It is no longer Samhain, Halloween’s Celtic precursor that marked the end of the harvest. Pre- Tenth Century, the Celts believed that Samhain was a liminal time – a time when our world and the Otherworld merged. The spirits of the dead were among us. To survive the winter we would have to please them. In the days of Samhain, fear was the key to survival.
Today, fear is escape. Horror is a sensation genre. It is not purely intellectual. The viewer has a visceral reaction. The hairs stand on the back of his neck, his date gropes for his hand. Horror toys with our most primitive coping mechanisms – our survival instinct and our id.
By David Sporn Entertainment & Arts Contributor
As a mirror to our world, the horror genre is superior to all other forms of narrative cinema. The horror genre has always possessed a sense of freedom in its approach to political or sociological concerns. Horror, which has always been viewed as a base genre, a genre that only titillates and excites, has the ability to dissect society through stories that at first glance seem far separated from every day life.
1950s horror films focused on fears of the Cold War and atomic power; fears embodied by gigantic irradiated monsters and soul snatching pods. In the 1960s, horror films focused on alienated youth. A decade later, the televised carnage of the Vietnam War led to the desensitization and the sadism of such films as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and The Last House on the Left (1972). The slasher craze that began in the 1980s was considered by many societal critics to be archconservative, while others viewed the cinematic killers as the personification of a constrictive society bearing down upon and repressing the average suburban teenager. Nevertheless, the majority dismissed them as bloody, exploitive, and even possibly dangerous.
In Scream 4, actress Kristen Bell says, “There’s something really scary about a guy with a knife who just… snaps.” This is exactly the point. There’s something out there in the dark. Something you don’t understand. And it’s going to get you.
The First Generation – Experimental
The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895) – Alfred Clark
The horror film is nearly as old as film itself. The first horror film, or at the very least the first gore film is The Execution of Mary Stuart (1895). 1895 is the year of the first public film screening by Auguste and Louis Lumière. The Execution of Mary Stuart is 18 seconds long. It was produced by Thomas Edison at his film studio, Black Maria, located in West Orange, New Jersey. Black Maria was America’s first film studio. The studio’s name was coined by employees W.K. Dickson and Jonathan Campbell, referring to the building’s resemblence to police vans – known colloquially as Black Marias.
This film was produced primarely to show off the ability of the film edit to change reality. As the executioner raises his blade, the actor (Mary was played by a man) is replaced by a mannequin. On the other side of the edit, the mannequin’s head is cut off in cinema’s first decapitation.
The House of the Devil (1896) – George Méliés
Many of the early horror films are experimental in nature, and are basically like magic shows. George Méliés, one of cinema’s first directors, was a magician by trade. By the age of ten, Méliés was building puppet theaters; by his teens he was creating complicated marionettes. While he desired to study painting, Méliés was forced by his father to become a supervisor at his family’s shoe factory. While working at the factory, Méliés continued to develop his stage act. By 1885 he was performing on small stages such as Cabinet Fantastique at the Musée Grévin. He was quite successful at his family’s company and was able to buy the well-known Theatre Robert Houdin in 1888. After the purchase, he left the shoe business to become a full-time stage illusionist.
On December 28, 1895 he was in the audience of the Lumière Brothers first public showing of their Cinématograph. He approached the brothers after the show with an offer to buy their projector. They refused. Less than a year later he built his own. Filming one autumn day, Méliés accidentally jammed his camera. His mistake would change cinema forever. Watching his footage during processing, objects appeared out of nowhere, and other objects transformed. Méliés was awestruck. Cinema was magic. The horror and science fiction genres (although it must be said that many of his films were comedic in nature) allowed him to experiment with many new techniques including splices that would allow a character to appear out of nowhere, dissolves, and multiple exposures.
His 1896 film The House of The Devil, ran over three minutes and included many revolutionary effects, most famously a skeleton that turns into a bat, and then into the Devil. The film has very little narrative. It tells a rather simplistic tale of a man who confronts the Devil. Nevertheless, it has important groundbreaking visual effects. The short was thought to be lost after its debut. It was not until 1988 when a print turned up in an archive in New Zealand.
The Skeleton of Joy (1897) – The Lumière Brothers
This stop-motion short is a precursor to many familiar cartoons from Warner Brothers shorts to Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride (2005). A fantastic example of early visual effects – a seemingly full size skeleton dances, falls apart but keeps dancing, then reconstructs itself in the span of thirty five seconds. A simple and joyful short from cinema’s first master directors.
The Black Imp (1905) – George Méliés
The Black Imp is a simple yet effective Méliés film. He scaled back his ambition after his complex hand colored science fiction film, A Trip to The Moon (1902), and delivered another playful comedy about a man terrorized by the Devil. Méliés, himself, plays a traveler who only wants some sleep. Chairs, a dresser, and the black imp all appear and disappear on their own accord.
In the most famous shot, the man climbs atop the chairs and dresser, only for them to disappear, causing him to fall to the ground. Slick edits and a single theatrical framing enhance the feeling that the short is all one take, rather than the many cuts necessary to capture these apparitions. Watching this in 1905 must have seemed like witnessing magic.
The Red Scepter (1907) – Segundo de Chomón
At first blush this short looks to be nothing more than a Méliés knock-off. Nonetheless, The Red Scepter has a of couple neat tricks up its tinted sleeve. de Chomón was a Spanish director who produced most of his films in France. He was discovered by Charles Pathé, whose still extant film studio is the second oldest in the world.
The Red Scepter is yet again centered around the Devil, and constructed like a magic show, with the Devil as the central illusionist. While the costume and set design are very similar to Méliés films, the film has fantastic and original visual effects. People are shrunk down and placed into bottles, a triumph of multiple exposures.
After retiring from directing, de Chomón worked as a visual effects artist, most notably on Abel Gance’s five and a half hour silent epic Napoléon (1927), one of the earliest triptych widescreen films.
Silent Narrative Films
L’ Inferno (1911) – Multiple Directors
L’Inferno is Italy’s first full length feature. The film’s production spanned three years. Even by today’s standards the vision of Hell presented is graphic and disturbing. The images in the film closely echo the engravings of Gustave Doré, a French artist who illustrated the 19th Century’s most popular version of Dante’s Inferno.
The production employed more than one hundred and fifty people. The film can be described as somewhat static, because it was filmed before D.W Griffith pioneered parallel editing (parallel editing is the act of cutting back and forth between two different shots. For example in one shot a woman is tied to railway tracks, in the other cowboys are riding to her rescue. Cutting back and forth generates suspense and excitement), it is still impressively immersive.
The gore-drenched artistry, including a man holding his own screaming head in one outstretched arm, is hard to shake. Notably, L’Inferno is the first mainstream film to feature female nudity. L’Inferno was a financial success both in Italy and the United States.
Der Golem (1915) – Paul Wegener and Henrik Galeen
Der Golem is the first of many German creature features, a genre that would become entwined with the fledgling German Expressionist movement. Expressionism presents the world from a subjective perspective. It seeks to distort the world, valuing subjective emotional experience over reality. Der Golem was remade twice, first in 1917 then in 1920. The third film is the only one that survives.
All three center on the Golem, a clay statue brought to life by a rabbi to protect Jewish lives. Director Paul Wegener plays the Golem in all three movies. While based on Jewish folklore, the film is actually derived from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. The third film in the series is noticeably expressionistic, featuring the curved and canted scenery that is associated with the movement. The films were not anti-Semitic. When the third film was very popularly exhibited in New York City, it was advertised in Yiddish language newspapers.
Along with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (also 1920), the third Golem film – The Golem: How He Came into the World – is one of the pivotal works of the expressionist movement.
Homunculus (1916) – Otto Rippert
Homunculus is a six-part science fiction horror serial by German director Otto Rippert. Fritz Lang scripted Homunculus. He would later direct the German Expressionist masterpiece Metropolis (1927) and M (1931) starring Peter Lorre as a whistling child-killer. Lang of Jewish heritage would flee Germany when the Nazi’s came to power. After leaving the country he was contacted by Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels, apparently unaware of Lang’s heritage, invited Lang to be the head of UFA, Germany’s largest film studio. Lang declined, and instead came to Hollywood.
Homunculus was about mad scientists, robots, and tragically evil man-made creatures. It is an important precursor to the Universal Monster movies. Like many silent films, the surviving prints deteriorated over time, and it has been rarely screened over the last fifty years. A 2014 restoration utilizing a print unearthed in Moscow is now available.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) – Robert Wiene
Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the most important horror work of the German Expressionist movement. It is the story of an evil hypnotist who uses a somnambulist (played by Conrad Veidt, the villainous Major Strasser in Casablanca) to commit murders. The visual style of the film is fully representative of the characters’ psyches. There is no physical reality. Critic Roger Ebert describes the setting as, “a jagged landscape of sharp angles and tilted walls and windows, staircases climbing crazy diagonals, trees with spiky leaves, grass that looks like knives.” The background landscapes are painted on a canvas behind the set. The shadows and rays of light are painted on the set. Even the title cards were stylized and misshapen. Reality is entirely distorted. Buildings literally bend into one another like a cubist nightmare. Characters are even out of proportion to the settings. In the film’s opening framing device the asylum is too small for the characters that inhabit it.
The film examines themes of insanity, tyranny, and duality. Critics and theorists still argue over Caligari’s implicit meaning. The film is primarily told in flashback, and is an early example of the frame story, similar to the original text of Frankenstein. The film is narratively complex, employing a twist ending. In a contemporaneous review, the New York Times wrote, Caligari “gives dimensions and meaning to shape, making it an active part of the story, instead of merely the conventional and inert background.”
Some directors partial to realism were disgusted with the film. Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein thought Caligari was a “combination of silent hysteria, partially coloured canvases, daubed flats, painted faces, and the unnatural broken gestures and action of monstrous chimaeras.” However, René Clair, the French director of comedies and light fantasy, put it best, stating that Caligari redefined cinema, the film “overthrew the realist dogma.”
The Phantom Carriage (1921) – Victor Sjöström
The Phantom Carriage is more than a horror film. It was central to the development of the modern film narrative. The Phantom Carriage was Ingmar Bergman’s favorite film. Bergman later cast director Victor Sjöström as the lead in his similarly themed Wild Strawberries (1957). The Phantom Carriage is based on a novel by Nobel Prize winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf. The film had an arduous production; the extensive special effects were quite difficult to create. The ghost characters were a product of multiple exposures. In the early twenties multiple exposures had to be created in camera. To create the illusion of the ghost interacting in three dimensions there had to be numerous, sometimes as many as four, layers of exposure. Since the film was shot on a hand-cranked camera each layer had to be cranked at exactly the same speed. Besides being hand-cranked the cameras were also hand-moved to further the illusion of dimensionality.
Sjöström, himself, stars ad David a ne’er-do-well drunkard. After being hit by a bottle on New Year’s Eve, David is picked up by death’s carriage, which is now being driven by his friend George, who had died the year prior. As they visit the significant sites of the David’s life, the film shows in flashback how David again and again shattered what could have been a happy life.
Although much of the film takes place outside and in realistic settings, Sjöström opted to shoot the entire film on a set to maximize controlled conditions. Sjöström rejected the stage acting generally used in film, and in its place created something more subtle, concentrating on the character’s inner torment. The Phantom Carriage is one of the few films that can be suitably credited with creating a new filmic language.
A famous scene in which the protagonist breaks through a wooden door with an axe to get to his family is explicitly referenced in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). This is a must watch.
Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922) – F.W. Murnau
Nosferatu is the first great vampire film and one of the preeminent works of the German Expressionist movement. The film is an unauthorized adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The title is different because the studio could not obtain the rights to the book. The imposing Murnau, at six foot eleven, cast an indelible shadow over both German and American film. His Hollywood film Sunrise won the first Academy Award for Best Picture. Murnau studied literature and art history in Heidelberg. He initially set out to become an actor, but joined the German air force at the outbreak of World War I. He survived eight plane crashes.
Back in Germany, after the war, he established a reputation as a popular director. A homosexual, he was involved in Berlin’s decadent cabaret and nightclub scene.
Nosferatu was primarily shot in the port city of Wismar. The film starred Max Schreck as the bald, long-fingered vampire Count Orlock. Watch for the shot of Orlock, climbing the stairs, seen only in shadow. Fun fact: This movie started the trope of vampires burning in the sun.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) – Wallace Worsley
No horror list can be complete without Lon Chaney – The Man of a Thousand Faces. Chaney himself had acquired the rights to produce this film. He had long wanted to play the role of Quasimodo. Chaney partnered with Irving Thalberg, who had risen from office secretary to defacto head of Universal Studios. Universal founder Carl Laemmele left the twenty year old Thalberg in charge of the studio in 1919, when Laemmele headed back to New York.
