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Horror film


Horror film

Slasher film | Splatter film

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DVD cover showing horror characters as depicted by Universal Studios. Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Claude Rains from The Invisible Man (1933), Bela Lugosi from Dracula (1931), Claude Rains from Phantom of the Opera (1943), "The Creature" from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Boris Karloff from Frankenstein (1931), Lon Chaney Jr. from The Wolf Man (1941) and Boris Karloff from The Mummy (1932) DVD cover showing horror characters as depicted by Universal Studios. Elsa Lanchester from Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Claude Rains from The Invisible Man (1933), Bela Lugosi from Dracula (1931), Claude Rains from Phantom of the Opera (1943), "The Creature" from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Boris Karloff from Frankenstein (1931), Lon Chaney Jr. from The Wolf Man (1941) and Boris Karloff from The Mummy (1932)

In film, the horror genre is characterized by the attempt to make the viewer experience fright, fear, terror, disgust or horror. Its plots often involve the intrusion of an evil force, event, or personage, sometimes of supernatural origin, into the mundane world.

Some of the most common elements include vampires, zombies (and other forms of resurrected corpses), werewolves, ancient curses, ghosts, demons and/or demonic possession, Satanism, evil children, 'slasher villains', vicious animals, inanimate objects brought to life by black magic or twisted science, haunted houses, cannibals, and malicious extraterrestrials. The serial killer movie is sometimes regarded as part of the horror genre.

Specific stories and characters, often derived from classic literature, have also proven popular, and have inspired many sequels, remakes, and copycats. These include Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, The Phantom of the Opera and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The horror film is often associated with low budgets and exploitation, but major studios and well-respected directors have made intermittent forays into the genre. The genre's marginal status has caused it to receive much critical dismissal or moral condemnation over the course of film history. However, during the past few decades new generations of critics - more inclined to take popular genres seriously - have given horror substantial attention and analysis, especially with regard to its perceived subversive content. Over the same period, it has become more than ever a source of controversy, as its level of graphic violence has increased and accusations of misogyny have been leveled, especially by feminist critics.

Some horror films owe a substantial amount to other genres, particularly science fiction, fantasy, dark comedy and thriller. The lines between horror and these other categories are often a subject of debate among fans and critics.



Early milestones

1922's Nosferatu 1922's Nosferatu

The horror genre is nearly as old as film itself. The first depictions of supernatural events appear in several of the silent shorts created by film pioneers such as Georges Méliès in the late 1890s, the most notable being his 1896 Le Manoir du Diable (aka "The Devil's Castle") which is sometimes credited as being the first horror film. Another of his horror projects was the 1898 La Caverne maudite (aka "The Cave of the Demons"). [1]

The early 20th century brought more milestones for the horror genre including the first monster to appear in a full-length horror film, Quasimodo, the hunchback of Notre-Dame who had appeared in Victor Hugo's book, "Notre-Dame de Paris" (published in 1831). Films featuring Quasimodo included Alice Guy's Esmeralda (1906), The Hunchback (1909), The Love of a Hunchback (1910) and Notre-Dame de Paris (1911). [2]

Many of the earliest feature length 'horror films' were created by German film makers in 1910s and 1920s, many of which were a significant influence on later Hollywood films. Paul Wegener's The Golem (1915) was seminal; in 1919 Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was both controversial with American audiences, due to postwar sentiments, and influential in its Expressionistic style; the most enduring horror film of that era was probably the first vampire-themed feature, F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922), an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. [3]

Early Hollywood dramas dabbled in horror themes, including versions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Monster (1925) (both starring Lon Chaney, Sr., the first American horror movie star). His most famous role, however, was in The Phantom of the Opera (1925), perhaps the true predecessor of Universal's famous horror series. [4]

1930s & 1940s

Poster art for Cat People (1942) Poster art for Cat People (1942)

It was in the early 1930s that American film producers, particularly Universal Pictures Co. Inc., popularized the horror film, bringing to the screen a series of successful Gothic features including Dracula (1931), and The Mummy (1932), some of which blended science fiction films with Gothic horror, such as James Whale's Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). These films, while designed to thrill, also incorporated more serious elements, and were influenced by the German expressionist films of the 1920s. Some actors began to build entire careers in such films, most notably Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.

Other studios of the day had less spectacular success, but Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Paramount, 1931) and Michael Curtiz's Mystery of the Wax Museum (Warner Brothers, 1933) were both important horror films.

