Scary Movies

October 31, 2004
A thought by James Berardinelli

Not everyone loves scary moves, but most people do. This isn't a new phenomenon, although the genre commonly referred to as "horror" has changed radically since our great-grandparents hunkered down in theater seats. This brief essay is not in any way intended to be a comprehensive look at monster movies and slasher flicks, but it should serve as a scattershot overview of 80 years of "boo!" moments and blood-curdling screams.

With apologies to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) was probably the first "true" horror movie (and was successfully remade in 1979 by Werner Herzog). Ripped off from Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nosferatu was, for its time, a scary experience. Max Schrek's Count Orlock, with his bald pate, razor-sharp fangs, and shambling gait, is still creepy to behold, although the film in which he makes his appearance has lost much of its punch. Nosferatu is still an important and entertaining movie, but it is too tame and quaint to frighten today's viewers the way it did those in the early 1920s.

1925 also saw the first screen version of The Phantom of the Opera (with Lon Chaney Sr. behind the memorable mask). A favorite of movie-goers, this has since been re-made twice (in 1943 and 1962), and is about to undergo a cinematic face-lift as Joel Schumacher adapts the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for the screen. Odd that a story generally regarded as being in the horror genre should end up as a musical.

The Universal Golden Era of Monsters began in the 1930s with the double-barreled release of Frankenstein and Dracula, and continued for over a decade, until the overloaded sequels (some of which featured all of the Big Three - Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, and The Wolf Man) became so campy that audiences were laughing instead of screaming. (In fact, their final appearance together was in 1948's Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, an outright spoof.) The best of these films were the early ones, with special mention going to James Whale's Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Dracula has its share of boosters (although I am not among them), as does The Wolf Man (a late-comer from 1941). All three introduced iconic monsters: Boris Karloff's flat-topped creature, Bela Lugosi's suave vampire, and Lon Chaney's tortured werewolf. Like Nosferatu, these films continue to entertain and (in some cases) amuse, but they have long since ceased to terrify. I first saw all of the great Universal monster movies when I was 7 or 8 years old, and, while I thought they were "cool," I can assure you that at no time did I feel like hiding behind the sofa.

The next wave of monster movies started in 1957, when a British company named Hammer began its own series of films, featuring the inimitable duo of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in versions of Frankenstein and Dracula. 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein was first, with Lee (who would always play the heavy) as the Creature and Cushing (the good guy) as Baron Frankenstein. A year later, Lee became Dracula and Cushing accepted the role of Van Helsing for Dracula, and the Hammer era was off and running. Between 1957 and 1972, Hammer produced well over a dozen highly regarded horror films, many featuring Lee as Dracula. But there was also room for mummies, werewolves, and other assorted "things that go bump in the night."

The Hammer era had ended by the time that my wife's personal "creepiest horror film" was released. Arriving in theaters with little fanfare, The Wicker Man has since become something of a cult classic. Starring Lee and Edward Woodward (who would later become known to American audiences as "The Equalizer"), this is the kind of movie that, once seen, is impossible to forget. Until the '70s, horror films were generally synonymous with monster movies, but that began to change with films like The Wicker Man. This is psychological horror, and the monsters are human.

Before skipping ahead to 1978, the year American movies reclaimed the horror leadership from the Brits, it is necessary to flash-back to 1960 and a "little" movie called Psycho. One of Alfred Hitchcock's best-known efforts, Psycho was also the only true horror film directed by the Master of Suspense. Psycho became the inspiration and blueprint for countless movies, although most of them didn't start showing up until the late 1970s and 1980s.

If Psycho was the granddaddy of the slasher/splatter genre, then Halloween was the father. The low-budget creation of John Carpenter and Debra Hill, Halloween not only was an unbelievable financial success, but it spawned a deluge of clones and copycat movies. But Halloween remains unique - an almost bloodless affair that relies on tension and shocks to propel the audience along on a breathless ride. Despite being 25 years old, it is just as scary today as when it was first released. Halloween is one of a few movies to work as well on a visceral level as on an intellectual one.