Chaney originally wanted Tod Browning, who will be discussed in detail later, to direct, but settled for Wallace Worsley who directed several of Chaney’s earlier films. At the time Universal was one of the smaller studios, lacking the glitz and star-wattage of MGM. Laemmele was notoriously budget conscious, and Thalberg had to consistently fight to prevent Leaemmele from scaling back the film’s grand flourishes.
The final budget was over one million dollars. Over seven hundred and fifty technicians worked on the film. It was a giant success for Universal, grossing over three times its budget. Sadly, all nitrate copies of the film have been destroyed. The only surviving prints are 16mm. Most of those have deteriorated.
The Unknown (1927) – Tod Browning
Tod Browning had originally worked with Lon Chaney in 1919 for the melodrama The Wicked Darling. Over the course of their careers, Chaney and Browning would make ten films together. Browning was born in Kentucky to an upper middle class family. From a young age he was fascinated with carnival life. When he turn sixteen he ran off to join the circus. He started his career as a carnival barker: STEP RIGHT UP! STEP RIGHT UP! THE FIRST TIME IN AMERICA – THE WILDMAN OF BORNEO! Browning also performed in a live burial act. From the carnival Browning entered vaudeville.
In New York, he met D.W. Griffith, who also happened to be from Kentucky. Griffith would later direct The Birth of A Nation (1915). Browning worked as an actor in Griffith’s single reel nickelodeons films. Browning followed Griffith to Los Angeles. He would act in over fifty movies. His acting career was not to last. In 1915 Browning crashed his car into a moving train. He was badly injured. His passenger was killed. As he convalesced, he worked a screenwriter. Browning finally made his directorial debut in 1917.
In The Unknown, Lon Chaney plays an armless carnival knife thrower, who throws the knives with his feet, and becomes obsessed with a showgirl. Chaney had to collaborate with the actually armless stunt double Paul Desmuke, who really could manipulate the knives with his feet. The viewer sees Chaney’s upperbody and Desmuke’s legs. As with Browning’s other carnival-centric films, critics of the time were disgusted. The New York Evening Post wrote, “A visit to the dissecting room in a hospital would be quite as unpleasant, and at the same time more instructive.”
The Universal Classics and Freaks
Dracula (1931) – Tod Browning
Tod Browning’s first talkie happens to be one of horror’s most famous films. Dracula ushered in the golden age of monster movies. Dracula hit Broadway in 1927, and proved quite popular. Laemmle sensed a hit and legally acquired the rights from Bram Stoker’s widow. She had previously sued the producers of Nosferatu. After snagging the rights, Laemmle commissioned Garret Fort, who would write many of the Universal monster movies, to adapt the stageplay into a screenplay.
The studio head envisioned a grand scale epic, similar to his gigantic hits in the twenties with Lon Chaney. Bela Lugosi, a Hungarian actor who played the vampire on stage, lobbied hard for the lead role. He was not Laemmle’s first choice. Laemmle wanted a name. Someone with star power. Fortuitously, Lugosi was in Los Angeles with a touring company. He convinced the studio to hire him, partly by agreeing to take a very small salary. It has become his iconic role. There is an urban legend that Bela Lugosi could not speak English when he was cast, which would explain his very idiosyncratic line readings. This is most likely untrue. He had been working in the United States for ten years before shooting Dracula. Roger Ebert writes, “there is something about his line readings that suggests a man who comes sideways to English–perhaps because in his lonely Transylvanian castle, Dracula has had centuries to study it but few opportunities to practice it.” His line readings are deliberately theatrical and off-kilter, an asset for his characterization. Dracula is a little off, a little less than human.
In the years after filming, Lugosi would appear in public dressed formally, usually with his cape. He had a kinship with the character, which he could never shake. Dracula has no musical score, and few special effects. It is shot like a play. It moves quickly, I would say too quickly. Nonetheless, it has a very special performance at its core. After all these years, after all the Hammer films, and the remakes, and “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, Lugosi, very simply, is Dracula. Lugosi would return to play the count in many of Universal’s sequels and crossover films; his final turn in the cape would be seventeen years later in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.
Frankenstein (1931) – James Whale
In 1930, Universal had lost over two million dollars in revenue. They were sinking. Dracula was their biggest hit of 1931. Laemmle, of course, wanted more horror films, and quickly greenlit Frankenstein. Lugosi wanted to play Dr. Frankenstin, but Laemmle offered him the role of the monster. Unlike the monster in the completed film, the original script called for a pure killing machine, a character without any pathos. Between the writing and a series of disastrous make-up tests Lugosi left the project. He complained, “I was a star in my country! I will not be a scarecrow over here.”
In 1930 director James Whale was newly arrived in Hollywood. Whale was born in Dudey, England. He left school to work as a cobbler. When World War I broke out Whale was able to join officer candidate school. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Worcestershire Regiment in 1916. By 1917 he was in a prisoner of war camp for British officers in Saxony. He became heavily involved in the amateur theatrical productions in the camp. Whale worked as an actor, producer, and set designer while he was confined in Germany. After the Armistice, he worked as a stage actor and stage manager in London. In 1919 Whale met Doris Zinkeisen, a Scottish theatrical designer. The two lived together as a couple even though he was openly homosexual. In the twenties he became a well-known stage director. By 1928, he was directing in the West End with Colin Clive, who would later play Henry Frankenstein (the producers changed the character name from Victor to Henry. They believed Victor would sound ‘unfriendly’ to American audiences), as his star. By 1929 he was directing on Broadway where he came to the attention of Howard Hughes. Whale directed the dialogue scenes of Hughes’ film Hell Angels (1930), which Hughes had originally planned as a silent feature. Whale was uncredited. In 1931 Laemmle signed Whale to a five year contract and gave him his choice of properties. Whale chose Frankenstein.
To finish Whale’s story it must be said that at the age of sixty-seven Whale committed suicide in his swimming pool. The 1998 film Gods and Monsters is a moderately fictionalized look at Whale’s post-Hollywood life.
However, let us continue with the production of Frankenstein. Whale quickly cast Colin Clive in the role of the scientist. He cast Boris Karloff as the monster. After years of toiling in character parts, Karloff would receive an Academy Award nomination for Five Star Final, which he had made for Mervyn LeRoy earlier in 1931. Karloff had studied at King’s College in hopes of being in the British Governments Consular Service. He never graduated, and instead worked a number of odd jobs before he found his way into acting. His brother Sir John Thomas Pratt, however, did become a diplomat. Karloff was born William Henry Pratt. He changed his name when he became an actor, to save his family embarrassment. He chose Boris Karloff because it sounded exotic.
Frankenstein is notable for its lighting, which far more than Dracula defined the look of the golden age of horror, and for its makeup effects. Ken Strickfaden designed the special effects; most notably, the mechanisms and the electricity effects used for the monster’s creation. He would continue to design sets and effects for projects such as The Wizard of Oz (1939), Young Frankenstein (1974), and the television show “The Munsters”. Jack Pierce designed the monster’s makeup. The makeup work allowed Karloff full facial movement. Watch the film to see just how expressive Karloff could be. The monster exhibits more humanity than many the people surrounding him. Whale would return to film the sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein, in 1935. The sequel debuted a female monster played by Elsa Lanchester. Whale had more power after the success of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, thus some critics argue he suffused The Bride of Frankenstein with a camp sensibility.
Freaks (1932) – Tod Browning
“We accept you, one of us. One of us! Gooble Gobble!” Oh, the pre-code pre-PC days, how I long for you! Now this is a gross one. Most of the characters are played by real carnival freaks! Browning drew on his real personal circus experience for this film, and because of the success of Dracula, MGM gave him quite a bit of leeway. It was MGM’s first horror film, and boy did it flop, even after the censors cut into it. This film lost MGM over one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. Critics hated it and audiences were disgusted. It wasn’t until the 1960s that Freaks had a critical reevaluation as a counter-culture film. The hippies were now the ‘freaks’. Get it?
In the movie, the freaks are good guys – they are nice and honorable. The two normal people – the strong man and the dwarf’s beautiful wife – are the real monsters. They conspire to kill the dwarf and steal his money. Big mistake! The freaks’ revenge is swift and gruesome. Really gruesome. The kind of gruesome that stays with you forever. The movie has a bearded woman, conjoined twins, a man with only a head and a torso, an armless woman, an intersex woman, and too many others to mention. After a disastrous test screening, a woman actually threatened to sue, blaming the film for her miscarriage, the studio cut almost half an hour off the film. Much of the final revenge including a castration was cut. The released version was only sixty four minutes long.
This film ended Browning’s career. It was the only MGM film to ever be pulled from release before completing its engagement. The critics were savage. The Kansas City Star wrote, “There is no excuse for this picture. It took a weak mind to produce it and it takes a strong stomach to look at it.” The Hollywood Reporter opined, Freaks is an “outrageous onslaught upon the feelings, the senses, the brains and the stomachs of an audience.” It is now considered one of the greatest horror films of the 1930s.
The Mummy (1932) – Karl Freund
The Mummy was directed by, Dracula’s cinematographer, Karl Freund. Freund was born to a Jewish family in Bohemia. He started his film career as an assistant projectionist for a production company in Germany. He is best known in Germany for shooting the Fritz Lang’s German Expressionist sci-fi opus Metropolis in 1927. He emigrated to America in 1929. He shot Dracula (which he also partly directed), Key Largo (1948), and The Good Earth (1937) for which he won the Academy Award. Besides directing The Mummy, he also directed the horror film Mad Love (1935) which starred Peter Lorre. He was also the long-time director of photography for “I Love Lucy”.
The opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1922 caused a furor of excitement about Egyptology. With the successes of Dracula and Frankenstein, Carl Laemmle was searching for another monster. Imhotep seemed perfect. The film is noteworthy for Freund’s deft camera work and lighting, as well as Boris Karloff’s frightening central character. An oft-repeated close-up of Karloff, his eyes alight, is among the genre’s most memorable shots. Makeup artist Jack Pierce returned from Frankenstein, and considered The Mummy his greatest work. Pierce would begin applying Karloff’s makeup in the middle of the night. It would take eight hours to apply. Peirce had to use spirit gum on Karloff’s face. Karloff called the removal of the gum, “the most trying ordeal I ever endured.” The gum held the bandages to his face. The Mummy was followed by four sequels and an Abbott and Costello movie. None featured Boris Karloff. The Mummy was successfully remade in 1999 by Stephen Sommers.
King Kong (1933) – Mercian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack
My grandmother saw King Kong in the theater when she thirteen. It was the most frightening movie she had ever seen. No other movie had effects that realistic. The giant gorilla, the Eighth Wonder of the World, may still be the screen monster champion. King Kong was not the first of the jungle adventure film. It was just the greatest in a long tradition. Its closest progenitor was Harry Hoyt’s 1925 adaptation of Arthur Conon Doyle’s The Lost World. Willis O’Brien, who later designed Mighty Joe Young, designed the creatures in both films. King Kong used many of the same crewmembers as The Lost World.
O’Brien was born in Oakland, California. He left home at age eleven to work on cattle ranches. As a teenager he worked a variety of odd jobs and as a rodeo cowboy. He developed a keen interest in dinosaurs while working at Crater Lake as a guide for paleontologists. After a stint as a professional boxer and then a railroad worker, and later as sculptor he became the assistant to the head architect at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. At the World’s Fair he also worked as a model maker. He created animated short of a dinosaur and a caveman. A San Francisco exhibitor saw the footage and offered O’Brien five thousand dollars to make a film. The film was The Dinosaur and The Missing Link: A Prehistoric Tragedy (1915). The film impressed Thomas Edison who hired O’Brien as an animator in 1917. O’Brien had trouble with his bosses, and was consistently underpaid for his work. Nonetheless, the series of prehistoric films that he made landed him the job of lead designer on The Lost World.
