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Discussing Horror Movies (Part 3): An Epochal Breakdown

October 27, 2017

Discussing Horror Movies (Part 3): And Epochal Breakdown

In our third installment (of four), Pat and I take a beat to discuss the history of horror movies and discuss our favorite epochs and movement.

Tony: Okay, so we’ve talked about what horror means to us personally. We’ve at least begun to explore the definition and limits of the genre. I’m interested to hear what you think about how the genre has evolved. Whether taking it by decade, or by identifying certain movements, do you care to single out any if your favorite, most influential, or most crucial periods in the history of horror cinema?

Pat: I want to start my part of the discussion talking about how much horror the audience gets to see over the years—and pose the questions “how little is too little, and how much is too much?”

During the silent era, movies like The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920) had to rely on the actor’s method, crude makeup, and the German Impressionist-style sets to convey the main character’s deepening madness. It was a minimalistic approach that confirmed that continued even into films like  Dracula (1931) when a character stands at a window and describes Dracula’s transformation into a bat without the audience seeing it.

The 1950s brought with it spectacle films like Ben-Hur (1959) and horror followed suit. Suddenly, we had miniature sets of NYC, Tokyo, and L.A. being decimated by the monster of the week. The most famous is probably Gojira (a.k.a. Godzilla, 1954). Though the costumes and sets were still in their infancy in terms of believability, it was a massive step up from the time when horror was entirely off-screen.

Gojira & The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920)/Gojira (1954)

Tony: I think a brief description of the 60s is in order. One might even call this another sweet spot. After the “B” monster movies like Gojira  (1954), The Blob (1958), etc., but before the slasher deluge of the seventies, was a movement toward some intensely claustrophobic, character-driven horror stories many with gothic vibes. I might make the case that this was a reversion to classical filmmaking in a way that could frighten audiences without much bloodletting or cheesy monster effects. Some of my favorites from this period are Rosemary’s Baby (1968) The Haunting   (1963), Psycho (1960), and Repulsion (1965). The upper echelon of this period is formidably great (a real murderer’s row… yuk yuk yuk).

Pat: When the 70s gave us gritty, realistic movies like Taxi Driver, horror adapted.  The Texas Chain Saw MassacreThe Exorcist (1973), and Carrie (1976) were all films dripping with blood and vomit. The spectacle became less about giant animals destroying cities and more about body count, bloodshed, and real people stuck in situations where they were powerless.

The Haunting/ The Exorcist

The Haunting (1963)/The Exorcist (1973)

There’s a sweet spot in horror history between The Thing  (1982) and Jurassic Park (1993) where the effects were so believable that the spectacle was worth the price of a movie ticket. Nothing was left to the imagination because the magic was being played out on screen.

Tony: Also, way to hone in on the eighties and early nineties as a sweet spot. I’ve actually maintained that the eighties, in particular, marks the sweet spot for pretty much all “genre” films (horror, sci-fi, and to a lesser extent for fantasy), and the level of special effects is the one of the main reasons. VFX trickery, still done by hand at that point, allowed pretty much and kind of story to be brought to the screen, yet hadn’t quite reached the point of supplanting the stories themselves, which arguable has happened since then.

Pat: Nowadays, with the almighty dollar being at the forefront of cinema, horror movies have retreated to the “less is more” mindset. There’s an abundance of found-footage movies, made on the cheap. Even the higher-end productions, like the new  Annabelle: Creation (2017), are made with a relatively low tolerance for risk. The horror is found in jump scares (which I would call terror) and unsettling images (like creepy dolls).

This might be a chance to deliberately work with minimal horror (as opposed to the early days when directors had no choice because the technology wasn’t ready yet) but it seems that more often than not, these newer productions are made fast and cheap with profit in mind and not necessarily horror. To me, it’s too little shown with not enough good intentions.

