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And now for something completely different

A history of horror in film

People have always enjoyed the thrill of feeling afraid as a form of entertainment. You only have to think of the monsters and ghouls passed down from the Ancient Greek mythology and medieval fables to know that this is the case.

The first horror films of the silent era were inspired by gothic literature which had started in the 1700s with its own brand of ghosts, bats, murderers and demons and was later heavily popularised by writers  Mary Shelly, author of  Frankenstein, Bram Stoker author of  Dracula and Edgar Allen Poe with his stories: The Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, to name but a few. The name for this style of literature derived from the gothic style buildings castles and dungeons in which their stories played out.

It wasn’t until after WW1 that horror took off and it did so amidst the ashes of a war ravaged Germany.  Under crippling sanctions from the allies – the war reparations – Germany lived  in an imposed cultural vacuum and it was from this no-man’s land in which the country was cut off from the influence of Hollywood that a cottage industry with a unique style known as German Expressionism emerged. Its key feature was an emphasis of expression over depictions of reality and was visually defined by bizarre camera angles, distorted shapes and heavy shadowing. The most famous example is The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. The adage ‘desperation is the mother of invention’ couldn’t be more apt. The studio was so strapped for cash that most of the stage sets were hand painted lending it its bizarre and over stylised setting.

Despite steady streams of German cinema goers escaping from the grimness of life, the industry struggled to make an income. But once sanctions were lifted and Hollywood took a keen interest, the studio gradually dispersed as much of the German talent flocked to US instead and  German Expressionism as an art movement ended in 1933 the same year that Hitler came to power.
The arrival of sound marked a major step change  for horror films as audiences could be startled by the sound of piercing screams, howls and racing heartbeats. Universal studios were quick to exploit this and launched a gothic horror cycle in the 1930s with films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and the Invisible Man.

 The 1940s, on the other hand, saw a dearth in the production of horror films. The war effort had kicked off and the genre was unfortunately starting to lose its way. Films parodied earlier successes such as The Invisible Man Returns and Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man.   Exceptions included Cat People, which although still in the  B-movie  category, was a precursor to the psychological thrillers which were to become so popular with later audiences.

It was in the 1950s that the horror genre took a different and rather interesting twist. In the post WW2 era of the Soviet-American arms race the industry tapped into people’s most prevalent fears and thrilled them with nuclear, mutant and bogey man invasion.  Think Godzilla, It came from Beneath the Sea, Forbidden Planet and the Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a season of pulp science fiction in fact which appealed heavily to the teenagers of the time.

The first “slasher movie’’ is said to be   British director Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom made in 1962 but sadly it cost him dearly.  Hammer Film Productions on the other hand which had started in 1957 were a success – happily hamming their way through reboots of Universal’s gothic monsters but with the addition of blood, sweat and gore. Films included The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula with actors Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. It was at this time that across the pond, director  Alfred Hitchcock started to emerge entertaining cinema audiences with a  more considered and sophisticated brand of horror known as the  ‘thriller’ – heavy on psychological torment such as in Psycho and The Birds. Hitchcock’s choice of cinematography still owed a debt to German expressionism. The style was also an inspiration to Tim Burton.

Horror films of the 1970s and 1980s were big on the supernatural and the occult. The Exorcist and the Omen may have taken inspiration from the success of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby.  Another contributor to the genre was Stephen King with the film adaptations of his novels: Carrie and The Shining.  Besides the spirit world, horror films also covered real life societal concerns such as in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre which was based on serial killer Ed Gein and referenced the Vietnam war and there was also a poke at consumerism with director George A Romero’s “splatter” horror film, The Dawn of the Dead. A steady cycle of slasher films ensued with Halloween and a Nightmare on Elm street – a running theme ever since.

The beginning of the 1990s saw critical acclaim for The Silence of the Lambs and the decade closed with two popular hits The Sixth Sense and The Blair Witch Project. Sandwiched in between were Scream which gained huge commercial success.  However some critics have said that horror of the 90s had to a greater extent been sidelined by the computer generated special effects afforded to the science fiction and fantasy films of the time.

The 2000s has been a mix of remakes of old classics like Friday the 13th, Halloween and Dawn of the Dead and the emergence in the US of “torture porn”- low on plotline and high on gratuitous dismemberment of random body parts alongside innovative films such as Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and JA Bayona’s The Orphanage.

An interesting and perhaps even unsettling thought to leave you with is that horror in recent years has become more popular amongst female audiences then male.  Does this surprise you?



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