Merian C. Cooper, the director of King Kong, decided he wanted to be an explorer when he was six years old. He had read the book Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa. He studied at the US Navel Academy, but dropped out during his senior year. He had gotten into a violent argument with a professor and officer, about airpower in the Navy. Cooper believed it was a necessity; the Navy did not. Cooper resigned in disgust. In 1916 he joined the Georgia National Guard and fought Pancho Villa in Mexico. When WWI broke out he joined the Army Air Service. Cooper served as a DH-4 bomber pilot. He was shot down over Germany. He was burnt badly. A natural warrior, Cooper flew as a volunteer flyer in the Kosciuszko Squadron that supported the Polish army in the Polish-Soviet War. He was shot down and spent nearly nine months in a Soviet prisoner of war camp. Back in the States he worked a journalist, then traveled half way around the world for a series of articles for Asia Magazine. In 1925 he became a member of the Explorers Club, and lectured about his travels. He shot documentaries in Africa that were spliced with fictional scenes and turned into movies by Paramount. In 1927 he helped establish Pan American Airways and he would serve on their board of directors. Cooper asserts that the idea for King Kong came to him in a dream.
In 1931 Cooper helped David O Selznick land the position of head of production at Paramount. Cooper then pitched Selznick King Kong. They started building sets and casting before they had a finished script. Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong were cast in the lead roles. Four different models of Kong were built. Kong’s face was made out of rubber. His eyes were glass. His skull was aluminum. Bendable wires that were threaded into the aluminum controlled Kong’s facial expressions. The stop motion animation, matte paintings, and rear projection used were all state of the art. The composite of real world and stop motion had to be captured in camera. Many of these effects called for bipacking, which means loading two reels of film into a camera, and having them pass through the gate simultaneously. The scene with Kong on top of the Empire State Building called for bipacking and an intricate lighting process called The Dunning Process. In the scene in which the plane shoots Kong off the tower, it was actually the two directors piloting the plane. The live action scenes were shot on a jungle set in Culver City. The Film adaptation of The Most Dangerous Game was shot on the same sets at night. King Kong held its world premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater on April 10th, 1933. Kong was a critical and popular success and cemented the giant ape as one of cinema’s most enduring icons. He will again conquer theaters next spring in the two hundred million dollar Kong: Skull Island.
The Invisible Man (1933) – James Whale
The Invisible Man is the fourth of the Universal Monster movies. It starred Claude Rains who would in the late 1930s and early 1940s become one of Hollywood’s most popular and enduring actors, particularly memorable in Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). In 1933, however, he was hardly known at all. The role was originally intended for Boris Karloff. Negotiations with horror’s biggest star fell through when Laemmle attempted to cut his fee. The film about a chemist who goes insane after a perfecting an invisibility formula is best known for its groundbreaking special effects.
Rains’ performance is especially noteworthy. Rarely seen but always heard, Rains perfectly captures the chemist’s gradual insanity. When Claude Rains was not on screen but the character was manipulating objects, effects men used wires to manipulate the diegesis. Other times he was photographed in a black velvet suit against a black background. This effect was necessary when the invisible man was partly clothed. They would use a matte process to merge the effects shot with the location or set work.
The Invisible Man was Universal’s most successful film since Frankenstein. There were four sequels beginning with The Invisible Man Returns in 1940. Paul Verhoeven remade The Invisible Man as Hollow Man in 2000.
The Wolfman (1941) – George Waggner
The final of the five classic Universal monster films is the furriest of the lot. The Wolfman stars Lon Chaney Jr. – the son of the ‘Man of a Thousand Faces’. Junior only has one face, and it isn’t especially charismatic. My mom says he looks like a thug in the old Superman TV show. I think that’s about right. Claude Rains does most of the heavy lifting.
It’s 1941 so the whole classic Hollywood machine is in full bloom. The film looks great. It’s full of wonderfully smooth tracking shots of immaculately fogged forests. Anyway, Chaney is the prodigal son of a very wealthy man. He returns to his ancestral home, messes around with a local girl who is about to be married (Evelyn Ankers), and is promptly bit by a gypsy turned werewolf (Bela Lugosi).
The werewolf transition scenes are cut with dissolves, as Chaney progressively becomes more wolfy. Jack Peirce is back with more makeup effects. Actually he recycles the effects he used for Werewolf In London (1935). The transition from man to werewolf takes seconds in the film; in reality it took almost ten hours to apply the makeup. The film was highly successful. Chaney returned for three sequels, and a major role in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Val Lewton and the English, Towards a More Subtle Horror
Cat People (1942) – Jacques Tourneur
Cat People is my favorite horror film of the 1940s. Producer Val Lewton reinvented horror. Cat People is one of the first psycho-sexual horror films. Irena Dubrovna is a young Seribian woman. She believes she is from a race of people who turn into vicious cats if they are aroused. Lewton was from Russia. He studied journalism at Columbia University. After writing a couple of successful pulp novels he joined the MGM publicity departmentsas an assistant to Selznick. He worked as an uncredited writer on Gone With the Wind (1939). In 1942 he was named head of the horror department at RKO.
There were three requirements:
1 – Each film had to be budgeted under $150,000.
2 – Each film had to run under 75 minutes.
3 – The higher-up supplied the titles.
His first production was Cat People. Lewton hired Jacques Tourneur to direct. Tourneur was born in Paris. He moved to the States when he was ten. In the twenties he worked as an editor and an assistant director. He met Lewton while working as a second unit director on MGM’s A Tale of Two Cities (1935). He was dropped by MGM in 1941. Lewton sensed promise and hired Tourneur that same year. Roger Ebert writes that “Cat People is constructed almost entirely out of fear.” There’s something eerie about the movie – an implacable dread that’s just out of your reach. Tourneur is a master of shadows. The characters always feel surrounded. Ebert describes one very unsettling scene set in a pool, “Alice goes for a plunge in the swimming pool at her residential club, and in a genuinely terrifying sequence she treads water in the deserted pool while … something … growls and paces, and then she screams. Notice how light reflected from the surface of the pool causes unsettling patterns to creep along the walls.”
Cat People is a quiet film. French actress Simone Simon is impressively beguiling in the lead. Everyone else plays the same type of forties fast talkers. Theorist Geoffrey O’Brien says what many Cat People fans think, “Fans and commentators have sifted every shot and every situation of this seventy-three-minute feature, pondering each line of dialogue and taking note of each editing gimmick and trick of lighting, speculating on the implications of every archetypal motif and psychosexual frisson. Yet a fundamental mysteriousness remains, a slippery unwillingness to submit to final explanation.” I’ve never been completely sure what Cat People wants to say, if anything, but I do believe that no other film has ever so menacingly probed our primal desires.
Lewton followed Cat People two years later with a sequel The Curse of the Cat People, a very different but similarly unsettling story about a remarkable little girl who may be Irena’s daughter. The sequel was directed by The Haunting’s (1963) Robert Wise and is a very distinctive suburban nightmare. Curse divided critics just as it divided fans. Variety called it “highly disappointing”, but James Agee an avowed fan of the original wrote that the film captured “the poetry and danger of childhood.” I for one love it. Lewton followed Cat People with I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), and Ghost Ship (1943). Of those, The Seventh Victim is my favorite. The story of satanic murders in Greenwich Village, The Seventh Victim leaves some very horrific happenings just off-screen. Lewton wouldn’t have it any other way. Cat People was remade in 1982 by Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader. The remake is far more explicit in both content and meaning. See them both and decide which you like better! At the very least, the remake features a memorable theme song by David Bowie.
The Uninvited (1944) – Lewis Allen
Uncanny. That’s a great word for The Uninvited. The perfect stiff-upper-lip British horror film. The Uninvited is gorgeous. Cinematographer Charles Lang was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Black and White Cinematography. The great Edith Head designed the costumes. In the movie, a couple move into an abandoned seaside house only to find they are not quite alone. The film generates all of its scares through camera work and lighting. There is no gore. There are no jump scenes. There is no amped up sound design. This is the real deal.
The great critic James Agee wrote upon watching the film, “It seems to me harder to get a fright than a laugh, and I experienced thirty-five first-class jolts, not to mention a well-calculated texture of minor frissons.” The Uninvited was Hollywood’s first real ghost story. Every haunted house movie before had a big reveal at the end, to show Scooby Doo-like who was really responsible. It was always the man behind the curtain, never a real supernatural event. The Uninvited changed that forever. Ghosts were real, and you never know, they may be lurking in your new house. The film is also scary because it fights so stubbornly against expectations. The music tends to be upbeat, the house is the type of place a person may actually want to live, and it isn’t set on a dark and stormy night, but rather a clear spring day.
Dead of Night (1945) – Multiple Directors
Dead of Night is the great British horror anthology. It is made up of five different short stories. They are all good. Two are fantastic. The film was developed by Ealing Studios, a production company mostly known for comedies. Any of their films starring Alec Guinness need to be seen. The film uses a framing device with an architect coming to a dinner. He quickly realizes that that he’s met all the guests before in a dream. At the dinner each guest tells a supernatural tale.
Allow me to describe my two favorite stories. In the first a young girl is at a Christmas party. She’s playing hide and seek with her friends. The girl overhears a conversation about murders that have taken place in the house. She decides to hide upstairs where she comes across a young boy crying. The boy looks up at her and says, “She hates me, she says she wants to kill me.” The girl comforts him and goes back down to the party. At the party she is told that there is no boy upstairs. Moreover, in that very room there was a murder. With that, the short ends. No comeuppance. No boo moment. You are left picking up your jaw from the floor.
The other great story is about a ventriloquist and an attempted murder investigation. The ventriloquist tells the police to find Hugo. “He is more to blame for this than I am.” The only problem is Hugo is his dummy. Every dummy/puppet horror film since owes a debt to Dead Of Night. Dead of Night is a true horror, its best stories get under your skin. This may be the first film on the list that is truly scary.
The Atom Splits
On August 6th , 1945 the Enola Gay dropped the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima. In a flash the Atomic Age was born. Quickly we were ushered in to the Cold War, The suburbs, ‘Duck and Cover’, and ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’.
The Thing From Another World (1951) – Christian Nyby
The Thing, produced by Howard Hawks’ Winchester Pictures Corporation in 1951, is the first of a new genre – ‘50’s sci-fi, yet it is a horror film through and through. It is also very much a Howard Hawks film. Howard Hawks was Hollywood’s great no nonsense director. His films are populated with tough fast-talking men and women. The old Douglas Adams quote, “…men were real men, women were real women and small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri were real small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri” feels very fitting for Hawks.
While The Thing was ostensibly directed by Christian Nyby, (Hawk’s former editor who would have a prolific career as a television director) the film has Hawk’s fingerprints all over it. The military men protagonists are tough, charming, and always ready to make the right choice. The scientists untrustworthy, always ready to sell out humanity for the next great discovery. The film contains a simmering hostility towards scientists, because these are the men who brought us into the atomic age. And, then there’s the reporter, because, well, in the forties and fifties there was always the newspaper man. We must remember that Americans actually trusted the media back then, unlike our cynical post-modernism.
Anyway, a group of airman are dispatched to the North Pole to help scientists investigate a UFO crash. Robert Cornthwaite who plays the insane professor brings just enough starry-eyed humanity to the role that the nefarious Dr. Carrington is hard to hate even though it’s pretty clear he doesn’t give a lick about humanity. Soon, in one of the movie’s most famous and impressive scenes, the men find a flying saucer buried in the ice. After the soldiers accidentally destroy the craft with thermite bombs, the alien inside is frozen in a block of ice. Of course, a mistake by a scared young soldier involving an electric blanket thaws out the alien, and flyboys are up against an outer-space blood-drinking plant-man played by a young James Arness (Gunsmoke’s Marshall Dillon).
Now bear with me! This is not as silly as it sounds. The Thing plays the situation entirely seriously, and does quite a bit with the character’s isolation. An enduring shot of the creature on fire and still wreaking havoc is one of my favorites in all filmdom. Also, the characters talk over each other. This may not seem like a big deal, but trust me it is. It adds a realism that most other movies, no matter the genre, still can’t match. See this film, even if you think you don’t like ‘50’s sci-fi. This is a great first horror movie for kids, violent and exciting enough to keep them interested but not too horrific. I first saw it during a Halloween marathon on TNT back when I was in elementary school. It’s a total rush.
Godzilla ゴジラ(1954) – Ishirõ Honda
Godzilla is the king of monsters. This is the film that started it all. To paraphrase Jack Burton from John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, Godzilla shook the pillars of heaven. And he did it with every step! Godzilla is the first kaiju eiga or Japanese monster movie. Kaiju literally translates to ‘strange beast’ but it is better to think of it as big stompy monster. The genre also includes Rodan, King Ghidorah, and Gamera. Godzilla was the first and in the original film – not the Hollywood version that spliced in Raymond Burr and emasculated the Japanese protagonists – was deadly serious and deathly frightening.
