Celluloid Screams: Exposed's History of Horror
Celluloid Screams returns to the spooky Showroom cinema this weekend, for another horror film festival to get your fangs into.
There are movies old and new from all over the world, as well as a swarm of short films and special guests. To get you up to speed with the genre, Exposed gives you a history of horror.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the very first horror movie, but a common answer is 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. German Expressionist movies like this proved enormously influential, scaring cinema goers in silent black and white. Perhaps the most famous of these films is 1922’s Nosferatu , the very first vampire movie. Almost a century later came Twilight , and Dracula spun in his grave-bed.
Dracula rose once again in 1931, as one of Universal’s classic monsters. Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man also provided the American studio with plenty of hits, with actors such as Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, and Lon Chaney, Jr. chewing the scenery in plenty of make-up. The Brits picked up the bloody baton in the 1950s and 60s, when Hammer Studios unleashed Christopher Lee’s Dracula more times than you can shake a crucifix at.
While Hammer were churning out sequels, one man set out to make moviegoers terrified of showers. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is one of the earliest slasher movies and is as masterfully frightening today as it was in 1960. Hitch’s influence can be seen in other classics of the genre such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now , both showing as part of the Showroom’s Gothic season – miss them at your peril.
Then came the counter-cultural movement in the USA, and with it a new-wave of horror films bolder than ever. In 1968 George A. Romero invented the modern zombie with Night of the Living Dead , a black and white surprise hit with scathing satirical undertones. Wes Craven made his debut with 1972’s The Last House on the Left , a vicious political shocker which remains staggeringly hard to watch to this day. Meanwhile Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre saw a group of teenagers butchered by a chainsaw-wielding maniac wearing a mask of human skin. And you think you’ve got problems…
The genre’s capacity for political substance was also mined in the sub-genre which would become known as body horror, pioneered by the King of Venereal Horror David Cronenberg. The Canadian auteur’s obsession with sex, flesh and technology were brought grotesquely to life in weird classics such as The Fly and Videodrome . His controversial Crash remains banned in Westminster to this day. John Carpenter got in on the visceral action with 1982’s The Thing, while Ridley Scott’s Alien crossed body horror with slasher flicks… in space.
In 1973 a horror movie hit the headlines hard, with reports of audience members vomiting, fainting and running straight from the cinema and into the nearest church. The Exorcist became the first horror film to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, thanks to the crazed direction of Academy Award winner William Friedkin. In 1980 another giant of Hollywood entered the genre with an adaptation of The Shining. Stanley Kubrick’s ruthless perfectionism made Stephen King’s novel into a cinematic classic. Another great King adaptation is Brian de Palma’s Carrie , a 1976 masterpiece which definitely doesn’t require a remake. The remake is out next month.
The genre may have begun to garner critical acclaim and awards recognition, but below the surface remained a slew of cheap shockers which were altogether less respectable. Sam Raimi’s cabin-in-the-woods splatter classic The Evil Dead lay at the heart of the UK’s Video Nasties scandal, becoming one of 72 movies banned on video under the 1984 Video Recordings Act. Today, these films – with names like Cannibal Holocaust and SS Experiment Camp – have mostly been released uncut, with much of the evidence used to support the ban shown to be erroneous.
Low-budget horrors were faring much better in the States, with John Carpenter’s Halloween surprising in the cinema and at the box office and kicking off a cycle of copycat slasher flicks. As anyone who’s seen Scream 4 will know, the original slasher was 1960’s Peeping Tom , predating Psycho by about a month . 1974’s Black Christmas is probably the first archetypal slasher, but it was Halloween that proved epochal, and spawned a string of crappy sequels. In 1980 Friday the 13th copied it beat for beat, and spawned a string of crappy sequels. Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street was a menacing mixture of exploitation thrills and intelligent surrealism, and spawned a string of crappy sequels.
When the Elm Street franchise finally ran out of steam, Wes Craven started to satirize the sub-genre that he’d played such a crucial part in creating. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare saw Freddy Krueger terrorising the cast of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street , in a smartly self-aware piece of genre cinema. But it was his modern classic Scream that would define post-modern horror, populating horror films with people who have actually seen horror films. Joss Whedon recently made his contribution with The Cabin in the Woods , which he described as “ a very loving hate letter” to the genre. Whatever happened to that Joss Whedon anyway?
One of the defining genre flicks of the 1990s was surely The Blair Witch Project , a no-budget handheld-shot indie that many believed to be real footage – mainly because of a series of clever marketing tricks which included listing the actors on IMDb as “missing, presumed dead”. The found footage sub-genre dates back to 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust via The Last Broadcast in 1998. A decade later, Oren Peli realised he could make millions by filming inside his massive house without even having to bother writing a script, and so the Paranormal Activity franchise was born.
Two horror franchises commercially dominated the genre in the first decade of the 21 st century, both causing controversy thanks to their scenes of graphic torture. James Wan’s Saw was a neat but grimy thriller which alongside Eli Roth’s Hostel started a sub-genre disparagingly labelled torture-porn. As that decade ended and this one began, the trend was replaced by tediously unoriginal but financially successful haunted-house movies also spearheaded by Wan, such as Insidious and The Conjuring . Wan recently announced that he won’t be making any more scary films, even though he actually gave up after Saw.
Meanwhile, horror cinema was thriving in other countries such as Japan. J-Horror received worldwide attention with such successes as Ring and The Grudge. Naturally, Hollywood remade them and the scary little girl dressed in white shambled into American horror films, forgetting to bring with her the creepy atmosphere that made those films interesting. Other notable international horror includes the Italian genre known as giallo, popularised by Dario Argento in operatic classics Suspiria and Inferno. France made its own indelible mark on horror in 1960 with Georges Franju’s breathtaking Eyes Without a Face , loosely remade recently in the equally impressive Spanish film The Skin I Live In.
Speaking of remakes, Michael Bay played his part in the attempted destruction of the genre in Hollywood – Platinum Dunes, his production company, was seemingly created with the sole purpose of churning out lazy remakes of horror classics. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street were all given the production-line retreatment and mistreatment. Now if you want to see interesting, original horror films you have to seek them out in indie cinemas or at specialist festivals. Specialist festivals such as Celluloid Screams, 25-27 October at the Showroom.
Phew, we got there in the end. Head to celluloidscreams.co.uk for more information and showroomworkstation.org.uk for tickets. Don’t miss this chance to see cult classics such as Basket Case , new nasties like the Israeli Big Bad Wolves – “the best film of the year” according to a certain Quentin Tarantino – and even an undead all-nighter. See you in the dark!