& Demons: A Short History of the Horror Film
By Astrid Bullen
Nosferatu (1922), the first full-length
Is there a genre more criticized than the horror film? Not bloody likely.
There's the argument that horror films are socially and morally
irresponsible, even influencing some people to imitate the brutal
methods of the killers portrayed on screen. Horror films actually
have the opposite effect on normal people - sick minds will commit
Watching horror films lets us encounter our
secret fears, share them with other viewers, and eliminate the
terror by meeting it head-on.
is almost as old as cinema itself -the silent short film Le
Manoir du Diable directed by Georges Mèliès
in 1896 was the first horror movie and the first vampire flick.
The movie only lasted two minutes, but audiences loved it, and
Mèliès took pleasure in giving them even more devils
In the early
1900's German filmmakers created the first horror-themed feature
films, and director Paul Wegener enjoyed great success with his
version of the old Jewish folk tale Der
Golem in 1913 (which he remade – to even greater
success - in 1920). This fable about an enormous clay figure,
which is brought to life by an antiquarian and then fights against
its forced servitude, was a clear precursor to the many monster
movies that flourished in Hollywood during the Thirties.
The most enduring
early German horror film is probably F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu
(1922), the first feature-length vampire movie. But one movie
paved the way for the 'serious' horror film - and art cinema in
general - Robert Wiene's work of genius, The
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, still held up as a model
of the potent creativity of cinema to this day.
Hollywood drama dabbles in horror themes including versions of
Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) starring Lon Chaney,
the first American horror-film movie star.
It was in
the early 1930's that Universal Studios created the modern horrorfilm
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.
No other studio had as much success with the genre (even if some
of the films made at Paramount and MGM were better).
In the nuclear-charged
atmosphere of the 1950's the tone of horror films shifted away
from the gothic and towards the modern. Aliens took over the local
cinema, if not the world, and they were not at all interested
in extending the tentacle of friendship. Humanity had to overcome
endless threats from Outside: alien invasions, and deadly mutations
to people, plants, and insects. Two of the most popular films
of the period were The
Thing From Another World (1951) and Invasion
of the Bodysnatchers (1956).
became a lot more lurid - and gorier - in the late Fifties as
the technical side of cinematography became easier and cheaper.
This era saw the rise of studios centered exclusively on horror,
particularly British production company Hammer
Films, which focused on bloody remakes of traditional
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.
1960's saw the release of two films that sought to close the gap
between the subject matter and the viewer, and involve the latter
in the reprehensible deeds shown on screen. One was Michael Powell's
Tom, the other was a very low-budget film called
both using all-too-human monsters rather than supernatural ones
to scare the audience.
Baby began ringing tills in the late Sixties, horror
film budgets rose significantly, and many top names jumped at
the chance to show off their theatrical skills in a horror pic.
By that time, a public fascination with the occult led to a series
of serious, supernatural-themed, often explicitly gruesome horror
Exorcist(1973) broke all records for a horror
film, and led to the commercial success of The Omen.
In 1975 Jaws,
directed by a young Steven Spielberg, became the highest grossing
film ever. The genre fractured somewhat in the late 1970's, with
mainstream Hollywood focusing on disaster movies such as The
Towering Inferno while independent filmmakers came up with
disturbing and explicit gore-fests such as Tobe Hooper's The
Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
...Three student filmmakers disappear in the woods...
introduced the teens-threatened-by-superhuman-evil theme that
would be copied in dozens of increasingly violent movies throughout
the 1980's including the long running Friday the 13th
and A Nightmare on Elm Street series. Horror movies turned
to self-mocking irony and horror
movie spoofs in the 1990's - the teenagers in Scream
often made reference to the history of horror movies. Only 1999's
surprise independent hit The
Blair Witch Project attempted regular scares.
So go ahead,
take a stroll through these favourite horror movies of all time.
But pick your way very carefully, this walk is not for the faint
of heart. And if you happen to hear what sounds like some subdued
whispering or soft creepy grating sounds, just pay no attention
to it. It's probably only the wind...
Astrid Bullen is a freelance writer and movie buff living in St.