Godzilla was a reaction to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is explicitly stated at the end of the film when the paleontologist, played by Takashi Shimura (Japan’s most respected actor) states that if nuclear testing continues Godzilla may rise again. People raised on the sequels, remakes, or the bastardized Raymond Burr version may not realize just how violent and dark the original film was. The imagery of Godzilla attacking Tokyo very closely echoes the destruction caused by the atomic bomb. There is a short scene during Godzilla’s assault on Tokyo that makes this implicit connection explicit. We see a burning building surrounded by rubble. Director Ishirõ Honda cuts in to a medium shot of a woman huddling with her small children amid the apocalyptic ruins. The camera closes in on her. She clutches her children, holds them close to her. She tells them, “Just wait. We will be joining your father in a moment.” No other Kaiju film contains a moment of such understated raw tear-jerking power.
The contemporaneous critics were disgusted with the message. They accused Honda of exploiting the devastation that Japan had only recently emerged from. Honda remembers critics referring to the film as “grotesque junk”. Over the years Japanese critical opinion has changed for the better. Japan’s oldest film magazine, Kinema Junpo, lists Godzilla as one of Japan’s twenty greatest films.
Today, Godzilla is the Japanese Tourism Board’s official mascot. Godzilla has been followed by twenty-eight sequels and two American remakes. In many Godzilla films the king of monsters has transitioned from the personification of the evils of the atomic age to Japan’s greatest protector. The big lizard’s newest movie, Shin Godzilla, is currently in American theaters. While the big guy is now motion-capture, the suit and miniature work designed by the great Eiji Tsuburaya will live on in home video and in the hearts of Godzilla’s legions of fans of all ages all around the world.
Them! (1954) – Gordon Douglas
Them! is the pinnacle of the 1950’s American giant monster movies. This was the first of the giant bug movies, an odd and somewhat gross sub-genre that dominated drive-ins in the 1950’s. Like Godzilla, Them! is a reaction to atomic testing. The plot is wonderfully simple and silly. A government atomic bomb test in New Mexico irradiated an ant colony and turned them into giant killer insects. Critic John Nolte writes that the opening scene in which two police men discover a little girl in shock and her family’s trailer ripped open is “as good as horror gets.” That’s not hyperbole.
Director Gordon Douglas cut his teeth on two-reel “Our Gang” comedies. The man’s a real pro. Them! is a studio movie with a real budget, an absolute cut above the drive-in dreck that followed it. James Arness returns as the investigation G-Man, but the real surprise is two-time Academy Award nominee James Whitmore as the protagonist. Besides being one of the key horror movies for genre buffs, it’s a great Halloween movie for kids. I first saw this in the same Halloween marathon as The Thing From Another World.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – Don Siegel
No film captures the communist threat as well as Invasion of The Body Snatchers. Strange things are afoot in the town of Santa Mira, California. People start complaining that their neighbors, friends, and even their family are beginning to act strangely. The people look the same but are now cold and unemotional.
Kevin McCarthy plays a doctor who at first believes he’s seeing a case of mass hysteria before the learning the much more sinister truth – alien pods are replacing people. As more and more people become aliens, the doctor doesn’t know who to trust or where to run. What’s even scarier is that the aliens aren’t some mindless monsters. They are self-aware. They explain that is better to be ‘pod-people’, life is less complex, you don’t have to worry about emotion, you don’t have to worry about individuality, as in a Communist state where everyone is supposedly equal and authorities will tell you how to think.
The balance between individuality and conformity may resonate even stronger today than it did during the bilateralism of the Cold War. For me, the highlight of the film is the scene near the end with McCarthy in the street screaming, “You’re Next! You’re Next!” Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a terrific horror film, tightly directed by tough-guy genre vet Don Siegel. The only demerit is the tacked on studio-mandated happy ending. This is the only film to ever scare my mom. She doesn’t scare easily.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers was remade three times. The most successful and skillful was the first remake in 1978 by Phillip Kaufman, who directed The Right Stuff. The film starred Donald Sutherland. Timeout London explains, “the remake takes things into weirder, more oblique territory, lampooning the fallout from the ’60s ideal with its lentils-and-beansprouts nature freaks and its bandwagon-jumping psychotherapy converts.”
Invasion of the Body Snatchers also inspired the very entertaining Kevin Williamson-scripted The Faculty (1998). In The Faculty, Ohio high school teachers are taken over by alien parasites.
The Blob (1958) – Irvin Yeaworth
It creeps and crawls all over the walls. The Blob is definitive drive-in movie of the 1950s. While distributed by Paramount Pictures, the studio copied the drive-in distribution model of Samuel Z. Arkoff’s American International Pictures. The Blob was independently produced by former vaudeville performer Jack H. Harris. Harris hired Irvin Yeaworth to direct. Yeaworth had never directed a narrative feature before. He had, however, directed over four hundred motivational and religious shorts.
The Blob starred a young Steve McQueen in his first leading role. Interestingly, McQueen was offered ten percent of the gross which he turned down in favor of a three thousand dollar fee upfront. The film grossed over four million dollars. The titular blob is a corrosive alien that crawls out of a meteor and grows bigger as it eats. Unlike many drive-in movies of the time, The Blob was shot in wide-screen color, and looks very impressive for a low budget b-movie. The blob was made with a mixture of red dye and silicone. It is still exists and is displayed at the annual Blobfest in Pennsylvania.
The Blob was remade in 1988. The bigger budget gorier remake has some nasty surprises up its sleeve.
William Castle – The Consummate Showman
The House on Haunted Hill (1959) – William Castle
Five people are invited to stay overnight at a haunted house. Whoever stays the whole night through gets ten thousand dollars. And with this simple high concept idea we come to William Castle – horror’s greatest showman. He wasn’t a very good director. His movies were strictly b-minus. No matter, they were some of independent film’s biggest hits. Castle had two trump cards: his leading man – the indomitable Vincent Price, and the Castle gimmicks.
Vincent Price, a Yale graduate, was blessed with horror’s most magnificent voice. John Water’s extols ‘Vincent Price could read a call sheet and it would sound scary or suspenseful.” No matter how ridiculous the material was Price would always play it straight. Waters remembers “It was never below him. And it was never below us. It elevated us.” The early Castle movies remain worth seeing for no better reason than to watch Vincent Price’s remarkable presence.
William Castle wanted to be a horror director since he first saw Dracula as a kid. In his autobiography the appropriately named Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America, he writes, “I knew then what I wanted to do with my life – I wanted to scare the pants off the audience.” His only problem is that he couldn’t direct a scary movie if his life depended on it. His films are cheesy and broad, but monstrously entertaining.
He moved to Hollywood at twenty-three and worked for the notoriously prickly Harry Cohn at Columbia. He had steady work for the next fifteen years but was never able to satisfy his ambitions. In 1958 he mortgaged his house so he could produce and direct a movie independently. The movie was Macabre (1958). It’s about a doctor who has to rescue his daughter from a maniac. It’s not a particularly good or memorable film. I like to think that Castle realized that. That’s why he came up with the marketing gimmick to pack people in. First, he gave each audience member a certificate for a one thousand dollar life insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London in case they were to die of fright during the film. Second he stationed nurses in the theater lobby, and parked hearses just outside of the theater. The gimmicks paid off beautifully. Macabre was a monster hit, earning over five million dollars against a ninety thousand dollar budget.
Castle advertised that The House on Haunted Hill was filmed in ‘Emergo.’ Late in the film a skeleton rises from a vat of acid, back from the dead to seek vengeance against the villain. At that moment a rubber skeleton with bright red eyes would float over the audience on a wire. The kids in the audience loved it. They would scream and throw candy or sodas at the skeleton. Castle once again had a hit on his hands. The film made over 1.5 million dollars.
There was a louder and much more gruesome remake of The House on Haunted Hill released in 1999. The remake was produced by Back to The Future director Robert Zemeckis and stars Academy Award Winner Geoffrey Rush in the role Vincent Price originated.
The Tingler (1959) – William Castle
The Tingler contains William Castle’s greatest gimmick. The movie is about a scientist again played by Vincent Price who discovers a parasite that feeds on fear. Castle’s gimmick was called ‘Percepto’. The tingler attaches itself to people’s spinal chords. In the movie fear gives it power, but it can only be destroyed by screaming. Castle instructed theaters to attach vibrating motors to the bottom of some theater seats. The motors were actually part of military surplus de-icers that he bought in bulk. In the exciting finale of the film the tingler gets loose into theater. In the movie, Vincent Price turns to the camera, and enunciates in the way only he can, “Ladies and gentleman please do not panic! But scream! Scream for your Lives!” The whole audience screams together in unison.
Even without ‘Percepto’ the movie is still worth watching for Vincent Price’s performance. Watch any Vincent Price movie. They are all worthwhile. Then watch the John Landis’ video for Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’; you’ll realize how much Vincent Price’s narration elevates the song. It would not be real horror without it. Even all those years later, Vincent Price still had it. If there is a single voice that defines the entire horror genre it belongs to Vincent Price.
The Sixties – Towards a More Adult Horror
Psycho (1960) – Alfred Hitchcock
Psycho contains one of the few scenes that ever really scared me. Lila Crane (Vera Miles) finds Mother sitting in a rocking chair in Norman Bates’ basement. She reaches out to her and… I won’t give it away. I’ve always wondered how this movie would have affected me if I was a little young when I saw. I was either fourteen or fifteen when I finally saw it. I remember one night when I was twelve or maybe thirteen. My parents were visiting the neighbors for the evening and left me alone at home. I was flipped on HBO, which I wasn’t supposed to do. I caught the beginning of Halloween: H20, a film I was not allowed to see. In the first ten minutes Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets an ice-skate through the face. A minute later the camera closes in on a sketch of Michael Myers’ face. His dark eyes (“The Devil’s eyes”) staring back at me. That scared me more than violence. Sometimes its what you don’t see. I couldn’t sleep that night. For quite a few years later if I was laughing in the wrong situation all I would have to do was focus on that shot and the laughter would die immediately. Why am I reminiscing? It’s because I think Psycho would have scared me more. It’s one of the few films you can never shake, and by far Alfred Hitchcock’s most visceral.
Hitchcock once said, “A good film is when the price of the dinner, the theatre admission and the babysitter were worth it.” If that’s the case run out and rent Psycho right now! Psycho is based on a book, which itself is based on the serial killer Ed Gein. Many movie killers, including Buffalo Bill and those sickos in the Rob Zombie movies, are based on Gein. Hitchcock actually ordered his assistant to buy up all the copies of the book to preserve the movie’s surprises.
Paramount did not want to make the movie. Hitchcock said he’d shoot it fast and cheap in black and white. The suits still balked. Finally he said he would self-finance the film and take a percentage instead of his director’s fee if Paramount would merely distribute the film. Finally they agreed, but only for an initial very limited two theater release.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot in case there is anyone who hasn’t seen it. Basically, a secretary (Janet Leigh, the film’s biggest name) steals 40,000 dollars in cash from her boss. On the run, she stays at the Bates Motel run by the introverted, friendly, but slightly strange Norman Bates (played by the fantastic Anthony Perkins, a role he could never escape). I shall say no more about the narrative.
I will say the shower scene was shot from seventy-eight different camera set-ups. Watch for the shot when she reaches out for the curtain. It is one the most horrific in horror cinema.
I’ll say it again – Go see Psycho.
Eyes Without a Face (1960) – Georges Franju
This French horror film is quite poetic and beautiful. It is directed by Georges Franju, who co-founded Paris’ renowned Cinématheque Française in 1936 with Henri Langlois. Franju was heavily influenced by surrealism, and that is readily apparent in Eyes Without a Face. The film is ostensibly about a doctor who will go to any length to repair his daughter’s disfigured face but can be better read as allegory about identity.
For me, the film is primarily worth seeing for its gorgeous black and white expressionistic cinematography. The cinematographer is Eugen Schüfftan. He invented a process in the twenties that used mirrors to blend actors with miniatures. The music in the film was written by Maurice Jarre, who wrote the score for Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
Critics of the time hated it, even though they praised the cinematography and score. The Spectator wrote that Eyes Without a Face was “the sickest film (I’ve seen) since I started criticism.” It has since undergone a critical re-evaluation. J. Hoberman in the Village Voice raves that the film is “a masterpiece of poetic horror and tactful, tactile brutality.”