Halloween sequels followed, of course. The first one hit the screens in 1981; the most recent is only two years old. None of the seven follow-ups were especially good. The best two of a bad lot were #4 (The Return of Michael Myers) and #7 (H20). Not to be seen under any circumstances are #3 (The Season of the Witch, which has almost nothing to do with the other movies) and #6 (The Curse of Michael Myers). The other three vary from passable to almost unwatchable (although #2 stands up pretty well as an unintentional comedy). But if you're looking for chills, the original Halloween is all you need.

It would be impossible to list even a fraction of the slasher/splatter titles of the 1980s, so I'll concentrate on the "Big Three." The first leg of that triangle is Halloween, which started it all. However, it took Friday the 13th to refine the formula. What Friday the 13th lacked in plot and character development (two strengths of Halloween), it made up for in gore. To date there have been 11 Friday the 13ths, and, while I can't really recommend any of them, I will admit that there's a certain camp value in seeing teenagers get sliced and diced by a guy in a hockey mask.

The best premise for a horror series belongs to Wes Craven's 1984 A Nightmare on Elm Street. An excellent and creepy motion picture, this one introduces Freddy Krueger, the nightmarish demon who inhabits dreams. As with the Halloween movies, the first is the best, although the Nightmare series never sunk to the depths of its contemporaries. There have been eight excursions to Elm Street, and, while installments #2, #5, and #6 are nothing to write home about, #3 and #4 are surprisingly enjoyable, and #7 Wes Craven's New Nightmare) is the best sequel any of the Big Three turned out. Nightmare #8 is also Friday the 13th #11, in which Freddy tangles with Jason (in the appropriately named Freddy vs. Jason). It's a delight for slasher buffs, but not much of a horror movie.

By the late 1980s, horror movies were dead. The moratorium would be short-lived, however. The revival came in 1996, courtesy of Wes Craven and Halloween. Scream played off of the clich├ęs of the genre (and Halloween in particular, which was explicitly referenced), doing so using a smart screenplay, inspired direction from Craven, and a winning performance by Neve Campbell. The movie was a success, and, predictably, a new influx of slasher/horror movies began. (In an ironic twist, Scream led to the revival of the Halloween series. H20 hit screens in the wake of Scream-mania.)

A couple of other films deserve some sort of mention before I wrap this up. Ridley Scott's Alien, despite bearing a science fiction label, is really a horror film, or, as it has been called, a "haunted house in space." Alien is a pretty scary movie, and, despite having been made around the same time as Halloween, it still causes audiences to flinch and gasp. (I have seen the "chest burster" scene about a dozen times, and it has never ceased to cause a reflexive shudder.)

Then there's the "love it or hate it" The Blair Witch Project. I would rank this alongside Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street among the scariest movies I have ever seen. I realize that Blair Witch doesn't work for everyone (and I don't think the sequel works for anyone), but, for those who are able to fall under its spell, the experience can vary from simply creepy to downright terrifying.

I could go on. There are the Evil Dead movies, which mix horror and comedy, and feature one of the most beloved performances ever from a horror series (by Bruce Campbell). There are George A. Romero's Dead films, which have single-handedly defined the zombie genre. There are ghost stories, like The Sixth Sense and Stir of Echoes. And I haven't forgotten Leatherface (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Pinhead (Hellraiser), Chucky (Child's Play), or the Candy Man (Candyman). And so on... And, if you want to go further afield in the monster movie arena, you'll run into King Kong, Godzilla, and their pals. By now, I'm sure you get the picture. So if I didn't mention your favorite horror film/monster movie, please don't send me an e-mail complaining. There are far more titles missing from this column than are here, but for someone looking for something scary to watch, hopefully I have at least inspired an idea or two.