Universal's horror films continued into the 1940s with The Wolf Man 1941, not the first werewolf film, but certainly the most influential. Throughout the decade Universal also continued to produce more sequels in the Frankenstein series, as well as a number of films teaming up several of their monsters. Also in that decade, Val Lewton would produce a series of influential and atmospheric B-pictures for RKO Pictures, including Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Body Snatcher (1945).


With the dramatic changes in technology that occurred in the 1950s, the tone of horror films shifted away from the gothic and further toward science fiction. A seemingly endless parade of low-budget productions featured humanity overcoming threats from "outside": alien invasions and deadly mutations to people, plants, and insects. 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 classier 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 direct exploitation of the events of the day. Filmmakers would continue to merge elements of science fiction and horror well into the future. [5]

Christopher Lee as Kharis, in The Mummy (1959) Christopher Lee as Kharis, in The Mummy (1959)

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw the rise of studios centered around horror, including the British company Hammer Film Productions. Hammer enjoyed huge international success from bloody technicolor films involving classic horror characters, often starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, such as The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), Dracula (1958), and The Mummy (1959) and many sequels. Hammer, and director Terence Fisher, are widely acknowledged as pioneers of the modern horror movie.

American International Pictures (AIP) also made a series of Edgar Allan Poe–themed films produced by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price. These sometimes controversial productions paved the way for more explicit violence in both horror and mainstream films.


A young zombie and her victim, her father, from Night of the Living Dead (1968) A young zombie and her victim, her father, from Night of the Living Dead (1968)

In the 1960s the genre moved towards "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 (1960) was a notable example of this. Psychological horror films would continue to appear sporadically, with 1991's The Silence of the Lambs a later highlight of the subgenre (although these films can also be considered crime films or thrillers).

Ghosts and monsters still remained popular: The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963) were two supernaturally-tinged psychological horror films from the early 1960s, with high production values and gothic atmosphere. Hitchcock's The Birds (1963) had a more modern backdrop; it was a prime example of "nature-goes-mad" menace combined with psychological horror.

Low-budget gore-shock films from the likes of Herschell Gordon Lewis also appeared. Examples included 1963's Blood Feast (a devil-cult story) and 1964's Two Thousand Maniacs (a ghost town run by the shades of Southerners), which featured splattering blood and bodily dismemberment.

One of the most influential horror films of the late 1960s was George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968). This zombie film was later deemed "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" enough to be preserved by the National Film Registry. Blending psychological thriller with gore, it moved the genre even further away from the gothic horror trends of earlier eras and brought horror into the lives of ordinary modern people. [6]


Leatherface from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre is considerd one of the most famous horror villans in history. Leatherface from the Texas Chain Saw Massacre is considerd one of the most famous horror villans in history.

With the demise of the Production Code of America in 1964, and the financial successes of the low-budget gore films churned out in the ensuing years, plus an increasing public fascination with the occult, the genre was able to be reshaped by a series of intense, often gory horror movies with sexual overtones, made as "A-movies" (as opposed to "B-movies"). Many of these films were made by respected auteurs. [7]

Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968) was a critical and popular success, and a precursor to the 1970s occult explosion, which included the box office smash The Exorcist (1973) (directed by William Friedkin and written by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the novel), and scores of other horror films in which the Devil became the supernatural evil, often by impregnating women or possessing children. Evil children and reincarnation became popular subjects (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). Another well recognized religious horror movie was The Omen (1976), where a man realizes that his five year old adopted son is the Antichrist. Being by doctrine invincible to solely human intervention, Satan-villained films also cemented the relationship between horror film, postmodern style and a dystopian worldview.

The "new age" ideas of the 1960s hippies began to influence horror films, as the youth previously involved in the counterculture began exploring the medium. Wes Craven's The Last House on the Left (1972) and Tobe Hooper's classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) both recalled the horrors of the Vietnam war and pushed comfortable liberal boundaries to the edge; George Romero examined the rise of the new consumer society in his 1978 zombie sequel, Dawn of the Dead; Canadian director David Cronenberg updated the "mad scientist" movie subgenre by exploring contemporary fears about technology and society, and reinventing "body horror", starting with Shivers (1975). [8]

Michael Myers, unstoppable psycho-killer from Halloween (1978) Michael Myers, unstoppable psycho-killer from Halloween (1978)