Village of the Damned (1960) – Wolf Rilla
Here’s another great British horror film. This time with a sci-fi twist. The film adapted from John Wyndham’s novel, The Midwich Cukoos, is about an alien invasion in small town England. All the inhabitants of Midwich suddenly fall asleep. Two months later all the women discover they are pregnant. The children they give birth to all have platinum blond hair and the coldest eyes. The children are smarter than normal kids, and show no compassion or conscience. As they grow older they prove to have powers over peoples’ minds.
The film is extremely creepy in a well-mannered British way. Everything is just so matter-of-fact. Horror critic Kim Newman remembers, “the Midwich Children are the creepiest ever seen on film, with identical blonde wigs (an unsettling effect is achieved by casting real-life brunette kids whose colouring is subtly wrong for their hair) and staring eyes (in some prints, a glowing effect was added).” It is the understated malevolence of the film that makes it so memorable.
Importantly it is the first horror film to use the ‘it may not be over’ ending, that has since become a genre cliché. The film stars George Sanders from Rebecca (1940) and All About Eve (1950). It is definitely worth your time.
A word of caution, the movie is quite scary, in England it was given an ‘A’ certificate which was our version of the PG-13. Watch it before you show it to children. One fun fact: A religious group wanted MGM to shelve the project because of its ‘sinister’ depiction of virgin birth.
The Innocents (1961) – Jack Clayton
Martin Stephens who played the leader of the evil kids in The Village of The Damned returns as a little boy who lives in a manor that haunted by its previous governess and chauffer. Truman Capote wrote the script, loosely adapting The Turn of the Screw by Henry James.
The director, Jack Clayton, was previously nominated for the Academy Award for his debut film Room and The Top (1959) which he made immediately prior to The Innocents. The film stars Deborah Kerr as the little boy’s new governess.
Although the film does have some graphic and horrific imagery most of the scares come from lighting, camera angles, and an imaginative sound design. The film is full of ingenious visual tricks. Cinematographer Freddie Francis used filters that would soften the edges of the frame, bestowing the film with troubling fuzziness. Editor Jim Clark would place subliminal images into long dissolves between scenes. None of this would work without the stunning manor designed by Wilfred Shingleton who won an Academy Award for his darkly atmospheric set designs for David Lean’s Great Expectations (1947).
The Innocents is a classic horror film and one of the finest examples of studio horror. The Innocents is a blue-print for a string of great directors interested in gothic horror, including Alejandro Amenábar, and Guillermo del Toro. They are yet to match its beauty and intensity.
Bloodfeast (1963) – Herschell Gordon Lewis
Let’s pause for a moment of silence for Herschell Gordon Lewis. Commonly referred to as the ‘Godfather of Gore’, Lewis died last month. His film Bloodfeast, produced for the drive-in market, was the first splatter film.
The plot is not important but I’ll relate it anyway; a caterer kills women so he can eat them and sacrifice them to an Egyptian god. Told you it didn’t matter.
So why watch it? There are literally gallons of blood spilled in this movie. Lewis uses a sheep’s tongue to simulate a woman’s tongue ripped out. It is the oldest film to appear on the British Video Nasty list of banned videotapes.
John Waters is a noted fan. Bloodfeast is featured and discussed in his film Serial Mom. Critics hated it, not realizing it wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously.
Blood and Black Lace is the most influential giallo film. It is influential both to the giallo genre itself, as well as the American slasher genre that would emerge in the late 1970s. Giallo is Italian for yellow. It refers to the yellow covers of the cheap and tawdry mystery paperbacks that became popular during the post-Mussolini period. The academics disagree over what truly constitutes a giallo film. For me, a giallo has to have three primary ingredients:
1 – An overly complicated murder mystery
2 – A psychotic killer who wears black leather gloves and gruesomely kill gorgeous and revealing dressed or naked women
3 – Colorful cinematography with an overabundance of tracking shots.
The four primary giallo directors are:
A – Mario Bava
B – Dario Argento
C – Lucio Fulci
D – Sergio Martino
Blood and Black Lace is one of the first and best giallo. It introduces many of the genres primary elements. First of all, the women in the film are fashion models, which gives them an excuse to be beautiful and scantily clad. The killer wears black leather gloves. The narrative, revolving around a diary, is complicated.
The reasons to watch are the gore – this movie is a gorefest for 1964 – and the cinematography. Ubadlo Terzano’s cinematography is luscious and candy coated, filled to the brim with bright brilliant primary colors. Do yourself a favor, see this first before diving into the works of Argento and Fulci.
Another must see, though only for viewers with a strong stomach, is Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust (1980) – Italy’s finest addition to the cannibal sub-genre. The film is so gory the director was arrested for murdering his actors – who were contractually obligated to stay out of sight.
Repulsion (1965) – Roman Polanski
Horror grew up with Repulsion. I believe Repulsion is the first completely modern horror film. Mental collapse has never been more acutely captured on screen. Stunning French actress Catherine Deneuve plays Carol an icy manicurist who lives with her older sister in a small flat in London. When her sister leaves on vacation to Italy, Carol’s mental state quickly deteriorates. She locks herself in her apartment and her fears begin to manifest. Cracks appear in the plaster walls, she imagines herself sexually assaulted in the shower. In one of the film’s most chilling setpieces, arms grow out of the walls and attempt to grab and fondle her.
Polanski and cinematographer Gilbert Tayolor, who also shot A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Star Wars (1977), turn the flat into a stiflingly enclosed nightmare zone. In the opening shot, the camera emerges from an extreme close-up of Deneuve’s eye. For the rest of the film we are locked into her perspective. The world around her is entirely subjective. Critic Michael Sragow unpackages Polanski’s use of a scene that will soon be a horror cliché – the protagonist listening to another couple having sex. In any other film a scene like this would be played for comedy, instead according to Sragow, “When Deneuve lies awake listening to her sister come to orgasm, Polanski pulls the camera back slowly; visually as well as aurally, her moans fill Deneuve’s room.” This manner of psycho-sexual intensity permeates all of Repulsion.
In his contemporaneous review Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, an absolute knockout of a movie in the psychological horror line.” This film gets under my skin every time I watch it.
No one shoots claustrophobic interior spaces as well as Polanski. This was his first English language film. He had left Poland after his debut film Knife in Water in 1962. Polanski survived the Nazi’s and the Soviets, only to later have his wife Sharon Tate murdered at the hands of the Manson Family. In 1977 he was convicted of the rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. He fled the country, and lives in France where he continues to make films. Watching his films, we should attempt to separate the art from the artist.
Polanski’s next horror film was Rosemary’s Baby (1968). It is also primarily set in an apartment – this time, the Dakota in New York’s Upper West Side. In the film, John Cassavetes plays an actor who trades his wife (Mia Farrow) to their Satanist neighbors, so she can be impregnated by the Devil, in return for more plum roles. Ruth Gordon won an Academy Award for her performance as Rosemary’s pushy neighbor. William Castle originally optioned the book it’s based on, intending to direct. He was thankfully pushed out of the directing chair by Paramount executive Robert Evans. Castle retains a producing credit.
Night of the Living Dead (1968) – George Romero
“They’re coming for you Barbara!” So begins one of the most influential horror films ever made. The dead walk the earth as shuffling mindless zombies and unless you utterly destroy them nothing will stop them from eating you. This is the first horror film to use the barricaded survivors against an overwhelming enemy narrative. This type of story had been a mainstay in Westerns for years.
George Romero had directed commercial and industrial films through the early 1960s. He formed a production company with some friends called Image Ten. They were able to raise $114,000 with the help of many investors. They shot the movie in rural Pennsylvania. The low budget didn’t allow for complicated effects. The blood was chocolate syrup. They shot the film on 35mm, which was more expensive. Many viewers believe that the film was shot on 16mm, because of the low quality of the prints. The low quality, however, was due to independent distributers who wanted to save money on processing.
Night of the Living Dead is scary. Really scary. It never pulls any punches. In one of the film’s most horrific scenes a little girl zombie eats her father. She then picks up a spade and kills her mother. The handheld cinema-verite style shooting and fast sometimes messy editing increase the urgency. In 1968 no one had ever seen a film that was this intense and shot with this sort of documentary style realism.
Many people have politicized the fact that protagonist Ben is played by black actor Duane Jones. According to Romero, this was not a political move, Jones was merely the best actor to audition.
The film is also remembered for its downbeat-depressing ending. Critics despised the film. Variety hated the film calling it an “unrelieved orgy of sadism” and openly questioned the “integrity and social responsibility of its Pittsburgh-based makers”.
Roger Ebert remembers the audience reaction “The kids in the audience were stunned. There was almost complete silence. The movie had stopped being delightfully scary about halfway through, and had become unexpectedly terrifying. There was a little girl across the aisle from me, maybe nine years old, who was sitting very still in her seat and crying… It’s hard to remember what sort of effect this movie might have had on you when you were six or seven. But try to remember. At that age, kids take the events on the screen seriously, and they identify fiercely with the hero. When the hero is killed, that’s not an unhappy ending but a tragic one: Nobody got out alive. It’s just over, that’s all.”
Nevertheless, audiences flocked to the theater in droves. Night of the Living Dead grossed thirty million dollars. Romero followed it with five sequels. Dawn of the Dead (1980) is the best of the bunch. Dawn ups the gore quotient and unleashes the zombie hordes into a shopping mall, satirizing both commercialism and our basic human need for order and rules. Romero style zombies have never fallen out of vogue and today live on in AMC’s ultra-popular “The Walking Dead”.
Warning! Hour of the Wolf is an extremely complex film. What follows is an esoteric examination of Bergman’s horror masterwork. This is best read immediately before or after viewing the film!
Hour of the Wolf (1968) – Ingmar Bergman
In Ingmar Bergman’s dizzyingly oneiric Hour of the Wolf (1968) the extra-diegetic repetition of the introductory title-card conducts the audience into that nightmarish hour between late night and early morning, the time the demonic elements of Johan’s (Max von Sydow) psyche materialize. The film’s first half sets up Johan’s artistic struggle and fragile relationship with his wife, Alma (Liv Ullmann), who also narrates the film in bookends. The second half occurs during Vargtimmen, and chronicles the crumbling of Johan’s already damaged psyche, and his eventual and unintentional corruption of Alma’s sanity. The viewer is never fully alerted to the reality or delusion of the diegetic action. The majority of events that befall Johan and Alma exist in this realm of the uncanny.
From a Freudian perspective, these scenes are frightening because they are grounded in the familiar while remaining foreign. Hour of the Wolf consists of three narrative planes: Bergman’s extra-diegetic narration (Bergman’s voice is heard behind the opening credits), Alma’s narration, and the film’s base diegesis. The intra-diegetic Bergman has constructed a film based on the writings of an insane artist and the half-awake recollections of a woman afflicted with her husband’s terror. The protagonists’ proximity to one another distorts their perception, their personality, and their very sanity.
Particularly, the castle dinner scene shifts audience perception and identification, as well as the characters’ consciousness of their surroundings. Here, Bergman manipulates the audience’s relationship to the diegetic world of Hour of the Wolf in order to deconstruct the process of cinematic spectatorship. Bergman deconstructs spectatorship by first confounding the tangible and the oneiric, by disrupting structuralist notions of viewership, and finally by vexing the viewer’s ingrained mechanisms of filmic identification.Bergman distinguishes the tangible from the oneiric through opposing cinematic forms. The early scenes in the cottage approximate a tangible reality. Johan and Alma’s cottage is austere, a single lamp the supposed sole source of light. Bergman frames the two and a half minute scene very tightly, thereby highlighting the closeness of the couple. The audience identifies with Alma. She faces the camera. Alma has already leafed through Johan’s diary. She has read the foreboding assertion by Veronica Vogler (Ingrid Thulin), “Dreams can become unveiled.” Alma speaks very quickly, obviously unsettled. She tries in vain to engage Johan in routine household concerns, speaking at length about the weekly finances. Johan’s silence and stillness are at once uncanny and foreboding. He remains alarmingly disassociated. Suddenly Johan turns to Alma and states, “We are invited to the castle on Friday.” She responds, “I know,” but her hands cover her face in an image of absolute defeat. She leaves the table distraught, now enveloped in Johan’s delusion. Johan is left alone in the frame.
