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A history of horror films

Parent categories: film - horror - paracinema

Is there a more maligned genre than the horror film? asks Noel O'Shea in Seminal Horror Films, 1919 - 1999

Subgenres and tropes: art horror - bio horror - body horror - erotic horror - exploitation - fantastic - freaks of nature - giallo films - gore - gothic - grindhouse - magic - mondo - monster - phantom of the opera - psychological horror - queer horror - slasher - snuff film - vampire - video nasty - werewolf - zombie

By region: American horror - European horror - Italian horror - Japanese horror

By studio: horror from Hammer studios - horror from Universal studios

Titles: Black Sunday - The Brood - The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari - Carnival of Souls - Masque of the Red Death - Night of the Living Dead - Peeping Tom - Psycho - Texas Chainsaw Massacre - Videodrome - Les Yeux sans Visage

Still from
The Company of Wolves (1984) - Neil Jordan [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]



A horror film is a film dominated by elements of horror. This film genre incorporates a number of sub-genres and repeated themes, such as slasher themes, vampire themes, zombie themes, demonic possession, alien mind control, evil children, cannibalism, werewolves, animals attacking humans, haunted houses, etc. The horror film genre is often associated with low budgets and exploitation, but major studios and well-respected directors have made intermittent forays into the genre. Some horror films exhibit a substantial amount of cross-over with other genres, particularly science fiction.

Certain stories and themes have proven popular and have inspired many sequels, remakes, and copycats. See Frankenstein, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, werewolves, and zombies. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film, Apr 2004

Horror film history

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). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Nov 2004]

30s: 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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Nov 2004]

50s: 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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Nov 2004]

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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Nov 2004]

70s-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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Nov 2004]

90s: 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".

Of popular recent horror films, only 1999's surprise independent hit The Blair Witch Project attempted straight-ahead scares, and then in the ironic context of a mockumentary, or mock-documentary.

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). --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Nov 2004]

Millennial horror

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. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horror_film [Nov 2004]

Maligned genre [...]

Is there a more maligned genre than the horror film? Any celluloid grouping more spat upon than the poor self-assuming chiller? I think not. Oh yes, they'll champion the artistry of the western, and heap praise on just about every film noir that ever darkened the heart of man, but mention your affection for the horror film and watch those ingratiating smiles develop into something more insipid, more condescending. "Horror? Pah! Where's the artistry in bloodletting? Show me the quality drama in teenagers getting decapitated left right and centre. Go on: show me"... You might as well tell 'em you love The Sound of Music... It gets worse: there's the argument that horror films are socially and morally irresponsible, even influencing some people to emulate the murderous techniques of the characters depicted on screen. This criticism is wrong; if anything, horror films have the opposite effect on intelligent minds (sick minds will commit atrocities without the aid of horror films - their decisions based on what is churning around in their already sick minds, rather than what they witness on the silver screen). Horror films provide a release for all the pent up emotion caused by modern living (and we're all prone to that). Watching horror films allows us to meet our private fears head on, share them with others in the audience, and purge the dread by confronting it. It might seem like a cliché, but there's no denying the truth of it.

See also Seminal Horror Films, 1919 - 1999 by Noel O' Shea

Italian Horror

Barbara Steele becomes trapped in a coffin in 
The Horrible Dr. Hichcock

From 1960 through 1966, Italy would create some of the finest, most atmospheric horror films ever made.

The Italian gothic horror cinema of the '60s was hypnotically beautiful. Luminous fogs rolled through graveyards. Elegant tracking shots pulled us down musty subterranean passages. Crypt doors exploded and witches were burned at the stake while they swore vengeance. With a rich, baroque visual style that recalled silent cinema, Italian gothic horror spoke of repressed desires and ominous dark powers that lurked in the shadows. --Gary Johnson http://www.imagesjournal.com/issue05/infocus.htm


"If movies are the dreams of the mass culture... horror movies are the nightmares" — Stephen King, Danse Macabre

Horror is an ancient art form. We have tried to terrify each other with tales which trigger the less logical parts of our imaginations for as long as we've told stories. From the ballads of the ancient world to modern urban myths, audiences willingly offer themselves up to sadistic storytellers to be scared witless, and they are happy to pay for the privilege. Theories abound as to why this is so; do we derive basic thrills from triggering the rush of adrenalin which fear brings, or do horror stories serve a wider moral purpose, reinforcing the rules and taboos of our society and showing the macabre fate of those who transgress?

Horror movies have long served both purposes. They deliver thrills by the hearseload, as well as telling us stories of the dark, forbidden side of life (and death). They also provide a revealing mirror image of the anxieties of their time. Nosferatu (1922) is not simply a tale of vampirism, but offers heart-rending images of a town beleaguered by premature and random deaths, echoes of the Great War and the Great Flu Epidemic fatalities. At the other end of the century Blade (1998) is not just a tale of vampirism either, but reflects a fear of the powerful yet irresponsible elements in society, echoes down the corridor indeed of the seemingly impunitive behaviour of those at the top.