Also in the 1970s, horror author Stephen King, a child of the 1960s, first arrived on the film scene. Adaptations of many of his books came to be filmed for the screen, beginning with Brian DePalma's adaptation of King's first published novel, Carrie (1976), which went on to be nominated for Academy Awards, although it has often been noted that its appeal was more for its psychological exploration as for its capacity to scare. John Carpenter, who had previously directed the stoner comedy Dark Star (1974) and the Howard Hawks-inspired action film Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), created the hit Halloween (1978), introducing the teens-threatened-by-invincible-superhuman-evil theme, and kick-starting the "slasher film". This subgenre would be mined by dozens of increasingly violent movies throughout the subsequent decades.

1979's Alien combined the naturalistic acting and graphic violence of the 1970s with the monster movie plots of earlier decades, and re-acquainted horror with science fiction. It spawned a long-lasting franchise, and countless imitators, over the next 30 years.

At the same time, there was an explosion of horror films in Europe, particularly from the hands of Italian filmmakers like Mario Bava, Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci, and Spanish filmmakers like Jacinto Molina (aka Paul Naschy) and Jesus Franco, which were dubbed into English and filled drive-in theaters that could not necessarily afford the expensive rental contracts of the major American producers. These films generally featured more traditional horror subjects - e.g. vampires, werewolves, psycho-killers, demons, zombies - but treated them with a distinctive European style that included copious gore and sexuality (of which mainstream American producers overall were still a little skittish). Notable national outputs were the "giallo" films from Italy, the Jean Rollin romantic/erotic films from France, and the anthology films of Amicus from the UK. [9]

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, filmmakers were starting to be inspired by Hammer and Euro-horror to produce exploitation horror with a uniquely Asian twist. Shaw Studios produced Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires (1973) in collaboration with Hammer, then went on to start creating their own more original films. The genre boomed at the start of the 1980s, with Sammo Hung's Close Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1981) launching the sub-genre of "kung-fu comedy horror", a sub-genre prominently featuring hopping corpses and tempting ghostly females known as fox spirits, of which the best known examples were Mr. Vampire (1985) and A Chinese Ghost Story (1987). [10]


Almost any successful 1980s horror film received sequels. 1982's Poltergeist (directed by Tobe Hooper) was followed by two sequels and a television series. The seemingly-endless sequels to Halloween, Friday the 13th (1980), and Wes Craven's supernatural slasher A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) were the popular face of horror films in the 1980s, a trend reviled by most critics.

Nevertheless, original horror films continued to appear sporadically: Clive Barker's Hellraiser (1987) and Tom Holland's Child's Play (1988) were both critically praised, although their success again launched multiple sequels, which were considered inferior by fans and critics alike. Also released in 1980 was Stanley Kubrick's The Shining which ended up being one of the most popular and influential horror films ever made.

As the cinema box office returns for serious, gory modern horror began to dwindle (as exemplified by John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)), it began to find a new audience in the growing home video market, although the new generation of films was less sombre in tone. Motel Hell (1980) and Frank Henenlotter's Basket Case (1982) were the first 1980s films to campily mock the dark conventions of the previous decade (zombie films like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead had contained black comedy and satire, but were in general more dark than funny). David Cronenberg's graphic and gory remake of The Fly, was released in 1986, about a few weeks from the James Cameron film, Aliens Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead, and Lloyd Kaufman's The Toxic Avenger (all 1985), soon followed. In Evil Dead II (1987), Sam Raimi's explicitly slapstick sequel to the relatively sober The Evil Dead (1981), the laughs were often generated by the gore, defining the archetypal splatter comedy. New Zealand director Peter Jackson followed in Raimi's footsteps with the ultra-gory micro-budget feature Bad Taste (1987).

Horror films continued to cause controversy: in the UK, the growth in home video led to growing public awareness of horror films of the types described above, and concern about the ease of availability of such material to children. Many films were dubbed "video nasties" and banned. In the USA, Silent Night, Deadly Night, a very controversial film from 1984, failed at theatres and was eventually withdrawn from distribution due to its subject matter: a killer Santa Claus.