An uncomfortable synergy develops between Johan and the audience. In contrast to the austerity of the cottage, the cinematic form of the castle dinner scene is a volley of whip-pans, quick-cuts, and close-ups. The now fidgety Johan and the disoriented Alma are rarely glimpsed, intentionally over-lit, lost in an oppressive and claustrophobic jumble of grotesque Felliniesuqe faces and cut-off conversations. The tangible and oneiric blend together when the Baron (Erland Josephson) tells the story of hanging the artist’s work upside-down. “What a laugh we had,” says the Baron. Johan is jolted by the affront. Does the Baron deliberately publically chasten Johan, or is this a facet of Johan’s masochism regarding his perceived guilt over Veronica? The audience cannot know. Bergman challenges the audience’s sense of spectatorship and character identification by using these highly artificial and disorienting techniques.The castle dinner scene is intended to disrupt modern notions of spectatorship utilizing a frantic collage of opposing forces: real and imagined, tangible and oneiric. Structuralist notions of film spectatorship are based on the psychoanalytic principles of Jacques Lacan. Lacan applied structuralism and elements of literary theory to Freud’s principles of sexual development. To this end, Lacan created the central triptych of his own theory of psychoanalysis, the three stages of the boy’s development: the imaginary, the mirror, and finally the symbolic. Freud and Lacan agree that once the boy is part of the symbolic stage, he yearns to regress to the imaginary stage. Christian Metz argues that the viewer understands the cinematic process intuitively because the cinema-screen acts as a gateway back to the imaginary stage.
However, Bergman has Johan himself passing through the cinema-mirror. The fourth wall is ruptured at the end of the cottage sequence, finally severing the tangible from the oneiric. After Alma leaves the frame, Johan sits alone at the cottage’s dining room table. Bergman now tracks right, capturing Johan in the center of the frame. Johan looks directly at the camera and is thrust through the lens into the Baron’s party, re-establishing the original fourth wall break caused by the film-crew noises behind the opening credits. Johan passes through the cinema-mirror, but instead of leaving the diegesis, he enters his own nightmare.Classical notions of spectatorship are further muddled as Johan passes through the cinema-mirror, becoming an incorporeal spectator of his own nightmare. Metz contends that the cinema-mirror differs from the Lacanian mirror because the spectator’s own body cannot be reflected. To this end, Metz defines two forms of audience identification: primary and secondary. In primary identification the audience identifies only with the camera. Imagine watching a nature film. The camera mimics the audience’s own visual perception. In secondary identification the audience identifies with a single character as their stand-in within the diegetic world. Bergman’s camera dollies and tracks to each character in the Baron’s garden, shot from Johan’s perspective. Johan, outside of the nightmare, experiences the dream through primary identification.
The film audience watches the scene in the first person, but is aware of Johan’s presence within the garden; thus, they view the scene through a fusion of primary and secondary identification. Bergman cuts on motion and suddenly the camera circles around the castle’s dining room table, defining the borders of the scene and emphasizing the claustrophobia suffered by Johan and Alma. The audience presumes the scene is still shot from Johan’s perspective, but the camera moves far too quickly to be associated with a character. The silhouette of an unidentified man momentarily obscures the frame. Suddenly, the guests move to the periphery of the frame; and Johan is now sitting on the other side of the table.
While the audience is externally focalized with Johan and Alma, the camera work is at no point objective. It is in fact filtered through the consciousness of the intra-diegetic Bergman and ‘Alma the narrator.’ Bergman has shifted audience identification to the other two diegetic planes of narration. The action is no longer perceived through the characters within the diegetic space. The audience only hears small parts of the various conversations at the table. These fragments are constructed from Alma’s subjective memories of the past event, since the film constructed by the intra-diegetic Bergman is based on Alma’s narration. Bergman reveals his film’s meta-fictional narration and silently reiterates that the film is nothing more than a film.Hour of The Wolf is a meta-fictional examination of the cinematic form, akin to Bergman’s equally deconstructive Persona (1966). While Persona is Bergman’s thesis on cinematic structure, Hour of the Wolf is Bergman’s deconstruction of cinematic spectatorship. Bergman accomplished this by fusing the tangible and the oneiric, disrupting Metzian notions of spectatorship, and disturbing the traditional modes of viewer identification. As the film passes from the tangible (as tangible as a dimension behind a mirror can be, winks Bergman) to the abstract and oneiric, Bergman toys with the processes that audiences have trained themselves to develop over years of watching films. As Johan passes through the mirror into the Baron’s garden, audiences are all too willing to inhabit his character through internal focalization.
Hour of the Wolf begins with the sounds of its own construction and ends with Alma’s frightened musings. The bookends are displaced from the film’s central narrative. The film exists on three diegetic planes. On the film’s central narrative plane, the viewer identifies with Alma, then Johan, and then both characters together because Johan is influenced by Alma’s perception on the second diegetic level. In the end, the viewer most fully identifies with Bergman, for it is he that manipulates Alma’s memories. It is his voice that calls out instructions behind the opening credits. All the action filters through the perception of Bergman’s diegetic representation of himself, through all three levels of the diegetic world. Hour of the Wolf is Bergman’s treatise on cinematic spectatorship.
The Wicker Man (1973) – Robin Hardy
The Wicker Man is the great British horror curiosity. It is also actor Christopher Lee’s favorite of his own films. In the film, Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian is called to investigate the disappearance of a little girl on a small island. The denizens of the island are pagans. As he searches for the little girl, he unravels the mystery of the island, and the titular wicker man. This is a very strange movie. At times it’s a mystery. At times it’s a comedy. There are times it is extremely horrific. There are also times it’s a musical. The main song, Willow’s Song, sung by a naked Britt Eckland (well, she’s being overdubbed), is quite catchy.
This is a very difficult film to discuss and avoid spoilers. Let me just say, fifteen minutes were cut out of its theatrical showing. Watch the ‘Final Cut’ available on DVD from Anchor Bay. This film has a very loyal fan-base and is quite the cult artifact. Watch it, then let me know what you think in the comments section.
The Exorcist (1973) – William Friedkin
This is the grande dame of horror films. It is based on William Peter Blatty’s monstrously best selling horror novel. Blatty grew up poor and ethnic in New York City and attended Georgetown University. He is a devout Catholic. His life has many similarities to Exorcist protagonist Father Karras.
In the movie, Reagan, the young daughter of a famous actress filming a movie on the Georgetown campus, is possessed by a demon. After her mother exhausts medical possibilities she enlists Father Karras, a priest and psychologist who is having a crisis of faith. The church partners Karras with an old priest, Father Merrin,, played by Bergman’s favorite actor Max Von Sydow. Von Sydow was only 44 at the time and played the role under heavy makeup. The Exorcist has a reputation as the scariest movie of all time – it is certainly horrific.
The possessed Reagan is played to perfection by Linda Blair, aided by a mixture of incredible makeup effects and puppetry. Veteran radio actress Mercedes McCambridge dubbed the possessed girl’s voice. I admit with some relief that Blair did not have to say some of the demon’s more profane outbursts, such as, “Stick your cock up her ass, you motherfucking worthless cocksucker.” The obscenity of the possessed girl’s behavior was completely shocking in 1973. Much of it still is today. In a very bloody scene the young girl masturbates with a crucifix, screaming “Let Jesus Fuck You!” Because of the shocking nature of the scenes, many audience members did not realize this was a deeply Catholic film. Only through showing the depravity of the Devil, could Blatty show the strength of God and the Church.
William Friedkin was not Warner Brother’s first choice of director. They wanted a bigger name. Friedkin had only just emerged on national scene, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture with his prior film, the gritty and energetic The French Connection (1971). Friedkin was a dictator on set. Reagan’s bedroom set was freezing cold so he could not only appropriately film the characters frozen breath, but their pain and fear. Friedkin went over one hundred days over schedule. There were times that the actors, violently jerked around on harnesses, were in real pain. Friedkin used their real screams. He would have the propmaster fire blanks on the set near the actor, so he could get the surprised or scared reaction that he wanted. In another example of manipulation, Friedkin told Jason Miller, who plays Father Karras, the pea soup that Reagan vomits would only hit him in the chest. During the take Friedkin had the liquid aimed at the actor’s face. Miller’s expression of disgust is real and elevates the scene.
Friedkin’s gambits paid off. The Exorcist was a tremendous success. Adjusted for inflation it is still the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time. The Exorcist was nominated for ten Academy Awards, the most ever for a horror film. This is a film whose reputation is entirely deserved.
And Then There Was Vietnam…
Vietnam was the first televised war. The images desensitized the viewer. In response horror films became more violent emphasizing the worst possible human behaviors.
The Last House on the Left (1972) – Wes Craven
The Last House on the Left is loosely based on Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring. In The Virgin Spring three herdsman rape and murder the daughter of a prosperous farmer. They then seek shelter is his home, not knowing that he is her father. The film explores themes of faith and justice as the man sets out to avenge his daughter. The Last House on The Left transports the same narrative to suburban New York. Unlike the The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left is interested in little more than rape, extreme violence, and degradation. It is the first feature film directed by genre luminary Wes Craven.
Craven had a strictly religious upbringing. He was not allowed to see films as a child. He only started going to the movies when he was in college. Craven has master’s degree in Philosophy from Johns Hopkins. After graduating, he taught English in a small college in upstate New York. While still a professor, he started to make 16mm shorts with the help of his students.
He moved to New York City in the mid-1960’s and found work as an editor of pornographic films. This is where he met Sean Cunningham who would later direct Friday the 13th. Cunningham was involved in the ‘white coat’ subgenre of pornography. In 1969 the Supreme Court ruled that the Swedish film I am Curious (Yellow) was not pornographic because of its educational content. Following the decision there was a torrent of soft-core porn films that pretended to be educational by having a doctor in a white coat intellectualize the graphic sex that followed.
In 1971, Craven and Cunningham co-produced a ‘white coat’ film called Togetherness. A small distribution company paid them ten thousand dollars. The film was mildly successful so the company agreed to fund a horror film as their next project. Much of the film was shot in Westport, Connecticut, near Cunningham’s parent’s home. Folk singer David Hess (who wrote the Pat Boone hit “Speedy Gonzales) was cast as the villain and sang the theme.
The Last House on the Left very closely follows the framework of The Virgin Spring. Mari Collingwood attends a concert in the city with a friend. They are kidnapped by a sadistic gang, and taken to the woods, where they are raped repeatedly, graphically tortured, and finally murdered. The gang takes shelter at Mari’s parents house. Her parents realize that the youngest member of the gang is wearing Mari’s peace necklace. The parents then kill the gang in a variety of extremely disgusting ways, including most ridiculously, death by fellatio. Roger Ebert writes, “”Last House on the Left” is a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie that’s about four times as good as you’d expect. There is a moment of such sheer and unexpected terror that it beats anything in the heart-in-the-mouth line since Alan Arkin jumped out of the darkness at Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark.” The film also features a very memorable tagline: “To avoid fainting, keep repeating ‘It’s only a movie…”
Take my word for it; this is an extremely graphic movie. The torture of the girls is very hard to watch. It is not for everybody. It’s worth watching because it is a time capsule of very specific moment in the development of horror, this is part of a post-Vietnam bridge to the much more mainstream and palatable slasher genre.
Craven followed this with The Hills Have Eyes, which is another work of extreme savagery. In that film, a family is forced to lose their humanity to fight a group of mutated miners. The Last House on the Left was remade in 2009 with much more skill but less raw savagery. The edges have most definitely been sanded. The remake stars Sarah Paxton as Mari.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – Tobe Hooper
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre has a reputation as one of the most gruesome and violent films ever made. Actually, most of the violence takes place off screen. Nevertheless, the film is intense, very very intense. Tobe Hooper was working at University of Texas Austin when he and his friend Kim Henkel decided to make a horror film. Hooper says he was watching the news when he decided to make this film. There was a “brutality and unsentimentality” that he had never witnessed before.
Beside Jim Siedow, who was a minor radio and stage actor, the cast was filled with people just starting their careers. Gunnar Hansen, who plays the retarded killer Leatherface, was just out graduate school when he landed the role. He took the role seriously, and studied special needs children to create the character’s distinctive mannerisms. They were able to find an old farmhouse in Round Rock, Texas (in the greater Austin area) to serve as the home for the crazed cannibalistic Sawyer family. Hooper shot the film on 16mm which gives it a sun-speckled highly realistic look.