Gremlins/Jurassic Park

Gremlins (1984)/Jurassic Park (1993)

Tony: When browsing my list of all-time favorite chillers, the seventies and eighties are basically in a dead heat for my favorite decades in horror. I think one major strand that those decades and their associated movements share is that the movies of that time were products of the “film school generation” and the early indie movement which meant a lot of ballsy auteur works. You don’t really get a ton of mainstream movies anymore that are quite so pointed. It seems like they could really go for it in those days to an extent rarely seen in the multiplexes today.

I don’t think the last 10 years or so have been particularly inspiring horror-wise, but there might be something to be said about what Blumhouse is doing. I feel like they’ve been everywhere in recent years. I think their willingness to give small-timers a chance at $3-5 million a pop has led to a few strong new voices emerging, which is great. Honestly, while that isn’t much of a budget for a theatrically exhibited movie, the idea of making a couple of $3M movies with the upside of graduating to a $10-15M budget after getting a few reps seems like a pretty good deal for filmmakers.

What about you? What are your favorite decades or movements? You mentioned the eighties as a sweet spot, but does that make it your favorite?

Pat: Picking a favorite period of horror is a challenge. One the one hand, being born in 1989, I have a particular love for all things 90s (especially horror since I was too young to watch most of it and that only added to its mystique). In fact most of my personal favorites from the decade like The Blair Witch Project, Audition, Candyman, Silence Of The Lambs, Scream, and Ringu, were only seen years later when my brother started avidly collecting movies and I no longer needed an ID to rent R-rated titles from Blockbuster. However, I am well aware that the 90s had a complicated relationship with computer graphics and some great movies come to a screeching halt when a case of bad CGI rears its ugly head. I love The Faculty but its dated graphics take me out of the movie and it treads the line between scary and laughable.

Audition/The Babadook

Audition (1999)/The Babadook (2014)

On the other hand, black and white movies, from Universal powerhouses and their foreign counterparts, represent such an early exploration of horror that to modern movies, these classic forays are their metaphorical granddaddies. The struggle with mental illness in 2014’s The Babadook was attempted (in an albeit more experimental mode) in 1955’s Dementia (also called Daughter Of Horror) where two versions of the move exist—one with narration and the other with only the images to pace the narrative (not unlike the 1926 shinkankakuha A Page Of Madness). I would go so far to include almost the entire black and white era in this foundational horror—from 1923’s Hunchback Of Notre Dame to 1964’s At Midnight, I’ll Take Your Soul. This period was so experimental and less corporate, that the ideas, executions, and communities built around these movies still represent a fresh, free-thinking perspective on the genre.

However, if I had to give the crown to any era, I’d have to single out the mid-70s-to-late-80s. The ones creating the movies, the writers and directors, now had the foundational horror of eras past to tweak what they loved and phase out what they didn’t. Narratives became complex. Suspiria (1977) is a great example of a largely visual narrative, exploring themes through use of color. Burnt Offerings (1976) was a large step toward ambiguous entities and unknown, lingering horror. Altered States (1980) is one in a series of psychedelic horror experiences.

It was also a perfect marriage of technology and imagination. We’ve mentioned this before so I won’t go too deep into it, but it’s worth mentioning a few we left out. Gremlins  (1984), An American Werewolf In London (1981), and Beetlejuice (1988) are all impressive works of visual effects that hold up to this day.

Probably my favorite aspect of this era is that movies didn’t have to take themselves too seriously. Yes, we were given the intense stories like The Omen (1976) that made us shave our fingernails down to the bone, but there were less heavy movies that made us laugh. A good mix of horror and excitement in a movie like The Evil Dead  (1981),  Creepshow  (1982), the aforementioned Gremlinsand (possibly the greatest movie ever) Jaws (1975), remind us that horror creeps into other aspects of our lives—family dramas, camping trips, mainstream media… what have you.

One more part to go! Thanks for reading so far, and if you haven’t read Part 1 or Part 2, then feel free to catch up.

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