Poster art for The Blair Witch Project (1999) Poster art for The Blair Witch Project (1999)

In the first half of the 1990s, the genre continued with themes from the 1980s. It managed mild commercial success with films such as continuing sequels to the Child's Play and Leprechaun series. The slasher films Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday The 13th, and Halloween all saw sequels in the 1990s, most of which met with varied amounts of success at the box office, but all were panned by fans and critics, with the exception of Wes Cravens "A New Nightmare". The Canadian film Cube (1997) was perhaps one of the few horror films of the 1990s to be based around a relatively novel concept; it was able to evoke a wide range of different fears, and touched upon a variety of social themes (such as fear of bureaucracy) that had previously been unexplored.

However, the adolescent audience which had feasted on the blood and morbidity of the previous two decades had by now grown up, and the replacement audience for films of an imaginative nature were being captured instead by the explosion of science-fiction and heroic fantasy films laden with computer-generated imagery and nonstop violent action. [11]

To re-connect with its audience, horror became more self-mockingly ironic and outright parodic, especially in the latter half of the 1990s. Peter Jackson's Braindead (1992) (known as Dead Alive in the USA) took the splatter film to ridiculous excesses for comic effect. Francis Ford Coppola's Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), featured an ensemble cast and the style of a different era, harking back to the sumptuous look of 1960s Hammer Horror, and a plot focusing just as closely on the romance elements of the Dracula tale as on the horror aspects. Wes Craven's Scream movies, starting in 1996, featured teenagers who were fully aware of, and often made reference to, the history of horror movies, and mixed ironic humour with the shocks. It re-ignited the dormant slasher film genre.

Among the popular English-language horror films of the late 1990s, only 1999's surprise independent hit The Blair Witch Project attempted straight-ahead scares. But even then, the horror was accomplished in the ironic context of a mockumentary, or mock-documentary. Together with the international success of Hideo Nakata's Ringu in 1998, it launched a trend in horror films to go "low-key", concentrating more on unnerving and unsettling themes than on gore. M. Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense (1999) was a spectacularly successful example.

Millennial horror

Ringu launched a revival of serious horror filmmaking in Japan ("J-Horror") leading to such films as Takashi Shimizu's Ju-on (2000) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Kairo (2001). Other advances in horror were in Japanese animation (for example the gruesome 'guro' animation), as Japanese culture reached new heights of popularity in the West (although the first horror-themed anime had begun appearing in the West by the late 1980s).

The plundering of horror film history gained steam, including sequels, homages and remakes of films long established from previous decades. Some notable box office revivals included the merging of two old franchises in Freddy vs. Jason (2003), the re-imagining of the Universal monsters in Van Helsing (2004), the prequel to The Exorcist, as well as further entries in the Halloween and Child's Play series. Remakes of previous successes included Gore Verbinski's American version of Ringu (The Ring (2002)), and remakes of Dawn of the Dead (2004) and The Amityville Horror (2005). The zombie genre enjoyed a revival around the world, fuelled, in part, by the success of the "survival horror" genre of videogames (themselves inspired by films). Some of these games were also turned into films (for example Resident Evil (2002) and Silent Hill (2006)). Rob Zombie's House of 1000 Corpses and Eli Roth's Cabin Fever were both homages to the horror films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the latter using body horror as its primary method of scare.

Original horror entries in the 2000s were a mixed bag of teen exploitation like the Final Destination movies, starting in 2000, and more serious attempts at mainstream horror, notably the further horror-suspense films of M. Night Shyamalan.

James Gunn (writer of the Scooby-Doo movies), wrote and directed, the graphic horror movie, Slither. Which was released in 2006, it didn't do so well at the box office, but it got positive reviews (83% from Rotten Tomatoes).

One particular phenomenon now commonplace in horror movies(much to fans' chagrin) is that of the PG-13 horror movie. Films such as Stay Alive and Darkness Falls feature many of the typical elements of horror, but are shunned by horror buffs as too "tame", the PG-13 rating being found too restrictive. Many fans argue that horror is about breaking boundaries and getting people out of their "comfort zone", and say PG-13 horror movies don't have the liberty to really push fan's buttons. [1]

The new saw films were also launched merging body horror with thriller to create a commercially sucessful new series.

There was also something of a revival in British horror film production, with some of the more successful examples including 28 Days Later (2002), Dog Soldiers (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004) and The Descent (2005).

Pro wrestling company World Wrestling Entertainment launched WWE Films ,the new division's 1st film was See No Evil , a horror movie starring wrestler Kane.


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  • A Pictorial History of Horror Movies (1973) - Denis Gifford

See also

External links

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Movies, v. 2.0, by MultiMedia

This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.

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