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is filled with memorable scenes. The first appearance of Leatherface is one of the strongest in all of horror. Kirk, one of the protagonists, stands just in front of the house’s front screen door. He is framed by the stair to the left and a wall with animal heads to his right. He is heavily backlit. We hear squealing from an open door in front of him. The room behind the door is entirely red. Hooper cuts back in forth between Kirk and the open door. The squealing intensifies. He panics. Runs forward to investigate. Suddenly Leatherface appears standing over him. Hooper cuts to a close up of Leatherface, who has an apron on. He is wearing someone’s preserved face. Hooper cuts to a wider shot, the camera is positioned near the front door. Leatherface slams Kirk in the head with a hammer. Kirk falls. Hooper cuts to three different close-ups of Kirk’s body spasming, then back to the wide shot. Leatherface grabs Kirk and throws him offscreen, then slams a metal door shut. There is no blood in the scene. No special effects. Yet is horrific on a very primal level.
I will not spoil the dinner scene or the finale. They are horrific for the same reason as Leatherface’s introduction, they are horror at its most basic, they trigger our fight or flight response in the safety of the movie theater or our home. Bud Wilkins at Slant Magazine points out that the editing is much more skillful and avante-garde then it was initially given credit for. Watch how the image of the burning sun rhymes with Marylin Burns reddened eyes during the dinner scene, or the almost balletic shot of Leatherface and his chainsaw as the film ends.
Tobe Hooper followed The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with a popular television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. In 1982 he collaborated with Steven Spielberg on Poltergeist. Many critics believe Spielberg actually directed Poltergeist and couldn’t take credit because he was precluded by union rules since he was filming ET (1982) at the same time. I believe it really was a collaboration. Hooper returned to the Sawyer family with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in 1986 for Canon Films, the studio that produced all those Chuck Norris movies and ninja movies. The sequel is very different than the original. It is very ‘80s. Critics hated it. I think it’s worth seeing for the fantastic opening scene, Bill Moseley as the monstrous Chop Top, and finally for Dennis Hopper’s hot under the collar performance as a vengeful Texas Ranger. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre had two more sequels; there were also two remakes of varying quality thanks to Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes.
Suspiria (1977) – Dario Argento
Suspiria is an Italian horror film. It is not a giallo. It is a tale of witchcraft. The film is a candy-coated nightmare filled with gorgeous colored lighting and one of the genre’s finest scores thanks to progressive rock band ‘The Goblins’.
The film is extremely gruesome but so beautiful it is hard to look away. There is a scene early in the movie in which a young woman is stabbed in the chest in close-up (Argento used an animal heart), then falls through stained glass, then is hanged, then impaled on the glass. It’s that type of movie.
Let’s dispense with the narrative – Suzy Bannion is an American ballet student. She arrives in Germany to study at a prestigious dance school in Freiburg. The school is run by witches. Argento originally wanted to cast the movie with young girls. That proved unworkable. He ended with women in their twenties. He compensated by making the sets too big, and by forcing them to prattle and fight like little girls.
This is one of those LSD horror movies – all images – no real narrative. The images though are out of this world. The first five minutes are so good that I watch them on Youtube on repeat. If you like this watch some of his giallos. I love Phenomena (1985) with a young Jennifer Connelly. Tenebre (1982) is also pretty great. Real Argento fans would recommend Deep Red (1975). Stay away from his films post-1990; they are mostly hideous.
Horror Comes to the Suburbs
Carrie (1976) – Brian De Palma
Carrie is the best high school horror film. The acting across the board is spectacular. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both received Oscar nominations for their performances as the bullied girl with telekinetic powers and her religious nut mother respectively. John Travolta shows up as a young thug. Nancy Allen is aces as the bad girl. P.J. Soles never takes off her baseball cap as the Allen’s henchwoman. Bill Katt charms as most popular boy in school who invites Carrie to the prom.
De Palma proves that he’s a horndog with the masterful slow motion opening in the girl’s locker room. The climax at the prom is slightly dated but still incredibly powerful. Some of the split screen shots haven’t aged well. The earlier optical printer shots still wow and look much better the CGI that would be used today. The final scene is still a scream; watch the birds and the car on the perpendicular street.
Stephen King once talked about seeing an early screening of Carrie in a black neighborhood. He thought the film wouldn’t fly because it’s about a white girl’s experiences. When he heard the crowd cheering he realized how universal a good film really is.
Halloween (1978) – John Carpenter
The night he came home. Halloween is the first real slasher film. Bob Clark’s Black Christmas back in 1974 was a Yuletide thriller. This is a slasher film, although it lacks the high level of gore that would come to define the genre in the 1980’s. The plot is fantastically simple. When Michael Myers was six years old he killed his sister on Halloween night. Fifteen years later, on October 30th, 1978 he escapes from the asylum, and travels back to his home – Haddonfield, Illinois. He is trailed by his doctor. His victims are babysitters and their boyfriends. The virginal Laurie Strode will be the final girl – the good girl – the only survivor.
After all these years, and a ton of imitators, Halloween is still a taut enduring thriller. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano.” Roger Ebert believes that director John Carpenter is cut from the same cloth. He writes, “Halloween” is an absolutely merciless thriller, a movie so violent and scary that, yes, I would compare it to “Psycho” (1960).
Let’s explore what Carpenter does so well:
Halloween begins with a shot of the Meyers’ house. The camera moves in from the side. The camera movement suddenly shifts to the left; too perfect for a human sidestep. For a split second the audience is induced into primary identification. After a beat, the camera begins to march forward, bobbing slightly, attuned to the breath of an unknown protagonist. Two teenagers necking in the hallway are quickly glimpsed through the front door. The unseen protagonist, and the audience aligned with his gaze, moves silently and smoothly to the side of the house. The protagonist moves to a window at the side of the house and peers through. He watches the teenagers make-out on the couch in the living room. The object of his gaze leaves the room. The voyeur is unsure of his next move, he glances back and forth, then walks back to the front of the house. He watches without moving until the light turns off in his sister’s room. The soundtrack plays a non-diegetic orchestration, alerting the audience that the hint of sex springs the voyeur into action. Suddenly, he moves to the back door. He enters the house, examines the kitchen, opens the door and grabs a butcher’s knife. The audience follows his gaze to the stairs. The voyeur hides in the darkness of the living room as the boyfriend leaves the house. The soon-to-be-killer slowly climbs the stairs. At the top of the stairs a clown mask, that the boyfriend was playing with earlier, lies on the ground. Michael picks it up and puts it on. He enters the bedroom and watches his naked sister brushing her hair. The mask does not hide his identity from those around him. When his sister notices him she calls him by name. “Michael!” She tries to cover up, breaks his scopophilic (sexual excitement through looking) gaze.
 During primary identification the audience is aligned with the gaze of the camera. In this shot, all that is on the screen is the house. There is nothing else but the camera’s gaze to relate to. In secondary identification the audience identifies with a character as their stand-in for the imaginary world.
 The audience would unconsciously assume that gaze is male because it is active.Throughout the film, Michael only attacks when his gaze is broken. In the opening scene he stabs his sister ten times in the breasts, clearly a sexual act with the knife as a physical representation of the psycho-analytic fantasy phallus. However, the act itself is not entirely a result of the castration complex. With the mask on, Michael is not a subject of language, he has blurred his own identity, and has thus distorted his stage in development. In his gaze, the audience and Michael only see his sister. It is only when she notices him, and says his name that he strikes. Through the murder, Michael is denying his own existence. He is unwilling to see himself as a separate entity in the figurative mirror. He walks down the stairs and exits the house with the mask still on. As he stands in the yard his parents approach him. His father is closer. His father rips off the mask thus forcing Michael to acknowledge that he is his own physical entity in front of his mother. His father stands closer to him. His mother refuses to approach any closer. Michael has been forced into the symbolic. Yet, he will not accept that he is a subject of language. Michael has “no reason, no conscience, no understanding; even the most rudimentary sense of life or death, good or evil, right or wrong…” Michael does not say a word for the next fifteen years. During the opening scene the audience has identified with a pre-pubescent child. In the next scene, Michael Myers escapes from a mental institution. The audience is soon re-united with his now adult male gaze. The object of his gaze and the audience’s gaze is Laurie, the film’s virginal heroine. Dr. Loomis may be the male authority figure, but, his gaze is extremely limited; Michael Myers drives behind the doctor as Loomis waits to talk with the sheriff. It is not until the end of the film when Dr. Loomis hears the screams of Tommy and Lindsey that he is alerted to the killer’s location.
Laurie is introduced leaving her house on the way to school. As she walks from her driveway to the street she is objectified by the male gaze of the camera in much the same way that Michael objectified Judith Myers through his point of view early in the film. At first she is a passive observer, she neither has her own ‘gaze’, or the ability to see Michael. On her way to school she drops a key off at the Myers house.
Unbeknownst to Laurie, as she walks up the path towards the Myers house, Michael is watching from inside the house. She doesn’t see him. The scene is shot from within the house. The audience can hear Michael’s breathing. However, the shot is not from his perspective, he enters the frame right before Carpenter cuts back to Laurie. Michael has a new mask, the white William Shatner mask, the face of his childhood self, as Loomis says “blank, pale, emotionless”Myers objectifies Laurie and her friends by the force of his gaze. The audience objectifies the girls through their identification with the male gaze of the camera. Yet, as the narrative develops Laurie begins to sense the presence of Myers. She sees him behind bushes, in backyards in between clothing lines, most importantly she sees him when her friends cannot. Nevertheless, she is not yet entirely an active participant in the narrative. She does not see Michael clearly, only in glimpses so fast they may well be imagined. Laurie becomes an active character when she wanders over to the house across the street to investigate the disappearance of her friends. Laurie’s entrance into the upstairs bedroom (shot in first person as she pushes the door open) not only forces spectatorial alignment with Laurie, but is also eerily reminiscent of Michael’s entrance into his sister’s room.
Inside the room, Michael has designed an elaborate scene clearly created for viewing. Annie is lying on the bed, Judith Meyers’ gravestone has been placed above her head. Michael Myers’ ‘artistic’ posing of the dead teenagers is his way of reconnecting with his original masked gaze. By alluding to his first murder scene, Michael regresses to the imaginary toddler phase. Laurie inherits a gaze because of Michael’s spectacle. For the first time she sees clearly. According to Carol Clover’s final girl theory, Laurie by developing a gaze has attained a phallus and is ready to return to Tommy Doyle’s house and fight the monster.Carpenter does not entirely agree with the final girl theory. He sees Laurie as repressed. The other girls, the ones having sex, are the normal ones. Laurie can stand up to Michael because she is just as repressed as he is.
I will not give away the film’s ending, but I will say that it is brilliantly unsettling and his ripped off by many slasher films since.
Also, the simple score Carpenter wrote to the film rocks!
Additionally Carpenter fans should watch his first film Assault on Precinct 13, a re-interpolation of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo. The ice cream scene still gives me chills. His remake of the The Thing with Kurt Russell is masterpiece of isolation and paranoia, not to mention goopy practical effect. My two favorite Carpenter films are Big Trouble in Little China, a supernatural kung-fu extravaganza also starring Russell (See if you get the joke); and his adaptation of Stephen King’s Christine (1983)
Friday the 13th (1980) – Sean Cunningham
Friday the 13th was not very good but it was insanely popular. Fans of Scream know that killer in the original was not the hockey masked Jason, but his mother. The make-up effects by Tom Savini are terrific throughout. Sadly some of them were cut to avoid an X rating.
Friday the 13th marks an early role for Kevin Bacon. Bacon is killed as he’s enjoying a post-coital cigarette, by a spear that pierces his throat from under the bed. It’s a great death scene, one of the best in the series. The only priorly known actor in the film is Betsy Palmer who plays Mrs. Vorhees. She had a career dating back to 1951.
Sean Cunningham, a shrewd marketer in the William Castle tradition, took out an ad in Variety, calling the Friday the 13th “The Most Terrifying Film Ever Made!” before he even had a finished script.
Critic Gene Siskel hated the film so much he intentionally spoiled the ending in his first paragraph. He published the address of the Chairman of the Board of the Company that owned Paramount (the studio that distributed the film) so readers could personally write nasty letters. Friday the 13th was followed by nine successful sequels, a crossover film with A Nightmare on Elm Street and a remake.
The Shining (1980) – Stanley Kubrick
What is there still to say about The Shining? It’s the big macher of modern studio horror films. Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s mostly naturally lit period picaresque, didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. For his next film, Kubrick wanted something that would appeal to a wider audience. Kubrick read through a pile of horror books to find his next subject. His assistant remembers him starting them and the flinging against the wall. She finally noticed it was quiet in his office, when she checked on him, she found him reading The Shining.