Each generation gets the horror films it deserves, and one of the more fascinating aspects of the study of the genre is the changing nature of the monsters who present a threat. In the early 1940s, a world living under the shadow of Hitler's predatory tendencies identified a part-man, part-wolf whose bestial nature caused him to tear apart those who crossed his path as their boogeyman. In the 1990s however, there was no need for a part wolf component: Jonathan Doe (Se7en 1994) and Hannibal Lecter (Manhunter 1986, Silence of the Lambs 1991, Hannibal 2001) were entirely human in their calculated and stylised killing methods. As we move on into the twenty first century, the ghosts and zombies are back in vogue as Eastern and Western superstitions converge.

The best way to study films is, of course, to watch them. However, it is also important to have some sense of a film's context, both the wider socio-historical background against which it was made, and also its artistic framework. Use the menus on the left to take you to pages that will provide you with background information, and some pointers on where to investigate further. --Karina Wilson via http://www.horrorfilmhistory.com/ [May 2005]

see also: horror - history of horror films


In search of video cover artwork

Being Different (1981) - Harry Rasky [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Night of the Living Dead (1968) - George A. Romero [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
Please click the links to compare the much less imaginative DVD artwork
images sourced at Contamination-horror.co.uk

Why Contamination? When people ask you what you’re interests are, and you mention horror films, you still get those disdainful looks, even after decades of academic writing about the subject. In his book 'Horror' Mark Jancovich writes about the language used to describe the horror and porn genres as one of disease and contamination; sick, perverted and corrupt - this remains the prevailing attitude.

I also consider the genre to be contaminated, not by perversion and sickness, but by something far worse; blandness and a lack of originality. It’s not the first time however, the genre has always gone through periods of inspiration followed by remakes and parody, and I'm sure there are classics still waiting to be made. After all, film is a relatively young art-form, and the horror film is even younger.

Technically, the horror film has only existed since the 1930s and the first wave of classic Universal monster movies. These led to sequels, then parodies in the form of Abbott and Costello. The [color] remakes came from England with Hammer films in the 1950’s; concurrently a gothic revival was taking place in Italy too. Hammer films folded in the early 70’s; a time when the US independents were instigating the new rules, but British horror continued with the likes of Pete Walker and Norman J Warren. Meanwhile Italian horror went from strength to strength with a multitude of gialli, then films inspired by 1970’s US horror entries, today's filmmakers draw on the same influences. A lot has happened within 75 years or so, and one often gets the impression that it's all happened, and we're doomed to watch sequels and remakes ad infinitum. Happily something will always turn up to prove you wrong, you just need a little patience.

Oh, CONTAMINATION is also the name of a great Sci-fi/horror movie by the underrated Italian director Luigi Cozzi. -- Paul Flanagan via http://www.contamination-horror.co.uk [Feb 2006]

More covers from contaminiation: 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9

See also: cult films - video cover - album covers - horror films - Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Devil-child movies

A devil-child movie is a type of horror movie where the antagonist or anti-hero is a malicious child or child-like demon or child transformed by an evil force or something similar. For example, The Exorcist is about a young girl possessed by the Devil.

Many such movies were made in the years 1961-1981, which was precisely when Generation X was being born, but the notion of sinister innocence has intrigued people through the ages. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil-child_movies[Jan 2006]

A Brief Chronology of the Devil-Child Movie Era:

--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devil-child_movies[Apr 2004]

Horror music themes

A History of Horror (2000) - Various Artists [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]

Disc: 1
1. 1921- Nosferatu 2. 1925- The Phantom of the Opera 3. 1935- The Bride of Frankenstein 4. 1951- The Thing 5. 1955- Godzilla 6. 1958- Dracula 7. 1959- Peeping Tom 8. 1959- Horrors of the Black Museum 9. 1963- The Haunting 10. 1968- The Devil Rides Out 11. 1970- Taste the Blood of Dracula 12. 1973- The Exorcist 13. 1974- Young Frankenstein 14. 1976- The Omen

Disc: 2
1. 1976-Suspiria 2. 1978- Halloween 3. 1979- Alien 4. 1980- The Shining 5. 1980- Dressed to Kill 6. 1982- Poltergeist 7. 1984- A Nightmare on Elm Street 8. 1987- Hellraiser 9. 1990- Frankenstein Unbound 10. 1992- Bram Stroker's Dracula 11. 1999- The Haunting 12. 1999- The Sixth Sense 13. 2000- Lighthouse 14. 1999- The Ninth Gate

see also: soundtrack

Connoisseurs: Andy Black - Jørgen Riber Christensen - Carlos Clarens - Phil Hardy - V. Vale - Andrea Juno - Noel O'Shea - Pete Tombs - Stanley Wiater - the editors at Midi-Minuit Fantastique

Academic connoisseurs: Mikita Brottman - Noel Carroll - Barbara Creed - Carol Clover - Cynthia Freeland - Ken Gelder - Joan Hawkins - Steven Jay Schneider - Daniel Shaw - Donato Totaro - Linda Williams

Anthologists: Barry Keith Grant

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