Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chapter Forty Eight: "Theatre of Blood: A Basic Guide to the History of Horror in Film. Part IV."

Each decade represents a shift in the style of the horror film when viewed and painted in broad strokes, which I’m doing for this essay simply out of space and time. I mean, this is a blog, so theoretically, there is plenty of space. Time is my main enemy due to jobs, life, and the fact I’m not getting paid to sit here and delve as far into detail as I would love to. Viewing horror through these broad strokes, certain decades stand out for me. The early experimentations with a new medium in the 1890s and 1900s are fascinating in their surreal nature and the sheer historiography naturally grafted in them. The 1930s obviously stand out for the foundation of the iconic gothic imagery and popularization of Monsters.  The 1950s captivate me for the campiness and the migration of features to the drive-in, changing the style and visual ambience found in horror. The 1960s are interesting for the modernization of the genre. However, if I were to pick a single decade that would be my absolute favorite, the 1970s are that decade. Partially based on my age, these films were being made as I began to become aware and eventually addicted to the movies and television, and are stamped on my brain. Plus, I’ll maintain that the films of the 70s were the scariest. This opinion is shadowed again by the fact that I saw these films at a certain early age that makes things scarier. But to paraphrase Bill Hicks, it’s my opinion, sure, but hey, it also just happens to be the truth.

Most of the books I’ve read about horror in the 70s points to one point: horror films of that decade became more “grown-up,” more serious and scarier based on the fact that there were more things to fear in the 70s. Like all preceding decades, the culture of the times influenced the fears portrayed onscreen, and the 70s were considered a grim period in American culture. The optimism from the 50s and 60s had faded and the US was just chockfull of anxieties. Despite triumphs made in the 60s for civil rights, a horrible divide still existed racially and sexually. With technological innovations abounding, society was becoming more and more dependent on machines. After the Nixon/Watergate scandal, trust in government completely eroded. Environmental fears circling around our petroleum dependence came to light. The Vietnam War offered nothing by casualties piling up in what seemed like a never-ending assault. Americans felt the morals of the past had become devalued and that society had become “godless.” All of these issues were transferred to film and addressed one way or another. 

With the dawn of the decade, the influential age of Hammer Horror had faded. The studio continued cranking out Dracula and Frankenstein sequels, but their approach seemed dated. Following “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1968, audiences clamored for horror that was more personal and closer than the threat of space monsters or gothic creatures. Distrust within the family unit became a theme. Plus, the popularity of horror films continued to rise, bring about bigger budgets as they once again took over the mainstream. It’s been said that the scariest decades produce the best rock music; the same can be said of the cultural influence on horror films.
With the fall of Hammer, the British studio Amicus remained active, producing a series of horror anthologies throughout the decade, including “Tales from the Crypt” (1972). Amicus really attracted attention with its 1970 film “Scream and Scream Again,” which cast the three biggest horror icons in one film: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee and Vincent Price. However, by the mid-70s, the studio exited the horror genre. Price remained one of the most sought after horror stars during the 70s, appearing in such great films as “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971) and “Theatre of Blood” (1973), which I reviewed on this blog here.  Lee would contribute to one of the greatest cult horrors of all time with 1973’s “The Wicker Man.”

Before the fall of Hammer Horror, the studio released this anthology film in 1970 with the three biggest stars of horror at the time

Attempts to remake the classic monster icons in a 70s mold brought about some interesting films in the blaxsploitation sub-genre. Blaxploitation rose in the early 70s, originally made to appeal to an urban black audience, but quickly found crossover appeal and became extremely popular, leading to filmmakers to try the horror genre. “Blacula” (1972) and “Blackenstein” (1972) led this charge. William Girdler, of Louisville, capitalized on the success of this sub-genre with his 1974 film “Abby,” which became his breakthrough release and major box office success. However, the film was pulled after two weeks of release after threats from Warner Bros. because the movie was deemed too derivative of their own breakthrough horror film, “The Exorcist,” which had been released in 1973.

“The Exorcist.” Even typing the words makes me look over my shoulder. No film has ever frightened me as much as this one. It is considered by many to be the scariest film ever made, and I’m one of those many. To this day, I still feel the same fears when watching it as I did when I first saw it as a child. It seeped into my psyche, scared the shit out of me, and has never left. 

William Friedkin’s film, based on William Peter Blatty’s novel, is marked as one of the most important horror films ever made. The film brought awards and increased respect to the genre, and inspired a serious of films that addressed fears contained within religion, specifically of the existence of the Devil, and how easily he/she can rip the fabric of reality and normal life apart. There are no attempts at humor in the movie, giving horror a renewed nature of seriousness in filmmaking. For kids raised Catholic, “The Exorcist” seems like a personally-made attack on everything they had ever been taught in school, coming down to one point: you ain’t safe from the Devil. Ever. 

Despite receiving an X-rating, “The Exorcist” became a major blockbuster, caused debates among theologians, conjured up new nationwide fears of possession (causing even the Pope to issue a statement about the Devil’s existence), and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards. It’s said people often left the theaters nauseous and shaking. The revolutionary effects and Friedkin’s filming style made the frenzied intensity of the movie seem real, and influenced dozens of religiously-themed films to appear throughout the 70s. It also made children scary throughout the decade. While it wasn’t the first “devil” movie of the 70s (that claim might go to William Girdler’s “Asylum of Satan” (1972), it overshadowed all of them. Its biggest competition in the sub-genre of Satan films in the 70s was Richard Donnor’s “The Omen” (1976), another child-Satan movie which became influential and popular itself.