The shoot was notoriously difficult. Kubrick wanted everything perfect. He had his crew re-build quite a bit of The Ahwahnee Hotel in California on a soundstage in England. At this point Kubrick was scared of flying, so he would not leave England. Jack Nicholson was Kubrick’s first choice for Jack. Nicholson, a method actor, cruelly ignored his co-star Shelley Duval. Kubrick ignored her too. He wanted her to wallow in the character’s alienation. She had a nervous breakdown of the set. Nicholson improvised the famous tennis ball scene. Kubrick constantly re-wrote the script. This annoyed Nicholson to the point that he only learned his lines a few minutes before a take.
The Shining was one of the first films to use the newly invented Steadicam for smooth tracking shots. The Steadicam shot of Danny on his tricycle meeting the two dead girls is suitably famous.
Stephen King didn’t particularly like the film. He famously said, “Parts of the film are chilling, charged with a relentlessly claustrophobic terror, but others fall flat. Not that religion has to be involved in horror, but a visceral skeptic such as Kubrick just couldn’t grasp the sheer inhuman evil of The Overlook Hotel. So he looked, instead, for evil in the characters and made the film into a domestic tragedy with only vaguely supernatural overtones. That was the basic flaw: because he couldn’t believe, he couldn’t make the film believable to others. What’s basically wrong with Kubrick’s version of The Shining is that it’s a film by a man who thinks too much and feels too little; and that’s why, for all its virtuoso effects, it never gets you by the throat and hangs on the way real horror should.” King has since come to terms with the film. Whether or not The Shining thinks too much and feels to little, it is a masterpiece of the cinematic form. Don’t be a dull boy…see the movie.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) – John Landis
“Hello David!” This is the great white horror comedy, and John Landis at the peak of his powers. Two friends are attacked by a werewolf after a fantastically memorable scene in a pub right off the moors. One of the friends is killed while the other, David, is sent to recover in a London hospital. His dead and decomposing friend shows up to warn him that he will become a werewolf during the next full moon.
David starts a relationship with a pretty nurse, which leads to the very popular shower sex scene. Horror fans like nudity. Especially when it’s Jenny Agutter. The friend’s later meet for a hysterical conversation at a pornographic theater playing the ridiculous porn flick ‘See You Next Wednesday’, which John Landis alludes to in all of his films. Watch for the Academy Award winning werewolf makeup effects by Rick Baker, which were revolutionary for their time. Also keep an eye out for Miss Piggy and Frank Oz.
My of the favorite horror comedy is the Steven Spielberg produced Gremlins (1984). Although not strictly a horror movie, the supernatural comedy Topper (1937) starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett remains a perennial must-see.
Pieces (1983) – Juan Piquer Simon
Bad Chop Suey! I first ran into Pieces on an all night Halloween marathon plan by Eli Roth, so I’ll let him describe it. Let me just say that there’s a scene where the protagonist is attacked by Bruce Lee impersonator Bruce Li (the star of Game of Death 2) before he comes to his senses blaming his out of control kung fu on bad chop suey.
Eli says: “It’s a Spanish horror film [1982’s Mil Gritos Tiene La Noche] that was released as Pieces here. It was made in Spain, but except for Paul L. Smith, it’s mostly Spanish actors with some really great bad dubbing. Pieces is one of my favorite early-’80s slasher films, in that it’s a chainsaw movie that gives you absolutely everything you want. It’s got amazingly cheesy acting, it’s got fantastic kills, it starts off right away with a flashback with a kid killing his parents. It’s just a fantastic, low-budget slasher movie with a terrific ending that makes no sense. And it’s become a cult film, because there’s a great line where the really hot undercover police agent—who’s also posing as the tennis instructor—finds a girl who’s been hacked up in the school bathroom. She just shakes her fist and goes [High-pitched female voice.] “Bastard! Bastard, bastard, bastard!” If you ever watch it with an audience, everyone always cheers along during that scene.”
The film’s tagline was “You don’t have to go to Texas for a Chainsaw massacre.” Enough said.
Sleepaway Camp (1983) – Robert Hiltzik
This is a terrible slasher film. I mean it’s the genre at its most mediocre. The opening scene is so bad you think you’re in a satire. The best murder starts with a rape by curling iron. Which is severely sick because the victim seems like she’s sixteen at most.
Then there’s the ending. That last shot. I won’t give it away, but it’s the whole and only reason to watch this twisted film. The last shot will burn itself into your retina. I’m warning you. I will say that the stand-in in the last shot is a college student who had to get drunk before he was willing to do it. Or so the story goes.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Wes Craven
‘One…Two…Freddy’s Coming for You…’ A Nightmare on Elm Street is the most creative slasher film of the 1980’s. Wes Craven remembers, as a child, asking his mother if she could enter his dream to protect him from the boogeyman. She told him that “sleep was the one place we had to go alone.’ When Craven was ten he lived in a second story apartment in Cleveland. One night, there was a muttering and shuffling outside his window. Craven got out of bed to look out the window. Down on the street stood an old man in an overcoat. The man stopped in his tracks and stared up at Craven. Craven dropped to the ground. When he got up again, the man was still leering at him. The man stared at Craven with an I-can-see-you grin. Craven woke his older brother, who grabbed a baseball bat, and with Wes Craven at his side, walked to the street. When they opened the apartment building’s door, the man was gone. In Craven’s mind, this man became Freddy Kreuger. Freddy was a child killer, the parents of Springfield, Anywhere, USA burnt him when he was released on a technicality. The razor-gloved fiend lives in the mind of the children. He is such a presence – a legend- that they have a jump-rope song about him even though none of the kids remember him. “Five…Six…Grab your crucifix…9….10 Never Sleep again.” Freddy has the power to invade their dreams and kill them when they sleep; the only time they are forced to be truly alone. In college, Craven studied Freud and Jung, both influences on his films.
There’s another story that influenced the creation of A Nightmare on Elm Street. A young man in Los Angeles suffered from horrible nightmares. He believed a monster was going to kill him in his sleep. He decided to stay awake. He did not sleep for four days, then his parents brought him to the doctor. He prescribed sleeping pills. In the middle of the night his parents heard screaming. They found him thrashing in the bed. Then he was dead. He had not taken the pills. His mother followed an extension cord to a hot coffee maker in his closet. When Craven heard that horrible tragic story he began to write. Craven named his monster Freddy, after a kid who had bullied him in school. Craven cast Robert Englund as Freddy. Englund was the son of one of the designers of the U-2 spyplane.
Nancy Thompson is my favorite final girl. She is smart, plucky, and vulnerable; yet courageous. She’s the girl next door. She’s the girl that sits at the edge of the popular table because she’s dating the football hero but is more comfortable around the smart girls. There are few girls who rival her in the horror genre, certainly not Sydney Prescott or Laurie Strode. She’s an average girl in an extraordinary situation who is able to raise her game to defeat a monster that has all of the advantages.
I’m yet to mention Jacques Haitkin’s colorful soft-focus cinematography or Charles Bernstein’s famous score. It’s because A Nightmare on Elm Street is the one slasher where I care about the characters. I want to see Nancy defeat Freddy. I’m involved. The craftsmanship, as strong as it is, is secondary.
A Nightmare on Elm Street was followed by six sequels. They are all a cut above the average slasher film. Wes Craven returned to direct the seventh film in the franchise, a post-modern meta-exercise that pre-figures his hit film Scream (1996).
Scream (1996) – Wes Craven
A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 was the highest grossing movie of the 1980’s slasher cycle. It was released in 1988. By the end of the eighties the genre was recycling through diminished returns. By the mid-1990s the horror genre was almost considered dead. The iconic slasher series were winding down. There was a glut of direct to video trash. Then came Scream. Scream was hip. Scream was self-referential. Scream was for teenagers who had grown up with the slasher film, and now had left it behind to rot. Wes Craven, who had partially invented modern horror, returned to revitalize it.
The first thing that set Scream apart from the old slasher flick is that it had a real cast: Drew Barrymore, Friends’ Courtney Cox, David Arquette. These were popular actors. The new actors were no slouches either: Neve Campbell, Matthew Lillard, Rose McGowan. However, there’s one more thing that sets it apart besides Wes Craven’s career-best direction; Kevin Williamson’s witty and memorable script. Williamson created teenagers who actually spoke like teenagers. On top of that, these kids went to the movies, they knew all the insider info: Tatum tells final girl Sydney that if you pause All The Right Moves in just the right place, you can see Tom Cruise’s penis. Moreover, the kids were experts on horror films. Randy, the kid who works at the video store, has even mapped out the rules to survive a horror movie.
Much of the film’s self-referentialism also works as comedy. This is not to say that Scream is a comedy. Actually at the time of its release Scream was controversial for its extreme level of violence. At the end of the opening scene a girl is graphically stabbed, disemboweled, and hung from a tree. For critic Roger Ebert, the ironic use of the self-awareness and the clever jokes diffuse some of the violence and gore. For some of you that won’t be the case, so count this as a word of warning before streaming this movie.
Scream’s opening scene is a doozey. The film’s biggest star is making popcorn before watching a movie. To leave some suspense for the minority of you who have not already seen this fantastic movie I will not name the actress. Anyway, the phone rings. The man on the other side of the call flirts with her. She hangs up. He calls again. He threatens her. Finally he forces her to play a game in which she has to answer trivia questions about horror film. The scene soon descends into a very well orchestrated game of killer chases big breasted girl through her house. Unlike most slasher killers, this particular killer is fallible. She can trip him. Maybe she can also hurt him. It has to be noted how much Marco Beltrami’s memorable score elevates this scene and the whole movie. What happens next? Just watch the movie.
Ringu (1999) – Hideo Nakata
By the late 1990s, Japan was making the only interesting horror movies in the world. That’s why in the early 2000’s American audiences had to wade through a glut of J-Horror remakes.
In Japan, Hideo Nakata was leading the trend of great horror movies and Ringu was his trump card. It has a perfect high concept narrative. There is a haunted video. If you watch the video you will get a phone call that says you will die in seven days. After the death of her niece, a female journalist sets out to track down the video, believing that it only to be an urban legend. Ringu was the highest grossing horror film in Japan. To say anything more would be telling.
Audition (1999) – Takashi Miike
John Landis said that Audition is too horrific even for him. It is directed by the amazingly prolific Takashi Miike. He has directed over ninety films since 1991. The first half of Audition feels like a gentle beautifully shot melodrama, maybe with lightly comedic overtones. A widower is urged by his son to start dating again. A friend of his, who is a film producer holds a fake audition, so the widower can choose a woman to date.
Enter Asami – submissive and friendly, she seems like she would be the perfect Japanese wife… You’ll never get more out of me. See the film if you dare. Let me warn you…Scream is a family film compared to this.
It Follows (2015) – David Robert Mitchell
The new millennium has not been a friend to the horror fan. Torture porn here, found footage there, it’s like we are surrounded by the worst traits in horror. It Follows is not the curative that Scream was, but it’s a definite step in the right direction. The opening scene is the best horror sequence in years. We open on a broad autumn street scene. Leaves fall. It could be Haddonfield. The street is empty. Total quiet. The camera slowly pans to the right. Suddenly a girl in high heels explodes out the door of a suburban house. The camera tracks sideways after her. She runs into the middle of the road. A woman grabbing groceries from a car offers to help. The girl refuses. We close in on her. The sound design builds. We hear her father’s voice off-screen. Is she scared of him? She takes off running again. The camera once again smoothly tracks her. We are over a minute in and there has not been a single cut. She runs past her dad into her house. Her father follows her in. The frame holds on the house. A beat. Another beat. And suddenly she’s back through the door, running as fast as she can on high heels. She gets in her car and backs out the driveway. Accelerates down the street. Almost two minutes in Mitchell finally cuts to the interior of the car. The opening scene on the street was an unbroken take.
Now, the entire film is not as strong as the opening. Thematically it’s a little obvious. You have to pass the monster on to someone else – Ben Stein Voice – STD Anyone? Anyone? Also later in the film the humanoid monsters tend to do that annoying CGI enhanced roar where their mouth opens too much.
That being said, this is strong film from Mitchell, who does not view himself as a horror director. Above all, with its controlled (not just pointing the camera in every direction like most modern horror movies) camera set-ups and fantastic score, It Follows is a small step in the right direction for the horror genre.
And that is a short history of the horror film.
So, when our post-modern Samhain comes, remember Alfred Clark, and James Whale, or Val Lewton, and watch a horror movie. Check out something from this list, or an old favorite, or whatever is playing on a cable Halloween marathon. Return to an older more dangerous time in the safety and comfort of your own home.