predecessor. (Shades of where the superhero genre is heading?) For the final hurrah of the Golden Era, Universal opted to go all-comedy. Abbott and Costello brought back all the famous Universal Monsters for one last encore. Lon Chaney Jr. made his final appearance as The Wolf Man. Bela Lugosi returned to the role of Dracula. Glenn Strange was Frankenstein’s Monster for the third time, tying him with Boris Karloff for the most number of times playing the part (Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi played it once each).

The 1950s and 1960s were lean times for American horror but the Brits picked up the slack. Hammer horror was best known for a series of “re-interpretations” of the classic monsters Universal had gotten so much mileage out of – namely Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Mummy.  Across these series, twenty films were made, about half co-starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee (Cushing as the hero and Lee as the monster). The first Hammer horror film was 1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein. Dracula (called The Horror of Dracula in the United States) followed in 1958. The final Hammer Frankenstein movie was 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell (which featured Cushing but not Lee, who only appeared in The Curse of Frankenstein). The last of the nine Dracula films was 1974’s The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (which featured Cushing but not Lee; Lee’s final appearance as Dracula was in 1973’s The Satanic Rites of Dracula).

The thing that made Hammer unique was its aesthetic – a common look and feel the company brought to all their productions. Unlike the Universal classics, which were produced under the Hays Code and were therefore limited in how graphic the violence and gore could be, the Hammer films were made outside the Code (since they were produced in the U.K.) and were able to amp up the blood and viscera to what many at the time considered to be an extreme level. (By today’s standards, they are tame.) They were also in color – while that may have dampened the powerful sense of atmosphere that infused the earlier wave of monster movies, it gave these versions a new twist that made them seem more like unique tellings than retreads. Taken together, these elements made the Hammer oeuvre more shocking than scary, even to ‘50s and ’60s audiences. And, while they started as serious horror endeavors, they (like the Universal cycle) eventually devolved into camp and silliness. Maybe that’s the trajectory for all horror – the longer a franchise keeps going, the harder it is to keep a straight face.

The ‘50s and ‘60s weren’t kind to U.S. horror. The output of American production companies during these decades was limited to a few classics like The Creature from the Black Lagoon, some silly B-movie material like The Blob, and Vincent Price vehicles like The Fly, House on Haunted Hill, and The Pit and the Pendulum. U.S. B-movie efforts during this period were invested in science fiction. With the space race heating up, people’s attentions were increasingly directed upward and movie-makers took note. During this era, however, “horror” was a code word for cheesiness and audiences at the time were no more scared by these movies than we are watching them today.

When The Exorcist was released in 1973, it was a game changer: the first truly frightening movie in decades. Audiences were freaked out. People walked out because they were too scared, too grossed-out, or a combination. Even today, 45 years later, the film retains much of its power. It’s not as breathtakingly horrifying as it was during its initial run but it’s still unnerving. The various inferior sequels did little to diminish the film’s impact. Although there were attempts at copies (The Omen movies in particular), The Exorcist didn’t spawn a subgenre.

One could argue that the slasher strain started in 1960 with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. However, the first “true” slasher film (at least insofar as we came to know them) was Tobe Hooper’s 1974 The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Although not drenched in gore the way its sequels were (at one point, the filmmakers had hoped for a PG rating), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre pioneered some slasher film conventions – most notably that of a masked/faceless stalker and the concept of teenagers in peril. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t an instant success, however, and didn’t have a strong enough push to jump-start the slasher subgenre. That happened four years later when John Carpenter released Halloween.

It’s hard to overstate Halloween’s impact on horror films of the 1980s and 1990s. Refining ingredients from Psycho and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, adding its own elements, and packaging them all together, Halloween became not only the best slasher film ever made (actually, one of the best horror films, period) but the template for everything that was to come. However, where Halloween got by with a surfeit of tension and suspense, most of the films to follow substituted extreme gore. This is where the “jump scare” was born – a tactic that quickly became overused.

The franchises born during the slasher era are well-known. The Big Three were Halloween, Friday the 13th, and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Of those three, the least ambitious was Friday the 13th; its primary goal was having a stalker eviscerate sexually promiscuous teenagers. Oddly, it was also the most successful of the three. True to the horror franchise pattern, the films got dumber as the numbers after the title got higher. Halloween engaged in alternate time line play followed by a remake. Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street eventually crossed paths before both were remade. Technically, all three of these franchises are still “active”. As recent as the beginning of 2017, there were plans for a new Friday the 13th film but it was canceled during preproduction and remains in limbo. Only Halloween appears to have a pulse. A new Halloween sequel is in pre-production and is expected to be released in October 2018. Written and directed by David Gordon Green, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, and with John Carpenter on board as a producer, creative consultant, and possible music composer, the film is being made under the Blumhouse label, which means it’s almost certainly going to happen.

The slasher genre petered out and died in the late 1980s. It received a revival in the ‘90s courtesy of Scream but the bubble burst shortly after the new millennium started as tastes in horror once again changed. Although most of the slasher films haven’t aged well, they retain the capacity for occasional chills and thrills. Yet the power they once had to get packed theater audiences screaming in chorus is long gone. The majority of the slasher subgenre can still work under the right circumstances – usually that means on a big screen in a dark room late at night. Otherwise, they’re more like cheesy relics of a recent, misguided past.