Made in 1972 by Louisville-native William Girdler, this may be the first of the "devil" movies of the 70s

The 70s in general saw a birth of experimentation in film, being the last decade before major studios took over the output of movies and began using test audiences and marketing schemes to control the films begin released. It also saw the rise of several directors fresh out of film school with very unique visions and styles. This was the decade that such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Wes Craven, Dario Argento, Brian de Palma, and many others began making their marks on film history. Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975) turned the idea of blockbusters on its head, and created horror out of a real oceanic monster, and basically provided a template for modern suspense that has never left the real of motion pictures. In fact, spawned from Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (1963), horror from nature rose during this decade in such films as “Willard” (1971) (rats), “Food of the Gods” (1976) (giant rats), Girdler’s “Grizzly” (1976) (giant bear), “Piranha” (1978) (guess) and “Orca” (1977) (killer whale). These are just a few examples.

The penchant for brutality in horror increased as the decade continued. Gore mixed with suspense sold well, and films got bloodier and bloodier. “Savage cinema” entered as another sub-genre, often examining the elements of violence in society and at the same time presenting images that plain made people uncomfortable. Sam Peckinpah’s “Straw Dogs” (1971) while not necessarily ranked in the horror genre, presents horrorific elements in the form of remorseless rape and murder. Stanley Kubrick explored similar themes in “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). Wes Craven debuted at this time with the ruthlessness of “The Last House on the Left” (1972), bringing about a series of “rape and revenge” films that often sickened audiences and critics, while at the same time bringing in filmgoers. Craven continued in this vein during the 70s with “The Hills Have Eyes” (1977). Low budget “rape and revenge” culminated with 1979’s “I Spit on Your Grave.”
Along with Straw Dogs (1971), Wes Craven's 1972 debut began a decade of "rape and revenge" films

Cannibalism returned in this quest for severe brutality, resulting in Romero’s zombie sequel “Dawn of the Dead” (1979). However, another groundbreaking moment horror film history occurred in 1974 with Tobe Hooper’s “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” a crushing masterpiece of unchecked violence and cannibalism. Hooper wanted to give the film a realistic feel, shooting handheld with 16mm film, giving the movie a grainy, documentary feel that increases the ill feeling throughout the picture. As the lost teenagers find themselves fighting for their lives against the cannibalistic Sawyer family, they also, along with the viewer, slowly descend into a sadistic madness that can’t be escaped. The final scene of the film really offers no relief, and just sets grim in the belly, with everything about reality feeling lost and destroyed.  


Blood and more blood swept through the 70s in more iconic films than I can fit here. Dario Argento’s beautifully disgusting scenes in “Suspiria” (1977) re-introduced the splatter genre to modern audiences. Brian De Palma’s gallons of blood and destruction in “Carrie” (1976) helped influence the beginnings of the teen slasher concept, and introduced the film world to Stephen King. The teen slasher concept had already had a bump with the unbelievably creepy “Black Christmas” (1974), which keeps the blood spill to a minimum, but utilizes Hitchcockian maneuvers to scare paranoia into the audience through a series of prank phone calls on a sorority house.

 Then 1978 happened.

Once again, another iconic, heavily influential motion picture was released whose elements have since been so imitated, the film itself might sometimes be overshadowed in cliché. However, John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978) is nothing less than a masterpiece, and it’s from this film that all slasher movies stole in the 1980s and beyond. What is noteworthy about Carpenter’s movie is that it does not rely on gore, but instead an endless build-up of suspense done through subtle scares, amazing use of shadows and darkness, the fear that this could happen in any neighborhood anywhere in the US, and the concept that some people are just born evil. No explanation is ever given to why Michael Myers kills people; he’s just driven to without any human emotion. The story has Hitchcockian elements, although unlike other “Psycho”-influenced films, Carpenter’s antagonist has no motive and cannot be explained through the use of psychology. He just kills. (This brought about heavy criticism of Rob Zombie’s remake of the film in 2007, which attempted to give a psychologically analysis to Myers’ motives.) Although Carpenter has criticized Val Lewton, the film seems often to utilize the Lewton Bus method of creating tension through creative camerawork and subtle narrative.

The 1970s ended on a high note with haunted house tale of “The Amityville Horror” and a return to space-horror with Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” both in 1979. To me, the decade resonates as one of the most influential in the history of film because of the culmination of cultural realities mixed with the ability for filmmakers to experiment without the crush of the major studios taking over final cuts in the name of appeasing test audiences. Directors were able to attempt to achieve their visions, and the independent companies were thriving, allowing for a great amount of diversity at the time. 

To be continued...

This history would not be possible without help from the following sources, which I recommend to any horror fans:
Carroll, Noel. "Why Horror?" In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002). 
Hutchings, Peter. "The Problem with British Horror." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).
Jones, Alan. The Rough Guide to Horror Movies. (Rough Guides 2005)
Muir, John Kenneth. Horror Films of the 1970s. (McFarland and Company, Inc. 2002)
Richards, Andy. Asian Horror. (Kamera Books. 2010).
Todorov, Tzvetan. "Definition of the Fantastic." In Ken Gelder (ed.) The Horror Reader. (Routledge 2000).
Viera, Mark A. Hollywood Horror: From Gothic to Cosmic. (Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 2003)
Wood, Robin. "The American Nightmare: Horror in the 70s." In Mark Jancovich (ed.) In Focus: Horror, the Film Reader. (Routledge 2002).

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